Since the UK vote to leave the European Union (#Brexit) there has been a horrific unleashing of racist and Islamophobic attacks around the nation. There are numerous reports of racist abuse against Polish people and other Eastern Europeans, and on Monday the Muslim Council of Britain compiled a list of over one hundred attacks on Muslims. The vote to leave, which was widely promoted as the way to stem immigration, seems to have legitimised open expression of bigotry and hatred to anyone of “foreign” extraction. I am frankly horrified at the hatred that emerged since the vote confirmed #Brexit. In a word my work as a Christian seeking to build bridges in a conflicted town and challenge division and hatred just got much harder.
It is significant that that work has just been highlighted today in a prominent Christian prayer guide for the Muslim World. 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World is published yearly to guide Christians in praying for Muslims over the month of the Ramadan fast. I said there:
“In a time where many are convinced that Islam and Christianity / western democracy will only ever clash, and images of modern day crusaders are called to mind, I’m determined to point to another way. Sadly, often Christian voices are quoted in support of a clash of civilisations. We must find another way? My Muslim friends know I am passionate about my faith, and respect me for it. They know I’d love to see them come to faith in Jesus Christ. But Christ will be the loser if Christians are known for hatred and fear.”
The decision to write a piece for a prayer guide that unapologetically calls for prayer for conversion of Muslims was hard but in the end clear. I wanted the work I do to challenge Christian attitudes to Muslims. How else to influence Christians than speak in a place they read and a language they understand, and in a topic they spend time on in prayer? As we now face such an outpouring of hatred I am sure that decision was right, even though some, I am sure, will misunderstand it.
Back to the UK’s #Brexit vote for a moment. We cannot accuse the official Leave campaign of being essentially racist, just as we cannot say concern about immigration is necessarily racist, but the campaign drew to itself all the racist and Islamophobic sentiment in the nation, not least through the work of Nigel Farage and UKIP as the alternative Leave campaign. The role of far right groups in the ferment of debate and trading of lies and accusations was clear. I know their voice, having been following it and challenging it for the past nine years, and I have seen way too much of it in the campaign over recent weeks.
Official Leave may not be responsible for this outburst of racism, but we must require that they denounce it, and take action to ensure anyone giving space to such views is given no space as they somehow set about governing the nation.
In the USA we face the possibility of a Trump presidency with way too many accepting the polarity of the bipartisan American system as justification for endorsing him. Many church leaders are accepting this, some seem to even love it. The evils of his campaign it seems are just accepted as par for the course.
As a Christian though I want to address and challenge another source of intolerance that has fuelling division in our nation's. That was the reason I agreed to write for 30 Days. The voice of significant numbers of Christian leaders, many in the USA but to be found everywhere, so often finds its way into the rhetoric of the far right and Islamophobes. I find it deeply upsetting to hear the name of Christ identified with their 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, labelled extremist hate preachers, saddens me deeply. Yet I understand why it's done.
I'm not accusing the majority of Christian leaders of hatred. Most speak from a passion for their 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 somehow some allow that passion for their Christian faith to express itself in a view of Islam, and often of 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 they love Muslims it is surely reasonable to expect what they 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. For a long time that was my world. 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 some years I gave international leadership to some areas of training, including language and 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 their love and commitment to sharing the love of Christ, but I know also how their 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 called The Reconciliation Walk. It took 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 was a part of my journey to refocusing my work, as I saw the impact peacemaking could have. 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. But sadly the attack on the Twin Towers on 9.11 changed all that. 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 the need for making peace in the name of Christ. However I often felt very out of place. YWAM often has a very strong American culture and presence, and 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 revenge. As my journey continued it opened up new tensions, and 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 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. As difficult as I found YWAM leaders voice to be on some matters, I had and still have dear friends among them, and I owe them much. I spent much of my working life with them. I grew up in Christian ministry there. 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 them. That still stands. I've often not spoken of my past because I don’t want to be associated with criticism of them. I only speak today because I want people to know them to be people of integrity. And I want them to think over what I have learned.
These past nine years, and especially the seven years in a town deeply impacted by the rise of the far right English Defence League, with all its associated hatred and evil, have 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. In the UK, for the sake of our nation, we must walk forward into an unknown future we personally didn't choose, along with people we profoundly disagree with. And while doing so we must confront the evils present on the fringes of the #Brexit campaign, and champion a truly just and fair inclusive multicultural society.
My American friends, especially Christians, I challenge you most strongly to confront the evils of intolerance, hatred, bigotry that are foundational to the Trump presidential campaign, and disarm the fear that drives it. They are not worthy of being associated with the Prince of Peace.
In conclusion, our world post the #Brexit decision and facing a possible Trump presidency needs a lot of love to challenge the evil that is being unleashed. Christians must be a key part of that. I'm signed up for that, and I hope more are after reading my piece in 30 Days.