On Ramadan, Reconciliation and Being Right

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.

1 Comment

  • Dave Andrews says:

    Good on you Aleem.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    Recently I have attended the funerals of some of my dear friends.
    I have reflected on the fact that I’m closer to the end of my life than to the beginning.
    And I wondered if tonight were the last night I got to speak with you…what would I want to say?
    I’m sure I would want to share with you is what I have come to believe is the heart of the gospel.
    The longer I live, the less I believe, but the little I believe in, I believe in more and more. And that little I believe in more and more is that the heart of the gospel, its very essence, its soul, is love.
    • I believe God is love and that we are made by love, with love, for love.
    • I believe that Jesus embodies God and incarnates God’s love in his life.
    • Jesus calls us to love God and to love like God in whose likeness we are created
    • Jesus shows us how we can really, truly, and sincerely love others as we love ourselves, including not only neighbours, but also strangers, not only our friends, but also our enemies.
    • And, in Jesus, we see, in the end, love is not in vain, love triumphs over hate, and love wins.
    Jesus said ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matt.22:38-39) This is the law of the universe. Paul got the message. He said ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ (Rms.13:8) ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rms.13:10).
    Jesus said ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’(Matt.5:43-45) Paul shows he got the message of Jesus when he said; ’Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all… if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.(Rom.12:14-21)
    It was said of Jesus that ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. (Jn.13:1) And Jesus said ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’. (Jn.15:12) Paul extolled the qualities of this love. He said: ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends’. He said: ‘Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1Cor.13:1-13)
    Given the fact that the heart of the gospel of Jesus, its very essence, its soul, is love, I believe it has been a total unmitigated disaster for the religion, founded in his name, that the word ‘love’ is not mentioned, not even once, in the creeds, which are the founding documents of Christianity. Framed by belief about Jesus, without reference to the love of Jesus, Christianity has brought about a brutal litany of crusades and slaughter, inquisitions and torture and terrible sexual abuse
    All my life I have done my best to help Christians recover the gospel of love preached by Jesus. Christians imbibe theology through music, so I have tried to promote this gospel of love in song.
    All the songs that I’ve written, that we sing, explicitly and repeatedly promote this gospel of love.
    1
    ‘The secret of the universe is in the heart of God.
    The secret of heaven on earth is in that heart of love.
    Love that breathes reality into our sacred dreams,
    Stirs forgotten memories, and sets our spirits free.
    Don’t trust much in religions. Don’t trust much in creeds.
    Only believe in the love of God. God’s love is all we need.
    Don’t trust much in politics. Don’t trust much in schemes.
    Only believe in the love of God. God’s love is all we need.’
    2
    ‘God’s love is deep, God’s love is high,
    God’s love is earth, God’s love is sky,
    God’s love is yours, God’s love is mine.
    For all of time All of time.
    God’s love is good, God’s love is kind,
    God’s love is bread, God’s love is wine,
    God’s love is yours, God’s love is mine.
    For all of time. All of time’.
    3
    ‘Jesus Christ was not a Christian. Didn’t want his own religion.
    But showed us how to live life beautifully.
    Took the path of patient service. In pursuit of love and justice.
    Then he turned to us and said “Come follow me”.’
    4
    ‘Wanna give my love – one stretch at a time
    Wanna give my love – one stretch at a time
    Soothing pain with hands of grace.
    Strengthening justice – spreading peace.
    Wanna give my love – one stretch at a time.
    Wanna care for the rich, care for the poor.
    Care for the stranger knocking at the door.
    I wanna care for myself – and everybody else.’
    The only apostle who was not killed when he was young was John. When he was as an old man, they used to carry him into the congregation on a stretcher and ask him to preach the gospel to them, and they say the gospel that he preached was simply a gospel of love. He’d say:
    ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.’ (1Jn. 4:18) ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (1 Jn.4:7-8) ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us’.(1 Jn.4:10) ‘We love because he first loved us.(1Jn.4:19) ‘Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 Jn.4:11) ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’ (1 Jn.3:17-18) ‘No one has ever seen God; (but) if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.’ (1 Jn.4:12)’
    And all I can say is Amen!

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