'Fear Not': The Christmas Gospel for America

"Fear not!" is a message that runs through the Christmas story. When Gabriel announces the good news to Mary, the angel immediately calms her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." Similarly Matthew tells us, when Joseph was ready to give Mary a quiet divorce, "the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.'"

When the shepherds were frightened by the angel, the divine messenger instructs them "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." Finally, in his great hymn of praise called the Benedictus, Zachary describes God's promise to Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that God will free us from fear.

The irony this Christmas is that much of the United States, including "Christian America," is suffering a paroxysm of fear over the threat presented by the Islamic State group and by extension fear of Muslims, who also happen to be the Islamic State group's most numerous victims. Much of this paranoia is whipped up by the Republican primary campaign, where the candidates vie with one another to show their enmity for the Islamic State group and stoke the fear of Muslims.

The candidates' fear-mongering damages the United States, nationally and internationally. Their resort to Islamophobia as a partisan political tactic also degrades our electoral process and harms our civic peace -- of which religious freedom is an integral part.

Following the shootings in San Bernardino, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, "We must not respond in fear. We are called to be heralds of hope and prophetic voices against senseless violence, a violence which can never be justified by invoking the name of God."

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Against the background of demands that Muslim refugees be excluded from the U.S., he added, "We should employ immigration laws that are humane and keep us safe, but should never target specific classes of persons based on religion."

Do those who are spreading this fear, as they seek public office, believe what they are saying? Don't they realize the harmful ramifications of their words? Or, God forbid, do they not really believe what they are saying and are stoking fear for cynical political reasons in order to advance their prospective political careers?

This fear-mongering has now begun to filter down into the general population, not only among those who are intolerant by nature but also to religious and educational institutions that are a vital part of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious fabric of America.

Two recent examples of Islamophobia have grabbed the headlines, one at a prominent Evangelical college, known for its Christian scholarship, the other from a self-consciously fundamentalist university.

At the evangelical Wheaton College, located in the suburbs of Chicago, a Christian professor, Larycia Hawkins was suspended by the university for posting on her Facebook page a quote by Pope Francis that Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The suspension was justified by the university as resulting "from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions." In other words, Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

It is disappointing that Wheaton, an institution respected for its efforts to bring gospel Christianity to America with intellectual integrity, took such a xenophobic attitude toward Islam -- and incidentally to Pope Francis whom Hawkins was quoting.

Wheaton is entitled to its doctrinal convictions, but the school could have taken action short of suspension such as issuing a public statement explaining why Hawkins' Facebook post about Pope Francis conflicts with Wheaton's statement of faith.

Hawkins didn't claim that Islam and Christianity are the same religion nor did she say Muslims believe in the divinity of Christ (Muslims don't, but do believe Christ is the only Messiah, returns to slay the Anti-Christ, is a prophet of God and the product of a virgin birth). She simply said that they worship the same God.

Many Christian theologians across denominations hold that the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship the same God. Orthodox Christianity, though it confesses God is Trinity, still holds God is one. (Trinity and its synonym triune mean three-in-one.)

As pointed out by NPR's Tom Gjelten, "Most mainstream Muslims would generally agree they worship the same God that Christians -- or Jews -- worship." Gjelten cites Zeki Saritoprak, professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, who reminds us how the Quran includes the Biblical story of Jacob who asked his sons whom they would worship after he died. His sons replied, "We shall serve thy God and the God of thy fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, one God only, and to Him do we submit."

The Quran holds Jesus in esteem and devotes an entire chapter to Mary, but they do not hold that he is divine. Many evangelicals cite Muslim and Jewish denial of the Trinity to claim that they do not worship the same God.

But this view is not held uniformly among Christians. Notably, in 1965, in its Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council publicly stated that Muslims "together with us adore the one, merciful God."

The second example of Islamophobia comes courtesy of the president of another evangelical university, Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr. In his speech, Falwell encouraged Liberty's students to carry guns with them in order to discourage terrorists from attempting an attack such as occurred Dec. 2 in San Bernardino. Falwell said if some of the San Bernardino victims had "what I've got in my back pocket right now" they wouldn't have died.

For good measure, Falwell added, "If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in."

Somewhat to his credit, Falwell later clarified that he was referring to the San Bernardino shooters when he spoke about "those Muslims," adding "there are many good Muslims, many good, moderate Muslims."

This is certainly not the Christianity of compassion, love for one's neighbor and even love for one's enemy that Christ preached. Just because each of the two faiths has its own understanding of God does not mean that commonality between them cannot be found in many areas. Even though there will always be Muslims and Christians who feel that their faith has a monopoly on God, we are all better served when our interreligious encounter are marked by humility, respect and generosity.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, articulated it well in a Washington Post column. Moore admitted that as an evangelical he disagrees strongly with Islam, yet he admonished Christians to not only protect their own religious freedoms but that of others too. "It is not in spite of our gospel conviction," Moore said, "but precisely because of it, that we should stand for religious liberty for everyone."

Kurtz, in his Dec. 14 statement, commented, "Watching innocent lives taken and wondering whether the violence will reach our own families rightly stirs our deepest protective emotions. We must resist the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination. Instead, we must channel our emotions of concern and protection, born in love, into a vibrant witness to the dignity of every person."

Christmas ought to be a time when "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). God's message to Christian America -- Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical -- is Christmas is the same as it was to the characters in the Nativity story: "Do not fear." The new year ought to be the time when we commit ourselves to opposing xenophobia, welcoming refugees from abroad and defending religious liberty for our fellow Muslim Americans at home.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]​


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