Ergun Caner, Evangelicals, Muslims and the Media: Bearing False Witness
Liberty University recently demoted Ergun Caner from his role as Dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. “Factual statements that are self-contradictory” regarding his past (especially his purported involvement as a terrorist) were the reasons given for the demotion of this famous Muslim convert to Christ (read more here and here).
What are we to make of this fall from grace? I will leave it to others to evaluate the facts of the case. I have two larger concerns: why did Dr. Caner find such a receptive audience? How should followers of Christ relate to Muslims?
The media has bombarded us with sound bites and stereotypes about Muslims. Sometimes we are told that Islam is a religion of peace. Yet the more disturbing and frequent picture painted is of militant Islam. Many articles, books and websites about Muslims and terrorism present an alarmist and fear-inducing approach. These authors focus mainly on negative elements of Islam and the threat posed by radical Islam. They tend to project onto all Muslims a radical agenda espoused by only a few. The result: fear and alienation (see excellent critiques of this here and here).
This is the context that made Dr. Caner a celebrity among many fundamentalists and some evangelicals. Here was a man who was the “real deal.” As a former Muslim and terrorist, he was an authority that demanded our attention and deserved our devotion. So now it’s easy to point our finger at Dr. Caner when we realize he has not been truthful about his background.
I am more concerned, however, about pointing the finger at evangelicals (and journalists of all types) who frequently exaggerate or make misstatements about Muslims. While this kind of commentary sells books and appeals to our fears, the Bible calls this bearing false witness. In fact, overstatement, exaggeration and words taken out of context should not be found among followers of Jesus. Scripture calls us to be careful about the words we speak:
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16 NASB)
- Every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment (Matthew 12:36 NASB)
- In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12 NASB)
Thus we should strive to speak truthfully about Muslims, to respect Muslims’ own interpretation of themselves, and “not to compare the best of Christianity with the worst of Islam.” The lack of nuance, the negative stereo-typing of Muslims and the spread of Islamophobia among evangelicals is flat out wrong. There are far too many “Christians” who gulp down this potion of error.
How followers of Christ speak about others should be marked by grace and truth (Eph 4:25, 29; Col 4:6; John 1:14). The content of our message is important. But so is our motive and manner.
In addition, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers – to go beyond our comfort zones and outside the walls of our churches (Matthew 5:9, 44-45; Luke 6:27-36). No borders. No boundaries. Everyone. Including Muslims!
- If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18)
- Make every effort to live in peace with all men … (Hebrews 12:14).
Check out the realism of Romans 12:18: “if it is possible.” Peace isn’t always possible. We are called to be peacemakers but we will not always be peace achievers! Note, however, that the onus is on us to do everything in our power to make peace (“as far as it depends on you”). Hebrews 12:14 adds a further dimension. We are commanded to “make every effort” towards peace with everyone, indicating intensity of effort on our part. In a world of conflict, peace just doesn’t happen. It takes work! And a big part of this work is bridge-building communication.
Does this mean that we cannot engage in serious theological debate or that we cannot say anything negative about Muslims or terrorism? Of course not. Peacemaking and grace-and-truth communication does not imply naiveté or silence about troublesome issues. We are called to speak the truth in love and speaking the truth, even graciously, will offend some people.
But our focus should be on building bridges and positive witness. Lift up Christ, don’t tear down Islam. We should not attack the other. Respectful witness has nothing to do with being politically correct. It is a matter of being biblical: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). Anything less than this is bearing false witness!