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Making sense and taking responsibility

8 June 2017

The recent terror attacks in Manchester and London have once again presented us with the challenge of how we respond to those who claim to act in the name of Islam.

It seems to me that two polarised approaches just don’t stand up:

The first is to say that this illustrates that such violence is the way of Islam; that flies in the face of the core commitment of Muslims to prayer, charity and hospitality. The other approach is to say that this has nothing to do with Islam. Yet these perpetrators are claiming an Islamic motivation, which is certainly a twisted perversion of Islam but it needs to be addressed and not denied.

At different times in history and in different current circumstances, Christians have had to recognise what is done in the name of the Christian faith and take a stand to confront and name these crimes.

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made this point and made the connection with the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica.

To give another example, I remember the unrest and violence on the streets of Birmingham when I was starting out in ministry in the late 1980s. Some involved and committing these acts were young people from the urban church communities. I remember vividly, church leaders weeping and sharing in acts of community soul searching and repentance. Not because they had taught that people should act this way, nor because they were directly responsible, but because these young people had been nurtured and taught in a Christian worldview which clearly hadn’t sustained them.

These examples show two shortcomings: Firstly people twist faith and secondly people nurtured in faith disguard the hope faith offers for patterns of violence or behaviours in which only the fit survive.

So I believe that faith does not teach these violent acts but faith is implicated and shares a responsibility because it needs to foster and create the world it teaches.

I believe that we are obligated to reach out to all faith leaders and say we understand and we stand with you. And at the same time to say we ask you condemn acts and see that faith is connected with these events and the solutions.

The responsibility of faith is to say that our arms have not been strong enough to save from, or our influence not clear enough to encounter extremism. The responsibility is to say that faith plays a crucial part in finding solutions.

We can ask this of fellow Muslim leaders because on other occasions we have had to tread this path ourselves, as Christians. In that sense, we show solidarity.

This is a difficult path to follow, it is one about making sense and taking responsibility. It involves digging deeper to find how and why our faith is twisted (by powerful institutions and evil rebels), in what ways we fall short and how we can find a better way.

I am reminded of the prayer of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1: 1 – 11), who observed a desperate situation, wept, confessed the sins of the people in wider society and concluded by asking for God’s help in shaping a new future.

I sense that if we, as people of faith, don’t work in these ways, and pray such prayers, then we will abdicate the public space and leave it to politicians and policy makers who are ill equipped to resolve things themselves.

I was struck by London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s powerful response that as a patriotic British Muslim these acts were not done in his name. In a diverse democracy, there are many acts committed by either individuals or governments that we want to say are not done in our name. We can show the world that when we deeply object to things that are done – we can and should protest, campaign, pray, even create disturbance but we do not follow violence and destruction. We have the opportunity to show positive, honest and responsible ways to say: Not in my name.

My argument is not to merge all faiths into one, nor to move faith to the margins. Rather, as a Christian, to say that we need to learn to coexist in this world for our sake and that of our children. We must not allow ourselves to become different tribes simply nervous and suspicious of each other

Simply apportioning blame or proclaiming our innocence won’t do, we are involved and part of the solution.

I write this as a Christian man in his 50s, who is a husband, father and pastor. So this is not just an theoretical argument, it is personal.

Over the years, I have seen pastors and church people wrestling with how to live as Christians our society. It is tempting to live in a separate bubble of faith away from all this – but it just isn’t credible.

With our children, I have come to realise that the headlines of “the other groups are awful” or “we all love and are in this together” end up sounding like slogans that we give each other. Real life is more complex and with them I must get off my high horse and be prepared to work things out.

I hold to my belief in Christ with the same assurance and passion, but not as something to hide behind, rather something to put my hope in.

Graham Brownlee, June 2017

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