On a recent trip to Seattle, I attended a Lutheran Church and sat in on a discussion group about Islam, based on some ELCA material with the general heading, “Misconceptions of Islam.” The video dealt with such subjects as violence in Islam and the treatment of women in Islam, making the point that these distressing aspects of Islamic behaviour we read about in the news are distortions of Islam and noting that Christianity has its own history of violence, such as the Crusades, and has often suppressed women.
Upon reflection, I think it would be wiser to approach such matters not as misconceptions or distortions of an otherwise innocent belief system, but as toxic currents – often absent, thank God – in a broad and complex religion. I say this after a long study of anti-Semitism in our Christian tradition in which I came to the conclusion that hostility toward Jews is a toxic current in our faith tradition – mostly hidden, but ready to break out in virulence when conditions are ripe. It is in our Scripture, mostly readily seen in the gospel of John and the book of Acts.
To call such things “misconceptions” or “distortions” is to make us naive and unprepared to deal with the reality we face. Most Muslims are not violent, just as most Christians are not anti-Semitic; we can celebrate this fact and build bridges of understanding and mutual effort for the common good. And at the same time, we can be alert to these toxic currents in both our religions, honestly face and name them, and so neutralize their poison.