I recently attended a local Iftar dinner at which close to 400 people participated in an evening of delicious food and generous conversation. Muslims, Christians, agnostics, atheists, and likely every creed in between, gathered together seemingly with no other agenda than to celebrate, and be part of, community.
Raised in a multi-faith household, I am no stranger to the Islamic observance of Ramadan and the daily breaking of the fast, known as Iftar. As a child, I would often go to the Mosque on Friday (with my Dad) and attend the local Baptist Church on Sunday (sent by my Mum). Such activity seemed perfectly reasonable until I polled my peers and discovered that the diversity of my religious practice was unique.
In the context of my upbringing, my recent involvement in the Iftar should have been just another community event. Instead, it had an unexpected impact on me.
While my childhood taught me the wonder of diversity, as a teenager I came to realise that diversity does not necessarily equal inclusion. I learnt that I needed to protect my Muslim family and friends from too much exposure to my evangelical Christian network. One too many encounters in which the ‘well-meaning’ zeal of Christian friends and leaders translated to bigotry in the guise of ‘truth’ – prompted me to be very careful about the circumstances in which I brought those worlds together.
Accompanied by close to 20 people from the Christian faith community I am part of; those worlds came together at this Iftar event. Even so, I wasn’t plagued by past fears – my faith community is genuinely welcoming and inclusive. However, when these worlds collided I was surprised by an overwhelming sense of beauty, healing and sadness.
Beauty was evident in the diverse and inclusive expressions of community and discussion. Healing occurred through the reconciliation of my worlds. And I was filled with sadness at the reminder of both past and ongoing divisions of fear and hate that still exist between Christians and Muslims.
Fahim Khondaker, a friend and a Muslim, recently wrote an op-ed for the Brisbane Times in which he notes:
Society needs a common enemy to make sense of the complexities of the world and the irrationality of the evil that exists within it. For now, terrorists have successfully convinced many people that Islam is the most logical candidate. The collateral damage of this situation includes everyday Muslims. The ones who go about their day like any other person, trying to make something of their lives, working out how the NDIS will be funded in the federal budget, and enjoying some cricket or football (all variants) when it’s on the television… Any animosity which may exist between us is due to fear of the unknown and the manipulation of this fear by people with alternative agendas. As citizens, we can overcome this through engagement, we simply have to be courageous enough to reach out to one another with a smile. To paraphrase Trevor Noah, a South African comedian and author of Born a Crime, “hatred cannot survive contact”.
Sadly, hatred is carried into contact and alternative agendas abound. It is not easy to be a visible minority. Muslims, especially Muslim women who are brave enough to wear a hijab (modest head covering) in public, are a visible minority and an easy target of fear and hate. Many of the perpetrators of this hostility are Christians. And even if they are not the perpetrators, my experience is that many Christian leaders do very little to try and ease tensions, build bridges or seek reconciliation. I was once part of a Christian denomination in which a senior leader proudly defended his position on “hating Islam”. In contrast, Fahim refers to the “amazing” 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as ‘the love chapter’.
Jesus’ central command to his disciples is, love (John 15:9-17). Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy, love each other. And if we’re unclear about how that should look, Jesus shares numerous parables and demonstrates a love of the excluded, the outcast and the other. As Christians, love should define us. Yet, my observation and experience is that many Christians would rather be ‘right’ than do what Jesus commands.
A member of my faith community noted that five years ago he could never have conceived that he would have attended an Iftar, and if he had it would have only been to “stand outside in the shadows and pray against ‘false religion’.” This person has been on a profound journey in recent years, yet many other Christians remain entrenched in their versions of ‘certainty’ and ‘truth’. We often seem more intent on being “biblically accurate”, “doctrinally correct” and arguing points of scripture through our subjective lens and bias. We appear more intent on drawing arbitrary lines around who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. We seem more intent on pharisaical work than on doing what Jesus commanded us to do.
Writer, philosopher, journalist and theologian, G. K. Chesterton, said “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” The solution is to love as Jesus commands, but we are blinded to the problem – the determination to be right at all costs.
In a world of polarisation and division. In a world where people are still excluded because of their gender, sexuality and culture – Jesus offers us a better way. In a world looking for something to believe in, Jesus says believe in love, and John tells us that God IS love (1 John 4:8).
Love is the solution, but it is also (to quote John M. Perkins) “the final fight”. Love is frequently sidelined as little more than a nice idea. It is sidelined for times of peace in a world of ‘just war’. It is sidelined by greed and the quest for power. It is sidelined by demands to “bear Arms” and maintain constitutional rights.
Today, more Australians identify with ‘no religion’ than with Christianity. When Jesus’ command is consistently sidelined it is little wonder the relevance of the Christian faith is being questioned. For too long the Church has preached a gospel that is all about reconciling people with God, without recognising that this is intrinsically linked to reconciliation with humanity and creation. If the Church does become irrelevant, then it is because we have authored it. As Christians, we need to keep reminding ourselves of the centrality of love to who we are, and who we are called to be. Without it, we are noisy self-righteous Pharisees hurling flaming rocks of certainty at each other.
If I could sum up my reading of the Apostle Paul’s heart and intent behind 1 Corinthians chapter 13, in a single sentence, it would be this: I would rather be wrong than without love because love wins. Imagine if we applied that hermeneutic to everything Paul wrote, I doubt we would have so many arguments, denominations, and schisms. We might even begin to look like the body of believers that Jesus prayed would “be one” (John 17).
That too is my prayer for all Christians, that we would rather be wrong than without love. That we would seek reconciliation with all of humanity more than self-righteousness and that we would actively choose to love each other as Jesus did.
Aleem Ali is the National Manager of Welcoming Cities, the Founder & Director of For the Common Good and Lead Pastor of FOUND.