Daryl Byler, executive director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, wrote this open letter to his former law school colleague, Jerry Falwell Jr. that was first published in the Dec. 14, 2015 op-ed section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
While we attended law school together at the University of Virginia in the late-1980s, our lives have taken us down very different paths.
We both ended up only an hour’s drive away from our alma mater – you as president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the country, and me as executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, a small Christian university in the Shenandoah Valley.
Like you, I condemn last week’s mass murder of 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, and grieve with the families who lost loved ones. I was touched by your offer of scholarship assistance to families affected by the violence.
But just days later, I was alarmed by your call for students at your university to apply for permits to carry concealed weapons so that they can “end those Muslims before they walked in” or “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
I fail to see how this call contributes to your university’s stated mission to develop “Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential to impact the world.” Or how it is consistent with your commitment to “contribute to a knowledge and understanding of other cultures and of international events.”
Our university also seeks to be Christ-centered – attentive to the teachings and example of Jesus. This is precisely what pushes us to “welcome the stranger”– including those who come from other faith traditions.
We are privileged to host a number of Muslim students at our center. Our program is stronger because of their presence. We have lessons to learn from each other.
Muslim students have helped us to be more self-reflective about how U.S. Christians are viewed around the world. In them, we witness justice and peacebuilding values that are deeply rooted in their own faith tradition. From them, we learn the importance of prayer, compassion and giving. With them, we commit to building a more just and sustainable world.
We live in troubled times. The rise in acts of terrorism is unsettling. Having lived in the Middle East for six years before coming to my current role – and having experienced gracious hospitality in many Muslim homes – I am aware that the horrific shooting in San Bernardino last week and the senseless killing of dozens in Paris several weeks ago must be seen in the context of other acts of terrorism that also deserve our attention.
The U.S.-led war in Iraq has unleashed chaotic conditions that threaten the stability of the entire region and make life difficult for families who are trying to not only survive but to stay together. While not intentionally targeting civilians, U.S. drone strikes frequently inflict terror on Middle Eastern families. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was tortured in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq – an experience that most certainly contributed to his extremism.
Two weeks ago, I visited one of our Muslim graduates in northern Iraq. She laments the ongoing chaos in her country.
But she also has hope. She reflected that during her time at our center, she felt respected and valued as a human being. And she learned that it was possible to create a close-knit community with persons who hold very different perspectives from her own. It gives her hope that peace is possible in Iraq. “I know it’s possible,” she said, “because I’ve seen it modeled.” As we parted, she handed me a gift of $1,000 for the work of our center.
Jerry, let us agree to work together to end all acts of violence and build a safer world.
That will not happen by calling our students to arms. It will come by having the courage to create spaces where persons from different faiths, nationalities and races feel respected and safe enough to risk seeing the humanity in the other. It will come by being humble enough to recognize our own contributions to the world’s conflicts. It will come by training our students with analytical tools and skills to address the root causes of violence.
Let us offer hope to the world, instead of more reasons for others to hate us.