Church of Christ minister teaches peace with Muslims

September 15th, 2015

Growing up in suburban East Detroit, aware of racial tensions that had lingered after decades, Joshua Graves had a question for his dad: What did you do to help during the civil rights movement?

Even as he asked it, Graves had the distinct feeling that future children of his own would ask what he’d done about the big conflicts of his day. As teaching minister at Otter Creek Church of Christ, located just south of Nashville, Tenn., Graves has focused his recent reconciliation work on the topic of Islam. He formed personal friendships with Muslims, led his congregation through a series of lessons and exercises on Muslims and, most recently, released his book “How Not to Kill a Muslim.”

He drew from his experience growing up near one of the world’s largest Arab populations outside the Middle East and from a dissertation he wrote for his doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary.

Graves sat down to discuss the book and why he had to write it.

Is the title of your book meant to be inflammatory?

It’s meant to be provocative. If you start with the absurd or the extreme, you kind of work your way back. The idea of “How Not to Kill a Muslim” — I didn’t like it at first, because I’m the pastor of a church, and I’m always trying to think about people’s responses and what’s going on in their lives. But I polled several friends — some who I’d call conservative evangelicals, some more progressive Christians, some friends who are Muslim, some who are Baha’i. It was really interesting, because my Muslim and Baha’i friends loved the title, and my progressive Christian friends and conservative evangelical friends did not like it, which I was not prepared for.

If you think about the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says it’s not enough if you don’t kill somebody, I want to know if you have murder or hate in your heart. You have this internal reality, which is the seed, and then you have this external action, which at the very end of it is murder, which we can recognize as one of the worst things of the human experience. So we start at the end and work our way back. How do you get to a place where some people would want Muslims to die just because they’re Muslim?

Do you think we’ll see a time when Islam is the dominant world religion? You cited quite a few numbers showing its astronomical growth rate.

There are people who are a lot smarter than me on that subject, so I’m just going to summarize the arguments. There is an argument out there that has gained a lot of traction that essentially says, by 2050, Muslims and Christians will be about the same in number. That’s significant, because right now Christians outnumber Muslims at a pretty strong rate, but Islam is growing so fast. Christianity is still growing pretty fast around the world, just not as fast as Islam is. I think Christianity and Islam, as far as we can see into the future, are definitely going to be the numeric superpowers of religion. Judaism will still be part of the trinity of Abrahamic faiths and wield influence. But my personal hunch is that Christianity and Islam will trade off being numbers 1 and 2 over the next 100 or 150 years. I think Islam will exceed Christianity after 2050, but as you look as the social patterns and migration and mission word and wars, it will ebb and flow.

Then it seems like there’s a real practical reason to figure out these relationships.

It’s in everyone’s best interest, absolutely. The reason that’s hard to sell in America is because the Muslim population is so small. We’re talking about maybe 5 million people, and if we’re talking about 315 or 320 million in the U.S., it’s hard to make that case. But if you can get American Christians interested in the global conversation about what’s happening, in addition to the shift of immigration patterns here, it is completely in our best interest.

You deal with immigration patterns a lot in your book. Why was it important to cover immigration policy in a book on loving your Muslim brother?

Particularly in protestant evangelicalism, historically, we’re not terribly aware of who our neighbors actually are. I wanted people who had the book to know why America is the most diverse nation. It’s intentional. It’s not an accident. In the foreseeable future, the United States is going to be the most diverse country in the world. That’s why I put a lot of emphasis on 1965, because that’s when we went from being a country that mostly invited European people to come to the U.S. and really opened it up for the whole world.

Specifically for people of faith — if you’re Jew, Christian or Muslim — if you don’t understand those pieces, it will be really difficult to understand the present circumstance and the present realities of urban centers like Atlanta, Chicago or Detroit.

You write about evangelicals making enemies within four specific groups: Muslims, gays and lesbians, political opponents and the economically disenfranchised. Why is it any more important to write about making peace with Muslims than any of those other groups? Or is it?

