This blog post was originally featured on The Book of Fellows Blog, a collection of sacred moments and theological understanding. Check it out to learn more about the hearts and minds of other young adult missionaries.
When I became a missionary, moving to the American South prompted me to explore my new home to learn more about the history and culture of this place that I had not experienced before. The South is a great place with a rich history, richer food, and inspiring people. Through my adventures, my eyes were also opened to some heartbreaking truths about the mistreatment of groups and individuals that stem from hatred and misunderstanding. The scars of this hatred are still fresh in this place, and some are still experiencing persecution.
Relics and historical sites, such as Civil War battle fields and old plantations across Tennessee, act as constant reminders of brutal death, inequality, and injustice in the South that stemmed from feelings of hatred. What can we do to promote a spirit of love while learning from the past? How can we, as Christians, stand against hatred and violence in a contemporary context?
In January, I visited Murfreesboro, TN, a city 30 miles south of Nashville, and spoke with the imam at the local Islamic Center. When plans to construct a mosque there were made public in 2010, some citizens in the county expressed their outrage, taking an anti-Muslim stance. Anti-mosque proponents filed a suit attempting to halt construction, claiming that Muslims do not have protection of religious freedoms because Islam is not a religion. Some went as far as making violent threats to express their outrage. During construction, arsonists set construction equipment on fire, delaying the building process. The community also experienced gunfire, an unusual occurrence in the area.
Although shaken, the Muslim community and their allies stood their ground. The court case was dismissed, and construction continued. The Muslim community in Murfreesboro decided to combat the hatred that was demonstrated with openness rather than retaliation. The mosque finally opened in 2012 and continues to operate with a spirit of inclusion and love. During my tour, I was greeted with smiles and handshakes from members welcoming me to the space. The Islamic Center’s Web site states that they endeavor to build understanding and tolerance through open communication, and welcome all visitors to their space to experience worship. It is inspiring to see a group so passionate about building acceptance and interfaith dialogue even when parts of the community are not willing to accept them in return.
I also visited Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, TN. Pulaski is a small town that is famous for being the home of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK was founded as a social club in a small law office in 1865. If you have studied American History at any level, you are aware of the terror that this group has caused in the last 150 years in order to maintain white supremacy.
There is a plaque on the building to mark where this historical moment occurred. However, at some point, someone unbolted the plaque, flipped it around, and then bolted it back to the building. Now, there appears to be a blank plaque to commemorate the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan. The person who flipped the plaque seems to think that the KKK does not deserve to be recognized, so wanted to erase this relic honoring the terrorist group.
These acts of nonviolent resistance in response to violence and terror mimic the teachings of Jesus documented in the New Testament. As a Jew living under Roman rule, Jesus was familiar with violent tactics used to oppress. He preached nonviolent examples of how to stand up to authority in an attempt to create change. One example of this is in Matthew when Jesus instructs his followers to “turn the other cheek.”
Walter Wink, an American Biblical scholar, offers a historical context to why this is a powerful act of nonviolent resistance. The back of the right hand was used to slap in order to assert dominance. If the persecuted then turned the other cheek, the oppressor was forced to slap with an open palm- a sign of equality. The other option was to slap with the left hand, which was reserved for unclean acts. Once the persecuted offers the other cheek, he is demanding equality. As Christians we are called to stand against injustice at any cost; not to be passive while also not harming others.
The nonviolent resistance that I witnessed in the examples of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center and Pulaski are exactly the type of action for change that Jesus would condone. They remind me that there is already positive action being taken to create a culture of love and change in a place where elements of economic and cultural history are based on the effects of hatred. It is important to acknowledge the tragic history of this place in order to build toward reconciliation. Once we achieve reconciliation, it is my hope that these symbols of hatred and inequality will only be a memory.