Recently we saw a pitiful demonstration of the power of the Internet, coupled with the way global media corporations love to promote religious extremists. Why did the media seize on the words of an obscure, sectarian pastor of an unknown Florida church with less than 50 members and broadcast it to the whole world, knowing that it would inflame Muslim passions? The same media are largely silent when scores of churches are burned down and hundreds of Christians killed in places like India, Nigeria or Indonesia. There is an obvious bias to the media’s religious reporting. Who holds CNN or the BBC morally responsibility for fomenting violence? If one gives whiskey to an alcoholic, knowing he is an alcoholic, isn’t one morally culpable if he gets drunk and kills someone?
I recall the words of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK:
“In January 2001 the then Archbishop of Canterbury convened a gathering in Alexandria, Egypt, of the leading Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the Middle East. They signed an agreement, the Alexandria Declaration, committing themselves to non-violent conflict resolution. It was potentially one of the most important steps towards peace in decades. The coverage in the Western press was almost non-existent. This helped to confirm the suspicion in the minds of politicians in the region that there is no role for interfaith dialogue in any peace process- as Track 2 diplomacy, for example. This is a terrible mistake. What it means is that the image of religion in the media is one of conflict, hate, violence and terror. We should not then be surprised if that is what religion becomes. Perception shapes reality.” (The Home We Build Together, Continuum, 2007, p.70)
On a related matter, many of us struggle to make sense of the angry backlash in some parts of the US following President Obama’s spirited defence of the right of Muslims to build a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City. Those of us who work with thoughtful non-Christians, and especially in academic settings, have to constantly battle the jibes at “evangelicals” in the US. They are automatically identified with the right-wing of Republican politics, as well as with anti-evolution, anti-secularism, pro-Zionism and “Islamophobia”. These perceptions are constantly fed by a cynical international media, including prestigious American and European newspapers, who enjoy parading the most outlandish and extremist “evangelical” voices on the world stage.
We who are familiar with the complexity of American church life and the best American theological scholarship know that those who are presented in the media in this way are far from being typical of American “evangelicals”. But, given the paucity of mainstream evangelicals who interact with the secular media and the way that global Tele-evangelism, the mass-market evangelical publishing world, and many US-based mission organizations do indeed propagate a Christian mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism, it is understandable that so many non-Christians in the academy have little patience with “evangelical” Christianity.
I wonder: who among the well-known authors and mission agencies in the US have issued public statements expressing agreement with President Obama? Surely it would be hypocritical for any Christians to advocate religious tolerance and liberty around the world and not practice such tolerance and liberty in their own backyard. There were many Muslims who also died in the WTC attacks on 9/11. And one could also generously interpret the building of the mosque as an attempt on the part of American Muslims to distance themselves from such violence. Public support for this project by churches and Christian organizations would go a long way, not only in healing the terrible state of Christian-Muslim relations in the US, but also in being a great encouragement to those of us who are in the ministry of building bridges between peoples and nations.
Surely, this is what global partnership in mission entails. Sadly, partnership language has become reduced, in many church circles, to sending money and people overseas. Looking at oneself through the eyes of others in the Body of Christ is not. Exercising a prophetic voice in one’s own city and country, especially in a global superpower like the US, has worldwide ramifications. Remember Martin Luther King and the growth of Civil Rights Movements all over the world? That was evangelical mission, so powerful in its global impact because of its local authenticity, long before the days of the Internet and the mobile phone.