For me, it’s not any more important, but I had to pick one. Sometimes, when there are so many, we don’t pick any. I have a friend who has a saying, “You do for one what you wish you could do for all.” Our work in Detroit, before we moved here, we worked a lot with homeless men and women. But when we moved here, I felt like I was in a season where I wanted to help local churches to not live in fear, because fear is toxic and fear is big business right now in the United States. That’s why I view writing as part of my pastoral work — exposing the fear for what it is, mostly unfounded.

You ask people where they’re starting from in examining their relationship with Islam. Where did you start from, and how did that change or not change?

I grew up in a home that was remarkably inclusive. Our home always had room for people who were struggling, who were trying to figure things out. We always had an open spot at the table. So I think from a very early age, there was something inside of me that said, whatever it means to be Christian – and obviously there are a lot of opinions on that today — there has to be a vulnerability to reach outside and create space for people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, orientation and all those shallow divisions. It has to be rooted in that generous act of grace of God reaching out to the world. Who are we to not model that same inclusive invitation?

Much of your book is built around the parable of the Merciful Samaritan. Could you summarize how you came to that as being the dominant text in your argument?

A lot of my academic training is in New Testament studies, particularly in the first century world in which Jesus was born and that produced the church. A lot of my doctoral studies came out of that. At some point in that journey, reading New Testament scholars like Vanderbilt University’s A.J. Levine, I started to think about the parables as a place that could help people have their whole person engaged without all of their fear tactics being employed. But the big ah-ha for me was, the more I thought about Jews and Samaritans in the first century, I started to realize that that provided a fascinating connection between Christians and Muslims in the 21st Century, because you have all kind of things — politics, race, theology, wars, grudges — all that wrapped up.

Then I found out that there are still Samaritans living today in the Middle East, there are not many, but some. There are some scholars who think that the Samaritan groups that you can study today may present themselves as kind of proto-Muslim. That would be a very controversial thing, but it got me to thinking. Jesus was a Jew who primarily spoke to Jews, who not only loved and challenged Jews, but he challenged how he wanted them to see Samaritans. The Good Samaritan parable comes from a Jew talking to Jews about a story that’s mostly Jewish with all Jews as characters except for one person, and that person happens to be the hero. The reason Jesus does that it because he knows how provocative it will be. It’s like calling the book “How Not to Kill a Muslim.”

The way that Jesus tells the parable, it is pure teaching genius. I don’t think you have to believe in Jesus’s divinity to see how brilliant it is.

What would be a way someone could read that parable and, right now, begin applying it to his or her relationship with Muslims?

The only way you can care about anybody is if you know them. There’s no person on planet Earth you can care about at a deep level unless you know their story, where they come from, their secrets, their fears, their worries. The practical take away from this book is that you will never have a true Jesus orientation to Muslims unless you have friends who are Muslim. You can’t care about homelessness unless you know a homeless person. You cannot care about the debates in America around same-sex marriage — these vitriolic culture wars — unless you have people on all sides of the argument who are in your life and that you trust and they trust you. It’s just the basic principle of proximity. I’m convinced the reason churches don’t care about Muslims is that they’re filled with people who don’t know any Muslims.

You wrote, “We can be followers of Jesus while also appreciating those who follow other traditions.” Why do Christians even need to be told that?

One of my favorite theologians in the world is an African theologian named Kwame Bediako, and he has this beautiful line in a book called “Jesus and the Gospel in Africa.” He says that unless Christianity is good news for people who are not Christians, it’s not authentic Christianity. His premise in the book is that the story of Jesus and the Kingdom of God is supposed to be good news for everybody at some level — for the flourishing of human civilization, for the digging of water wells, for the end to AIDS, for the abolition of slavery. I think we’ve forgotten that message. I think a lot Christians think the good news is only good news for people who go to church. That’s antithetical to any reading of the New Testament.

