Elvis had left the building. What would Jesus have done? Short answer. I have some idea.
Let’s go back a bit first. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on a muslim christian discussion evening here in the UK. I have been to this particular series of gatherings before. They are lively, energising, and at times somewhat scary affairs. This one was the scariest by far but not in connection with the subject of this blog post. What was much more interesting was the way a christian and a muslim handled an exchange of words and emotion.
At the Q&A time of the evening, both speakers having delivered their respective presentations, a christian brother took the opportunity to ask a question. The question would turn out to be a very important question. Great. The question would get lost in a moment of heat and pain. Not so great.
The christian brother was from Pakistan, not an easy place to be a christian believer these days. The evening discussion was about Peace – a perspective from Islam and Christianity. The Iman used the majority of his presentation time to present an elaboration of the external greetings of Islam – the ‘salaams’ (peace greetings) and how they are so integral to Islamic thought and the practice of every muslim.
Very interesting but a little thin to my christian heart and consciousness. He included very briefly a number of more important points about the deeper aspects of peace. I say more important because in my opinion they were far more significant. But perhaps not in his opinion. Otherwise he might have and maybe should have given more time to them. However I have to say in fairness to this dear Iman, he is not the most direct or forceful kind of communicator. He frequently appears to squander his time on background or at least secondary issues. So the ultimate shape of his Peace presentation was perhaps more a continuation of this personal limitation or style rather than there being little to say on the more substantial aspects of peace from an islamic point of view.
Notably, he did take a moment to say that in a real sense Islam is not a religion of Peace. He had obviously not been ‘madrass’ed’ (schooled) by George W. Bush, Tony Blair or other such ‘Islamic scholars’ of the recent age. I appreciated this honest statement and look forward to an elaboration of this in due time. He actually proposed that the subject of War be a topic for another evening. That could be interesting.
Anyway, towards the end of the night, the pakistani christian during his Q to the Iman’s A, asked a question about the place of salaams (peace greetings) in engagement with non-muslims. The Iman indicated that there was some discussion within Islamic authorities and scholarship around whether the traditional muslim greeting ‘As-salam alaykum’ should be extended to non-muslims. He concluded that there was only minimal support for it. Reciprocating that greeting when extended first from the non-muslim is another and more positive matter altogether. It’s interesting, I just googled the phrase ‘muslim greeting’ to ensure I got the spelling correct for this post and the internet is full of this very discussion – the yes’ and the no’s of whether a muslim should and can initiate this greeting to a non muslim. (How do you spell the plural of no? What is the plural of no?)
In asking this important question the christian indicated that he lives in Pakistan and where it is forbidden for muslims local to him to greet him with the islamic greeting. What did our speaker have to say in response to this? Good question. If only the exchange was that neat. Here’s the problem – the christian said please answer me honestly, I would ask that you give an honest answer (or words to that effect). There was a clear implication that the Iman might easily be dishonest in his answer. There is a thought that muslims appear to give different answers in different contexts – contexts of majority and power versus contexts of minority seeking power. How true this might be deserves further thought in another post. Well this request for honesty sent a shiver down people’s backs, which only intensifed when the Muslim speaker exclaimed disbelief and then grave offense that this undermining condition to a question should be made. He reiterated this and proceeded to provide a very general answer.
The answer was immaterial at this point. The damage was done. The christian brother had taken a moment to ask a very powerful and wholly pertinent question from a real world situation. Most christians in the room that night and most christians everywhere now, seem to know something of the turning tide against christians and all non-muslims in the middle east and wherever Islam has majority access to power. The christian attendees knew it, I knew it and certainly this questioning brother knew it. He knew it more than most because he lives it. Regrettably he blew it.
His pre-emptive slander clouded both the question and the answer. It reflected badly on him immediately. Later, with a couple of other christians we discussed how an important opportunity had been missed. We know how important it is to resist throwing grenades at others. We should avoid character grenades at all times. For the sake of Christ and for the practical reasons that became all too clear in the dust storm which concealed the power of the question and the emptiness of the answer. The reality is that such a question if left unpolluted actually acts as the grenade. The grenade of truth.
I was disappointed but I was also keenly aware that this christian brother spoke out of a place of pain, personal and corporate, on behalf of his community. He is probably only too aware of how we christians in the west often cozy up to many who in another incarnation within Islamic strongholds treat others very badly indeed. This particular evening he probably wanted to burst that bubble. He perhaps needed to. In a sense I can’t blame him. I increasingly felt for my pakistani brothers and sisters. Some may have been empathetic even a number of the muslims might have. This salaam issue is a symptom of a bigger malady of living in and under Islamic power. However, this Pakistani brother’s integrity-doubting insult had sucked the energy out of the room momentarily. If he wanted to and needed to burst a bubble, then his unworthy attribution only partly served that purpose. He lost sympathy through this gaffe. And it certainly didn’t help to get a fully orbed and engaged answer into the public space. Yes we got a technical answer. But Elvis had left the building. Everyone wanted to move on. Move on. Moment wasted. Matter over. Bad christian. Bad.
