Updated: May 22, 2020
I sat across from Abdul in a crowded suburban restaurant. His thick build and sly smile told those around him that he would keep his cool as long as they kept theirs. Talking about sports is usually a good way to soften the conversation, and, since he was an avid Kansas City Chiefs fan, there was a lot to talk about.
His tone changed as matters of faith came up. When asked why so many African Americans were leaving Christianity for Islam, he gave a one-word reply: “Justice.” His forthright answer betrayed years of hardship. For much of his life, equality and fairness had eluded him. To Abdul, Islam provided the means to push back against the oppression that many African Americans have experienced. He decried the Christian notion of turning the other cheek as weak and felt that this ideal was used to keep others in submission, particularly people of color. He preferred rather to fight back when someone wronged him.
A friend of mine, whose brother converted to Islam, knew this narrative all too well. For the Muslim, he began, “If somebody wrongs you, you have the right to make sure they never do it again.” As a result, my friend continued, “Islam is a strong tugging force for African Americans. It gives an outlet to energy and pain.”
Back at the table with Abdul, he continued explaining why African Americans would leave the Church: “We live in a society that claims to be Christian and look at the atrocities that are being committed. When a person sees this and experiences this, they don’t wanna keep drinking from that cup.” And so Abdul changed cups. This man, who at one time was part of the Church and was even baptized at age seventeen, had left Christianity for Islam over issues of injustice. When pressed as to what other factors drove him to make this change, he asserted that racism is the factor.
While rehashing all of the injustices rendered against African Americans is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that the suffering and oppression carried out against this people group has left deep and abiding scars. Devastatingly, the charge of oppression over the last several centuries was in many cases led by those claiming to be Christians. This fact has led Abdul to state, “The worst thing that white folks did to us was not slavery. The worst thing was giving us Christianity.”
For many African American Muslims, therefore, conversion to Islam became a way of distancing themselves from Christianity, a faith that many came to see as “oppressive” and a “white man’s religion.”
Contrary to this narrative, however, speaker and author Carl Ellis asserts that the Bible is “twice as rich as the Qur’an concerning righteousness, social justice, and compassion for the poor.” 1 Inner-city Pastor Eric Mason similarly states that justice is a core message of the Bible and that over half of the books of the Old Testament alone deal with matters of justice. In the New Testament, one encounters a strong message of equality. Jesus Himself rebuked religious leaders for neglecting justice (Matt. 23:23). Paul quotes a baptismal formula of the early church within the context of the highly stratified slaveholding society of Rome in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Imagine how the first century slave felt hearing those words as he or she was plunged into the baptismal waters! Paul furthers the case for equality in the book of Philemon when he appeals to Philemon, a slave owner, to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus and treat him not as a slave but as family. This is a revolutionary request. Paul is imploring a slave owner to not beat his runaway slave but to elevate him to the status of a brother.
As Mason points out concerning this epistle, “Paul is deconstructing an unjust system through Philemon.” 2 Indeed, the Gospel message is one of equality. While at one time using the Bible to justify slavery, many Christians in recent times are grasping the ideals of justice found within the pages of the sacred text. This became apparent when, in 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized and corporately repented for its early involvement in the dehumanizing and degrading practice of slavery. My own denomination, the Assemblies of God, declared racism a “sin” at a 1989 General Council meeting. It seems in this day that the Lord is changing hearts. Much wrong has been done, and the hour is late. But it’s not too late for people like Abdul to be reached. How should today’s Christian respond? First, like the Southern Baptists did at a macro level, believers who have participated in oppression or racism should repent. Secondly, Christians should intentionally seek out diverse friendships, knowing that we will enrich one another’s lives by our diversity. One of the tragedies of the early twentieth century was that, though the Pentecostal Movement began as a racially integrated development, it soon lapsed into following dominant American social practices as segregation carried the day. Both individually and corporately, our lives will be bettered by our togetherness. Thirdly, Christians should let what the Bible says about justice infuse their community and family lives. As we do justice (Micah 6:8), African American Muslims like Abdul can be drawn to the Gospel, a message that transcends every cultural, racial, and social barrier. His quest for justice can lead him to the pages of the Bible.
As we have seen, the consequences of living unjustly are eternally immense. As one African American friend recently stated, “Do you want to be responsible for somebody going to hell because you are so unlike Jesus?”
1 Carl Ellis, ed. Saving Our Sons: Confronting the Lure of Islam with Truth, Faith, & Courage (Chicago: Imani Books, 2007), x. 2 Eric Mason. Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018), 80.