Mars Hill Forum #150: Black Identity, the Bible and the Nation of Islam: In Pursuit of Freedom & Justice
John C. Rankin: Prepared Comments (September 25, 2011)
As a biblically rooted Christian, I believe all people are equal in the sight of the one true Creator, and most of us seek truth, beauty and wisdom. We all seek the dignity and honor of religious, political and economic liberty. Such liberty is necessary for a just social order, and as a minister of the Gospel, I desire justice for all people equally.
In the face of the evil of slavery and racism, the question is how to affirm such an honest equality. Here are two central questions. 1) Do we pursue a reactive agenda rooted in real pain? 2) Or do we have confidence in the one true Creator to pursue a proactive agenda in order to overcome that pain? And at the end of my comments, I will pose some final questions that go to the core of Black identity, the Bible and the Nation of Islam.
My thoughts are organized according to the positive assumptions, the proactive nature, of the biblical order of creation. As you listen to each point I make, please be ready to challenge anything I say. I welcome the conversation.
The Bible is the true storyline defined by the teachings of creation, sin and redemption, introduced in Genesis 1-3. The order of creation is entirely good and trustworthy, and defined in Genesis 1-2, in what I call Only Genesis. It is the nature of the proactive, prior to any possibility of the reactive. In Genesis 3, human sin is introduced, and it breaks the goodness and trust given in Only Genesis. Also in Genesis 3, the promise of redemption is given to restore the promises of Genesis 1-2, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus literally buys us back from the slavery of broken trust.
Thus, only when we understand the heights of the goodness of the order of creation, can we then understand the depths of the injustice and evil that breaks it. And only then can we grasp the height of being rescued from the depths, and receive the good promise of the resurrection.
In the Qur’an, Surah 1 has no concept of an original goodness. It instead assumes the presence of judgment and wrath already in existence. Is there any place in the Qur’an that describes an original goodness unpolluted by broken trust?
The original goodness and proactive power of Only Genesis involves ten positive assumptions. As I seek to define them simply, I will also set forth related assumptions in the Qur’an and Islam. Together then, we can pursue the nature of freedom and justice.
- Only Genesis has a positive view of the Creator’s nature. The Hebrew language for the one true Creator is Yahweh Elohim, and it uniquely defines the One who is greater than space, time and number. His power is unlimited, his nature is good and his purpose is to bless all people fully. In being greater than space and time, this means Yahweh Elohim is also great enough to come into our human world and relate to us. In being greater than number, Yahweh Elohim is not numerically restricted in himself.
In Surah 1, Allah is called the “Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds.” Yet Allah does not enter into space and time to relate to us, and by definition Allah is singular in terms of human number. Thus, the greatness of Yahweh Elohim in being greater than the universe, is that he can also dwell within it at the same time. But Allah does not do so – he keeps his distance from human beings.
This leads to the question of unity and diversity. There are three basic concepts of deity in human history, here presented in reverse order. First is a monad: This is Allah in the Qur’an, who is eternal but defined by the human concept of the number one. Second is polytheism: This is where there are many finite gods and goddesses usually at war with each other. And third is Trinitarian monotheism: This is the biblical Yahweh Elohim, who is eternal and greater than the human concepts of space, time and number. He is revealed in the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not being restricted by the human concept of the number one.
These three different concepts of deity produce three different possibilities. First is Allah – unity without diversity, or the power of imposed conformity in the religious and political order. Second is polytheism – diversity without unity, or the chaos of competing powers in the religious and political order. And third is Yahweh Elohim – diversity in service to unity, or the freedom produced when there are checks and balances on power in the theological and political order.
- Only Genesis has a positive view of communication. The first words spoken by the Creator in Genesis are “Let there be light.” This is the nature of revelation or communication – where by definition, light reveals what is truly there. Part of Yahweh Elohim’s communication in the Bible is that it is a dialogue – he invites us to ask him questions as we learn his ways. Yahweh Elohim communicated this way with all the biblical prophets, others, and believers in Jesus as the Son of God and Son of Man to this day. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declared himself to be the “I AM,” to be Yahweh Elohim, the one true Creator in human form, to communicate with us as the living Word, as the Light of the world. One of the names for Jesus in the Hebrew, Immanuel, means that Yahweh Elohim is “with us.”
In the Qur’an, Allah does not communicate with men and women directly. He speaks only through Muhammad, and only in a one-way capacity. Muhammad is a vessel for Allah, but in the Qur’an he only records what Allah says, with no human interaction, no dialogue, no asking of questions. For Muslims, here is a good question: How can communication with Allah happen through Muhammad, when Muhammad’s own communication with Allah was severely restricted?
- Only Genesis has a positive view of human nature. The whole structure of Only Genesis is designed to highlight the creation of man and woman as the image-bearers of the one true Creator, as Yahweh Elohim breathed the breath of life into Adam and Eve. The creation was made for us, and to bear his image means that in our finite nature we reflect the Creator’s infinite qualities of communication and creativity. We were made to govern the good creation and take care of it with satisfaction in building families and nations. Or as it declares in Psalm 8, we are “crowned” with “glory and honor” as the highest purpose of the creation. In other words, central to the greatness of Yahweh Elohim is his joy in making man and woman to share his glory.
