On Friday we completed the final prayer walk of the journey through Muslim Britain that has been our focus for the last five years. Many have supported and encouraged us and a few have joined Adam and myself for various stages. We are so grateful to all of them. From Dagenham, through Barking and ending in Stratford at the steps of the Olympic Park, we were back for a third time in the gritty East End of London where so many of our nation’s dramas get played out.
We managed unintentionally to turn up at the huge Barking Central Mosque just as Friday prayers were coming to an end. The streets filled up, we mingled with the crowd and prayed as we always have done. Self-conscious, yes; comfortable, no; feeling powerful and influential, no – but finding a bit of East End grit to help us nevertheless.
For all I said about welcoming Muslims last time, encountering the religion they bring is hard work, even more so to live under. It is tough under its shadow to hold on to hope and faith. It is not kind to prayer, spiritual climaxes or warm feelings about yourself or others. It is therefore an incredible paradox to have to hold together the welcoming and the wrestling, which in my experience is for survival as often as victory.
We know so well the ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood’ verses…in theory. I always found Islam tested this to the core. So often we end up hating and rejecting the human beings affected by a spirit of rejection and alienation, whilst fearfully working out how we can compromise and get on with a religious system that dominates Muslim’s lives. That, I think, is one reason why Islam makes us ask all the right questions.
I found it helped me to look at Islam on three levels. Firstly the individual; that there are human beings who happen to be Muslim, bearing the image of God, to be welcomed, loved and accepted. Often they express the wounding, rejection and fear which makes any individual hard to get through to. Obviously they are not the enemy.
Secondly there is the corporate level of their culture and beliefs about God, Jesus, Mohamed – which are different to ours. Here is where we can get confused; can we love Muslims but burn their beliefs (the Koran)? Their differentness makes them threatening and seem like a mortal enemy. But I think even at this level it is often more uncomfortable than dangerous. What I believe about Jesus is closer in some fundamental aspects to the truth than what most Muslims believe, but the trajectory of my spiritual growth shows me that it hasn’t been, and still isn’t, that good. This year I discovered Jesus was more and different. Next year I’m sure I will do the same, my point being that I’m glad I was never rejected, by God or my friends, because my beliefs were immature or mistaken.
But thirdly, there is behind it undoubtedly a religious system, unashamedly political in the case of Islam, controlling and dominating Muslim communities. It is the nature of this system, not individual personalities or wrong beliefs, that we wrestle with, although elements of both the former are obviously influenced by it. The real wrestling, in prayer and life, is with a religious/political system exercising control through coercion and threat over thoughts and behaviours of human beings, seeking to institute a premature Kingdom of God on earth, decisively defining who’s in and who’s out, and also including some form of corporate spiritual experience substitute for the Holy Spirit.
I honestly don’t think we Christians would have leg to stand on (quite important when wrestling I imagine) in the face of Islam unless we had been through this messy church deconstruction; lived through the pain and disorientation of seeing our own religious houses fall to bits, found ourselves dumped alone on the doorstep and begun to learn ourselves to distinguish between corporate spiritual experience and the Holy Spirit. God was not being unkind to us, it was because of our calling and destiny. The authority and freedom to help whole people groups out from religious bondage was only to be found outside that house completely, in the fresh air.
The old Empire, attached to this Island through London’s East End, up the Thames, the A1, M1, past the steps of St Paul’s, through City Financial Institutions, along global trade routes, even the Olympic Games, could just be opening up a second chance for us to fulfil something and, unlikely as it seems, the disorientation of the last decade may just have been our preparation.