Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Peace on earth and goodwill to all people?

17 Dec 2018

Greg Smith wonders how the Christmas message of peace really works out in practice.

I am writing this blog in the week following the centenary celebrations of the 1918 Armistice, but with a view to publication in the week before Christmas. Inevitably this leads one to reconsider the relevance of the angels’ chorus as popularised in Edward Sear’s carol, “It came upon a midnight clear”.

With ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and with growing tensions between the superpowers, the realism and the longing of his third verse continues to resonate today:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

In recent weeks I have attended interfaith events and church discussion groups, as well as engaged in social media discussions, where the theme has been: “Is Islam intrinsically violent?” On the anniversary of the end of a war where the “Christian” nations of Europe sent out millions of armed young men to slaughter each other there is a degree of irony in Christians posing the question. Furthermore, given the diversity of both faith communities across the globe, and the multiple ways in which religious texts and traditions can be interpreted it is probably a mistake to claim any aspect as “intrinsic”. Christian writers such as Tim Dieppe of Christian Concern may delve into the foundational texts and early history of Islam and conclude there is a thread of coercion and conquest, which contrasts with the pacifist and suffering servanthood themes of the Gospels and New Testament church. However, a secular or Muslim reader of the Hebrew Scriptures, and indeed the apocalyptic texts in the Gospels and Revelation, might well conclude that Christianity is also intrinsically violent. The current, difficult relationships within and between the faith communities and the nations of the world are probably better dealt with in the realism and messiness of everyday politics, rather than treating theological differences as the essential cause.

The 2016 film “The Sultan and the Saint” written and directed by Alex Kronemer relates the story of St. Francis of Assisi’s journey across the frontiers of Christendom to Egypt at the time of the Crusades. The publicity suggests that this encounter, “can model anew how Christians and Muslims can meet one another in dialogue while also providing a medium to cultivate greater understanding, in a present day when heightened global tensions and angry and debasing discourse bear eerie similarity to the setting in which Francis and al-Kamil met.” While critics have questioned the historical accuracy of the film—and set about debunking the myth of St. Francis as a modern ecumenist on the grounds that Francis was engaged in a mission of evangelism rather than peace negotiation—there is power and hope in the simple, if perhaps naïve, idea that friendship and vulnerability can build relationships and reconciliation across the deepest social gulfs. Indeed, without that hope there would not be much point in anyone celebrating Christmas at all.

In the contemporary Christian world, the spirit of both the Crusaders and that of Francis are still to be found. In a newly published paper, based on a recent survey of UK evangelicals about attitudes to other religions and interfaith activity, I present data which suggests that the large majority tend to the Franciscan view. They are firm in the opinion that there is no way to God except through Jesus Christ, and that the good news and call to follow him must be presented to all people of all faith backgrounds and none. But for the most part they wish to live in peace and friendship with their Muslim neighbours, to allow them to worship and pray in freedom, and to work as allies on certain issues and projects where there are shared values.

Among a minority of British evangelicals—and, one would suspect, among the vast majority of white, US evangelicals who support Trump—the Crusader spirit still dominates. Here, Islam is seen as the enemy: in apocalyptic terms as the beast, to be confronted and destroyed by the saints and the nations whom God has appointed to wreak vengeance. In the more extreme interpretations of Biblical prophecy, Crusaders sometimes conflate and confuse Islam with Russia and the European Union, or the powers and principalities of globalisation personified in Barack Obama and George Soros. Sometimes, an uncritical pro-Israel form of Zionism is tinged with anti-Semitism, while populist politicians such as Trump, Le Pen, Orban and Farage are anointed with Messianic status. Mainstream media is considered as fake news and the global establishment is seen as restricting freedom of speech. The contempt of court case involving Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) is cited as a prime example of where “Christians” are not allowed to say what they believe (“the truth”) about Islam.

This presents a dilemma for those of us who adopt the Franciscan approach. We do not want to restrict freedom of expression and we may have to admit that some of the Crusader critique of Islam is sincerely held opinion that does not intend to incite hatred of Muslims. Yet we can only concur with Ben Ryan of Theos, who describes this form of politics as, “Christianism: A crude political ideology and the triumph of empty symbolism,” which has little to do with the faith and discipleship inspired by the Prince of Peace. We need to remember also that most Crusaders supporting these sorts of freedoms want permission to say and write hateful things about Muslims generally, using social media to target an already prejudiced and ignorant audience, and aiming to whip up prejudice and hostility against a particular ethno-religious group. And we dare not forget that in recent weeks we have also marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when light was taken out of the world.

We are, however, called to trust that, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

A happy Christmas to you all.

More blogs on religion and public life…

We have already Brexited ourselves by Chris Baker

Healing Division and Building up Common Life: Community Organising and the Church of England by Jenny Leigh

Sacred Secularity by Stephen Edwards

Remembering Utopia? by John Reader

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