At Bellarmine, an all-boys Catholic school in San Jose, California, I was often the token Muslim and probably the only person who began freshman year thinking the Eucharist sounded like the name of a comic book villain. I eventually learnt it’s a ritual commemorating the Last Supper. During my time there, I also read the King James Bible and stories about Jesus, learnt about Christian morality, debated with Jesuit priests and received an A every semester in religious studies class. Twenty years later, I can still recite the “Our Father” prayer from memory.
Growing up, I’d been taught that Jesus was a major prophet in Islam, known “Eisa” and also referred to as “ruh Allah,” the spirit of God born to the Virgin Mary and sent as a mercy to all people. Like Christians, we Muslims believe he will return to fight the Antichrist, and establish peace and justice on earth. But it was everything I learnt in high school that came together to make me love Jesus in a way that made me a better Muslim.
Even though I don’t personally celebrate Christmas, the season always makes me think of his legacy of radical love. This year, it’s especially hard to understand how some Americans have turned their back on that unconditional love and exchanged it for nativism, fear and fealty to a reality TV show host turned president. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in January, 75 per cent of white evangelicals in the United States — compared with 46 per cent of American adults over all — said “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” was a positive thing. Sixty-eight per cent of them believe America has no responsibility to house refugees, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in April and May. The numbers aren’t quite as jarring when we look at different slices of religious America. According to a PRRI poll conducted in late August and early September, 59 per cent of Catholics and 75 per cent of black Protestants view Donald Trump negatively. Still, I can’t fathom how anyone who knows the Jesus I encountered at Bellarmine could be comfortable with this administration.
Jesus was a humble carpenter from Nazareth who miraculously fed people but never humiliated them with condescending lectures about God favouring those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Republicans have allowed 14 states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, leaving 4 million eligible Americans unable to enrol. The Jesus I met in high school healed a blind man. Guess what he didn’t do? Rail against the socialist evils of taking care of people’s health. The Jesus I know commanded, “You shall love your neighbours as yourself.” He didn’t add “unless they are undocumented immigrants or Muslim or gay.” He would have welcomed refugees from Central America, fed them, washed their feet. He would have been horrified at the conditions that led a 7-year-old to die of dehydration and shock in Border Control custody after seeking refuge in this country with her father.
Christianity isn’t unique: Every religion is abused as such by some of its followers and manipulated to advance political agendas. But the hypocrisy of white Evangelicals in light of his undeniable cruelty and apathy — toward refugees, or recovering from a devastating hurricane is too much to bear. Our school’s motto was “Men for others,” a reminder that the Christian faith should be lived through active selfless service. Judging from the type of Christianity that is practised and preached by some Trump supporters, they must know a Jesus whose message is “Every man for himself.” At Bellarmine, we had to perform 100 hours of community service before graduating. I volunteered at the senior centre and the local homeless shelter, where my friends and I cleaned the kitchen and packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for struggling men and women, most of them eager for employment.
This Christmas, I hope those far-right Christians try to find compassion for people who are similarly suffering. I hope they open their Bible and reflect on James 2:14: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
I know many Christians who resemble Jesus, investing their life to uplifting vulnerable people. Right-wingers should meet Sister Simone Campbell, who in 2012 organised to oppose the Paul Ryan-backed budget plan’s assault on social programmes for the poor. They should join the Rev William Barber II of North Carolina, who has revived the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign to fight racism and income inequality. They should donate to Sister Norma Pimental of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a “respite centre” in McAllen, Texas, offering food, clothes and shoes to people seeking asylum.
These are the kinds of Christians who I believe are following the lessons and footsteps of Jesus, the prophet I met and loved as a Muslim at a Catholic high school.
— New York Times News Service
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and contributing opinion writer.