Following Jesus and Stereotyping Islam
By Matthew Kaemingk
The evidence is overwhelming: Muslim immigrants in the West do not define themselves, Westerners do that for them. Throughout Western media and popular discourse Muslim immigrants are constantly being discussed, described, caricatured, and categorized. Denied the ability to speak for themselves, Muslims are spoken for. They exist for description, not dialogue.
As a Christian ethicist I am interested in a simple question: what is an authentically Christian response to this destructive and dehumanizing behavior?
Flat Muslims: The Stereotypes of the Right and the Left
Western stereotypes of Muslims can be found on both the political right and the left. Both sides caricature their Muslim neighbors by placing them in simplistic frameworks to describe, explain, and ultimately solve “the Muslim problem.”
To be brief, those on the political right tend to frame their Muslim neighbors with threat-oriented categories and stereotypes. Muslims are framed as a threat to national security, law, order, peace, and culture.
Those on the left occasionally create their own threat-based frames for Muslims. The European left, for example, has historically portrayed Muslim immigrants as a threat to the rights of women, gays, lesbians, the arts, and free speech.
However, more often than not, the political left avoids threat-based frames and opts for need-based frames. Here Muslims immigrants are framed by a set of perceived needs. Needs, mind you, that can only be met by the West.
Denied the ability to speak for themselves, Muslims are spoken for.
According to the need-based framework of the left, Muslim immigrants are defined and described as a group of people hampered by a wide variety of cultural, educational, religious, and political deficits—deficits that the left would like to eagerly fill. For example, Muslim immigrants are framed as ignorant and uneducated—therefore in need of Western education. They are also framed as medieval or pre-modern—therefore in need of Western modernization. They are framed as economically weak and helpless—therefore in need of economic empowerment. They are framed as religiously backward and malformed—therefore in need of a “reformation.”
While seemingly generous, when the left gets to define your hunger, it gets to decide your diet as well. From the left’s heightened position, it is empowered to not only diagnose the Muslim sickness, but to also prescribe the Western cure.
Whether the stereotypes come from the right or the left, three things hold true regardless. First, Muslims are not permitted to define or describe themselves, that will be done for them. Second, Muslims are often defined using simplistic and manageable frameworks. Complex Muslim individuals must be transformed and distilled into something simple—something the West can both understand and “fix.” Third, Muslims will consistently be framed as passive recipients while Westerners will be framed as active agents. It is the Muslim’s calling to be a problem. It is the Westerner’s calling to be a solution.
I should be clear, there is no moral equivalence here. The political right is clearly more aggressive and malevolent towards Islam than the left. However, neither side consistently allows Muslims to speak for themselves. Neither side allows for Islam to be what it is, namely, an extremely complex, diverse, and global public religion of deep brokenness and beauty, vice and virtue.
Instead of contending with the vast complexity of Islam, Muslims are boxed in, simplified, and worked on. They are a project to complete, a question to answer, a sickness to cure.
A Christ-Centered Response
What has been the response of Western Christians to these stereotyping efforts? For the most part they have obediently accepted the myopic frameworks of the political right and left. Western Christians have shown little interest in contending with the vast complexity of Islam.
Instead, they have found the simplistic frameworks of the left and the right to be both clear and comforting. The simplicity of threat and need-based stereotypes are more desirable than the complexity of real living-and-breathing Muslim neighbors.
While this development is discouraging, even more disheartening is this: The person, work, and teaching of Jesus Christ plays almost no discernable role in how Western Christians understand or respond to their Muslim neighbors. And as a Christian ethicist, I believe that Christian ethics should have at least something to do with, you know, Jesus Christ.
In light of this conviction and out of a desire to correct this oversight, we are faced with a central question:
What if Jesus Christ was the interpretive framework through which Christians viewed their Muslim neighbors?
With this question in mind, a wrestling with the complex life and work of Jesus Christ can help Christian citizens enter into a more complex engagement with their Muslim neighbors than is currently on offer from either the right or the left.
