Perfect love casts out fear, if we have the courage to forgive rather than retaliate.

By Molly T. Marshall

My responsibilities as a seminary president require that I spend an inordinate amount of time in airports and on planes. These venues offer a stimulating opportunity to view humanity in all its richly hued diversity. I get to play peek-a-boo with little ones, surely a universal game, granting a little respite to tired parents. On occasion, I get to assist first-time travelers as they navigate unfamiliar security requirements or train links between gates.

I also have opportunity to witness the traveling challenges immigrants encounter and the xenophobia that surprises us. As I prepared to board a plane in Atlanta yesterday, I noticed two young men dressed in Muslim garb, complete with knitted caps. Of Middle-Eastern descent, they were sprouting beards and wore only sandals.

Instinctively, my antennae went up. Even though I regularly participate in interfaith gatherings and seek occasions to find common ground with those from Islamic traditions, I found myself watching these men with a measure of suspicion and fear. I was not alone in this scrutiny, and soon the men had moved to a corner away from others.

The only way to conquer my fearful reaction was to walk toward them and speak. They had an equal amount of suspicion, also, so I made my greeting brief and did not extend my hand, as many Muslim men eschew that practice. I simply extended the traditional greeting of peace: As-salamu alaykum. They nodded gravely and returned the hope that peace would be upon me, too.

The current international crisis surrounding the militant actions of ISIS has raised the question once again about whether Islam is a religion that sanctions violence. Some evangelical writers are quick to see the recent atrocities as warrant for denouncing this Abrahamic religion, and they advocate strong military action against this marauding force. My fear is that this will only exacerbate brutality — by sword and by drones.

Early in his papal leadership, Benedict XVI displayed a measure of insensitivity when he delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg that suggested that Islam was “a religion inherently flawed by fanaticism.” He spent the remainder of his eight years in office seeking to clarify and soften this assessment. Hardliners today, however, are hailing him as a prophet.

Indeed, the firestorm that followed his early missteps prompted Islamic scholars to broach dialogue with the Catholic Church as well as Protestants. American Baptists have hosted a number of conversations with Muslims, and these have fostered greater understanding and respect. We need to cover so much more ground in our journey toward peace.

In my judgment, Christianity has as much to prove about its relationship to violence as does Islam. When we claim the Hebrew Scriptures as the Christian Old Testament, we are receiving texts that outline a program of herem, the utter destruction of those who stand in the way of conquering the land of promise. Although Jesus commanded his disciples to “put away the sword,” we know that many of his followers were all too ready to take it up against Muslims in the Crusades. And the bloody religious wars that spattered Europe following the Reformation reveal a violent approach to theological conformity.

America as a “Christian nation” is part of the mythos of national identity, and when we undertake military action against nations where Islam is the primary faith, it is seen as Christians against Muslims. When I confer with friends in Southeast Asia, I receive questions about how Baptists feel about our nation’s use of force around the world. Albeit a professed pacifist, I reluctantly mumble something about “just war” theory, realizing that even this construct is an accommodation to a world fallen to violence. I hasten to add that we really cannot find warrant within the Jesus tradition to justify such action.

Fear retains a vise-like grip on the human psyche. Our long evolutionary history, which privileges survival, means that we will fall to violence in order to escape what we fear most — pain and extinction. Human aggression and self-defensiveness encroach in the religious sphere, and this may be where our fear is most pronounced.

Yet, “perfect love casts out fear,” if we have the courage to forgive rather than retaliate. As Bethany Sollereder has recently written in Christian Century, “… love’s endeavor is to approach pain head-on, to stand against it, and to remain undeterred through it.” Love is the antidote to fear, and we are incapable of it without the divine assistance.

I wish I had mustered the courage to inquire further about the well-being of the young men and their hopes and dreams for the future. I wanted to know if they were studying to become imams or simply devout in their religious practices. I would have if I had been more loving and less fearful.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.