But as the days have rolled by I continue to revisit the offense caused and made much of, the offense given and not retracted and the pool of pain that destabilised our poor christian brother. He had a much ‘needed to be asked’ righteous question and regrettably delivered it with a thorny bush brought all the way from the inhospitable streets of Pakistan. Streets in which he is frequently treated as less than a second class human. The good news is that he really didn’t have to sneak that thorn bush in through customs and carry it deep within his chest all the way to the UK. How uncomfortable and heavy laden he must have been. He must have cut himself on this thorny thicket many times. We all do. Oh yes! we too have our own thorny thickets.
Hurt and bitterness, rebellion and hatred are the thickets of thorns we all carry with us wherever we go – like a wandering serrated shrubbery. Some thorns nourished by the insults of others but some growing rebelliously and freely after our own agressive cultivation. With us at all times, wherever we go. But again it does not have to be this way. Our great gardener – the head Gardener, Jesus, would have us take our thorny thickets to him. Thorns which speak of both our victimhood and our rebellious corruption. We are at one and the same time forever unwitting victims and willing rebels. The recipe mix varies.
Jesus would take those thorns from us. He would work in us a great trust in both his desire and ability to receive them to himself. Jesus said: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28. Jesus would see us shot of our thorny thickets and cultivate in us a great delight in seeing him destroy them on a burning heap outside Jerusalem in a pit called Gehenna.There he is identified as the crusher of the thickets and as one crushed by them. All at the same time.
We must, simply must, bring our burdens to Jesus for he cares for us. We must, simply must, say sorry for growing our own thickets and delighting perversely in their ability to harm others and self. We must, simply must, say sorry to our creator God for allowing the thorns of others, which are cast across our frail bodies, to turn us against them and Him. And having said sorry we must, simply must, decide to walk and live and die cultivating flowers and good green things for his glory and to the blessing of all. Turn away from the thickets and decide to live a life that honours the Great and Good Gardener Jesus.
So I have a prayer for this pakistani brother who acted as both victim and rebel in this complicated moment one monday night in a damp corner of London. I pray for his humbling, healing, and for a heart that beats love for an enemy. That was the key message and challenge that came from the christian speaker that night. Jesus says Love your enemy – pray for those who dispise you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Matthew 5:43-44.
There was an even more revealing moment at the end of evening which showed that muslims and christians are miles apart when it comes to the faith that we are called to live. No doubt we all fail miserably in our callings but what we are called into says a lot about both the essence of the faith. The Iman provided a fascinating response to an idea about cautiously returning muslim greetings. Because of some similarity of words in arabic for peace and death – in the days of or after Muhammed, some were intentionally using this similarity of sound to say ‘death be upon you’, instead of ‘peace be upon you’. But because it was not always clear which was intended, the muslim instead of saying Peace be upon you, would say ‘and the same be upon you’. There was a warn response in the room as people recognised the quickness of thought at work here and the clever repayment of whatever was gestured in the first place. Very sharp, very Muhammed, very now. But wake up people – not very Jesus. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[b] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. Matthew 5:38-39
So after expressing my prayer for my christian brother I do desire something else for him. Yes, his greatest need was healing, forgiveness and strengthening through the life, love, grace and mercy of the God the Father through the Spirit in Jesus the Son. The thing we thought he needed most that night turns out to be only of secondary importance – wisdom. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you James 1:5.
Wisdom would have asked that question and then stood quietly back and allowed the Spirit of God to be at work convicting and convincing hearts and minds in the room. So I have moved in my thinking toward seeing the ache and need for repentance and healing for my brother. Bad christian he was not. Unwise he certainly was.
But what of the Iman? Well he’s no saint. By this I mean he was not in fact Jesus or Christlike in any way to this pakistani christian man. He obviously spoke from real experiences of personal and corporate pain and opression. Yes he brought a thorny spike to a question and answer time but it was clear to me how that happened. I don’t suspect that this highly educated and psychologically intelligent Bangladeshi Iman knows nothing of the way Islamic power is wielded over non muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other similar countries.
The Iman was hurt. His integrity was bruised. His reputation was tarnished. All true. He stood up for himself and in doing so he shone a light on this small man with a righteous question and thorny spike in hand. What would Jesus have done if someone approached him with a fair question and a thorny spike? Someone hurting. Someone at a well perhaps. Someone in a garden. Someone on the path to Calvary. We do know what Jesus would have done because we know what he did do – he took the spike, loved the woman at the well and wore the crown of – you guessed it – thorns.
I am not Jesus but this real parable has spoken to me about absorbing insults increasingly for Jesus’ sake. I would do better to not exercise my rights as a primary repsonse – all for Jesus’ sake; moving toward those who hurt me for his sake. Sounds impossible. Well maybe but it is amazingly made possible becase he loved, lived, died and rose again and while he did it to honour, love and obey the Father, he also did it for my sake. He has done it for all our sakes if we repent of all our thorny business (our unrighteous blend of angry victim and rabid rebel) and by trusting in his substitutionary death on a bleak hillside after an agonising night in a garden. On the thrid day, from the tomb he arose into a new day, a new dawn. A new garden awaits all those who have left the thorny world east of Eden. A new garden with the Eternal Triune Gardener.