October 21, 2010

Christian Profiling?

One of today's big news items is that National Public Radio, an entity supported with American tax dollars, fired Juan Williams, one of their long-standing news analysts, for making the following statements,
“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Whether Mr. Williams deserved to be fired, or not, and whether this liberal news organization should be supported by taxpayer dollars, or not, are important though mundane issues that should be addressed. However, what I would like to consider is what should be my attitude as a Christian in such a situation. Should a Christian ever engage in profiling? Before I answer the question, please allow me to relate a story of a similar incident to that of Juan Williams, a relevant incident that happened in my own life.

A short time after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, I started flying again in order to fulfill my responsibilities as the Academic Dean at Midwestern Seminary. It was the first time on the plane again for many of us and the nervousness was palpable in the terminal and only increased as you traversed security and approached the gate. Moreover, as we began boarding the airplane that day, suddenly a half dozen armed police officers descended on the gate and soldiers could be clearly seen in the background brandishing automatic weapons. The object of their concern was a big olive-skinned man with a long beard wearing middle-eastern clothes and a close-fitting hat. They took him to a side hallway and began thoroughly searching his carry-on baggage. The rest of us began to board the airplane.

As the plane filled up, it became apparent that the flight was fully packed and, later, that we were not leaving the gate any time soon. After a while, the stewardesses began to look around and check through the passengers. Then, their eyes settled on me and a hushed conversation ensued. This was followed by one stewardess coming to my row and asking the lady in the center seat next to me if she would mind being moved. Time passed and we all watched as the big olive-skinned man with the long beard wearing the middle-eastern clothes and the close-fitting hat was escorted to his seat. Everybody in the plane turned to look at him the entire way as he came to the center of the plane and then sat next to me.

Needless to say, my own thoughts at that point probably should have been the same as what Juan Williams expressed, and I have to be honest that I did wonder whether I had taken out enough life insurance for my wife to care for herself and our children, in case something were to happen to me. But the Bible resting in the seat pouch in front of me said that all things were providentially guided by God: my life and my family's lives were in His hands, and my only fear should be toward Him. So, I stood up from my aisle seat and the man made his way through to sit next to me. He was obviously shaken by the whole encounter as the perspiration dripped profusely from his forehead.

As we settled in, the continual furtive glances from around the plane, looking back from this point in time, were almost comic. I began to wonder what people were thinking of me as well as him, then I remembered that a 6'4" 260-lb man with a trimmed beard wearing a suit and tie must look like an authority figure. I laughed about that because I come from a family of police officers but personally have neither pretension nor desire to exercise governmental authority. By the way, two big men sitting next to each other on an airplane is always an uncomfortable experience, and this was perhaps the closest I have been to another man for an extended period in my life.

As the plane took off, I took out my Bible and began to read, and he took out his own book, written, yes, in Arabic script, and seemed to withdraw into himself. The woman seated on the other side of my new co-passenger was as close to the bulkhead as she could get and could not take her eyes off of the window. This poor man had obviously just been through a grilling security search and suddenly my heart leaped out in compassion for a fellow human being. There was little doubt in my mind, or anybody else's on that day, that this man was subjected to such a search because he was dressed as a Muslim from head to chin to toe. This was an instance of racial profiling, whatever one thinks of the practice. But, Muslim or not, he deserved to be respected as much as the big Caucasian guy seated next to him.

As I prayed quietly, I discerned that this had to be the most important and obviously preordained appointment of my day, so I might as well use it to the full advantage. God had arranged for an American professor of Christian theology to sit next to a devout Muslim immigrant to the United States; God wanted me to comfort a fellow human being and offer him the succor of human conversation, including conversation about the gospel. Moreover, looking at the shrinking violet on the other side of my new co-passenger, I was obviously the only nearby person secure enough to speak with the man. So, as you can see, I had engaged in a little Christian profiling. Yes, I admit it, I saw this man, recognized he was most likely not a Christian and knew that God intended for me to share the gospel with him.

It was a great experience. He was so thankful that somebody would even speak to him at that point, and he was most definitely open to hearing about the gospel. And because nobody in our immediate area was even daring to whisper, it became an opportunity for me to raise my voice ever so slightly as I engaged with him in discussing what the Bible had to say about God, about human sin, and about the sacrifice that Jesus had made for our sin. He was fascinated to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ and all the nearby passengers could not help but hear, too. (Yes, I admit it, that too was Christian profiling. How do I know some of them were not Christians? I didn't, so they all needed to hear the gospel, too.)

