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Jesus, Muhammad, a Sudanese Teddy Bear, Irshad Manji, and Me

Irshad Manji, a Canadian activist who cajoles and confronts her fellow Muslims from the theological left of Islam, recently asked some of her acquaintances what we thought of a case in the Sudan that received international attention.

An English teacher in that country invited her 7-year-old students to name their class teddy bear. The overwhelming choice was “Muhammad,” so they were then all sent home with assignments regarding their mascot.

But a staffer at the school complained that the 54-year-old teacher, Gillian Gibbons, intended to insult the Prophet. Charges were laid, Ms. Gibbons was put in prison and threatened with flogging, she was tried and found guilty, and then Sudan’s president pardoned her after considerable diplomacy at a high level and angry demonstrations on street level. (Read about it here.)

Ms. Manji, now living in New York, got into a vigorous discussion with a Sudanese cab driver about it all. (Vigorous discussions are Irshad’s stock in trade!) She blogged about it, and asked a few of us for some responses–especially asking the interesting Christmastime question, “What would Jesus do?”

I replied instead to the related question of “What would Jesus have me do?” and Irshad excerpted a bit of my answer on her blog. As for what Jesus would have done if he had been on site in Sudan, well, here are some thoughts on that question, also.

What would Jesus do? As a Christian theologian, I think the first thing Jesus would do would be to call the frightened schoolchildren to him and comfort them. As the Bible quotes Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). He certainly would not terrorize them by yanking their teacher away to be put on trial.

The second thing Jesus would do is ascertain whether the teacher intended to demean Muhammad by letting the children name a toy pet after him. If she did, then Jesus would warn her not to be so discourteous to her Sudanese hosts and neighbors by treating too lightly what they take seriously, and not to be so foolish as to provide ammunition for extremists.

If the teacher did not intend any harm, Jesus would tell her to get to know her neighbors better and to pay them due respect. She might not think it is any big deal to name a toy after Muhammad, but if her neighbors do, then she needs to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).

For this is not merely a question of peculiar, let alone touchy, Islamic sensibilities. No Christian names a toy pet after Peter or Paul. No Jew names a toy pet after Abraham or Moses. It is odd that Ms. Gibbons didn’t anticipate that calling a toy pet “Muhammad” might upset some Muslims.

Jesus would save his strongest words, however, for those who think that the best way to honor God is to thrash or imprison people who pay insufficient respect to one of his prophets. He would tell them to devote their energy and enthusiasm to the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

Whipping up popular support by whipping infidels is a time-honored subterfuge for leaders who meanwhile are flagrantly disobeying the fundamentals of the faith. As Darfur continues to burn and bleed, the smoke and blood cry out from the ground to God, and God will not be distracted by scapegoating–or impressed by the pseudo-magnanimity of Ms. Gibbons’s pardon.

No, God is too great for that. Jesus would tell them that the day of the Lord is coming for them, and soon. Let the Sudanese authorities tremble, if they will not repent.

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