Jesus took a whip and drove the money changers from the temple. This doesn’t suggest he would have interrupted Muslim students at prayer.
A teacher at Franklin Academy Charter School in Pembroke Pines, Fla., however, interrupted Muslim students during prayer because, in her words, she “believes in Jesus” and accused the students of “doing magic.”
In the background, an adult can be heard telling the teacher, “They’re praying.”
In Muslim culture, the five daily Islamic prayers are extremely sacred and once started should not be disrupted by others or those involved in the praying.
During the sacred prayers, Muslims must keep their heads bowed and prostrate themselves a number of times, depending on the prayer and which time of day it falls under.
Such a rude, bad-mannered, thoughtless and cruel act as done by this teacher usually elicits the necessary cries of violations of the First Amendment. I gladly join those who would scream to the highest heaven about this blatant violation. There is, however, something else going on that deserves scrutiny. How Jesus gets dragged into the most insidious conspiracies, false claims, prejudice and mean-spiritedness is worthy of critique.
“How could a teacher accuse praying Muslims students of being magicians?”
How could a teacher accuse praying Muslims students of being magicians? Perhaps we should offer some charity and clarity. Perhaps the teacher really was overcome with righteous indignation. Perhaps she was deeply offended by the student actions. By no means has it been odd for a person of one religion to make wild accusations about persons of other religions. The Pharisees said Jesus was a devil. Christians were accused of being cannibals.
When the Reformation heated up the 16th century, Protestants and Catholics were ablaze with ugly accusations. Martin Luther said the Roman Catholic belief in miracles was superstition. Luther called them “lying wonders,” a “tom foolery” of the devil for “chasing people hither and yon.”
Jonathan Edwards believed there were two great kingdoms of evil in the world: Muslims and Roman Catholicism.
Hebrew Scriptures scholar Ellen F. David observes, “It is a sad fact of history that authoritative texts held in common but read differently are less likely to create mutual sympathy than bitter division between religious communities.”
Or perhaps the teacher imbibed the Islamophobic rhetoric that overpopulates certain evangelical circles, in particular the preachers in such circles. Franklin Graham, for example, proclaimed that all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to America and treated like the Japanese and Germans during World War II. Muslims who come to America have the “potential to be radicalized” and participate in “killing to honor their religion and Muhammad,” he said.
Graham has claimed President Barack Obama’s problem was that he was born a Muslim because his father was Muslim and “the seed of Islam is passed through the father.” He has called Islam a “very wicked and evil religion” that leads people to beat their wives and murder adulterous children.
Graham’s weaponized rhetoric against Muslims has plenty of company. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, rivals the vitriol of Graham. In a debate with an imam, Jeffress shouted, “Here’s why you can’t tie (the KKK) to Christianity. You can’t find one verse in the New Testament that says, ‘Kill unbelievers,'” he said. “Jesus, the founder of our faith, didn’t kill anybody. He was crucified, but you look in the Koran, you can find 35 sword verses.”
Jeffress continued, “Muhammad was nothing but a bloodthirsty warlord who beheaded 600 Jews who would not follow him into battle.” Did Jeffress not equate the KKK cross with Christian faith? Does he have any idea how many Baptist deacons were secret members of the KKK? His dubious statements and historical misrepresentations are as vile as his hatred for Muslims.
Like Graham, Jeffress places Obama — a professed Christian — and all actual Muslims in the category of the despised.
“Once again, on the heels of a horrific terror attack,” said Jeffress, “you have the president assuming his favorite role of defender-in-chief of Islam,” the preacher said. “It is time for this president and others to wake up to the fact of, whether we’re talking about Paris, Pakistan, Brussels or San Bernardino, all of these attacks share one common denominator: they were not committed by Jews or Hindus or Episcopalians, they were committed by radical Islamic terrorists.”
I find the irony deep when the defender-in-chief of a serial liar like Donald Trump accuses Barack Obama of defending Muslim terrorists.
In his book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Jeffress preaches of Muslims: “They kidnap in the name of Allah. They destroy churches in the name of Allah. They behead in the name of Allah. We don’t have to wonder about any of this. Look at their name. In every version, it starts the same way, “Islamic State.” These are not disgruntled factory workers who get drunk and then start shooting people. No, they are killers who kill in the name of Muhammad the prophet, following the teaching of the Koran, as part of their loyalty to Islam, the supposed “religion of peace.”
It would not be difficult to get caught up in the anti-Muslim rhetoric of many Christians. John Fea notes, “During Obama’s political rise, and in his first term as president, anonymous chain emails circulated throughout the United States claiming he attended a radical Islamic school in Indonesia, was the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament book of Revelation and swore upon a copy of the Koran when he took his oath of office for the United States Senate. A 2015 CNN poll found that nearly 30% of Americans and 43% of Republicans believed that the 44th president was a Muslim.”
Christianity Today, on July 26, 2017, published an article with the headline, “Most White Evangelicals Don’t Believe Muslims Belong in America.” The Florida teacher may live and breathe the polluted waters of a version of Christianity that condemns and demeans Muslims. This does not excuse her attempt to connect Jesus to her vile actions.
There are important questions to raise about the intersection of religious liberty and American values. There are vital debates we need to have about how we best defend the religious liberty of millions of peaceful American Muslims. Attacking Muslim students at prayer is not a viable option.
“The fact that faithful Muslims pray five times a day even at school might be instructive to Christian students who may never hear prayers outside of the churches they attend.”
The teacher would have been better served to offer a lesson for her students on the prayer life of Muslims. The fact that faithful Muslims pray five times a day even at school might be instructive to Christian students who may never hear prayers outside of the churches they attend.
If the teacher knew Jesus, she would have known Jesus encountered people with beliefs different from his own and that he treated them very differently than the teacher treated the students. To the Samaritan woman, Jesus offered a new way of life. To the Canaanite woman with a sick daughter, Jesus humbled himself and allowed a pagan woman to teach him.
Ellen Davis puts the story in perspective: “Even more, there he submits to be instructed on no small point of holiness by a woman whom Matthew pointedly designates a ‘Canaanite.’ It means exercising profound, even godly, humility, opening oneself to learn something previously unimaginable about the fundaments of life with God — and to learn it from ‘the least of these.’”
If the teacher really believed in Jesus, she would have offered to pray with the students. She would have remembered the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” She would not have reviled and persecuted students for praying.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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