Tag Archives: christianity

Islamics 101: “As-salaamu alaikum!”

It was the staring that caught me off-guard.

I had made it through customs without any problems, and the hour or so after baggage claim had been a frantic attempt to figure out Cairo’s public transit system, which is a whole ‘nother blog post, believe me.  Anyway, I was so out of breath and ready for a break that, finally stepping from the cool of the subway tunnel into the warmth of the railcar, I was hoping for some relief from feeling out of place, out of sorts, and way out of my comfort zone.

No such luck.  I entered a railcar crammed with Egyptians: men in dark suits and bright ties, chattering on their cell phones; little kids in Reeboks and Mickey Mouse t-shirts; their moms, most in a hijab and a long skirt; macho teenagers in flamingo-pink tees and studded jeans.  Some would not have looked out of place in Seattle—but I, let there be no doubt, looked completely out of place in Cairo, hurtling along with them sixty feet below the streets of the city.  Everyone’s gaze, inevitably, locked onto me, and wouldn’t let go.

Who in Allah’s name was the white boy with the beard?

It took me a while to figure out why they stared so—shamelessly.  The first ride I took, it was a struggle to keep from giggling.  Being the only white kid in the room was a new (and kind of fun) experience for me.  But as I learned more about the culture there, being stared at like the star of the freak show started to make more sense.

"Where's Zosel?": way easier than "Where's Waldo?"

Beards are popular enough in Seattle, but in the Middle East, they are a sign of Islamic piety, both feigned and genuine.  Members of the Muslim Brotherhood—a large, well-organized group in Egypt whose conservative influence on politics and culture there is not unlike that of evangelicals in America—whisper Qur’anic verses from under their big beards on the subway.  They also have calluses on their forehead—I kid you not!—supposedly from praying so much, but my friends told me that the look can be faked by applying vinegar, lemon juice, or something similar.  Either way, for Egyptians, a big beard means you’re a devout Muslim.  So a white foreigner sporting a beard like mine was a bit of a walking contradiction.  Like if Osama bin Laden had sported a crucifix and a clerical collar, then walked down Main Street, USA.

Not that a white guy to Egyptians is the same as Osama to Americans, but you get my point.

About half the time this situation was bearable.  I’d look around and watch as people pretended to not be staring, but then feel their eyes boring into me as soon as I looked away.  Sometimes, though, something had to be said.  A group of six teenagers, standing right in front of me, staring directly at me, for twenty minutes?  That kind of attention is more than I could bear, personally, and I needed a way to acknowledge the awkwardness and start a conversation.  Luckily for me, I knew the exact words that would do the trick.  So, whenever this happened—which was at least twice a day—I pulled out my earbuds, smiled broadly, and addressed them with the magic words.

As-salaamu alaikum!”

Instant smiles from everyone.  I had given the call; now was the response, chanted in unison:

Wa alaikum es-salaam!”

This worked like a charm.  Every time.  What’s more, it almost always began a conversation which ended with one of them giving me their contact information.  “If you ever need anything in Cairo, don’t hesitate to call.  Welcome to Egypt!”

As-salaamu alaikum (ahs-sah-LA-mu a-LIE-koom), see,  is the formal Islamic greeting—it means, “Peace be upon you!”  And it’s reply—wa alaikum es-salaam!—simply returns the blessing.  Here’s the Arabic:

"As-salaamu alaikum!"

I get tired of the casual, but often insincere, “Hey, how’s it going?” of American culture.  Everyone just says, “Fine, how are you?” and moves on without really caring.  But can you imagine greeting family, friends, and strangers with a blessing like “peace be with you”?  And saying goodbye with a simple, “peace”?  I found this way of moving in the world enchanting.  Peace—the Arabic word is salaam—was offered and received in every encounter.  I am trying to do that more often here at home.

See, the word salaam, peace, is a word with deep roots in the Islamic imagination.  And for good reason.  Check this out:

Arabic words, like in Hebrew, are built off triconsonantal roots: so, three consonants which, put in a certain order, call up a certain root meaning.  Any word built off of k, t, and b, for example, connotes something to do with writing.  You put vowels between the letters to denote the different possible meanings: kataba, for example, means he wrote, maktub means letter, kaatib means author, and so on and so forth.

