Last Sunday whilst talking over morning tea after worship at Riverstone UC, one of the ladies told me there were some people outside who wanted to speak to the minister. I wondered… That usually means a couple wanting to find out about a wedding or baptism or a person(s) wanting some help with food or money or some other crisis. I prepared myself for these eventualities. I was a little surprised to find two neat and pleasant young men address me in a very friendly manner and introduce themselves as representatives of the local Mosque at Marsden Park. They spoke about an upcoming event to focus on youth and our community. It is a Symposium called ‘Love for All – Hatred for None.’ They were going around to churches and inviting members and young people to come along to a dinner and to share around how to educate, de-radicalise and integrate people for the common well-being.
We talked for a bit and I asked how they were experiencing life, was there any difficulty they experienced? They said that they were going well and people were good. After we chatted for a few minutes they expressed their thanks and indicated it was the best reception they had received. Not understanding how things worked in Christian churches they had arrived through some services and weren’t welcome and couldn’t speak to the minister/priest. Others I suspect were rude or dismissive.
So I now have an invitation for members of our local churches to attend this symposium. I have discussed it briefly with a number of people but have felt that most are anxious not to go or be associated with Muslim people. I have heard all manner of adverse descriptions concerning Muslims and a few positive comments as well. So I wondered: ’Should we attend? Should I attend if possible?’ Some people indicate that to enter a Mosque would cause us to be unclean or defiled or some such notion. A Mosque or religious space of another faith is somehow evil. Others are cautious about participating in something that would get us off-side with God. Still others exhibit more suspicion and fear because it is an unknown space and unknown people. Of course we are all influenced by the extreme and negative media representations of Islamic faith through the terrorists and extreme fundamentalists in groups such as ISIS.
I wondered, to myself, what Jesus would think of and do with such an invitation? I cast my mind back to stories in our readings over the last few months and remembered how Jesus ‘crossed the lake’ to the Gentile/pagan side where it was unclean for Jews. More than that he wandered into a cemetery and touched a man who was out of his mind and ‘demon-possessed’. All of this was unclean and against Jewish culture and law – it was taboo and rendered Jesus ritually/religiously unclean. Still he ventured into such spaces regularly and seemed to dismiss such rules and culture as outside God’s concern and care for all people.
I am curious about what Jesus does and how he might inform how we respond. It reminds me of the church culture some decades ago when to visit the local club or pub was taboo. Somehow associating with people in those ‘dens of iniquity’ somehow made us all unclean and lesser in God’s eyes. I remember the turmoil when Billy Graham had one of his rally televised live from Brazil and people across the world were invited to view it together. The only place where Australians could view it were clubs or pubs because it was on Sky Channel. Local churches organised to use club auditoriums but gained access without having to go through the club for fear of being tainted. Is it wrong to enter places where there is serious gambling, drunkenness, perverted sex or worse? Is it wrong to be there without participating? Does our presence there void us of grace and love in God’s sight? Or, is it how we respond to people in these places and situations that challenges our goodness or otherwise?
As I ponder all this I recognise how our fear, ignorance and suspicion drives so much of our attitudes. I don’t know what is in a Mosque. I don’t know what they do. I don’t know the protocol. I don’t know if they are friendly or whether the blown-up assumptions of the media are true for one and all Muslims. It is more than the religion because most Muslims are from other cultures and ethnicities and they have different ways about them – do I feel afraid of that which I don’t know or understand?
With all of these questions in my mind I read the reading for this week (Mark 7:1-23) and was challenged by Jesus’ words about how it isn’t what goes into the body that makes us unclean but what comes out. The triggering incident occurs when religious leaders point out that his disciples don’t engage in the proper rituals before eating and are therefore unclean. He suggests that it is the ‘heart’ (for ancients, the seat of being, thought and personality) is the centre out of which defilement or uncleanness arises. It isn’t food or space/place or even the experience of others that causes us to be defiled. It is what we feel, think, believe and decide within our own being that leads us into evil or goodness. When Jesus calls each of us into love for God, self and others, the decision to dismiss other people because they are different or do what is wrong or even evil in our sight is the problem.
I wonder at how I so easily dismiss some people because of their difference (or my ignorance of them). I am challenged by my own suspicion and even fear or those who are different and even get drawn into media and political hyperbole that creates deeper suspicion and hatred at those who are different. I think of asylum seekers, those threats who arrive on boats to terrorise us and take our jobs, homes and wealth… I think of all the horrible things spoken of these people and then struggle to align that with the stories, the pitiful stories they share of life that is beyond my comprehension. Even to talk about these things in this way marks us out as suspicious people entering into places that are dangerous and ought be avoided. To speak sympathetically towards various groups such as asylum seekers, indigenous people, homosexuals, people with mental illness and so on can mark us and taint us in various circles. There is guilt by association.
I find that my own cultural expectations and assumptions provide a security for me. If all act and think within these assumptions, the world is good and I am okay. If people act outside these rules then what will it mean to embrace them? What will change? Will I have to change? Do I want to change? Am I afraid? Will God still love me if I move out of my safe places and circles of comfort and knowing? Perhaps, I wonder, God might be more impressed if I do wander out of the safe places and into the world as Jesus did?? So, should I accept this invitation from the local Muslims and attend their Mosque? If so, who will join me?