If the task of a theologian is to stir people up, one colleague emailed me to say, you have had great success today.
A man wrote from Knoxville: "We need to broaden our belief's [sic] by giving up what we believe? You're worse than an idiot because an idiot never knew. You're simply an a**hole." An old college classmate wrote to tell me that I had become "a joke to common sense, decency, and intelligence." Those who believed themselves to understand Islam—especially a number of people apparently spurred to polemical action because of a posting on an apparently right-wing political blog2—wrote to chastise my lack of understanding of Islam. The subject line of one email—"Professor Dhimmi"—caught my attention. I did not yet know what a "dhimmi" was.
I read that you are teaching your students that they must renounce some of their Christian values if they want to live in peace with Islam. Where did you get that idea? Do you truly understand what Islam teaches? The Umma views the world in 2 parts; the house of Islam and the house of war. There can never be peace until there is just the house of Islam. Non Muslims are given 3 choices per the Qur'an; convert, submit or accept dhimmitude, or die. Then there will be peace.
Many wrote to say similar things. There can be no peace. Muslims do not want peace. They want you to convert, or they will kill you, and if they say otherwise, then they are lying.
The respondents seemed to fall into two camps. There were those who incorrectly concluded that I had publicly denied the faith, that I had publicly professed that we should "let go" of the lordship of Jesus in order to get along with Jews and Muslims. Some of these respondents, though deeply troubled, were nonetheless gracious in their response. An email from New Zealand (!) received late in the day admonished me with the words of the apostle Paul: "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel."
But there was another group whose starting point was simply fear. Some of them were (and some were not) interested in Christian orthodoxy. But they were clearly fearful of Muslims. My lecture had indeed suggested that the church must "let go" of an attempt to dominate the world, must "let go" of medieval Christendom models that continue to live on in contemporary American Christian communities. This struck a vein of fear: there can be no dialogue with Muslims, no parley with the enemy, no trusting conversation, because the enemy simply wants to convert you, kill you, or make you submit.
So another email, apparently from a real estate developer in Memphis, came with the subject line "Professor Dhimmi is your name." Dhimmi—a new vocabulary word twice in one day. Dhimmi is not in the Webster's dictionary I have on my shelf. Several of my colleagues did not know the word either. I would learn that a dhimmi is a poll tax paid to Muslim authorities in exchange for protection, typically required from Jews and Christians. The developer said:
I will not give up my belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he is Lord of all—period. I believe there are several hundred million other Christians who believe the same way and are willing to die to defend their beliefs. There will be no peace with Muslims because that is not what they want. Muslims want one of three things—converts, dhimmis, or death.
By the way—the Crusades were the Christian response to Muslims raping, pillage, and killing everyone in their path that stood up to them as they swept across Europe. Learn some history you moron.
I actually would learn more about the Crusades, and I would learn that the one who called me a moron (in Jesus's name, of course) actually knew less about the Crusades than he apparently thought.
But that would be later. At the time, I found that day's events instructive for my own inner life. I realized the immense power of media and the rapid ease with which media can misconstrue substantive conversations. I realized, in later reflection, how vain and fearful I am. My own university and church community were immensely supportive, but I realized that I nonetheless remain a people-pleaser. I still want everyone to like me. More perniciously, I realized how much I like attention: "All press is good press," someone told me, and there was a deep place that resonated with the attention, a realization that prompted shame. I would confess later to a mentor that the greedy part of me was pleased with the thought that the attention might mean I sell more books. And, on the other hand, I realized how one's own psyche, when publicly called names and made a public spectacle, if only for one's fifteen minutes of infamy, leads one to duck one's head and keep quiet so as not to be dubbed a troublemaker.