Sunday, 14 October 2012

A Minority among Minorities: Christian & Muslim Responses to Criticism

(This is an article I first wrote for What You Think Matters:
A few weeks ago I was invited to an event hosted by the local mosque where the renowned Yusha Evans was to teach the umma (Muslim community) of Brighton and Hove Da’wah. That is, to teach his fellow Muslims how to invite people to Allah. Or, to convert this into language that we understand; he was to train in Islamic apologetics and evangelism.
The flurry of excitement within the Muslim community was evidenced by the number of emails I received inviting me, more than once, to talks and training sessions Yusha was to give in Brighton. In addition I was even updated on his tour of the UK, in case I wanted to travel to Cardiff to hear him, which it seems my Muslim friends were intending to do.

I decided to go to one of his talks in Brighton, not only because of his fame, but because Yusha Evans is known for his conversion from Christianity to Islam. Each time this has been mentioned to me, it has been emphasised that he was no ordinary Muslim, but a preacher.

My expectation of such an event, naturally, was that it might be an Islamic parallel of a Christian mission meeting. It was quite different. The thing that struck me most was one of the leaflets placed on a table near the doorway for women to pick up as they entered (as I was of course in the women’s section of the mosque). One of the three leaflets offered was entitled ‘Brighton & Hove Racial and Religious Harassment Forum’. This caused me to pause. At a meeting of such significance, and specifically evangelistic in nature, why would the mosque display this leaflet in particular? I was aware that this talk took place in the mosque, rather than the universities, and therefore was more of an ‘in house’ address to Yusha’s religious brothers, but still the question of the leaflet played on my mind.

In essence, the leaflet was a symbol of how victimised the Muslim community feels. To make a comparison, say Andy Bannister (Christian speaker of RZIM, his speciality being the study of the Qur’an) was to come and speak in one of our churches, and one of the leaflets that we made available to church members and visitors was entitled ‘Religious Harassment Forum’. I have never seen such a thing. This is because I believe that we, being the Christian community in Britain, do not feel the pressure of negative media to such a degree at present.

That said, the above does raise many questions, one being: how do we react as a minority who are often misunderstood? Considering the fact that we also receive our measure of ‘bad press’ this question is important. I think there are three overarching reactions that can result from public criticism: isolation, anger or engagement. All three reactions I have seen in the church.

Isolation from the main stream secular culture can be as automatic a reaction as osmosis unless one guards against it. It can even innocently be the consequence of passivity. This isolation does not need to be ‘complete’, but can be demonstrated in certain attitudes. For example, a Christian might be happy to work and socialise with non-Christians, but will shy away from difficult questions. The phrases ‘love them into the kingdom’, and ‘intellectual arguments save no one’ can originate from an isolationist mentality, however valid these arguments can be at other times.

Anger can be a natural reaction to misplaced criticism. Shame is the natural response to criticism that is deserved, but this can soon turn to frustration when there is no opportunity to voice a defence or apology. Resentment can build, and the reaction of the criticised community or individual can become bitter and confrontational.

Engagement with public criticism, and a respectful defence for the belief that we have in Jesus is clearly taught in scripture. This is the reaction we want to nurture in ourselves and our communities! 1 Peter 2:15-17 says: For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone. This verse is taken from a passage exhorting the church to respect governmental institutions, even though these institutions may level criticisms against Christianity. And from the same book the famous apologetic appeal: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Therefore, engagement with respect is what I think we ought to encourage, with Jesus as our champion and example, the Grand Master of apologetics. It will be interesting to see how we fare in the coming years . . .

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