“Inside the World of Christians from Muslim Backgrounds” is a 4-part series.
- 1: Tear Down my Father’s Altar? (2/25/19)
- 2: A Place and a Nation (3/4/19)
- 3: Prayer, Presence and Program (3/11/19)
- 4: Messengers of God (3/18/19)
The previous article in this series considered the need of Christians from Muslim Backgrounds (CMBs) for encouragement in the face of family disapproval. Gideon provided one biblical example of a person who overcame fear and community pressure to fulfill the will of God. This is our hope and prayer for CMBs in this generation.
This article considers these believers’ need for encouragement to overcome insecurity and shame. I address both insecurity and shame in this article, realizing they are not synonyms. CMBs are in diverse situations throughout the world. Some are new believers. Others have been following Christ for decades. Some are well established in their lives and ministries, while others are refugees seeking to find a place of safety in this world. Due to the many wars and general instability throughout the Muslim World, the refugee surge continues. Many of these Muslim refugees are open to the Gospel, while at the same time they deal with great personal uncertainty and insecurity. The points made in this article are intended to be applicable to CMBs in general, although they may be particularly relevant to those going through the transitions associated with migration.
Insecurity regarding “a Place and a Nation”
In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus performed one of His greatest miracles. This event was so powerful that the Jewish religious leaders saw Lazarus as a threat. The man from Bethany is not recorded as speaking any words in the Bible, yet Lazarus was a testimony to Jesus’ power over death: “The chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus” (John 12:10-11, NASB). Those leaders were gravely wrong; their actions were completely backward. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. These leaders desperately wanted to get Lazarus back in the grave.
This raises the question, “Why did these religious leaders feel they needed to kill Lazarus, and Jesus also?” No doubt they were jealous. Even Pilate could discern that these leaders turned Jesus over because of envy (Matt. 27:18). The leaders themselves publicly stated their intentions immediately after the raising of Lazarus. They were insecure about losing their place and their nation: “Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47-48, emphasis added).
“The place” mentioned by the Jewish leaders is generally thought to be Herod’s Temple—their place of worship. Their nation was the Jewish nation itself. These leaders actually wanted to preserve their top positions in the place and the nation. If they precipitated a riot, or allowed one to happen, they feared the Romans would suppress it with force.
The passage presents several ironies. Jesus came to provide all people an eternal dwelling place and build His Church, which is His Kingdom, the called-out nation—the ekklesia. Yet, the religious leaders saw Him as one who might cause their nation and place to be taken away. In an unintentional and somewhat ironic prophecy, the high priest Caiaphas stated it would be better for one man to die than for the nation to perish. Yet, these religious leaders had too much to lose—which is often a recipe for spiritual disaster. They were insecure about their place and their nation, and thus missed out on worshipping the God who had come to visit them and save them.
Application to CMBs: Losing One’s Place and One’s Nation
Many CMBs have left their respective nations because of wars and destabilizations. Others have sought better economic prospects abroad or have been expulsed by their communities for their decision to follow Christ. Muslims continue to be among the world’s most frequent migrants. All CMBs have left the spiritual abode of Islam. The following applications are relevant to CMBs who have remained in their own countries, as well as migrants, refugees, and immigrants. Many are seeking a place and a nation.
Though Muslim contexts are amazingly diverse, Muslim communities tend to expel or punish apostates because this is required by the sunnah (example) of Muhammad. Turkish CMB Ziya Meral observes in his aptly-titled No Place to Call Home:
Apostates are subject to wide-ranging human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings by state-related agents or mobs; honour killings by family members; detention, imprisonment, torture, physical and psychological intimidation by security forces; the denial of access to judicial services and social services; the denial of equal employment or education opportunities; social pressure resulting in loss of housing and employment; and day-to-day discrimination and ostracism in education, finance and social activities (2008, 6) 1Meral, Ziya. 2008. No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam, Failures of the International Community. New Malden, Surrey, UK: Christian Solidarity Worldwide.[\ref]
Muslim inquirers understand this dynamic in their journey to Christ. On one hand, there is the present fear of family disapproval. On the other, insecurity about a future in which one could be shamed and ostracized. Who would marry a murtadd (apostate)? What Muslim would hire such a person? (I again stress that many Muslims are individually tolerant and accepting, even of apostasy. However, here we are addressing systems and contexts in which CMBs typically find themselves.)
Thus, CMBs may be pressed with the insecurity of losing their place in the community. The Islamic place of worship, the mosque, provides no viable, enriching spiritual destination for one who wants to worship Christ. If a CMB continues attending the mosque in the long-term, he or she will likely feel ashamed before the Lord, as did Peter at the campfire. If he or she refrains from attending the mosque, the community will likely ask questions, especially if the person was in the practice of attending previously. Then there are community events, particularly religious festivals, which find their locus at the mosque. The CMB will find no spiritual encouragement there. Biblical repentance requires a departure from a house of worship that diminishes Christ.
