“You Christians Are Better Than We Muslims.”
“You Christians are better than we Muslims.” This unexpected declaration came an hour into a conversation with a Muslim man and his wife. We were sharing a looooong layover between flights at an airport in the Middle East. They were returning home to Tehran and I back home to Chicago.
The conversation began when the man sitting next to me looked at my computer screen and saw the photo of my family SCUBA diving. Curiosity compelled the friendly man to ask me who was in the photo. “That’s my family diving in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez off the Baja Peninsula,” I answered him. “Oh, were you there on vacation?” “No,” I replied, “we lived there for many years.” “Looks beautiful. Why were you in Mexico?” Hmm. How to answer? The man and his wife were clearly Muslim, and we were in a country with strict anti-conversion laws; but since he spoke English, was traveling, looked scholarly and intelligent, and was dressed in Western clothing, I sensed no danger in telling him who and what I was. Since I was already through immigration and in transit, there was not a whole lot to risk. “I am a Christian pastor and my work in Mexico was to start Christian churches.”
No visible reaction, either negative or positive. I brought up a PowerPoint presentation that showed my family and our work in Mexico. I went through the whole presentation, the husband asking questions the whole time, the wife listening in silence. The Muslim couple saw the history of my family in Mexico. They saw the photos of the start of the work, the early baptisms, the growing church, the ranch/camp, the home Bible studies, the medical clinics, the prison ministry, the kayaking ministry, and a series of photos describing the safe house (now closed) for abused women and children that we had run for five years in our city in Mexico.
At seeing the photos of the safe house, the wife started to cry. Why did she cry? Personal experience as a victim of abuse? Knowledge of the chronic mistreatment of women by some of the harsher elements of her faith? A religious law that makes it virtually impossible for a woman in her culture to obtain justice for wrongs against her? Was she moved to tears at seeing people putting themselves at risk in order to rescue women and help them rebuild their lives? Did she see the work of people who highly value women for who they are, not just what they are? Was she being tempted to adopt a more Western understanding of violence against women? Once again I’ll never know.
My new friends’ flight was called. As we stood to say goodbye, the husband said, “You Christians are better than we Muslims.” It was a declaration, not a question, but it demanded a response. “No,” I said. “We are not better – just forgiven by Jesus. That is all. We are no better.” I extended my hand. The man took and shook it. I extended my hand towards the woman, who was still crying silently. “She is not allowed to touch you,” her husband said, not in anger or threat, but certainly with conviction. Oh crud! I knew that. I was in a Muslim country. Major “duh” moment. I was embarrassed at my social faux pas. But I also felt a bit angry at what we westerners would consider to be discrimination and oppression against women. I fought the temptation to stereotype. I lost. Maybe next time I’ll be successful. At least I’ll try.
I have no way of knowing the future of this couple. We are getting reports of hundreds of thousands of Iranians who are making their way to Jesus and being forgiven by him. Reports are that many Muslims are becoming weary of the nonstop horrors perpetrated by some of their co-religionists.* They are embarrassed at the generalized silence from their religious leaders which gives the appearance of tacit approval to the atrocities being carried out on the world stage. They are growing tired of the chants of “death to this group or that group” being preached by their leaders. The good news is that people all over the Middle East are discovering Jesus and what “the truth shall set you free” really means. I hope the couple I met at the airport become part of this growing movement.
*We must acknowledge that there are extremists in virtually all religions who engage in activities which embarrass, if not horrify, the other members of their faith. I am very embarrassed by the shenanigans of some of the more conservative elements of the Christian faith. While we acknowledge that there are extremists in all religions, it would be foolish to compare Jesus followers with Islam and think they are anywhere near close to each other in the levels of the violence and extreme behavior they incite. While there may be a few incidents here and there of “Christians” inciting violence in the name of religion, I know of no case of a real Jesus follower being involved in any terrorist activity.