How to Prevent Radicalization

A Muslim immigrant recently lamented on his experience of acculturation into American society. He reported surprise at how cold Christians were, concluding this after not having been invited to anyone’s home for several years. The Muslim community welcomed him of course, and as a result, he became a much more devout Muslim. I am not accusing this gentleman, or all devout Muslims, of being radical… but perhaps the path might not be difficult to find in such an inhospitable environment.

Homegrown, radicalized terrorists are a growing fear, illustrated by reaction to recent events. Christians seem to be overwhelmingly reacting out of fear and isolationism. What might happen if we took the posture modeled by Jesus? Might it prevent radicalization?

Photo Credit: Zoriah, Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Zoriah, Creative Commons

Jesus illustrated this kind of intentional redemptive model for societal change in how he related to Zaccheus. Jews hated the tax collectors; they were a fixture of Roman oppression, an outside force that infiltrated their country intent on doing them harm. But Jesus visited one, in his home, and actually ate food, talked, asked questions, listened. Note the intentionality, the urgency: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” He invited himself over.

It was no accident Jesus was traveling through Jericho that day. God had evidently been after Zaccheus for awhile.

In visiting this ‘sinner’ Jesus accomplished in just one afternoon… one visit, what a whole city, in years of their ambivalence and anger towards this tax collector, failed to do.  A simple visit and meal became the vehicle of redemption and social change.

The next day, Zaccheus restored fourfold to anyone he had defrauded. Imagine the headlines.

The Samaritan woman could have become a terrorist. A lifetime of being second class, hated and marginalized. But Jesus purposely traveled through her town. Jesus visits her city square, talks to this low class woman, and requests hospitality in the form of a cold drink. The interchange earns him the right to share spiritual truth, and a whole village in one afternoon is transformed. I wonder how many well-intentioned Jews at the time desired to see this very thing, but went about it with anti-Samaritan rhetoric, shaming and polarizing talk?

The famous question from a Jewish scholar “who is my neighbor” is echoed in today’s headlines. Even learned Christian leaders struggle to apply the most basic principles of Christianity. They search for exceptions to the 2nd greatest commandment when they should be leading their flocks into one of the most poignant opportunities in our lifetime to demonstrate the love of Jesus to Muslims.

If you’re a pew-sitting Christian you’re likely experiencing a great deal of fear about Islamic fundamentalism. As a pastor leading a flock, you may wonder how to lead through this.

I present a suggestion.

Consider the power of simple acts of kindness and that obedience to the second greatest commandment may well prevent radicalization in America.

There are approximately 3.3 million Muslims in America (Pew Research); many immigrants, many citizens, some refugees. It is not a stretch to assume every believer in Christ knows of a Muslim in his community. They are no doubt scared, feeling marginalized, targeted. What if each of the 350,000 churches in America reached out to just 12 of these families and invited them into their homes, or visited theirs? Jesus compelled Zaccheus. Jesus leveraged Eastern cultural standards of hospitality that still exist today.

So say to your Muslim neighbor “I must talk with you today, I really want to hear what you’re going through and know you as a person.”

And then just eat something and listen.

Listen to their fears, their hopes and dreams, and earn the right to tell them yours.

If that’s too much, send an email, a text, a messenger pigeon… tell them you are appalled at all that is happening in the world today, you are sorry that it took you so long to reach out in friendship. Tell them that the politicians and some of the Christian leaders don’t represent you; that the Jesus you love acted very differently.

The church has a role to play in preventing the very thing we fear. Radicalization happens as Muslims feel more and more ostracized, alone and shamed. Enter that vacuum ISIS and a powerful narrative of Islamic righteousness, victory and world domination. Where’s the counter narrative? Is not the gospel a compelling story of hope? Is not the church the very instrument by which that gospel should be held high? Are the greatest two commandments not clear?

Imagine a blitz of small acts of kindness by Christians all over the world. Imagine the general impression of Jesus, begin to change. Imagine Muslim communities in France, Germany, and the US begin to consider that they might be loved.

Imagine how that message might travel back to relatives in the Middle East. I’m not talking about a naive beauty pageant version of world peace, but a bum rush on radicalism with the weapons of love, grace and surprise humility.

Yes, Christians have a role to play in preventing radicalization, but it’s not in condemnation and the repeating of conspiracies heard on talk radio and outlandish statements by those with airtime. Let politicians orate, let them debate out how to keep the nation secure, Speak into that process if it is part of your sphere of influence, but let the Christian be known most by our similarity to Jesus and let him speak up the loudest about those things that are closest to his heart. Insodoing we may very well play a role in preventing further radicalization.

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About Scott Gustafson

Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in global ministry and business in the Middle East, having lived or worked in the region for nearly 15 years. He serves as the Middle East Director for a US based ministry and is also the Managing Partner of Purpose Global Strategies, an International Business and non-profit consulting firm. He advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous businesses and ministries in Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He teaches as an adjunct faculty member of Cornerstone University. He has an MA in Intercultural Communication from Moody Graduate School, and a BA in Nursing and Biology from Western Michigan University. Scott and his wife have 2 children and they live in Grand Rapids, MI.

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