As many of you know, I love the start of the school year - it is such a time of possibilities, and it is always wonderful to stand at the school gate these first few days and hear the holiday stories. As a result, my first newsletters of the year are typically especially up-beat ones. They are also where I introduce the themes we will be exploring with the school - which this Gallipoli Centenary Year will be teamwork and mate-ship.
However, this has been a strange summer. Martin Place, and the ongoing atrocities in Syria and Iraq; the bombings in Pakistan, Nigeria and the Yemen; the incidents in France; and now the news that two Japanese citizens have been taken hostage have appalled me. More importantly than that though, they have also clearly disturbed a number of our students, who are asking some searching questions. For that reason, I want to postpone my reflection on the theme, and speak, at least briefly, about how we should respond when one of our children expresses concern and confusion.
This won’t make for the lightest of newsletters, but I hope you will bear with me. The first thing I would say is, we cannot address our children’s fears if our understanding goes no further than the news headlines. I would therefore strongly recommend we read articles like John Dickson’s “A letter to my church about Islam,”1 or Mohammed El-Ieissey’s “This is a war on all of us, Muslims included.”2 I’d also very strongly recommend The Jubilee-Centre’s “Christian responses to Islam, Islamism and ‘Islamic terrorism’”3 in which my old mentor, and Middle-Eastern expert, Colin Chapman makes the crucial point that:
“If we are to avoid giving false testimony against our neighbour (Exodus 20:16), it is essential that Christians should allow Muslims to define themselves and therefore recognise that most Muslims would want to distinguish between ‘Muslims’, ‘Islamists’ and ‘Muslim/ Islamist terrorists’.” … Just as twenty years ago Western Christians “needed
to distinguish between Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the IRA.”
Then I would suggest that we look again at the Christianity that is the heart of Emmanuel. I suggest, that, in this season of Epiphany, we need to ask ourselves why St. Matthew felt it was essential that he recorded the visit of the Magi - a group from a country (modern day Iraq or Iran) at enmity with both Israel and Rome and whose religion and world-view was radically different from that of Israel? It’s as if Matthew wanted to emphasise that the tolerance encapsulated in Jesus’ life was central to the hope and salvation Jesus offered us.
It wasn’t just Matthew who seemed to want to make this point. Luke, in Acts, was at pains to document the story of Peter and Cornelius, and Paul famously insisted that: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus would also have been appalled at the horrors in our news. In fact Jesus, like many of His followers (think, say, Martin Luther King Jnr) openly stood up against injustice and violence. However, in so doing He never resorted to the brutality of the unjust or the violent. Nor did He turn his back on those in need - not even if they disagreed with Him. Rather, He displayed a tolerance based on listening and dialogue (see, for example, the story of Nicodemus) on sharing the everyday with others (the Samaritan woman) and on sharing hospitality Zachaeus.) In other words, He was one of the original #Illridewithyou tweeters.
Such tolerance requires skill - listening, dialogue, empathy skill. It requires integrity and courage. And it requires the flexibility of mind to both condemn the horrific behaviour we’ve seen on the news, and at the same time embrace our Muslim neighbours who, as El-Ieissey’s article makes clear, are equally appalled, and are feeling increasingly isolated.
In saying this, I need to emphasise that I am not, in any way supporting the terrorists. However, if we can help our children understand that the vast majority of the Muslim community, like us, is deeply hurt by this barbarity, and that as John Dickson reports “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,” we will certainly begin to help them deal with their confusion and concern.
If we can teach them the skills needed to be genuinely, constructively tolerant, and also teach them the courage and integrity to live that tolerance, we will be doing them, and our communities, a huge favour.
1 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-30/dickson-a-letter-to-my-church-about-islam/5779590) or http://www.johndickson.org/blog/a-letter-to-my-church-about-islam-and-the-current-crisis