Why We Go Light on Polemics

“You don’t have to point out what’s wrong with our religion. Deep down, we know more than you ever could regarding the dark things in Islam.”

This comment years ago from a Middle Eastern friend has always stuck with me. Over time, it has proven to be sound advice, wisdom that has been borne out in countless relationships with Muslims who are coming from honor-shame cultures.

I’ve never had a personality that naturally goes hard after polemics, which is the practice of highlighting the weaknesses and errors of other religions and worldviews as a method of thereby getting to the gospel. But when locals outright deny, brush under the rug, or just plain don’t know about the the scandalous or dark parts of their holy books or prophet’s life, it is awfully tempting to start attacking these foundations of their belief, even for me.

I am not saying there is never a time to do polemics. After all, Paul says that we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5). There will be times when we follow the Spirit’s leading into saying something true that makes our hearers very angry – let’s not forget about the example of Stephen in Acts 7. And sometimes a direct assault will land home and result in further questions. But let’s also remember the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, where Jesus doesn’t take the bait of entering into religious controversy in order that he might more effectively speak to the heart of his hearer. Many times, arguments about controversies are mere talking points or smokescreens meant to deflect from the real heart issues going on.

The main issue I’ve faced with polemical approaches is that they risk triggering a defensive response, where someone is overtaken by the sense that they are duty-bound to protect their community’s honor from the attacks of an outsider, whether they internally side with their community or not. Westerners might feel this way if the attacks aren’t perceived to be fair and balanced. Those coming from honor-shame cultures often feel this fire to defend simply because there is an attack at all – fair or not. This means that someone who might otherwise listen to the gospel can go into fight mode if I start “dishonoring” the creed and traditions of his people – and then the chance to get to the gospel can be lost.

This is where my friend’s comment has proved to be so helpful. By sharing what he did, he let me know that things in Islam’s sources and history like child brides, slavery, wife-beating, the killing of Jews and infidels, the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, and the jihad-gained wealth of Muhammad and his companions are not only known to many locals, but can even keep them up at night. Many Muslims are already wrestling with these things, albeit quietly.

Since this is the case, I don’t have to go to these risky places of conversation early on in my relationship with my Muslim friend. When I share with him about Jesus or we study the Bible together, often he is automatically comparing what he hears with what Islam has taught him. And our conversation can keep on going since no open attacks on honor have yet taken place. Instead, a thousand indirect attacks are taking place and are mounting through the simple explanation and illustration of gospel truth.

Taking a look at how husbands are called to love their wives in Ephesians 5 or how Jesus calls us to love our enemies in Matthew 5 holds up a powerful contrast for a Muslim friend. He must then wrestle with this contrast that his mind is now faced with, the stark difference between texts like these and his own. In this way, polemics are in a sense happening, but indirectly, as a kind of open secret. We both know what is going on, but without verbally acknowledging it we have room in an honor-shame culture to skip the usually-required defense.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for this kind of beginning to eventually lead to an explicit discussion of Muhammad, the Qur’an, or those seventy virgins promised in the Islamic conception of paradise. But the respectful long approach to these topics and the relational credibility established by that point often mean a very different kind of conversation – one where my friend lets me know he’s ready by asking my thoughts on these topics, where he is free to share his own doubts and questions, and where I can say direct things, knowing that they will be heard in love.

There is also a big difference in this area between ourselves and local believers. We’ve found that local believers are able to engage in helpful polemics much more quickly than we are, because they are not viewed as outsiders. This seems to mean that the honor-shame defense mechanism doesn’t trigger in quite the same way for them as it does for us foreigners. This can go too far as new believers from a Muslim background do tend to go overboard with polemics – and at times forget to talk about Jesus. But it generally holds true that they have more of a chance than we do of having their attacks actually heard.

Now, when we’re on a visit and someone publicly goes after the reliability of the Bible, I want to still be ready to respond back with a defense and questions of my own. The door to a kind of “challenge-riposte” conversation has been opened by a local, and to not defend and counter would be viewed as dishonorable. However, even in this kind of context I will hold back on the most controversial topics, knowing that, unfortunately, those from honor-shame cultures can dish the attacks out, but they struggle to take it back without losing their heads. Alas, every culture has its weaknesses.

However, our usual approach to polemics is to go light and indirect, the equivalent of giving a man some roast lamb before we try to take his poorly-cooked rice away. Once faced with the choice, he will want to choose the lamb. But if rice is all he has, he will fight for that bowl of starch with all that he has. Instead, set the lamb down, let him smell and taste it, and then attempt the rice away. This kind of contrast – and timing – can make all the difference.

Photo by Hans Ripa on Unsplash

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