Here, the biblical assumption is that all of us are equal, rooted in a shared humanity, and questions of true human identity thus have nothing to do with the color of our skin or family or national background.
The Qur’an has no such assumption of the goodness and unity of all humanity. There is no idea of Allah breathing the breath of life into mankind, nor any idea that man and woman equal his highest purpose. As well, the Arab world, prior to and after the beginning of Islam, has the greatest history of slave trading – hugely involving African slaves as well.
- Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom. In fact, it is the only proactive definition of human freedom in history. The first words spoken by Yahweh Elohim to Adam in Genesis 2 come from a Hebrew clause translated “in feasting you will continually feast.” In other words, an unlimited menu of good choices in all of life is presented, so long as the forbidden and poisonous fruit is not eaten. To eat the forbidden fruit means “in dying you will continually die.” Thus, feast on what is good, or eat poison and die – the sovereign Creator gives man and woman dignity and honor in giving us such a freedom to choose. Unless we are free to say no, we are not free to say yes. There is no coercion in the Gospel. We are free to choose between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, between life and death, between freedom and slavery.
Surah 2:256 says: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” This is a good concern, but it is also a double negative – reactive in nature. Does the Qur’an have a prior and deeper positive or proactive definition of human freedom? As well, these words were not followed in the expansion of Islam across and beyond Arabia, during and after Muhammad’s life. Islam originally spread by the sword, coercion and imposition of slavery. Christianity originally spread by love for others and its own suffering in the face of persecution.
- Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions. When Yahweh Elohim gave man and woman stewardship over creation, an endlessly delightful learning process was put in place. We were made to learn in his presence, a central part of which was asking questions. Even after the broken trust of sin, the power to pose hard questions in the presence of Yahweh Elohim and one another is seen dramatically, for example, in the persons of Abraham, Moses, Job, David, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Paul, and supremely in Jesus as he modeled the rabbinic teaching method. No questions were ever prohibited. Yahweh Elohim allowed himself to be directly challenged, and Jesus also invited the same in the face of his sworn enemies.
In his life, Muhammad welcomed various questions only in certain controlled instanvces. But, for example, in Surah 33:36, it says: “It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter had been decided by Allah and his Messenger, to have any option about their decision.” Does this indicate a restriction on certain questions? In contrast, in Genesis 18, Yahweh Elohim gave Abraham the option to challenge the decision on Sodom and Gomorrah. And Islam claims to follow from Abraham. Then, in Shari’ah law, it is prohibited for a Muslim to question 1) the existence of Allah, 2) the prophethood of Muhammad, or 3) the perfection of the Qur’an. How can there be political and economic freedom in Islam if there is no prior freedom to pose questions of Allah?
- Only Genesis has a positive view of human sexuality. The structures of both Genesis 1 and 2 focus on men and women as full equals and complements, as image-bearers of the Creator. They are joint stewards of the creation, and joint heirs of eternal life. Healthy human sexuality is rooted in chastity outside of marriage, and fidelity within the marriage of one man and one woman for one lifetime. Polygamy and other sexual relationships that happen later are a deliberate rebellion against Only Genesis.
But in Islam, polygamy is ordained, where men and women are not equal. In Surah 2:223, a wife is considered a tilth, a field to be tilled. Is the same true for how a wife can treat her husband? Surah 4:34 speaks of a man’s right to “strike” or “beat” or “scourge” his wife if he believes it “necessary” to discipline her. Some say this word in the Arabic only means “a gentle slap.” Still, does the wife have the same right to discipline or “slap” her husband? Also, in the debate over women wearing veils or burqas, it is often said that men need to be kept from temptation. But is it only the fault of women that men might be tempted? Is a just social order possible apart from the genuine equality and complementarity of men and women?
- Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific method. In Genesis 1, the sun, moon and stars are treated as inanimate objects, as opposed to being deities as in pagan religion. From there on the Bible views creation as it is, setting the table for honest scientific observation of the world in which we live. The Law of Moses also provides the basis for the scientific method, where 100 percent accuracy is required of Hebrew prophets. The same accuracy is required in scientific proof. As well, the historical, geographical and observational claims of the Bible are relentlessly confirmed by the discipline of archeology and other sciences. This begins with the Garden of Eden, located at the headwaters of the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia, and on through ancient Israel and the capitol of Jerusalem, to the apostle John on the island of Patmos.
In portions of Islamic history, there was great scientific study. But does Islam to this day invest itself in the discipline of archeology in order to sustain any of its claims? As well, Jesus invited his enemies to disprove him if they could find one thing untrue in what he said or did (in line with the Hebrew prophets and the scientific method). His enemies failed. Did Muhammad ever hold himself up to the same scrutiny?
