How to Keep Your Cool When Engaging With Religious Zealots

My fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to write a fighting response while my mind willed me that violence (even if only verbal) is never the answer.  The blood steadily coursed through my veins causing me to clench my fists and grit my teeth.  In February, Premier Magazine out of London, UK asked me to write an article about my best friend, Karima, who is a Muslim.  Although I have contributed to smaller magazines before, this was the first time I was approached by one outside of North America, and indeed, it felt like a great honour.  Premier has recently been running a series on “My Friend the…” where fellow Christian engage and form deep relationships with people who aren’t part of their faith tradition.  Amongst the intriguing articles already featured are a post about a skeptic, an atheist, and a Jehovah’s Witness.  This seemed like the perfect platform for sharing something so near to my faith – interreligious dialogue, however, I was unprepared for what would follow.

A barrage of comments steadily streamed in over the month.  Some were positive, but many were not.  The blatant dislike of the Islamic religion, even debasing it to a mere shadow of what Islam truly is, forced a knot in my stomach and caused me to feel ill.  People, many of whom simply were concerned about the state of ISIS, began attacking the religion as a whole stating that Islam was evil incarnate, implying that my friend was secretly a “spy” alerting her networks to my attempts at good will, and stating that by taking one verse in the Qu’ran completely out of context they had the authority to damn an entire religion to hell.  All of this was terrible, as I kept asserting that numerous Muslims are peaceful individuals who desire the same things we all do (love, friendship, mutuality, and respect) and that the few Muslim extremists we see portrayed on television are simply that – extremists.  Yet, as difficult as it was to see my best friend’s religion painted in such a stark way, what troubled me most was the assault people produced on my own faith.  Comments about me not being a “true Christian”, distorting the Christian faith, and “needing to read a Bible” along with the notion that having a friendship where conversion is not even mentioned (and definitely not the sole reason) were the norm.  I struggled to find words and grace to hold my composure where also defending a dear friend who definitely did not deserve these false accusations.

I do not blame Premier magazine at all for suggesting this difficult topic.  I know that at the heart of what they are trying to do, we are on the same page.  I know that Premier is a magazine which is trying to broaden people’s perspectives and challenge false assumptions and notions that exist when Christians relate to those of other religious backgrounds.  However, to be honest, if I knew how difficult the preceding month would have been, I am not so sure I would have said yes to the request.  Yet, even in those moments of darkness, there were instances of great light.  Commentators who stood by me and applauded my efforts.  Genuinely thankful people who read the article in print and online.  A very thoughtful and sincere email from the editor himself when I mentioned the backlash and his open stance in suggesting this might be just what the world needs to hear.  And finally, the reaction of my Muslim friend herself, who through it all, continued to share the love, peace, and grace I have always known her to exemplify.

I think the difficulty does not lie with the magazine itself.  If anything, Premier is simply one channel and one voice that the world needs to hear more of.  The challenge is that people simply have failed to learn how to relate and respond to anyone different than themselves.

While I admit that I (despite my own best attempts) may not have answered everyone the way I needed to, I have learned a few lessons along the way myself.  Below, I’d like to offer you some ways to keep your cool when engaging with religious zealots (even, and perhaps, especially, if those zealots belong to your own faith tradition):

1) Don’t ever compare the worst of someone else’s religion with the best of yours.
2) Don’t compare a few extremists in one religion while neglecting the extremism in your own.
3) Recognize that every religion is internally diverse and even within the same denomination or religious group, there will be many differences of opinion on many different topics.
4) View each story on a case-by-case basis. Look at people as individuals, don’t paint everyone with the same broad strokes.
5) Someone who affiliates with a certain religion (ie. is a committed follower and practitioner) should always be considered more highly than someone who merely knows of a religion through second-hand study or the media (regardless of how educated you may be on the topic)
6) Recognize that there are inconsistencies within every Holy Book that need to be worked through and rectified.
7) Do not get into matters of the person’s soul. Example, don’t start telling another Christian that they don’t truly know the Lord or that they aren’t truly saved just because they don’t buy into your ultra-conservative ideologies.
8) Resist judgementalism at all costs.
9) If you find yourself getting angry – ask yourself what is internally going on. Anger is a secondary emotion, there is always something contributing to it whether guilt, fear, pride, arrogance, or sadness.
10) Friendship is more important than simply being right.

I recognize that inter-religious dialogue is difficult and sometimes painful work, partly because the soil has just not readily been prepared for us until more recently.  However, if we truly are interested in being ambassadors, we need to cultivate a position of peace whereby we are interested in building friendship irrespective of differences in race, culture, ethnicity, or religious tradition.  We cannot confuse the desire to be right with what is already truly right – a friendship that would willingly give itself to the other at no cost.  I still maintain that the beauty we see in this world is entirely because of the diversity that is so inherent within it.  And to all those zealous Christian commentators who wanted to tear me down, know this: I do read my Bible daily, and it is because of my devotion to my particular Holy Book that I feel so strongly about loving people of all persuasions.  I am not interested in compromising my relationship with my God, but rather believe that welcoming a friend from a different background is doing far more for the Gospel of Peace, than simply arguing a dogmatic position.  In fact, I would dare to say, it is doing exactly what Jesus would want.

You can read my article about my best friend here: https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2017/March-2017/Becoming-best-friends-with-a-Muslim-demolished-my-prejudices-about-Islam

Photo Credit: https://www.emaze.com/@AOWFZZZC/J/h-copy1

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One thought on “How to Keep Your Cool When Engaging With Religious Zealots

  1. I so appreciate that you articulate a conception of violence that includes our words. I think that is important and necessary now more than ever, when so much of our discourse occurs online and through social media. It is much easier to sit behind a screen, type invective, and hit “send” or “post” than it is to speak hate to another in person. How bold people are when hiding behind a screen name!

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