I posted the first part of this letter yesterday, challenging the church to give a lead in challenging the rise of hatred towards various groups since the Presidential election concluded. You can find it here. I now want to focus on anti-Muslim hatred, one of its sources and my particular relationship to that, and my building strong working relationships with the Muslim community.
Most of my recent work has been in relation to the Muslim community, and I want to address and challenge one source of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been fueling division in our nations. That was the reason I agreed to write for 30 Days. The voice, the ideas, the writings, the videos of significant numbers of Christian leaders, many in the USA but to be found everywhere, so often finds its way into the arguments of the far right and Islamophobes. I find it deeply upsetting to hear the name of Christ identified with those ugly words and evil actions. To see Christian leaders being quoted by leading voices on the far right, and even at times those same leaders endorsing far right activity, makes me very, very sad. To find the name of Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrificing love was poured out for all, associated with hatred is unfathomable. To see Christian leaders labelled islamophobes, extremist hate preachers, saddens me deeply. Yet I understand why it's done.
I'm not accusing you who are mainstream Evangelical Christian leaders of hatred. I know most of you speak from a passion for your faith, a deeply faithful view of the scripture, and a desire to see those who are not Christian discover the love of Christ. I understand, admire and share that. Yet some of you allow that passion for your Christian faith to express itself in a view of Islam and Muslims that is deeply unloving. I won't go here into the intricacies of “Is the Biblical God the same as Allah?” or examine the way Muslims come to faith in Christ. All important but they don't actually matter when we are addressing hatred. In a nutshell, when Christians say we love Muslims it is surely reasonable to expect what we say sounds like love for Muslims, and perhaps more importantly for it to be associated with actions that show it. And that's the problem. It so often doesn't. And when people of evil intent pick up those Christian voices they have ready fuel for their fires of hateful bigoted words, and worse, their actions. The preaching of love somehow finds itself associated with hatred.
Some will say I'm being naïve in my approach to Christian leaders. I know I’m not. Christian leaders may question my credentials for making these charges. For a long time yours was my world. Even many who work with me now will not know that for some 25 years, until 2007, I was a missionary, working with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). YWAM is an international evangelical and charismatic missionary organisation working in most places around the world, including the Muslim world. For nearly a decade I gave international leadership to some areas of training, including language, culture and intercultural relations. I stepped down from that leadership role in 2002-3 to focus on peacemaking and reconciliation, a journey that led to my leaving the mission a few years later. There is much I could say of that journey, some for another time perhaps, but for now my focus is primarily the voice of Christian leaders towards Muslims. I know about it because it was my world. I know your love and commitment to sharing the love of Christ, but I know also how your voice can so easily sound very different.
I’ve always been sensitive to the mismatch that is evident too often between the intention of the messenger and the perception of the hearer. Voices in the Christian and missionary community often rang alarm bells in my head, but I sought to do all I could toward changing that from within. For a while I was convinced change could happen. For several years in the mid to late 1990’s I supported and occasionally participated in a project that sought to help Christians rethink their relationship with the Muslim World. Many YWAMers participated in the walk and it profoundly impacted some.
The Reconciliation Walk carried a message of apology for the crusades to the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East over the 900th anniversary of the First Crusade, ending in Jerusalem in July 1999. Very simply in the crusades the cross of Christ was turned upside down and became a sword. The symbol of the love of Christ became a weapon of hatred and death. How that happened is one of the great tragedies of Church history, and has left a legacy to this day. Too many times Muslim leaders greeted our message with the words, “What's taken you so long? We knew love was the message of Jesus Christ, we just didn't understand what had become of Christians.” I remember one leader of a radical Islamic political party saying to me with tears in his eyes, “Truly you are a son of God.” I looked puzzled. He said it again. He then said, “The trouble with you Christians is you forgot the words of Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
That experience and others like it were a key part of my decision to refocus my work. I saw the impact peacemaking could have in demonstrating Christian faith. The journey of reconciliation changed me. I saw a different way of relating to Muslims. That was true for many. I had hope that the way of reconciliation could change the approach many evangelical and charismatic Christians had to Muslims.
Sadly the attack on the Twin Towers on 9.11 changed all that. The image of those planes driving their way into the Twin Towers seared itself in the American psyche in the days after that fateful September day. It was not long before strident angry attitudes towards the Muslim world became more dominant. Yet personally my only desire the day after those horrible events was to go with friends for a meal in Bury Park, Luton, surrounded by Muslims, and treat them like the friends I knew them to be.
Those same attacks simply underlined for me, and friends on the journey with me, the need for making peace in the name of Christ. However I often felt very out of place. Too often I found that the simple way of peace at the heart of the teaching of Jesus was lost in the clamour that was driven by fear and that so easily looked like and indeed became revenge. As my journey continued it opened up new tensions. By early 2003 with a new direction, as well as being increasingly uneasy at the views of those around me, I knew I had to step down from leadership which I did finally in early 2003. My decision was confirmed for me at my last leadership team meeting. I mentioned to a minibus full of leaders that I'd been on the million person “Stop the War” march in London against the Iraq war. The silence was deafening.
I sought to forge a path for peace and reconciliation in the mission, but it soon became clear it wouldn't work. Put very simply, too often my colleagues were doing things, saying things I quite honestly felt I had to apologise for. I left YWAM positively in early 2007 to pursue that same call based at St Mary's Luton, the town centre church where we already worshipped. I've been there ever since, and that's where my work in Luton has developed from. It's been an amazing journey, and when it began I honestly had no idea what would happen!
I want to underline how in many ways it saddens me to write like this about this journey. Among those reading this will be YWAM leaders. As difficult as I found your voice to be on some matters, I had and still have dear friends among you, and I owe you much. I spent much of my working life with you. I grew up in Christian ministry with you. I was believed in, encouraged, and given a wealth of opportunity. There were challenges but that would be true anywhere. On leaving I made a commitment to myself and close friends not to speak ill of the mission or its leaders. That still stands and I believe I’ve been true to that commitment. Many who know me now won’t know of my past simplybecause I've often not spoken of it because I don’t want to be associated with criticism of you. I speak now because like so many other American evangelicals I want to ask you to be a voice for the vulnerable in your society at this time.
Many of you will tell me that what we are seeing is the predictable outworking of the clash of civilisations between the Islamic World and the Christian West that Samuel Huntingdon predicted. To be honest at times it has seemed to me that Huntingdon’s thesis was not a theory but rather the script. I am very familiar with the idea. These past ten years I have worked in a town where two extremes have sought to make it the script to the drama they are enacting. On the one side a small group of al-Muhajiroun extremists from the Muslim community connected with extremist preacher Anjem Choudary. On the other the far right English Defence League, founded by Luton resident Tommy Robinson in 2009, who have taken their street movement with all its associated hatred and evil around the UK.
As Christian and Muslim community leaders in the face of the emerging conflict we committed in 2009 to not to allow ourselves to be pulled apart by the extremes but to hold the centre. We have defied the narrative of inevitable conflict and created our own story largely around being good neighbours and simple acts of kindness. The journey has deeply impacted the way I think about life and my faith. That is the basis for what I write in 30 Days. I've seen how working like that has broken down barriers, and I can be passionate about my faith, share it freely with Muslims, even long for them to know it themselves – and still be at the forefront of challenging hatred towards them!
In a day when the evils of hatred and bigotry are proving so destructive, it is time for Church leaders and leaders in mission to live and work in ways that bring peace to our conflicted communities. It is time for the voice of Christian leaders to clear up the ambiguity that is there in their statements about Islam and let love and grace look just like love and grace. Our testimony is the teaching of Jesus on peace works!
For us in the UK, for the sake of our nation, and in obedience to our faith, we must walk forward into an unknown future. It may be that we personally wouldn't choose to live along with people we profoundly disagree with. However whatever we think and whatever future policy around immigration it’s a reality we cannot change. We must confront the evils present on the fringes of the #Brexit campaign, and champion a truly just and fair inclusive multicultural society. As we do so integration and all the anxieties we face will be dealt with.
My American friends, especially Christians, I challenge you most strongly to confront the evils of intolerance, hatred, bigotry that has emerged from the Trump presidential campaign, and which now threatens to settle as the norm in your nation. As Christians you have a faith that can disarm the fear that drives hatred. You must. Hatred, Fear and bigotry are not worthy of being associated with the Prince of Peace.
1 John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. I challenge you to walk in that, and allow enemies to become friends, however much you disagree with them.