Our reading: Luke 10:25-37 – If Jesus were with us today he may make the hero of story the Good Muslim)
We are all reeling from the events that have shaken our city and our nation just two days ago. 49 innocent people, men women, and children shot and killed as they gathered in their sacred spaces to pray to God the merciful. Numerous others wounded physically and mentally. Scenes of horror played out before their eyes. For all of us there are tears, confusion, angers, and a deep feeling of sickness. How could this happen in our peaceful part of the world? We are used to hearing of acts of terrorism but they are always out there somewhere, disconnected, happening to faceless others. It’s easy and actually natural to let that be someone else’s problem. But now it’s on our doorstep, and I might say with a new twist.
We are used to associating radical acts of terror with extremist Islamic groups. The media have enhanced this. Recent research in the United States has shown that actually in last 10 or so years the that only about 12% of what may termed terrorist attacks were perpetrated by Islamic extremists, but if Muslims are behind it the news stories increase by over 300%. I bet most of us thought that if a terrorist attack were to occur in New Zealand it would be Muslim based. How wrong we were – it turns out the victims of the attack were all Muslims. The very first Muslims in New Zealand were an Indian family living not far from here in Cashmere, and since then numbers living here have increased to I’m guessing about 5,000 people. Every one of them is deeply affected and will know others who have died or who are injured. There is a deep sense of being targeted and fear of more killings. Our niece who is Muslim lives with us and she is now lives in fear to appear in public wearing her hijab in case she is abused or targeted in some way.
Our first step must be to reach out to Muslim neighbours friends and workmates and offer love, sympathy, and support. This is a time to get rid of labels and see common humanity. Listen to the grief and the hurt. There are no simple rational explanations. A deep evil has been unleashed in our midst. We stand together against all kinds of hatred and we value people as people. We abhor violence and especially violence perpetrated in the name of superiority and cleansing of our society of any racial or religious group. There are people and ideologies in our midst that are deeply poisonous and toxic. These killings are not the work of a mad man, but the result of deeply held beliefs that are evil. We cannot stand idly by while people make racist remarks and while people drive up immediately after the killings and pronounce they are there to celebrate the deaths. There is a sickness in our midst that none of us are immune from. This is a time to celebrate common humanity, compassion, kindness. This is a time when if you see a Muslim woman wearing hijab to say we stand with you, we feel for you. This is a time to reach out across whatever boundaries of inherited prejudice and misunderstanding separate us. We are brothers and sisters under God.
My experience is that every religion and every culture has something to offer us all as we seek to find true and good ways of living. Islam has been demonised in the popular mind and there are reasons for this. Radical Islam is not the true teaching of the Prophet. Simplistic demonising of any group is something Jesus stood against. He engages with a Syro-Phonician woman by a well, a Roman centurion with a sick slave, and even makes a dreaded Samaritan the hero of a story. If he told that story in our time he may well tell of the Good Muslim. We could go back into the Old Testament and draw out all sorts of characters who are not part of the chosen religion. Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, and many more outsiders, non Jews, who prove themselves more just and godly than the so called true religious folk. Jesus accepts people from other religious traditions and commands us to treat others with the respect we would want from them. When I explore with people what this might look like in practice and how should we then respond to others as followers of Jesus, typically they say things like “I would want them to respect my faith, show an interest in it and learn about it”. “I’d like others to look for the positives and points of agreement, and not to try and convert me”. My advice then as a follower of Jesus is to try and do likewise.
This requires listening, compassion, and honesty in recognising that we have differences but that these differences do not need to be unscalable walls of division and fear. We must and can keep looking for the good but also naming the things that divide. Sometimes we will have to agree to live with the divisions because there is no obvious solution, but we can do that with respect. One of these divisions when it comes to Islam is the different ways we look at scripture. Our Bible is written and put together by people who experienced God working in their lives. In this sense our Bible is a human product written in response to encountering the activity of God. It is not inerrant. This is a different way of understanding our scriptures from the literal view which is often found in Muslim understanding in which the words of the Quran are literally dictated by God through the prophet Mohammed or the Mormon understanding of the Book of Mormon which was transcribed by Joseph Smith from gold plates he was led to dig up in a field. Clearly this makes dialogue difficult, but never impossible.
I know Christian friends who will look at me sideways for saying such things. Didn’t Jesus say he was ‘the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father?’ (John 14:6) The implication is clear. If he is the only way, then while we might show respect to others, we inevitably must tell them they are deluded and wrong. Our path is the best and only way and without Jesus they are doomed.
John 14:6 of course had nothing to do with other faiths in it’s original setting. Jesus wasn’t addressing the question of interfaith dialogue. He was having a private discussion with his own disciples about issues of their own faith. He’s preparing the disciples for his death and departure and begins the chapter by saying ‘in my Fathers house are many rooms.’ We often take that to be talking about heaven but elsewhere in John’s gospel ‘my Father’s house’ refers to the temple. Jesus I think is saying that we will find God in many places in our journey of life and not just in one holy site. John is saying if you want to see God look at Jesus. If you want to know what matters to God look at Jesus. If you want to know what a God filled life looks like look at Jesus. I don’t think we are talking about some creedal statement about Jesus here but we are talking about a way of living. He is asking us to join him in the way of living that involves loving God, loving others, respecting others, and challenging the powers of evil that seek to destroy the life of our earth.
Marcus Borg, a theologian, tells of a visiting Buddhist teacher who was invited to preach at his church. The teacher chose as his text this very verse of John 14:6. He expounded on the importance of Jesus as the way for us to follow. He ended however with a little twist. This is the true way, but it is a way found in other religions and places as well.
I mentioned earlier we have a Muslim niece who lives with us and whom we value deeply. In fact I have three nieces and a nephew who are Muslim. I treasure their presence in our family and the richness they have brought us. We see many things differently as I would expect, and I believe they are treasured by God. I have never seen my role as converting them to the faith I hold so dear, but I do hope that I can challenge them to be better Muslims, as they challenge me to be a better Christian.
Police Commissioner Bush said of the actions and arrests on Friday: let’s not imagine the danger is over.
Rev Dr Keith Rowe active for many years in the promotion of Muslim-Christian relations reminds us the danger continues as long as we live in ignorance of the wisdom, dreams, and values of those who belong to other groups other than our own, and as long as we are content to have our lives shaped by bigotry and hatred.
I invite you to confront your ignorance and to take steps to build relationship with others who may be different. I urge you to have zero tolerance for any form of bigotry, scapegoating, and hatred. Silence in the face of evil is as good as feeding a fire with oxygen. The evil ideologies behind these killings which has been creeping into our society and politics for some time now needs to be named as deeply evil.
I am the way, the life, and the truth. Believe it – live it.
17 March 2019