I want to talk about our relationship to other faiths this morning. What I have to say will be generalisable but will focus on our relationship with Muslims. Clearly there is much fear in our world about Muslim fundamentalism. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach since the beheading of Alan Hennings. He was the Salford cabbie who went to Syria to try and help. Although I’ve never met her his wife, Barbara, works in my department at the University where there has been a particularly strong and emotional reaction to the news.
We heard yesterday of the death of Muhammad Mehdi Hassa, the fourth of six young men from Portsmouth who went to fight for Islamic state. Somehow, we don’t know how, they and an estimated other 500 British Muslims have been convinced that this is what their faith requires of them. Most of us are horrified and bewildered. An all too easy response, particularly I think amongst Christians, is to assume that this is further proof of the error of Islam. It’s this that I want to explore this morning.
The first and most obvious point I want to make is that there are a wide spectrum of beliefs within Islam just as there are within Christianity. My daughter has just finished her GCSE and is now taking A-level religious studies. At GCSE it was considered appropriate to write about “what Christians believe” or “what Muslims believe”. At the new level she is working at she has been told that this is no longer appropriate. She needs to write about “what some Christians believe” or maybe about “the official view of the Methodist church” or to mention the views of a specific individual who has a particular faith. Just because we are appalled by the actions of some Muslims does not mean we should condemn all Muslims or the faith of Islam.
We lived in Northern Ireland for several years just after the first IRA ceasefire was announced. During that time we lived within a Christian community that was appalled about the deeds that had been done by people who considered themselves Christians and truly believed that they were doing what God wanted. We as Christians wanted nothing to do with the acts of Catholics working within the IRA or of protestants within the Unionist paramilitaries. Most of us within this church this morning would be appalled to hear those acts portrayed as the acts of Christianity. Why then, do we fall into the trap of assuming that the isolated acts of small groups of Muslims involved in terror activities are representative of Islam?
We also need to develop some historical perspective. The trauma that some parts of Islam are experiencing now is extremely similar to trauma that some parts of Christianity passed through several centuries ago. 16th and 17th century Europe was riven by religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants every bit as brutal and uncompromising as the current rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East today. On St Bartholomw’s day in 1572 between 5,000 and 30,000 innocent French protestants were murdered by Catholic mobs in Paris and across France. (The only hard evidence for numbers is a bill for workers in Paris to remove 1,100 bodies from the Seine and bury them).
This is just, of course, one particularly horrendous example but history is littered with others of how feuds within Christianity have led to tyranny and death in different communities across the world. (The secular world does not escape either of course. There can be no stronger example of the senseless beheading of innocent victims than the French revolution, perhaps the first time a secular state emerged within the Western world).
In our reading this morning we’ve been reminded of Jesus’ words that we “should take the plank out of our eye” before “taking the speck out of our brothers”. In looking at the state of parts of current Islam we need to recognise that this is where we, as Christians, have already been. Our first response should be one of recognition. Our second response, perhaps, should be more positive, in recognising that this is a place that we have come from (albeit more recently than many of us would care to acknowledge). Perhaps there is help we can offer their community from the previous experiences of ours.
Of course this assumes we would want to. Why should we offer support to a different religious community, one who some would see as in competition with our own – a community that some within Christianity would see simply as wrong and misguided? Shouldn’t we be fighting against that community as part of our responsibilities as Christians?
Whilst there are certainly writings within the New Testament that can be used to support such attitudes I don’t think that those we’ve heard read this morning do. The injunction of Jesus for us to love our enemies is perhaps one of the most preached about and least implemented in the Bible. What credit do we get for loving people who are just like us? What God wants is for us to love people who are different to us. How, in the modern world can we best love Muslims? That is the question we should really be asking. Of course the paradox within this is you cannot love your enemies – if you love your enemies they become your friends.
There is disagreement here within Christianity (its actually a good example of the variety of opinion within Christianity that I outlined above). Some Christians are extremely confident in their particular brand of Christianity. They believe that through the Bible and Jesus that we know the truth and that everyone else is wrong (there are plenty of passages of scripture that can be cited to reinforce this view). For this group of people the most loving thing we can do for Muslims is to show them how wrong they are and convert them to our way of seeing and doing.