I also was privileged to hear about his beliefs. You see, this man was a Sunni Muslim who practiced a form of mysticism known as Sufism. The book he was praying from was the Dala'il Ul Khayrat, a sort of Arabic book of common prayer, if you will. He really was a peaceful man who was trying to be true to his culture and beliefs in the midst of a vastly different culture. He even shared with me that he did not believe the way to happiness was through violence against non-Muslims. So, here in the midst of a very tense situation, two large men from two different cultures practicing two different religions found comfort in their common humanity and shared their respective faiths peacefully with one another.

After the flight, we kept conversing with each other, even as every eye in the plane and then in the terminal followed the two of us, me with my Holy Bible and him in his Muslim dress with his holy prayer book. We exchanged cards and both went on our way. When we parted, it was as if a part of me left with him, and judging from the letter he later sent me, which now lies before me, he felt the same. Sadly, from my perspective, my new friend did not receive Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Savior that day. However, happily, I was obedient to my Lord and shared the gospel with a fellow human being and all those tense human beings around us.

As I think about Juan Williams' statements and his unfortunate firing from NPR, I also think of how I as a Christian should respond in situations where I encounter other human beings, including human beings who are radically different from me. From a Christian perspective, every human being--no matter how alike or different his or her culture--needs to hear the gospel, and every Christian must find them and tell them that Jesus died on the cross to atone for their sin and that He arose from the dead so that any who believe in Him can find forgiveness and have eternal life in communion with the God who is love. Christians ought not engage in racial profiling, but we ought to engage in witness profiling, taking every opportunity to tell others how we had the burden of sin lifted away by the free grace of God in Christ.

Today, I pulled out the copy of the Dala'il Ul Khayrat that he mailed me and his letter fell out on the floor of my office. As I think of my friend, the devout Muslim with the Muslim beard in the Muslim dress carrying his Muslim book, I pray that sometime soon he will pull out the copy of the Bible that I sent him. And I hope that he remembers that I respect him as a fellow human being. Moreover, I hope he will recall what I said: that because God loves me, a sinner, I know God loves him, too. And because of Christ, I love him, too, no matter how different we are. I long for the day when I will meet people from every culture before the throne of God. And, more than anything else in my life, I long for my Lord to say these words to me, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."


  1. Great perspective and good counsel!

  2. Great testimony of grace. Thank you for sharing the episode and the Gospel.

  3. Great post. Thank you for sharing, Dr. Yarnell.

    Would you be so kind as to share how you struck up this conversation initially. That is the part with which I have the hardest time. "Hey, sorry all that happened to you. Do you know Jesus?" I am obviously being facetious, but I really would like any wisdom you have to offer on how to direct a conversation to the Gospel. I always like hearing different people's "tactics".


  4. Blake3:51 PM

    Dr. Yarnell, thank you for your Christ-like witness in this situation. I pray more Christians model this same attitude.

  5. Thanks for your comments, gentlemen.

    Ryan, getting the conversation started always is the difficult part, at least emotionally, isn't it? Don't we always feel awkward at first? Aren't we always worried about saying the wrong thing or in the wrong way or at the wrong time?

    My own approach is typically to start in a crisis of prayer. I am an introvert naturally and crossing over into a gospel witness, much less just talking to people about anything, is a big hurdle for me, psychologically. Typically, the only way I can cross into witnessing is just to jump in with both feet and start talking, hoping I don't say something inappropriate or off-putting.

    What I did in this particular case was to ask him what he was reading. So, we talked about what he was reading. Then, that gave me opportunity to ask him if he was interested in what I was reading. Of course, he was. That is what I did here, I showed him I was willing to listen and then I just started talking about the Bible. That allowed me to turn the conversation to God, man, sin, and grace in Christ.

    In my opinion, we are too often hung up on finding some way to start the conversation. We just need to start talking, no matter how odd it feels. I don't do this perfectly, but I do start, then before I know it, somebody gets saved.

  6. Dr. Yarnell:

    Thanks for this excellent post. This is a great example of evangelism and Christian maturity. You stated in your response to Bro. Ryan that "I don't do this perfectly." I think that is one of the great things about the gospel: it is not dependent upon us to say it particularly eloquently. Indeed, Paul avoided using "plausible words of wisdom" (1 Cor. 2:4) but the gospel accomplished its purpose nonetheless.

    Thanks again.


  7. Thank you Dr. Yarnell for this post. It is a very thought provoking post.


Edifying comments always appreciated!