Dear Muslim Leaders:
You may not have noticed it, but recent news items out of several Islamic countries recounting efforts to enforce religious laws have been horrifying.
In Iran, several young men and women were jailed for making a video of themselves dancing together. In Sudan, a wife and mother has been sentenced to die for being a Christian. And in Pakistan, yet another young wife and expectant mother was stoned to death allegedly for the sake of her family’s honor.
Now I realize that when such atrocities make the headlines here in the West that it scarcely fazes you, considering your indifference toward those you dismiss as infidels. Similarly, your disdain for liberal societies such as ours makes it easy for you to discount our declarations of outrage.
A Matter of Values
I understand—to a degree. Zeal for your own faith makes it hard for you to value religious liberty, especially when this noble principle—as it has in our country—degenerates into a license for all sorts of immorality. Similarly, when Christians denounce harsh rules and strict penalties it’s easy to accuse us of hypocrisy since our faith was founded in part on a very restrictive moral code—the law of Moses.
But here’s the thing. The law as it is being applied in your societies is not only cruel on its face, it is doubly unjust because ultimately it will fail to produce what you desire—citizens who love God and each other.
Because no matter how strictly the law is enforced, it can never on its own make people good. A person may obey the law perfectly, for example, but still seethe with hatred or greed, merely biding his time until the moment when he can act on his evil intentions.
Then there’s the very sad truth that no one completely obeys the law. Only God is perfect, and therefore only God can keep his own law—which he did in the person of his son, Jesus. And only by living as a perfectly just human being was Jesus able, through his crucifixion and resurrection, to offer an acceptable atonement to God on behalf of the rest of us who can’t keep God’s law.
This doctrine, that God became man in order to redeem his sinful creatures, is of course offensive to Muslims, who see their deity as aloof in his sublime superiority.
But consider this. If there is no need for God to provide vicarious perfection to human beings, then why do our attempts at keeping religious law fail so miserably?
More to the point, why is it that Muslim societies such as Iran and Pakistan imprison, amputate, kill and generally oppress—but still roil with strife? (Last year alone Pakistan reported 1,000 honor killings. Many of these involved women being bludgeoned by blood relatives.)
Jesus, on the other hand, shocked the religious leaders of his day by warning them that they needed to examine themselves before accusing others of breaking the law. What’s more, he told lawbreakers that he did not come to condemn them but to offer mercy and redemption.
Speaking of grace, Christians also believe that the triumphant ministry of Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses so that much of it no longer applies to our daily lives. (We happily partake of shrimp, for example, and don’t get offended when people dress in poly-cotton blends.) We also take to heart the distinction Jesus made between duties owed to God and duties owed to the state. Consequently, because the law cannot by itself produce adherents to divine truth, we argue that individuals should be free to pursue faith according to their own consciences.
This may produce a messy society, but what is the alternative? Endemic corruption.
Here’s the way it works. Even leaders can’t keep their own interpretation of religious law, so they abuse their power and try to hide or rationalize their crimes. This foments resentment and unrest, so in order to enforce adherence to their impossible code they resort to the lash, to prison, and to the executioner’s sword. In the name of their god they rule through fear.
Contrast this with the promise given by Jesus. He pledged to his followers his Spirit, who would transform their hearts and minds and grant the ability to strive for good. What’s more, this divine gift would not be “the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
The good news is that the redemption of Jesus and the transforming power of his Spirit are still at work, and still available to any who will receive them.
Better still, by changing people these divine gifts also change society—without resorting to cruelty or fear.