This doesn’t discount forgiveness or sins or judgment, but God’s interest is in the whole world, not just people who go to church. We know how Jesus did with church people. That was a complicated relationship, but he loved them as much as he did the rest of the world.

Does your philosophy preclude retaliating for attacks by Islamic militants or taking military action in the Middle East?

I am at my core Anabaptist. I have a commitment to nonviolence. I very much say I’m a student of Dr. King, so I try to separate that. I think there is a clear difference in the purposes of the church and government. If a church is doing well, it’s critiquing the government and applauding the government. This book is mostly written to people who at some level consider themselves a Jesus person. I am at my core committed to nonviolence, but I don’t pretend that that commitment provides all the answers for the United States just like I don’t pretend it as all the answers for Rwanda or Germany or other countries. If you ask a Christian in America, “Have we ever fought any unjust wars?” and they can’t name one, there’s probably something wrong going on.

I do think there are times when a particular government has to respond. My essential angst has been that so many Jesus people are so quick to believe that the sword is the answer when there’s so much in the gospels about the power of nonviolence.

Lately, we’ve seen flare-ups about a perceived threat from Sharia law here in the United States. How does your philosophy work for people who have concerns that are quite real to them?

Number one, I would always challenge the source of the information. I would challenge to make sure they’re listening to diverse perspectives about what Muslims really believe about Sharia and what they don’t believe about Sharia. That assumes you have relationships with Muslims to talk and ask.

One of the best things about the founding fathers of this country was their separation of church and state. It’s a brilliant idea, and it’s probably why Christianity is much more vibrant here than in Europe. For all Christianity’s shortcomings in the U.S., for all the hypocrisy, and separation of church and state is a beautiful thing. The tension is going to be that it’s a much more difficult thing for Muslims to do than Christians. That’s a compliment to Islam. Most Muslims are not Westerners. Westerners, by definition, are compartmentalized. We have our sacred life and we have our secular life. We have church work and secular work. We go to church on Sunday and do what we want the rest of the week. Many Muslims come out of a world view that is more integrated and holistic. That challenge is going to be in the United States, as our Muslim population grows, working with our Muslim friends to understand why the separation of church and state is important, and why that can allow for the flourishing of these communities.

Regarding Sharia, I would challenge people to go beyond what someone forwarded to your inbox or listening to one particular cable news network and really do the hard work. If you’re going to be passionate about something, your passion better be parallel to how long you’ve put into understanding something.

I say this in the book: It’s clear that radical Islam is an issue. 9/11 really happened. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I’m not naïve. Radical Islam is a serious problem. ISIS is deplorable. It’s dark, it’s sinister. But radical Islam is a tiny fraction of a billion people. We cannot create another scapegoat where we say, “Now we have a new group to hate to justify our own existence, and we’re going to hate this group based on a sliver of radical militants.”

What’s your immediate call to action?

It’s for people who genuinely have a heart for this conversation to pray that God will open doors so that they can, one by one, build organic relationships with the Muslims who are already here, citizens of the United States who fear God and are trying to build a life just like our ancestors did when they came from Italy or England.

How are you personally living that out?

My wife and I have tried to be committed to our friends who are Muslim — to continue to cultivate those friendships. I’ve publicly told the Islamic Center of Nashville that I want to be a friend and ally and peacemaker with them. Probably the thing I’m most excited about is that I’m in very early conversations with other large churches in Nashville to step up our game, resources, time and commitment to Muslim immigrants who are coming here every month. That’s addressing everything from literacy to laundry, job placement and healthcare. We’re on the cusp of doing some exciting things with some great organizations that are already doing this here. We are trying to get churches on board. We can talk all day about the decline of Christianity in America, but there are still a lot of people filling churches who could do a lot of good work.

Have you experienced any backlash since the book’s release?

I have received my share of nasty letters and emails, but I call that keyboard bravado. People are a lot tougher behind a keyboard. They’re mostly expressing fear and resentment for 9/11 and telling me I’m a hippie. 

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