A new language ...

Created on Tuesday, 31 December 2013

... for speaking to each other (kindly)

A series of Thoughts of the Day being broadcast on Premier Christian Radio's Inspirational Breakfast programme at 0730 this week (30 December to 3 January). Each day's Thought is being posted here daily (holidays allowing).

1. Intolerance

One of my earliest reflections on how we speak about each other was in church. It was the time of what, in my line of work, is now called ‘the Rushdie Affair’. I wanted to know then why UK Muslims had been so outraged by the book (The Satanic Verses) … so I read it. This didn’t really help as I knew very little about Islam and didn’t know how important the Prophet Muhammad was to Muslims. This was obviously on my minister’s mind too. He chose to say from the pulpit that if Muslims didn’t like it here they should go home. I was shocked, and maybe that was the beginning of my Christian-Muslim journey. Needless to say, in the church I went to there was no scope for challenging the preacher. It is only in the last couple of years that I have used his bigotry as an example of what we don’t want to hear from our leaders.

And yet … what do we say? We have the example of the Apostle Paul’s intemperate language, even Jesus called people ‘vipers’. Largely they were talking to their own people at times of risk and tension. This is not the way for us to talk to, or about, our neighbours. But … the preacher put his finger on the key issue, this is not a Christian country in the way that it used to be. We are a diverse, multi-faith society, we can follow the old ways and use the old language of negativity towards others or accept that God has brought us all together. We are neighbours and ‘love your neighbour’ is our ‘mission’. If your neighbour is a Muslim, or a Sikh, then you know how this works. Being a neighbour is a reality not a remote challenge. Where we aren’t living alongside each other we may feel more challenged. How do we do this? Yet, we don’t ask this about the vast majority of society who have no religion, who don’t go to church or share our interest in what the Bible says. We take it for granted that we have sufficient common ground even if faith is a difficult area. People of other faiths also live in the same society, we may not know how much common ground we have until we talk. One good Muslim friend was educated in India, by Scottish missionaries. He even quoted the Bible at the Forum’s launch, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).

Listen to the broadcast here


2. First Steps

One of my friends was looking for a challenge, something new, outside his comfort zone. I recalled that a few years previously, in 2005, on the lesser known 21/7 (attempted London bombings), I walked from Bush House in the Strand to Finsbury Park, as the tubes weren’t running. Next to Finsbury Park tube station is a mosque. I decided to go in and pray at the back, for peace and to express solidarity with the Muslim community, who were about to be blamed again for the actions of would-be terrorists. Meeting up with friends nearby afterwards I mentioned this to another friend who said, ‘you can just go in?’ I haven’t counted the mosques that I have entered unannounced and been welcomed warmly on many occasions. So I suggested that I take my friend to the mosque, he was uncertain but we went. Needless to say, we watched while a gathering of men prayed, it was a peaceful experience. We didn’t meet the imam, as we had hoped, having ‘booked’ our visit. We explained why we were there to the man who led the prayers and he was happy that we had come. Another peaceful encounter with British Muslims.

Yes, we don’t have to meet those who are different, in whatever way they are different. Nothing forces us to step outside our comfort zone and many of us don’t, I include myself. Yet we can’t be surprised if we talk about segregation in our cities, ‘parallel lives’, mutual suspicion and prejudices, like the preacher in yesterday’s thought. We’re responsible for the society that we create together. But we may also be outside our comfort zone if we are challenged by the question – ‘did you love your neighbour?’.

Maybe it starts with a smile, or sitting next to the obviously Muslim person on the tube. Or you could come and join us at one of our dialogue meetings in Whitechapel. Our neighbours are giving us the opportunity to show God’s love, and how can we do that if we don’t meet them? And as they respond we will feel God’s love too.

Listen to the broadcast here


3. Speaking to each other

It isn’t always easy speaking to others, sometimes our ego or prejudices get in the way, or we’re just shy. Yes, I’m speaking about myself. Reading the Gospels, Jesus spoke to everyone. I am currently writing a book on ‘Jesus our Role Model’, inspired by a friend, a pagan, if I was to label him. He wanted to know what it was about Jesus that was so important to me. It made me realise there was very little Christian reflection on Jesus as a person, unless I’m going to the wrong churches! As I reach the end of my writing quest I see him relating to everyone, he has some strong emotions and he is ready for the encounters, even the ones that take him by surprise. I am finding it much easier to talk to people, even strangers, including about Jesus.