- Only Genesis has a positive view of verifiable history. Beginning with Adam and Eve, the biblical revelation is always ratified by multiple eye-witnesses, rooted in the Law of Moses, all the way to Jesus, along with very detailed genealogies; then from Jesus to the end of the New Testament. Indeed, when Jesus appeared, he did so in accordance with thousands of years worth of recorded history rooted in multiple checks and balances to certify truth. This commitment to verifiable history has informed all Hebrew and Christian scholarship across the ages.
In contrast, the Qur’an has no historical storyline within itself, borrowing from the Bible without knowing the Bible, and deeply misrepresenting the Bible in the process. The Bible comes through thousands of years of multiple eye-witness history, and as inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the Qur’an only comes through the inner non-testable experience of one man, Muhammad. Indeed, it is in Muhammad’s word alone that all Islam places its trust – in a manner contrary to verifiable history and the Law of Moses.
The Qur’an is called perfect and divinely inspired. But it has no historical verifiability. In, contrast, the Hadith, the eye-witness stories about Muhammad’s life, is rooted in a rigorous and honorable process of verifiable history. Yet it is not regarded as divine, just human. Why the difference? Do we not need both the words and the presence of the one true Creator in one place?
- Only Genesis has a positive view of covenantal law. Here, Yahweh Elohim first holds himself accountable to being just and fair and loving, before he requires man and woman to obey his laws. The original covenant in the Garden of Eden was that of freedom, and all subsequent covenants aimed to restore such freedom in the Messiah. Covenantal law on this basis is a bulwark against human despotic governments. Then, central to this biblical witness is the reality that the covenantal people are held to higher standards than are the pagans. The prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos and Habakkuk, among others, first held Israel and Judah accountable for their sins; as did the apostle Peter for the church.
The Qur’an offers no such idea about covenant and law. Allah is to be obeyed apart from any promises he might make. Biblically speaking, Jesus, as Yahweh Elohim in the flesh, held himself accountable to the covenant of the Law of Moses, even dying for our sins. Even though the Qur’an limits a man to four wives, Muhammad was given a special exemption to this rule for a season, placing him above the law (Surah 33:50-52). He had 13 wives over his lifetime, as many as 11 at one time. And the Islamic world has no concept of being accountable to unbelievers.
Biblical law is understood in the context of “grace,” where life and salvation are gifts of Yahweh Elohim, of Jesus, to be received and then acted on out of gratefulness. Out of received grace comes the power to do justice. Shari’ah law, in contrast, micromanages people’s daily lives, and thus, life and salvation depend on a legal compliance with Shari’ah. No concept of grace. Biblical covenantal law imposes nothing in the present political order, but serves communities of informed choice both now and in eternal life. Islam promises to impose itself on all political order.
10. Only Genesis has a positive view of unalienable rights. Yahweh Elohim gives the gifts of life, liberty and property to all people equally in Genesis 1-2. “Unalienable” refers to rights given by the Creator, rights that cannot be alienated, rights that are above the power of human government to define, give or take away. These unalienable rights are simply to be honored. The unalienable right of liberty means religious, political and economic freedom for all people, regardless of religious or philosophical beliefs, regardless of color or nationality.
In contrast, the Qur’an does not give any basis for such unalienable rights for all people equally. From the beginning of the church, in the face of great persecution, before it was later corrupted by political power, Christians took care of those who were not Christian, honoring their unalienable rights – for the poor, the needy, widows, orphans, prisoners, exposed infants, the oppressed – with no expectation of anything in return. In contrast, in the Qur’an and Islamic history, such charity was only extended to fellow Muslims, with Jews and Christians being treated as second-class people, denied many civil rights given to Muslims, and pagans were treated even worse. Which of these two views of law creates the most just society?
Only Genesis declares all things good at the beginning, and so does the “Gospel” of Jesus the Messiah, coming from a word that means “good news.” Are these biblical assumptions good in nature, and do they serve freedom and justice at every turn?
Thus, you have a sense of my proactive agenda.
In a broken world, it is easy to react to evil. But reactions only produce further reactions, and in the end, we all thus drown in the same miserable soup. How can we become proactive instead? The answer is in the Gospel.
Those of African descent in our midst know the evils of slavery and racism. You know how the promises of equality have been deeply hindered over the years.
So here is my question: When equality was not honored for Black Americans in the age of the Jim Crow laws, is this the reason why Elijah Muhammad started the Nation of Islam? Was he attracted instead to the words of Surah 3:110, where it states that Muslims are “the best of peoples, evolved for mankind.”
Namely, if equality fails, do people then need to assert superiority in order to retain some human dignity? The slave masters and the bigots falsely asserted their own superiority, doing great evil. But if superiority is asserted by anyone over anyone else, does this not lead only to further war? Do we not need a far more powerful dynamic of genuine equality?
Thank you, and let me conclude with the blessing from the Law of Moses:
Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”