A Letter to My Church about Islam and the Current Crisis
Dear St Andrew’s,
I want to talk briefly about Islam and the awful events of recent weeks.
Speaking about the Faith of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is difficult, complicated by at least two factors. First, as with Christianity, there is a huge spectrum of belief and practice in the Islamic world. The five pillars of Islam are shared by all adherents (confession of faith, daily prayer, gifts to the Mosque, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca) but, beyond this core, the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi see things quite differently.
The second problem has to do with us. Westerners tend to impose their own imaginings onto Islam. Following September 11 years ago, and again more recently, people seem to break into two camps: those that rush to condemn Muslims per se as violent and poisonous, and those that defend Islam as a perfectly loving, non-retaliatory, democratic religion.
Both groups are a little ‘imperialistic’, imposing their own perspectives onto a tradition without letting that tradition be itself. The first group projects its fears and tribalism onto Islam. The second projects its liberal democratic views of ‘what a religion ought to be’ (mostly informed by the best bits of Christianity). The instincts of the latter group are probably nicer, but both are ultimately unwilling to listen to and understand this ancient faith.
I can’t give a balanced account of Islam in a brief News note. I do want to say two things. First, it is undeniable that, in certain contexts, the Quran sanctions the use of force to defend and promote the honour of Islam. And Muhammad himself was a highly successful military commander, inspiring the incredible conquests of the first caliph Abu Bakr. The peace created by early Islam was not unlike the ancient pax romana, the ‘peace of Rome’, where conquest was thought to be bring stability and unity to the world. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ terrorists in Syria and Iraq today are trying to recreate this ancient caliphate. They have a genuine religious tradition to draw upon.
That said, it is equally clear that most Muslims in the world today do not support the actions of IS. While it seems to be reported only in passing, many important Islamic scholars and imams around the world, including in Australia, have roundly condemned the Islamic State, declaring it ‘haram’, a powerful religious term meaning forbidden by Allah (‘halal’ meaning sanctioned/approved). While most of these religious leaders would accept the permissibility of military jihad under certain conditions, they do not accept the beheading of journalists in Syria, or random attacks on the streets of Australian cities.
I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney wish us no harm. They want what we want—health, safety, education, and a future for their kids. Those that are religiously observant—remember, many Muslims are nominal—are of course keen to see Islam spread throughout Australia. They naturally think sharia law is wiser than secular democracy (and this is an argument we may increasingly need to have). But they do not want to hurt us to achieve their ends. It is no cliché to say that the vast majority of Australian Muslims are law-abiding and peace-loving, just as it is also true that some of them find inspiration for violence in their sacred traditions. It is complicated!
Finally, whatever conclusions we come to about the technicalities of Islamic belief and practice, God’s true Word teaches us two highly relevant things for the current crisis. First, civil authorities have sanction from the Creator to use force to protect the innocent and bring justice. In Romans, Paul writes, “For the one in authority [speaking of Roman authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). I support the actions of our government, the military, and our State and Federal police. Let’s join together in praying for them at this time of heightened tension and risk.
In the same epistle, however—indeed, in the preceding chapter—the apostle insists that the Christian community itself has no share in the exercise of sanctioned force. Rather, believers have one course of action when confronted with opposition. They are to follow the Lord Jesus in enduring suffering, refusing to retaliate, and committing to love enemies. Paul writes:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath (Romans 12:12-19).
Paul is no doubt reflecting here on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). These things lie at the centre of the Christian life, for they are at the heart of the gospel of the One who endured a Roman cross for sinners.
In the end, I have a simple thing to say, and I feel a strong sense of God’s pleasure in saying it. Common sense and Christian faith urge us to shun both a naïve recasting of Islam as the mirror-image of liberal democracy, and a hateful projection of our own tribalism onto Australian Muslims. Instead, let’s go out of our way in the coming weeks and months to pray for the Muslims around us and to convey love and friendship toward them.
I commit to pray for every Muslim I see, and when I meet Muslims personally I will try to express friendship in Christ’s name. I gave it a go last week at Adelaide airport. I greeted a Muslim family, conveyed my fear that recent media coverage might make them feel under the microscope, and expressed my sincere welcome and friendship. They were taken aback, but the woman held her hand to her heart and said, “Thank you. That means so much to me!” The look on her face almost made me cry. I tried it moments later with my taxi driver and he laughed, “Oh no! I am a Hindu!” Still, you get the point!
We follow the Lord who bears the wounds of love and reconciliation.
St Andrew’s Roseville,
28 September, 2014