The word salaam—as in, “as-salaamu alaikum”has the triconsonantal root s-l-m.  Wanna know some other words with that root?  How about Islam?  And, by extension, Muslim?  “Islam” is the Arabic word for submission, and a “Muslim” is one who submits.  So peace, in Islam, is intimately tied to submission to God’s will.  The letters of peace lie at the very core of the religion.

Pretty cool, huh?  By the way, salaam in Arabic is the same word as shalom in Hebrew.  And “Shalom!” is how you greet people in Israel.  Go figure.

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Qur’an, called “The Criterion”, has this to say about peace:

The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!”

Dr. Juan Cole, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, gives historical context to the verse (full post here):

The small Muslim community in Mecca faced much harassment and persecution. The “ignorant” in this verse are the militant polytheists who hate the monotheistic message of Islam. What they “speak” to the Muslims is abuse and taunts. The early Muslims viewed the times of pagan dominance as the Age of Ignorance (al-Jahiliyyah).

One name for God in Islam is al-Rahman, or the All-Merciful. This verse chooses that epithet for the divine, it seems to me quite deliberately in this context. The Muslims are the worshippers of the All-Merciful. It is implied that they are expected to exemplify this divine attribute in their own lives, and to show mercy, compassion and forebearance to others. (The root r*h*m from which al-Rahman derives implies all of these characteristics).

So what do they do when the “ignorant” Meccans curse them, taunt them, and harass them?

They reply, “Peace be upon you.” They wish their tormentors peace, and in so doing they pledge their own nonviolence toward them.

Kinda sounds like Jesus a little bit, doesn’t it?  Showing mercy, compassion, and forbearance–and all this tied up in one of the names for God!  Here’s another verse of the Qur’an, this one from the fourth chapter:

Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this life. For God has abundant treasure. You used to be like them, after all, and then God blessed you.

Dr. Cole explicates the verse (again, the full post here):

Muslims say “hello” with the phrase “as-Salamu `alaykum”– “peace be upon you.” Once the pagan, polytheistic Meccan tribes started attacking the Muslims and trying to wipe them out, the question was raised of how to repond when a pagan not connected to the Meccans greeted a Muslim.

The instinct was to refuse to accept the sincerity of the greeting, “peace be upon you,” which was also a pledge of non-violence toward the person greeted. That tendency was reinforced by greed, since if the Muslims fought these pagan strangers and won, they would legitimately be able to demand loot from them. (This was a tribal, often nomadic society, and that was the custom when tribes raided each other).

The Quran settles this dilemma. It says that Muslims are not to taunt pagans who greet them with “peace be upon you” by shouting, “You’re not a Muslim!” They are to accept the sincerity of the greeting, and are not to get so greedy for spoils that they let it affect their judgment of others. When you are offered peace, take it.

As a stranger in an Islamic society, perhaps there was some amount of suspicion surrounding my presence.  What were my intentions and purposes in Egypt?  My offering of peace—“As-salaamu alaikum!”—was, as Dr. Cole notes, also a pledge of goodwill and nonviolence.  And Muslims, in the Qur’an, are obligated to accept that pledge.  Any sort of tension that existed before these words was resolved almost right away.

I hope by now you see what I am doing.  There is a great deal about jihad, holy war, in the Qur’an, to be sure.  Lots of people in the West are fearful of anything to do with Islam because they think that that’s all there is to it: violence.  Islam is a violent faith, they’ll say.  The Qur’an is full of talk about violence and war (then again, have these folks ever read the Bible? The books are pretty similar in that regard).

But here’s my point: if you take an honest look at Islam and the Qur’an and ask which is closer to the heart of Islam–jihad or salaam–your answer is in the very name of the religion and its followers.  The answer is in the way they say hello and goodbye.  It’s right in front of you.

Just remember that next time you watch the news, OK?

Thanks for reading this, friends.  And until my next post: salaam!


How to Produce an Egalitarian Man


Photo credit: New York Times Magazine

Professor John Stackhouse wants women to speak up (and so do I!):

Women have entrusted me with great gifts: their stories and theirfeelings about what they have been through and continue to encounter. My wife has told me of how people ignore her or interrupt her. Female friends, colleagues, and students have testified to the suffering they have endured—from conversational condescension to professional marginalization to marital oppression to actual sexual or physical abuse. We men will not change until we want to change, and one of the most powerful motives we will have for changing our minds is to alleviate the suffering of the women we admire and love—suffering that is obvious to women but often unseen by us men. I know it seems incredible to women that men can be so obtuse, but people of color will testify that we white North Americans are similarly obtuse about racism. Poor people will testify that we wealthy people are obtuse about financial differences. And tradespeople will testify that we professionals are obtuse about class distinctions.