It won’t surprise you that Muslims like to talk about Jesus, about what they believe or what Christians believe about him. Sometimes these conversations are a little pushy, but rarely unpleasant. I attended a talk given by my friend, an imam, a group of extremists, former members of Al-Muhajiroun were shouting all kinds of abuse at him, it was an internal conversation. When I spoke to them afterwards they were very respectful to me, I was surprised, though Islam teaches speaking well to others. Perhaps they were surprised that I was speaking to them.

A few years ago, following the launch of our Ethical Witness Guidelines, I began to think that there was important work that the Christian Muslim Forum could do on speaking, and relating to, each other. We gathered Christians and Muslims from around the country and came up with these pledges:

The inspiration for this initiative was partly this verse - ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.’ (1 Peter 3.15,16) But also this one, ‘Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.’ (Qur’an 16.125)

Listen to the broadcast here


4. Sharing the Love, 2 January 2014

A turning point for me was launching Islam Awareness Week 2012 (and yes, I do think there should be a Christian Awareness Week), on the subject of ‘Love’.

Tina Turner provides today’s text and for my speech in March 2012:

What's love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken

Love is risky. It makes me wonder – how many hearts, and other things, have Christians and Muslims broken over the last two thousand years? I know that if people were more aware of Islam there would be more love.’

Ignorance, and human interest in bad news, breeds fear and prejudice, with knowledge comes recognition, even love. For many of us, motivated by love, we have difficulty understanding how people would see Christians and Muslims and think anything other than love is on the agenda.

138 Muslim thinkers wrote a ‘love letter’ to Christians a few years ago:

‘We invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love ….’

They even respond to Tina! ‘Love of God in Islam is part of complete and total devotion to God; not a mere fleeting, partial emotion.’ I expect most people are familiar with Jesus’ words – ‘love God … and your neighbour as yourself’. If we don’t love others it is self-destructive – bad karma - though we may not always realise it.

Jesus said: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’

Some Christians ask me – Why do you spend so much time with Muslims? Are you keen to water down your own religion and want others to do so? I always reply – No, I want to reach out in love to Muslim sisters and brothers, to be a good neighbour. It’s ironic that I live in an area where there aren’t any Muslim neighbours. But thinking, like a good Methodist, of John Wesley, who said ‘the world is my parish’, I am committed to my Muslim neighbours in London, Luton, Leicester and Bradford.

Listen to the broadcast here


5. In the ‘real’ world, 3 January 2014

I went to a different church last week. I’d been walking past a small chapel where I live for years and thought, ‘there’s no point wondering what goes on here, I should go and find out.’ Meet some new Christian neighbours. I felt a little at home. I began this week’s thoughts in a small chapel, they even had the same hymnbooks that I first used 35 years ago! They didn’t know who I was and I don’t think they get many visitors, but I told them that I was one of their neighbours from a nearby street. I had a warm welcome from the members before and after the service. But the atmosphere changed when I told them what I do for a living!

It used to be that when I told people I was a taxman, before joining the Christian Muslim Forum, it would be the end of the conversation. Now people either say, ‘Cool!’ or it starts an argument!

I really did my best with my new Christian friends, I even referred to the sermon and said that I worked for an organisation that lived out loving our neighbours. But they would have been much happier if I wasn’t working with Muslims, or if I was evangelising them. Clearly they thought I was compromised, cue lots of searching questions. It was a useful, but difficult, experience. I hadn’t been in that kind of environment for a while and the feeling of being ‘wrong’ was not pleasant after I had committed to feeling positive about worshipping in another tradition where I no longer fitted.

I encounter this much more online, having brief text exchanges with those who have nothing good to say about Islam and are confrontational towards Muslims and positive inter faith initiatives. Sadly, some of these comments are from those who call themselves Christian. Like my neighbours in the chapel they see no place for dialogue, only for provocative descriptions of Islam which, for all but the most patient and saintly, are conversation closers, rather than openers.

What hope is there for us if we don’t talk. It allows dark thoughts to breed. Yes, there is a better way, the way of dialogue, as practiced by Jesus and the Apostle Paul. There’s no getting away from the fact that some people follow different religions, or none. A few people, like me, decide to convert. Most stay where they are and it is up to us to keep talking, build good relationships and show that we value our neighbours enough to listen to them.

Listen to the broadcast here


Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum