Sadly, most people around the world who identify “evangelicals” with “conservative Protestants” would agree that they don’t stand for peace – they’re anti-abortion, anti-gays, yes; but not anti-war. Yet as someone who writes mostly about Islam, I would have to remind readers that the sociology of any broadly labeled group, and especially a religious one, is a lot more complex than that.
What makes this question so poignant as I write is that the scurrilous film insulting the Muslim prophet and whipping up so much anti-American venom these days was produced by three Egyptian-Americans and one American under the auspices of Media for Christ, registered in Duarte, CA (for more details, see Sheila Musaji’s blog).
Steve Klein, the one who first told the Associated Press that American Jews produced the film (and later changed his story), has a TV show at the same address called, “Wake Up America.” He regularly posts blogs on anti-Muslims outlets such as Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs and Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch. He has a history of anti-Islamic activism in Southern California.
Klein is also associated with the National American Coptic Assembly mostly composed of ex-Coptic Orthodox converts to a brand of conservative Protestantism. He claims to have given several individuals of this group the idea to produce this film, including its president, Morris Sadek, who posted the trailer on YouTube and promoted it both with the Arab media and his own website.
Apparently, the one person most commonly associated with the name “Sam Basile” (because their cell phone numbers and addresses coincide), Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an ex-prisoner on probation for drug offenses and may have been the film’s producer.
The most influential person in this quartet is the founder and president of Media for Christ, htmeph Nasralla Abdelmasih, who also has taken a very active role in Pamela Geller’s and Robert Spencer’s various anti-Islamic programs over the last two years. It was Media for Christ that obtained the permit to film “Innocence of Muslims,” besides sponsoring the English and Arabic satellite program “The Way” launched by Steve Klein in 2010.
The film, by the way, was strongly condemned by the Coptic Orthodox hierarchy in Egypt and southern California where the film was made. This is important back in Egypt especially, since the film bears the marks of specifically Coptic anti-Islamic rhetoric. This point is reinforced by anthropologist Anthony Shenoda, himself from a Coptic background. Yet at some point that evident hate and rancor flowed into a witch’s brew of Protestant fundamentalism, anti-Islamic activism, and some obvious anti-Semitism.
The evangelical connection isn’t surprising, you say. What about Pat Robertson’s or Franklin Graham’s oft-quoted Islamophobic rants? What about the Christian Right’s strong backing of conservative causes, like their hawkish stance on Iran, their active support for Israel’s most militant settlers, their calls for increased military spending and a more assertive American Empire? For many, I’ll admit, “evangelicals for peace” is a hard sell.
On a personal note, I write these lines with a heavy heart. As a follower of Jesus, I grieve for all these divisions among those who claim Jesus of Nazareth as the Lord and Redeemer of the world through his death and resurrection, whether we be Catholic, Orthodox in its many branches, or Protestant in its many denominations. Jesus taught, “Do not judge others … The standard you use in judging others will be the standard by which you will be judged” (Mat. 7:1-2). He also preached, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called children of God” (see my series on “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace”).
But I have some good news too. Some evangelical leaders have long been working for peace and their stories are starting to come out.
The Evangelicals for Peace Summit
I just spent last Friday (Sept. 14, 2012) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for a conference by the name, “Evangelicals for Peace: A Summit on Christian Moral Responsibility in the 21st Century.” My friend Rick Love of Peace Catalyst International had taken the initiative and organized this event, and over a hundred people came. We all hope it sparks a new beginning, particularly among the youth, who more than others would have a stake in a world in which conflicts are reduced and reconciliation is prized at all levels.
Let me quickly profile five speakers out of seventeen and close with a couple remarks.
David Gushee, https://theology.mercer.edu/faculty-staff/gushee/ Mercer University, founder of Evangelicals for Human Rights
I have written a great deal about Professor Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary, so I won’t comment on his intervention. But his former student David Gushee, who co-authored his book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, gave a rousing presentation on “The US Warfare State and Evangelical Peacemaking.”
Gushee quoted David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, who considers the current budget of $775 billion indefensible: “we have no advanced industrial state enemies” as we did during the Cold War and its only raison d’être is to bolster an ideology of “neoconservative imperialism” that puts the US in the role of an increasingly unpopular “global policeman.” In fact, in inflation-adjusted dollars it is nearly twice the size of Dwight Eisenhower’s Cold War defense budget in 1961. Remember that it was Eisenhower himself who first warned his fellow citizens about the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” careening out of control. No matter what the administration in power in recent decades, this weapons-multiplying and war-hungry machine is in the hands of a Washington elite bent on keeping the status quo.
Gushee then added this:
“Our FY 2011 defense budget was five times greater than that of China, our nearest competition for this dubious honor; constituted over 40% of the world’s entire military spending; and was larger than the cumulative budget of the next 14 nations in the top 15. All of this at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are sliding, and 1/6 of our population cannot find or has stopped looking for a full-time work.”
Has the church weighed in on the matter? Apparently not: “The Christian, and not just evangelical, voice in US foreign policy debates seems entirely marginalized, more so than at any time I have lived through or studied. There is no contemporary Christian leader, scholar, denomination, or movement whose views on US foreign and military policies seems to matter to either party or its leaders.”
I am thrilled to write that the conference itself proved Gushee overly pessimistic. I don’t have the space to comment, for instance, on the interventions by Douglas Johnston’s, the President and Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy whom some have called “The Father of Faith-based Diplomacy” and by veteran Mennonite peacemaker David Shenk. But let me go on.
Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)
Dr. Tunnicliffe, a Canadian citizen, directs an umbrella organization representing 600 million evangelicals around the world. Based in New York, he spends most of his time traveling, speaking at conferences, mentoring Christian leaders and meeting with world leaders at the UN, the G-8 and the World Bank. He is also active in a variety of interfaith circles and is presently co-president of Religions for Peace. Two stories stood out for me.
The first was about his friendship with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, leaders of the famous mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan and long-time activists for interfaith dialog in the US (read about the Cordoba Initiative). In fact, Tunnicliffe was having dinner in their home when the sad news broke of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death. He had also involved Imam Feisal in talking with Terry Jones in 2010 and getting him to desist from bruning the Qur’an outside his Florida church.
The second story had to do with the Pakistani Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who had campaigned against the blasphemy laws and was assassinated a stone’s throw from his house in March 2011. Tunnicliffe knew him well and Bhatti had told him shortly before of his plan to start interfaith peace communities. When the church leader asked him why such a risky project, Bhatti had answered him, “Because this is what Jesus wants me to do.”
David Beasley, former Governor of South Carolina
Still a proud conservative Republican, Governor Beasley’s horizons have been stretched by a decade of peacemaking. He was granted the 2003 John F. Kennedy Profile of Courage Award, sits on the board of the Peace Research Endowment, “a non-profit organization that aims to affect research, policy, and create a less violent world.” His stories reflected how after 9/11 he met Muslims who helped change his previous paradigm of “clashing civilizations” and set him on a peacemaking path that would take him to meet with leaders in Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Mideast.
The governor recounted how Muslim leaders not known for their tolerant views sat with him for hours sometimes, agreeing on how Jesus and his teaching was a common force and inspiration for peacemaking. He also mentioned how on Capitol Hill lawmakers from opposite ends of the aisle were meeting for prayer and how over time true bonds of friendship and love were breaking down prejudice and bitterness between them. Add to that the scores of high-level officials from all over the world and all faiths who meet regularly in Washington around the person of Jesus. It’s not about people converting to any “religion”; rather it’s people discovering new depths of God’s love for all, regardless of labels or backgrounds.
Sami Awad, Executive Director of the Holy Land Trust (HLT)
Sami Awad was a Kansas college student who would come home from college to visit family when I was teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College, founded and directed by his father, Bishara Awad. Later, I wasn’t surprised to hear he had founded HLT in Bethlehem, no doubt building on his father’s example, but also on his uncle Mubarak Awad’s legacy. Mubarak through his early work on nonviolence had inspired many of the tactics of the first Palestinian uprising (or Intifada, literally, “shaking off the yoke”) and then, after being deported by the Israelis, founded a center for nonviolence in Washington.
What struck me listening to Sami this time was the evidence of his coming full circle. By this I mean that after taking the best of his uncle Mubarak’s practice, he was now incorporating more of his father’s spirituality. He began with the narrative that all Palestinians share: 45 years of Israeli occupation has crippled the Palestinian economy and continues to rob them of civil and political freedoms that could only come with the advent of a viable, independent state of their own.
That is still true. Yet it is only in the last two years, he confessed, that he realized what “Holy Land Trust” actually stands for:
- a land equally holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians …
- “trust” means that this land first belongs to God; who then has given it to the local inhabitants of all three faiths; with the proviso that they care for it in a just and peaceful manner …
- that they as an organization (that also includes Muslims), if they are ever to advance the cause of peace, are called to obey Jesus’ command to love their enemies.
In fact, 70% of Israelis and Palestinians want peace. What is needed is to move forward, he argued, is to overcome two obstacles, the Israeli occupation and the issue of identity – not allowing my identity as a Palestinian or an Israeli Jew get in the way of listening, so that both truth and love will build up the other. Then we must arm ourselves with two peaceable weapons, true activism, that is, from a heart of forgiveness, and love or enemies.
Perhaps this story best conveys what Sami is after. Earlier this year he went to the military governor’s office in Bethlehem attempting to obtain a permit to enter Jerusalem (only six miles away, but he had been consistently denied). He knew the officer very well, whom he no longer called “Captain Rami,” but simply “Rami.” It was not always this way. During the dozens of peaceful protests Sami had organized, he would always hear Captain Rami’s orders to his soldiers: “Go straight for Sami. He’s the organizer.” And time after time Sami was badly beaten up by the soldiers in the demonstration.
So this time, Captain Rami’s initial question was this: “I haven’t seen you in any demonstration for two years. Where have you been?” Sami answered that he had been rethinking his strategy, trying to be more consistent with this own faith. Jesus calls for love of enemies, and that was something he had to work on. As a result, he had visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau and truly felt that he was beginning to feel the pain of his Israeli friends. They went on talking for a while. This time Sami received his permit to leave Bethlehem. Apparently, as he put it, Rami liked his message and didn’t mind him spreading it in Israel.
There are still many facts behind the incendiary 14-minute YouTube clip that escape us. That said, there is plenty of hate to go around and some of those making a career out of it are Christians who associate in some way with the Christian Right. Thankfully, others within the wide spectrum of conservative Protestants are actively engaged with people of other faiths (and no faith) to bring about peace and reconciliation where it is most needed.
The common denominator among the women and men who intervened in this conference was their international activism. Geoff Tunnicliffe said it well, referring most obviously to Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, but also to Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action -- both organizations which go back to the early 1970s: “the evangelical left in America is the evangelical middle everywhere else.” The problem comes when people of faith blindly accept their own national narrative. For American evangelicals especially, taking “American exceptionalism” as gospel truth is pernicious. Learning from Sami Awad, we need to put our identity behind us and Jesus in front of us so we can follow him. This would be a useful first step in making “evangelicals for peace” a reality.