14 Years + Today

On September 11 there is no difference between 14 years and yesterday. Without effort I can close my eyes and play back every moment of that fateful morning in slow motion, with a level of detail I rarely access in my memories.  I saw the second plane hit live, on television. I wept as the newscasters realized that it wasn’t debris falling from the buildings, it was precious lives, someone’s father, brother, sister, daughter, friend. Like it was yesterday I can see all these details again. I can feel the pain all over again. Yet I cannot even imagine the loss relived each year by those whose loved ones suffered first-hand that day. Regardless, the pain is personal for all of us.

In 2001 I had yet to know any Muslims, beyond a hello or casual conversation. This religious group was not a part of my life, so it was as if they did not exist. But even on that first day the story began to take shape. The pieces of the puzzle began to come together. Images of dark-skinned men, Arabs, were shown in grainy surveillance footage. The words “Islamic extremists” became a part of American vernacular within days. The first thing I, and many Americans with me, knew about the Muslim community was that in the name of their faith, a dozen men had just killed thousands.

Fast forward a few years… A mentor and friend began to be stirred by conflict in our world and made this statement to me: “When I look at the war and fighting going on in our world, at the core of it are people of faith. It appears to me that if nothing changes, Christians, Jews and Muslims are going to blow up the world. There has to be a better way. Because this current path doesn’t represent the core values of any of our beliefs.”

This mentor and friend was Lynne Hybels and she invited me in to a series of experiences and dialogues to begin the work of Interfaith Engagement in a way that was uncomfortable and unexpected, but has transformed me in the years since.

It began with engagement in relationship, because without that foundation each of our groups remain a caricature to the other. Without conversation and getting to know one another, Jews, Muslims and Christians remain the punch lines of racialized jokes, stereotypes and intellectual laziness. It’s far more fun, easy and simple minded to keep people in an untrue box, than to be vulnerable enough to learn from them. But at the mentoring and model of humility from Lynne, I engaged.

From the Jewish community I learned wisdom and the beauty of living life with perspective; a perspective that comes from being a part of a faith system that is literally thousands of years older than my own. And from the Muslim community I learned hospitality and warmth. I don’t know that there is a more welcoming people group on the planet than the Muslims who have welcomed me into their homes and mosques in the Middle East and here in America. I hope they learned some things from me too along the way… but I know that I did from them.

Given the events we remember today, and the narrative that began on this day 14 years ago, I want to specifically speak about the Muslim community for a moment. In my interactions here and travels to the Middle East and Central Africa I have encountered a wide range of people from the Islamic faith over the years. I have found that they live by these words in their holy book, the Quran: 

  • “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace.”
  • “Allah calls to the Abode of Peace…”
  • “O People of the Book (Muslims, Jews & Christians)! Let us rally to a common formula to be binding on both us and you.” 

These interactions, and a more full understanding of their belief system, have led me to deem that those in our world today that perpetrate hatred, evil, death, rape and oppression in the name of any faith, are not in fact people of that faith. In the same way that I would declare that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011 in the name of Jesus is not a Christian, because his behavior is in direct violation of the tenets of that faith, I would declare that the perpetrators of 9/11, ISIS and Boko Haram are not Muslim because their beliefs and actions are not representative of their faith. Misguided self-association with a religious belief system does not make it true. It just makes the individual delusional.

I can already hear the typing of keys as people write in the comments section that the Quran allows that violence while the Bible doesn’t. I beg that we as Evangelicals take a step back in humility, and remember that our Holy Book was also used as misguided justification for the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust in Germany and Chattel slavery in our own country. All people of faith are capable of lying to ourselves about what our respective Book justifies. But that’s far more about us making God conform to our image, will and understanding, rather than us being transformed to His good and perfect will—being remade in His image.

I share all of this because of the specific world events going on all around us, right now. It would be easy to allow the bad behavior of misguided people claiming a faith to become the definition of that faith. It would be easy to allow fear of ISIS prevent us from being the people of Jesus, transformed by His love and grace. It would be easy to ignore the refuge crisis in war-torn Syria because the majority of those being displaced may be of the Muslim faith. It would be easy to allow our highly present and accessible memories of that awful morning 14 years ago to become justification for ignoring the death and destruction being faced by those refugee families. Trust me, I write those statements knowing full well that it would be easier for me to do them all too. But Christ hasn’t called us to easy, or comfort or even what we want. 

His declaration in the final section of Matthew 25 is not a request or suggestion for when it feels easy and safe. Welcoming the stranger will never feel easy or safe. We should stop waiting for it to feel anything but scary and risky. But with Christ as our model we can choose living as He did, with love permeating everything, rather than our desperate fixation on the fear of death. He’s already conquered that!

So on Sunday our church, Willow Chicago, will join hundred of others, and more than 10,000 individual to stop and consider how we might engage in proactively helping with the refugee crisis going on right now. We will continue to partner with World Relief as we have for the last few years to help those refugees who are being placed in Chicago, and we will give our full support to the #WeWelcomeRefugees campaign now and in the coming months.

You may remember in the weeks and months after 9/11 there was a sense of camaraderie in American and around the world. We were reminded that while there are evil people who want to kill, steal and destroy, there are far more good people who band together and rise up out of tragedy to make things better. May we remember that sense of Unity with our brothers and sisters around the world, and may Christ’s love and His call to service compel us to action, now.

Peace, Shalom, Salaam.

Jon