I’ll be the first to admit that I am not very familiar with Islam. I do my best to resist and counter stereotypes against the Muslim faith that reduce it to the actions and beliefs that occur at its fringe. That said, I was fascinated to read about the meeting between Aaron Taylor, a Christian missionary with a fundamentalist-Pentecostal background, and Khalid Kelly, a self-professed Jihadist.
Taylor recounts the tale of how his cooperation with a documentary producer Stephen Marshall (Holy Wars) led him to a meeting with the young and radical Muslim, an Other whom most Americans––especially Christians––is taught to view with great fear and even contempt. This was an enemy of both Taylor’s country and his faith.
Oddly enough, Alone With a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War (Foghorn Publishers, 2009), is not all that much about the conversation between the Christian missionary and the vehemently anti-Western, Irish-Catholic convert to Islam. Rather, it is about a major shift in Taylor’s faith and the practice of his Christianity. This is a book about Jesus and empire. Alone narrates Taylor’s crumbling American-Christian worldview in the wake of his meeting with Khalid. I very much appreciate that Taylor was moved by Khalid’s challenges to his American-Christianity and allowed himself to remain open, which created room for change within himself. Taylor writes:
“We tend not to listen to people who support terrorists, but I think that may be our most profound weakness. Because if you actually sit down and listen to them, like I chose to do with Khalid, you will hear an anger and frustration with America and the Western world that isn’t emerging from a vacuum.” (169).
Anyone who has disagreed sharply with friends, let alone strangers, knows how rare and difficult it is to concede our certanties and reconsider what we believe. When those disagreements are over the sacred American treasures of democracy, Capitalism, Christianity, and Westernism as a whole, such disagreements have a lot more at stake. When I speak of Taylor’s crumbling American-Christian worldview, I mean the kind of American-exceptionalist-Jesus-is-gonna-whoop-some-non-Republican-ass-hoorah-Capitalist-Zionism kind of worldview that prevails in much of dominant Christianity in the United States.
Taylor’s debate with Khalid about democracy and freedom and how Christianity and Islam
interact with such notions––as well as what it means for Christians to want a “godly government”––left Taylor at a loss. He recalls:
“Khalid had presented an authentic challenge to my faith and I knew that if there was to be any victory at all, like the victory that was prophesied, then I would have to get to the bottom of the issue. Khalid’s charge was simple. Jesus didn’t leave the world with a comprehensive social system, economic system, political system, or any other kind of system to regulate society. At least Muhammad attempted to solve the world’s problems…” (18)
Alone With a Jihadist is Taylor’s impassioned journey toward rediscovering Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus as a citizen of the world. I resonate a lot with Taylor’s journey, as it was only six years ago that I underwent my own transformation as a result of seeking Jesus apart from the religious context I received him in. Our formerly fundamentalist Pentecostal emerges in the echoes of folks like Wink, Yoder, Ellul and Claiborne. Taylor meets a radical Jesus who chooses non-violence, who teaches love for enemies, who challenges and frustrates the powers, and who undermines our very notions of power itself.
As Taylor unfolded his newly discovered understanding of Jesus and how it radically reoriented his theological and political imagination, I couldn’t help but think how anarchic his theology was sounding. Because of the stigma that “anarchism” drags behind it, I wondered if it was even on Taylor’s radar. I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised to see him affirm anarchism’s basic
critiques of “power over” and the idea of “self-legitimizing power.” I never thought I’d see the day when a Pentecostal missionary would quote both Chomsky and Thoreau and draw connections between following Jesus and anarchism.
Taylor’s book has a lot to offer when it comes to who Jesus is and what following Jesus looks like apart from empire. However, it curiously lacks the intelligent and engaging Muslim-Christian dialogue I hoped to find and learn from. While I enjoyed what Taylor had to offer, if you are at all familiar with the above list of anti-imperialist Christian thinkers, Taylor’s content will not be new to you. However, as election season closes in the U.S., his vision for how one follows Jesus in North America is a refreshing alternative from the “biblical values” that I’m definitely sick of hearing about.
“It’s been well over a year now since my debate with Khalid and I’ve finally reached the conclusion of the matter. No Jesus didn’t leave the world with a socio-political system to solve its problems. What He gave us instead was the cross. At the cross, Jesus taught humanity that it’s better to suffer injustice than to be the cause of it, it’s better to relinquish power than to pursue power, and perhaps most importantly, it’s better to die than to kill. By rejecting earthly power, Jesus introduced to the world a model for a new kind of human being––the model of the powerless prophet.” (193)
What do you think? Have you read Alone With a Jihadist? What are your thoughts on its vision for Christianity? Do you think it fairly represents the Muslim faith?
I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.