A Complex Christ for a Complex Neighbor
Any thoughtful observer, when surveying the conflict over Muslim immigration in the West, will be immediately struck by its complexity. The debate involves terrorism and security, workplace and family law, clothing and food, race and gender, language and class, artistic and intellectual expression, and so much more. With each passing year the complexity of the debates and questions only seem to proliferate.
Approaching a complex issue like this with a simplistic and flat understanding of Jesus will not do.
Approaching a complex issue like this with a simplistic and flat understanding of Jesus will not do. Fortunately, the Jesus of Scripture is a complex, multifaceted, dynamic, and varied figure. He is a healer and a friend, a prophet and a priest, a liberator and a mystic, a servant and a king.
How does the complex Lordship of Jesus Christ breaks open our myopic visions to the plurifomity, dignity, and rights of our Muslim neighbors?
Christ the King: Abraham Kuyper
A great deal of the conflict over Islam’s presence in the West is really all about power—who’s in control. When a nation is divided between different religious and ideological groups, who gets to decide? As noted, many Westerners frame Muslims as coming to “take power.” When Muslim immigrants are framed as threats to power, the solution that follows is quite simple. Exclude Muslims from power and ensure that they cannot get anywhere near it. Framed as a power struggle, it is not long before Muslim centers of power and social spaces (e.g. mosques, Muslim schools, organizations, business, charities, families, etc.) become suspicious gatherings that need to be monitored, controlled, and suppressed.
Abraham Kuyper, a Christian prime minister who rose to political prominence in the 1890s in the Netherlands, offers a Christ-centered approach to power beyond this simplistic and destructive framing of Islam and Muslim spaces. In Kuyper’s time, the Netherlands were evenly divided between four rival ideologies: Calvinism, Liberalism, Catholicism, and Socialism. With four very different ideologies each competing for political power, these four communities had to find a way to live together.
It was within this context that Kuyper developed a Christ-centered case for the just and generous distribution of political power and space across religions and ideologies. In short, Kuyper argued that Christ alone was in sovereign control over the nations and its diverse social spaces. Christ alone, not the government, would judge the various public religions and ideologies at work in the Netherlands. Therefore, Catholic schools, Socialist labor unions, Liberal newspapers, and Calvinist churches all deserved their Christ-given freedom to live out their ideals in community. Christ alone was in control of the nation—not Christians.
Christ alone was in sovereign control over the nations and its diverse social spaces. Christ alone, not the government, would judge the various public religions and ideologies.
Applied to our current context, if Christ is truly sovereign over Muslim mosques, schools, marriages, organizations, and fashion choices, that means Christians and Christian churches are not. Within this Christological framing of Islam our Muslim neighbors can now be “reframed” as subjects of Christ’s rule rather than as subjects of Christian rule. At the end of time Christ alone will judge Muslim spaces and communities.
Christ has empowered Muslims to be parents, students, artists, business leaders, and politicians. Christ has not empowered Christians to do these tasks for them. Christians must honor Christ’s empowerment of Muslim citizens. Christians must let go of their lust for power and control. Furthermore, according to Kuyper’s Christology, when Christians actively defend the rights and freedoms of Muslim individuals and institutions, they are positively honoring the sovereign reign of Christ. Put in another way, the act of defending a new Mosque in your neighborhood from Islamophobic protest can be an act of praise to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We have clearly only just begun to taste the vast conceptual and spiritual richness that is available to followers of Christ who will explore his kaleidoscopic grace and mercy amidst this debate over Muslim immigration. The myopic frameworks of both the right and the left will not do. Both threat and need-based frameworks fail. They fail to make real space, they fail to cultivate deep humility, they fail to inspire honest vulnerability, and they fail to call for deep engagement. Christ, my friends, does not.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Kaemingk is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. He is an assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C.
This selection is excerpted from a longer article which explores additional images of Christ the Healer, Christ the Naked, Christ the Hospitable, and Christ the Complex King, originally published in volume 4.2 of Resonance: A Theological Journal. To download the complete volume of Resonance for free, including the full-length version of this article, please click here. We hope this free volume download is an encouragement to you in the days ahead.