My faith, and the faith of many other Christians, is different. I don’t have the same faith that the Bible represents the Truth in this way. Within the Bible are so many contradictions that you can’t say that it convey a simple truth. One of the Ten Commandments is that “Thou shalt not kill”. The teaching of Jesus would appear to reinforce this message. But then in Joshua we read of how God stopped the sun in the sky so that the Jews could complete their slaughter of their enemies. That’s just an example of a contradiction within the Bible. I’ve already given examples this morning of what happens when on top of this we layer the competing claims of different denominations and different interpretations of our scripture. It is ludicrous, in my eyes, to see Christianity as a single embodiment of the Truth that is either possible or desirable for us to inflict upon other people.
My faith sees all of us, all people throughout the world, as trying to make sense of life. For me it is important to start in humility with an assumption that we know very little. This is, to me, what Paul meant when he talked of our “childish ways” and how now we see “as through a glass darkly”. Christianity offers a framework through which we can explore what meaning life might have rather than a rigid prescription of what that meaning is. Before it was called the church the early Christian movement was known as “the Way”. It was a way of being in community, a way of exploring faith, a way of drawing closer to God. A God that was defined by people’s experience rather than by what had previously been written in the scriptures. For me the New Testament has a unique place in guiding my spiritual development but it is not the only place.
The images of the End within the Bible are incredibly important. I, with many other Christians, believe they are poetic and metaphorically images of what we should aspire to rather than literal accounts of what will happen but they are no less important for that. (Indeed as science gives us clearer and clearer predictions of what how the physical universe is likely to end I’d argue that a metaphorical understad=nding becomes more important.) The image we’ve had presented to us from towards the end of Revelation has very little to do with what we see as Christianity today. The reading says very explicitly that there is no Temple. In a sense religion has been brought to an end. When all people see the Truth there is no longer a need for a Way to guide them towards it. There is an undefiled city where all people can dwell, there is a river filled with the crystal clear water of life. There are trees that bear sufficient food to feed us all and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
This vision is of something bigger than the Christianity we practice today. It has no denominations, it has no church councils or preaching plans of flower distribution rotas. It is something different. It is somewhere I hope I am traveling towards but it is also somewhere that I know I am a long way from. I look to Christianity as a guide on that journey. But this guidance will be needed less and less the closer I get to arriving, the closer I get to seeing face to face.
If I see myself as an individual who knows little and is travelling on a journey then I have no real difficulty in seeing members of other faiths as people who know little and but are traveling on a journey also. The journey is along a different path with a different guide but may still be towards the same destination. I have no doubt that the scriptures I revere and the faith experiences that I have had can support others on that journey. I will not stop preaching the gospel in which I believe. But I will offer that to a fellow traveller acknowledging that they may still want to walk along a different path.
Perhaps most importantly though I want to listen. If what I know and what I have experienced can help others then maybe what others know and have experienced can help me. If we are all one day going to share the same city, the same river and the fruit of the same trees, maybe we should start sharing more of our lives now.
One of the most special evenings of my time in Melbourne was in the home of a Muslim family. One of the responses of the Australian Muslim community’s responses to 9:11 was to issue an invitation through the local churches for people to join an Iftar feast within a local home. The Iftar feast is that which starts at dusk on each night of Ramadan when Muslims who have been fasting throughout the day can eat again. A group of us turned up on at a suburban house in the north of the city and were welcomed by a young woman wearing a head scarf. She and her husband sat us down and told us of their faith and gave us an opportunity for us to tell them of ours. As the sun set we turned on the television to hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer. They left briefly to say their prayers and then returned to serve food over which we continued to talk. Despite many experiences within Australian churches this was probably the most spiritually moving encounter I had in the nine years we were there. Driving home I felt truly blessed.
When people talk to me of Muslims the image that comes to my mind is not of a bearded terrorist. It is of a young Australian woman in a head scarf whose house I entered into in a state of unknowing and left in a state of grace. For her role in helping me on my journey, I give thanks to God – whatever we may both choose to call him.
I’d selected the hymn, God is love let heaven adore, after I’d selected the theme but before I’d decided what to say. As we sang it in church just before I preached I was struck by just how closely its theme’s mapped on to mine.