The term “nation” used in John 11:48 is ethnos, which connotes ethnic-group or people-group. No one loses their ethnicity by receiving Christ as Lord. No one forfeits their mother tongue or culture. Nor does the color of their skin change. The Pharisees and chief priests in the John 11 narrative were not afraid that the Jews or Jewishness itself would cease to exist. They were concerned the Romans would crush the nation, perhaps leaving them suffering as their forefathers suffered in Egypt.
CMBs may be insecure—afraid of losing their place in society, in the people-group and in the nation. CMBs, like all people, desire social acceptability. This type of insecurity can be understood by teens suffering from bullying on social media and others who see themselves as misfits or outcasts, as well as new believers in Christ who have left the mosque.
Islam and Christianity share many parallels. Christians typically think of themselves as members of a local church, and likewise members of a Global Church which has no official membership roll. Muslims will typically be part of a local mosque, yet all the while remembering consciously that they are part of the global Islamic community, or umma. “Think globally, act locally,” someone has said.
Finding a Place in Christ’s Nation
CMBs, like many Christians throughout the world, are struggling to find their place. Ziya Meral has astutely described this predicament of having no place to call home. CMBs are often outcast from the mosque and umma, yet they may not quite experience the church’s full embrace. It may only take one or two bad experiences with insincere CMBs or even outright imposters for Christians to be wary of those who claim to be CMBs. From the side of CMBs, it may only take one or two bad experiences of being treating coldly or with mistrust by other Christians for a rejection mentality to develop. In terms of Paul’s illustration of the Vine and grafted branches in Romans 11:17-24, this could be considered “grafting failure.” Great discernment and patience are needed by all parties to graft new CMBs into the Body of Christ.
Many CMBs also want to find their place of ministry in the church, too. They need encouragement, of the kind given the newly-saved Saul by Barnabas. In some cases, ministry appointments tend to go to those with a pedigree which CMBs do not have. This can also contribute to a feeling of insecurity among CMBs.
CMBs can draw great strength from the example of the Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus was so secure in Who He was that He could even stoop to wash the disciples’ feet: “knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself” (John 13:3-4). We do not observe Jesus being insecure, though He was tempted in all ways as we are. Indeed, He was confronted with massive exposure to shame and public humiliation.
When Jesus began His public ministry in Galilee, it caused such an uproar that his own kin needed to take custody of Him. People accused Jesus: “He has lost his mind” (Mark 3:21, NIV). Jesus was continually mocked as being demon-possessed Himself!
Jesus took all of this in stride. The Lord’s response to being publicly shamed was not to be insecure, but to despise the shame (Hebrews 12:2). The Via Dolorosa could not but pass through the Intersection of Shame. Jesus’ victory is the point of victory for CMBs, who are found “in Christ.”
There is a lesson in the story of the Camel and the Scorpion:
A camel stands at the shore of a wide river. As he looks for a good place to cross, he hears a sound, “Psst, Oh Great One.” The camel sees no one, until he again hears that “Psst.” He bends down and sees a small scorpion. The scorpion asks, “O Great One, please let me climb on your back and give me a ride across this river.” The camel responds, “No, you may bite me.” The scorpion scolds him, “Think, O Foolish One, if I bite you, then we will both die.” Satisfied with this logic, the camel bends down to receive his passenger. Things are going well until the camel crosses to the deepest part of the river. Suddenly, to his horror, he feels the scorpion’s sharp bite into his back. He feels the poison going into his blood stream and his knees begin to wobble. In shock, he cries out to the scorpion, “I thought you said you wouldn’t sting me, because then we would both die!” The scorpion sighed, “Yes, but this is the Middle East. And in the Middle East, we do things this way.”
Let us do our part, that this would not be a picture of the Kingdom of God.
The New Testament word translated as “hospitality” is the Greek philo-xenia, which literally means “love of foreigners.” This impacts not only table hospitality, but welcoming people from every tribe and tongue and people into the Kingdom of God. This welcome brings CMBs into an eternal place and global nation—yet they still are part of their ethnic group, and may seek to bring as many as possible also into the Kingdom of God. Their witness, in their respective ethnic languages, and with sanctified thought-forms that can speak into their indigenous cultures, will bring other Muslims into the Kingdom of Christ.
CMBs have a place in God’s Kingdom as a part of a called-out nation, the Body of Christ. Many are currently being grafted into the vine. In the next article, I will consider key factors for CMBs to thrive in Christ.