We men usually don’t see how we dominate conversations, for instance. We figure that anyone who has something to say will just say it, so those silent women must not have anything to say—and, we sadly conclude, must not be all that bright or all that motivated. We don’t see how our feelings for women can take interactions that are supposed to be constructive and mutually beneficial, and divert them into erotic games that no one should have to play, and especially not in a work- or church-related context. We don’t see how we unconsciously disregard women’s abilities and interests, and because those decisions are unconscious, the women themselves will never know exactly what happened: They just somehow (again) won’t get the opportunity, or the honor, or the reward they actually deserve.

We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed. Yes, we can be told by other men to shape up, and that can help. Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.

I can say with absolute honesty that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate male feminist in these parts.  Making a theological commitment is one thing, but living that out is quite another, and it all-too-easy to fall into the patterns of this world when it comes to gender.

Just this morning in church I was so thankful for a dear friend of mine, a woman, calling me out on my critical and negative attitude toward the service.  Women of the world and in the Church: I need your voice, your insight, and your gifts in this world, but I am often too proud to admit it.  Forgive me.  Call me out when I need it—I’m trying my best, but I can’t do it without your help!

The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

Cartoon credit: Signe Wilkinson, Philadelphia Daily News

For all our talk about the separation of church and state, religion and politics go notoriously hand-in-hand in these United States of America.  During the last presidential election cycle, religion was a major issue for no less than three of the candidates in the primaries: Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who demonstrated particular savvy with evangelicals, Mitt Romney, a member of what was, not too long ago, a little-known cult out of Utah, and, most famously, Barack Obama, whose close friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright sparked a storm of controversy.  Remember this?

We talk about God a lot in American politics.  But we don’t talk about Jesus much.


This seems like an obvious and pertinent question to me, and perhaps to many of you, too.  But Yoder is writing long before evangelicals like Shane Claiborne, for example, started insisting that we deal with this problem.  The Politics of Jesus is a groundbreaking work, simply for stating that Jesus has anything to say at all.

Now, thanks to Yoder, many would Jesus’ relevance for granted.  But before him, many theologians had distanced Jesus from contemporary ethics so far that to even bring him up in conversation might have seemed bizarre.  These theologians put forward and popularized what Yoder calls “mainstream ethics”, which most Americans probably still would agree with today.  Mainstream types cite multiple reasons that Jesus’ words shouldn’t be a factor in contemporary politics.  I’ll cite a few here:

  1. Eschatological.  Jesus assumed that the “end times” (the eschaton) would come relatively soon, and that society as he and his contemporaries knew it would soon come to an abrupt end.  His entire ethical system—of rejecting wealth, of non-retaliation, of radical generosity–was dependent on this assumption. But the end times didn’t come. Jesus was wrong. We need an ethic that can sustain societal structures, rather than one that assumes their imminent collapse.
  2. Sociological.  Jesus lived out his days in a rural, agrarian society where it was indeed possible to know and love each person that you encountered, like the Good Samaritan.  But the modern world is urbanized and industrialized, and it simply isn’t possible to create this kind of world anymore.  Should we really put every homeless person we encounter up for the night, or be expected to give generously to everyone who needs it?  There are too many people in the world, and not enough time in the day!
  3. Political.  Jesus and his early followers, in brief, weren’t in charge of anything.  They were a small minority group living under Roman occupation.  But since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have found themselves not only a majority, but a ruling majority.  Problems of government and war and administration are now pertinent in a way that Jesus never considered, and this carries with it certain kinds of responsibilities that Jesus simply didn’t address.
  4. Theological.  Jesus didn’t come to start a revolution or inspire social change; he came in humility as a sacrifice of atonement.  Ultimately, it’s what Jesus did in the Crucifixion (and maybe the Resurrection) that matters, and not what he said or did beforehand.

Now, you and I, perhaps, can see the holes in some of these arguments right off the bat.  But these are the reasons mainstream ethicists (and Christian ones, at that!) say that Jesus is no starting point for the great ethical questions.

For mainstream folks, ethics begins not with the words of Jesus, but with a long, hard analysis of the realistic options given by the world around us.

