July 2018

Do not be afraid

I recently returned from what pleasingly seems to be becoming my annual trip to Kenya - a glorious, wonderful country, full of unexpected beauty.

On previous visits, I have been on safari in different parts of the country from the desert north to the mountainous south and have had the privilege of seeing all manner of wildlife in its natural surroundings (I can bore you rigid with photographs). Many images stay in the mind, such as that of seeing two lions waking up at about 5.00pm, sniffing the air and setting off on their daily scavenge. 

On this occasion, apart from spending a certain amount of time in and around Nairobi, where I have got to know a great many people, and up in the Rift Valley around Gilgil, I went down to the coast for a few days. I have never been there before

It is an area occupied by Arab traders long before European colonists arrived, with their penchant for descending on tribal areas and creating artificial countries with straight-line borders taking no accounts of tribal areas and nomadic customs. The area is inevitably a predominantly Muslim one, and I was there during Ramadan. It was while I was staying in the coastal town of Malindi that I experienced something pretty well as wonderful as the sight of lions heading off on the prowl. For I was leaving a restaurant with a friend of mine one evening, when a Muslim gentleman, wearing his immaculate white robes - in my experiences Muslims are scrupulously clean - and he turned to these two self-evidently non-Muslims and said, ‘Good evening. How are you?’. We had a brief conversation and he passed on.

And I was left wondering if that - making the necessary amendments - could happen in our allegedly Christian country. What is the likelihood of two Muslims leaving a restaurant in a ‘Christian’ area being greeted in such a natural and friendly way by a passing native? And if the likelihood is not great, why not?

Well, one is that we are only an allegedly Christian country. A fundamental aspect of living an actual Christian life is fostering a culture of welcome - of making people feel wanted and valued, and that is something which, as a country, we manifestly fail signally to do. And if we, as a country, are not welcoming, then we, as a country are not Christian. And please do not tell me that we have a Christian tradition and heritage, unless you really want to see me behaving at my absolute worst. Tradition and heritage are all about the past: the Christian life is about the present and the future.

But there is also the more pernicious aspect of this, in that there is an appalling climate in this country of Islamophobia, much of it encouraged by the rantings of the gutter press. And this, of course, is born of ignorance and fostered by fear. Sand all of this flies in the face of reality. There are those who say that the Quran preaches violence. But its doesn’t. I read it all a couple of years ago, and, all I can say is that, if you really want to read a religious book that seems to glory in violence, don’t look at the Quran but cast your eyes over some of the historical books in the Old Testament. 

Yes, terrorist acts have been committed by people who claim to be Muslims, just as they have been committed by people who claim to be Christians : ask the people of Northern Ireland about that. And, yes, there has been tensions between Christians and Muslims going back to the crusades, but the question we need to ask ourselves is ‘Do we want that to continue?’. And, if the answer is no, then what can we do about it?

Well, one way is to follow the teachings of Christ: to be welcoming, loving and forgiving, not to be judgmental and fearful. Would it not be wonderful if Muslim men and women were able to walk round predominantly ‘Christian’ areas of this country and feel and wanted and welcome as I did walking around the streets of the predominantly Muslim town of Malindi? And it is not up to governments to decide whether we should be welcoming or not: it is up to us. If we choose to be fearful and suspicious, we are generating enmity and a lack of trust: if we can be open and welcoming, then we will be breaking down the barriers. And, what is more, our Christianity will not just be gathering dust in our traditions and heritage, it will be part of our lives.