Paris and Beyond
Yet on my trip, I read daily editorials in Malaysian and Indonesian newspapers denouncing the Paris attacks and other acts of extremism. Islamic nations acknowledge the threat: after all, many more Muslims than non-Muslims have died at the hands of terrorists. These two Asian countries are charting a middle way, favoring their Muslim majorities while officially guaranteeing the rights of minorities from other faiths.
Officially, I say. Christians in Malaysia told me of evangelism techniques that, while nonviolent, are still coercive. Muslim men actively seek out Christian women to marry (they can have up to four wives), forcing them to convert and bear them Muslim children. Aggressive imams offer money to illiterate Christian villagers if they sign a document with an X; when they show up for church the next week, an officer informs them they have now registered as Muslims, a designation that cannot legally be changed. And Christians in Malaysia find it almost impossible to get permission to build a church, or even repair an aging building.
Indonesia has more freedom but also, in some regions, more direct persecution. As one Christian in Malaysia said, "We're so blessed, because in Indonesia they're burning churches and killing Christians, but here we just have to put up with discrimination and restrictions on our activities." In Indonesia, where Christians are actually dying for their faith, another said, "We're very blessed, because in Malaysia they can't freely publish the gospel. Here, we still can." Indeed, I spoke at a Christian book exhibition in Jakarta held in the atrium of a public mall.
I wrote in Vanishing Grace about an important insight I learned from a Muslim scholar who said to me, "I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority." He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, thrives cross-culturally and even counter-culturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state.
As we talked, he pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (Sharia) law, and in strict Muslim nations the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. In contrast, the Muslim man reminded me, Christianity works best as a minority faith, a counter-culture. A recent book by Lee Beach, The Church in Exile, shows that throughout much of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament, God's people operate as a minority within a surrounding culture that may well prove hostile. Beach calls for the church to establish "communities of engaged nonconformity" to show the world a better way to live—not by coercion, but by persuasion and example.
Historically, when Christians have reached a majority they too fall to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel. The blending of church and state may work for a time, but it inevitably provokes a backlash, such as that seen in secular Europe today, where you find little nostalgia for Christendom.
Ajith Fernando, a writer and theologian from Sri Lanka, has this explanation for the recent turn toward violence: "Muslims believe their culture is superior because they think its features were dictated by God and reported verbatim in the Qur'an. So the Muslim extremists are humiliated over these defeats and some of them are responding by hitting out violently in anger. The Western leaders say they are fighting evil. The Muslim extremists feel that the West is evil and that they must protect righteousness by battling the West. So they hit targets that they associate with the West."
Americans and Europeans understand the difference between a committed Christian who accepts Jesus as a model for living and a cultural Christian who happens to live in a nation with a Christian heritage, but not everyone elsewhere can make that distinction. Much of the world, in fact, draws conclusions about Christians by watching MTV, online pornography, and movies glorifying violence. To them, celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian (or, more confusingly, her transgender step-father) personify "the Christian West" as much as Billy Graham and Pope Francis do.