Whether this ethic of natural law be encountered in the reformation form [ . . . ] or in the older catholic forms where “nature” is known in other ways, the structure of the argument is the same: it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.

Kind of a strange logic, isn’t it?  I mean, if you believe in the Incarnation—that is, if you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh—then you’d think that every word from the Word’s mouth would be held specially close to the Christian’s heart.  But, for whatever reason, it often isn’t.  We often forget.

With this in mind, Yoder sets out to do two things.  First, he wants to show that the life and ministry of Jesus is relevant to Christian social ethics.  Second, he will argue that Jesus’ ethical vision is not merely relevant, but, in fact, normative for all Christians, everywhere, at every time.


"Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."

That’s a tall order.  Should the Christian response to 9/11 have been “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”?  Should American Christians offer hospitality and love to terrorists in their midst?  What about “do not resist an evildoer”?  Should we let those who would murder us do what they want?

How is such an ethic even achievable at all?

Interview with a Conscientious Objector

Slate interviews Josh Stieber, who decided during his tour in Iraq that he “would rather go to prison than remain in the military.”  He got conscientious objector status instead, but the whole interview here is compelling.  Money quote:

I thought back to all the stuff I’d heard sitting next to this guy in church, and I asked him, “Well, even if he is guilty, what about the idea of loving our enemies and returning evil with good and turning the other cheek? How do you reconcile all those teachings?” My friend said, “I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.” Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.

Read the whole thing.

Two of my best friends in high school went straight into the military after graduation—one into the medical corps, the other into the infantry.  I never could have done it.  Back then, I wouldn’t have done it because I was 127 pounds (not that that’s changed much) and more interested in religion (surprise, surprise) than national security.  But now, I resonate with everything this guy is saying.

I am also continually amazed at Christian folks’ ability to circumnavigate the Sermon on the Mount.  Man.

(Hat tip: The Daily Dish)

Can Fair Trade fix the problem?

Coffee consumers

In my last post, I took a long look at my three brief weeks working a temp job in Seattle.  The whole experience troubled my conscience, as I realized, increasingly, that many of the things I consume—things I cherish, like books and coffee—are produced by laborers under less-than-ideal conditions, and that I will never actually meet the people who produce and manufacture what I consume.  It’s a symptom of the growing gap between the producing and the consuming classes.

We feel guilty about this, I think, deep down.  We are increasingly aware that somewhere, some nameless people are working very hard to pick our coffee beans, or bind our books.  We hear of unjust labor practices in faraway places.  We hear of sweatshops and slavery.  So we buy Fair Trade coffee and look into where our clothes were made and try to shop intelligently.

Here’s the thing: we don’t do these things because we believe it will solve the problem.  No.  Me buying Fair Trade coffee will not address the root of the problem.  It is band-aid slapped on a gaping wound in our society.  We know this, I think.

Coffee producer


Rather, I submit that the main reason we “shop smart”, or whatever you want to call it, is to assuage our own guilt.  We want to consume, but we also want to disassociate ourselves from the injustices that make that consumption possible, because they make us feel bad inside.  This is a futile exercise.

What is the shape of Christian fidelity in the midst of this quandary?  How then should we live?

I want to argue that although paying attention to how we shop is important, it doesn’t address the much deeper issue at stake here—the gap in community between consumers and producers.  This problem is deeper, more basic—more radical.  And radical problems require radical solutions.

Way back in the beginning of things, we Christians had a powerful and effective solution to this problem: community.  Members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were required—required!—to share all of their possessions with each other.  Those who held out, God killed.  I’m not kidding about this.  Look it up.

Paul and James alike, in fact, are outraged by any kind of rich-poor divisions within the communities they address (and, by extension, our own!).  In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”

James, similarly:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

Now, here’s the fascinating thing about both of these passages: even though Paul and James are both upset over unfair discrimination within their communities, both of these passages assume that rich and poor were eating in the same room.  They were, in short, in communion with one another.

That’s certainly more than we can say about our church communities today.  How many churches have you been to where the gap between the incomes of its richest and poorest members was at all significant?  There are wealthy churches, there are middle-class churches, and there are poor churches.  Though we confess the same Lord, we choose to associate by class.  There’s something wrong about that.

OK.  So . . . that’s my diagnosis.  What’s the prescription?  C’mon, people, let’s hear some ideas: how do we go about addressing this issue in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes?