Looking beyond Terry Jones
By Ann Gillespie
19 April 2011
Alexandria, Virginia – When asked about the very poorest people in Calcutta for whom Mother Teresa, founder of Missionaries of Charity in India, and her sisters tirelessly cared – the deformed, the lepers, the abandoned, the untouchables – she said, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”
That is what I call “God-sight.”
There are marginalised groups in nearly every community – whether they are the sick, poor, dispossessed or even merely unfamiliar. In America lately, it seems that this last description applies to Muslims – in some communities they are being marginalised because they are unfamiliar to us.
What would it be like for us as Christian Americans if we looked at Muslims with Mother Teresa’s eyes?
What if we saw Muslims as Jesus in disguise?
I recently had the privilege of attending a Muslim-Christian interfaith conference with people from all over the country. The focal point of the conference was planning community events for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in order to build bridges of understanding and reconciliation, rather than fanning the flames of Islamophobia. It was an eye-opening and heart-wrenching experience to hear the stories of my Muslim brothers and sisters at the conference, all of whom have experienced increased marginalisation and victimisation since 9/11.
We heard from a southern California woman who has chosen to live out her Islamic faith by volunteering for and serving on the board of a Muslim-run shelter for battered women and children. A couple of months ago, she and others were hosting a fundraiser for the shelter and trying to get some positive press about the work Muslims were doing in the area, so they invited the media. As she arrived for the fundraiser, she saw angry picketers gathered outside, shouting and carrying signs that said, “Terrorists, go home.”
Tears ran down her cheeks as she described her shock and confusion. She was born in this country. She said to us, “This is my home. Where can I go? I am as American as you are.”
One of the metaphors that we found most helpful was to think of our religions as growing from the same root and diverging into branches. It is when we get out to the outer edges of branches where our differences stir up trouble. It is out at the edges that we get people like Pastor Terry Jones, who caused a firestorm of media attention when he threatened to burn the Qur’an at his 30-member Florida church on the 9th anniversary of 9/11.
Pressured by US Army General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – to say nothing of Christian and Muslim religious leaders – he backed down, promised not to burn the Qur’an and subsequently fell out of the spotlight. Apparently he missed the attention, because on 20 March, he donned a black judge’s robe, placed the Qur’an “on trial”, declared this Holy Scripture guilty of inciting terrorism, and proceeded to set it on fire on top of a grill.
This incident incited violence against UN offices in Afghanistan. It has been making headline news, with both print and online media outlets carrying articles about protesters who want to avenge this crime against the Qur’an. Terry Jones is back in the news.
Although he calls himself a Christian, Jones is not representative of the compassionate and inclusive Christ that I follow. Jones is every bit as dangerous in his Christian extremism as Muslim extremists. I can’t help but wonder how my new Muslim friends are reacting to this news. I wonder, even as they fervently denounce the senseless killings in Afghanistan, if there is more fear in their hearts this morning. I wonder if they are hoping and praying that their Christian friends will speak out.
If we as Christians are to embody God’s grace in the world, then we must seek to develop and sharpen our God-sight. We must dare to see Jesus in disguise in everyone we meet. We must be willing to look into people’s hearts and not get stuck in the trap of outer appearances and social constructs. We must be willing to look into people’s hearts and see our own. From our new God-sight, we must speak God’s truth of compassion and inclusion for all.
* The Reverend Ann Gillespie, an Episcopal priest at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, is passionate about reconciliation and multicultural dialogue. This article, adapted from a recent sermon, was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).