I’m always dismayed when I hear yet another example of the widespread ignorance and prejudice against Islam in America. But I’m particularly upset when that misinformation comes from Christian religious leaders.
Such an incident occurred earlier this year when the nomination of Samaritan’s Purse executive Ken Isaacs to head the International Organization for Migration was rejected, apparently in large part because of remarks made by Isaacs that denigrated Islam.
“In tweets, social media posts and radio appearances reviewed by The Washington Post, Ken Isaacs, a vice president of the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, made disparaging remarks about Muslims” according to the Post on Feb. 3, and he suggested Islam is “an inherently violent religion.”
In addition to his comments, The New York Times also related on June 30 the rejection of Isaacs’ nomination to the international humanitarian community’s dismay at current U.S. views on immigration.
To his credit, Isaacs apologized for his remarks. Nevertheless his comments reflect one of the major problems in today’s fractured world — theological misunderstandings and irrational fears that many Christians have about Islam.
Sadly, prominent preacher and Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham shares that misunderstanding. In fact, as Christianity Today noted in June 2017, “Graham even emphasized on Facebook that he came up with the idea [of a travel ban excluding Muslims] well before Trump did.”
What is particularly sad and ironic about the comments of Isaacs and Graham is that the very name of their organization, “Samaritan’s Purse,” refers to the specific teaching Jesus gave us about how Christians should relate to people of other faiths. It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible — so familiar, in fact, that we may have forgotten how radical it is. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that God loves — and we most certainly should love as well — people of all faiths.
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of innumerable stories in the Bible that teach us again and again that we should be compassionate and help people in need. But what makes our friend the Samaritan and his story so remarkable is that he is a member of a non-orthodox religious group at the time of Jesus. The Samaritans were descendants of the 10 “lost tribes” of the northern Kingdom of Israel who were defeated by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. As the victorious Assyrians subsequently moved into the conquered region, the orthodox Hebrew faith became diluted with Assyrian beliefs. From the point of view of the Hebrew religious establishment, the Samaritans were heretics.
But it is this religious outsider who is the person Jesus admires the most. The religiously orthodox scribe and Pharisee in this parable had correct theological doctrines, but cold and uncaring hearts. The unorthodox Samaritan had the thing God cares about most: a compassionate heart.
If Jesus were updating the story for us today, I believe he would tell us the Parable of the Good Muslim. The Muslim hero of the updated story would be like many of the Muslims I have personally known and worked with. Good Muslims like my late friend Dr. Mazhar Rishi, who traveled with me to Syria to share with doctors there his expertise about treating cancer. Good Muslims like the desk clerk at my hotel along the Tigris River in Baghdad who urged me to hurry down to the bomb shelter for my safety when Christian Americans were cold-heartedly bombing Iraq in 1998. Good Muslims like the Iraqi artists whose beautiful paintings I am privileged to be showing to appreciative audiences in Washington, D.C.
My life has been enriched and blessed by the many Muslims I have met during my work and travels throughout the Middle East in the past 20 years. These “Samaritans” have been most kind and hospitable to me overseas and here in the U.S.
Ahmed, Mazhar, Mohammed, Nidaa, Nisreen, Omar — these and dozens, even hundreds, of others are the good and kind Muslim people who have cared for me in my work and in my travels. They embody the spirit of the Parable of the Good Muslim.
One of the most urgent problems in America today is the misunderstanding and prejudice that many fundamentalist and evangelical — and indeed historic mainstream — Christians have toward Muslims. I wish that the folks at Samaritan’s Purse and the millions of other American Christians who are theologically confused could meet my many good Muslim friends.
Mel Lehman directs Common Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in New York that seeks to build understanding, respect and friendship with the Middle East and Muslim world.