Monday, 17 April 2017

'Walks of witness' and an inter-faith Easter

I have a confession to make. Thankfully, we've entered the season of Easter in which grace and forgiveness are flooding the earth, and so my confession can come out more easily.

On Good Friday, I deliberately avoided engagement with some of my neighbours.

It was around 11.50am. I was making the 5-minute walk from home up to church for our meditative 'Stations of the Cross' service. I was in a bit of a hurry because I didn't want to be late (it was one of the services in the week that I wasn't responsible for leading, so was heading up simply to be there, to receive, to participate). And as I neared our little Tesco Express, I heard the unmistakably metallic sound of voices amplified through microphone and loudspeaker. A small group from one of our local Pentecostal churches, with a large cross, singing a song I didn't recognise. The song ended, the pastor took the microphone to preach.

And I passed by on the other side of the road.

The echoes of priest and levite in Jesus' story of 'the Good Samaritan' are not lost on me - although the folk outside Tesco didn't give the impression of needing or wanting any assistance. I do regret not engaging with my neighbours, my sister and brother Christians. But my response to them also got me thinking.

I am allergic to 'Good Friday walks of witness', at least in the way I have experienced them in many places.

It isn't just a personality issue (and I have examined myself repeatedly on this question). It's not that temperamentally I'm as allergic to public displays of faith as I might be to public displays of affection (snogging in front of a crowd of onlookers, for example). Yes, I often tend towards introversion, but that hasn't stopped me getting 'out there' and engaging with complete strangers for many different reasons over the years.

What I am allergic to is more theologically rooted. I'm allergic to the combination of unilateral initiative ('we, the church, have decided we're going to do this'), coming so often from 'the outside' to occupy - and implicitly claim ownership of - spaces that are not ours, 'broadcasting' a message that we claim as 'the truth', with little thought to how such 'broadcasting' might be received, let alone a dialogical responsiveness to what others might want to say. I am allergic too (and it all feels connected) to the message that seems especially to be broadcast on Good Friday - of 'the cross' (the symbol, as much if not more than the story) as 'triumph', 'victory', 'final solution'.

When I watch YouTube clips of members of Britain First marching down Birmingham's Stratford Road, just days before, brandishing a big white cross and broadcasting their messages of anti-Muslim hate, of course I understand that theirs is a vicious parody of what peaceable Christians are doing on Good Friday. But I can't help wondering if they have more in common than we might want to admit to: not only in their methods of communication, but also in the kind of message being communicated (the medium and the message are inextricable, after all). For most Christians, the message the God is Love will be incompatible with so much that Britain First stand for. But the implicit messages, that we come with God's truth, that we claim this ground for God, that we expect of others this pre-defined response - these kinds of imperialism make me wonder exactly who is parodying whom (and the answer may well date back all the way to Constantine if not even before).

Now I don't want to claim that we've got it all sorted in Hodge Hill. That would, ironically, be to fall into exactly the same kinds of imperialist temptation. But I do want to witness to a gift, or two, or three, that we've found ourselves being given here.

First, there's the now-established tradition of the Bromford Passion Play. I've talked about this so many times before, that here I just want to recall that it began with the initiative (and the creativity and drive) of someone with no affiliation to 'church', it developed as an invitation to Christians (among others) to walk the neighbourhood together (rather than invading it or claiming it as 'Christian space'), it wove together the story of the passion with the stories and longings of the neighbourhood, and it was enacted drama, rather than broadcast message, and so was an invitation to involvement, to be drawn into the story, rather than to respond to propositions. Although ending (like many 'walks of witness') with the crucifixion, it did not proclaim triumph, but enacted both comedy and tragedy - the central character enmeshed in relationships of love and power - and invited those who had been drawn in along the way to wonder, to make their own sense of it, to respond in whatever way they would.

Secondly, there's our very small, quiet little rituals that frame the night of Easter Day itself. We've got into a habit of gathering, outside, somewhere in our neighbourhood, as the sun goes down on Easter Eve, to share our stories of loss and longing, of disappointment and hope and hopes-not-yet-realised. And the next morning, 'while it is still dark' (as one of the gospels puts it), to return to the same place, and watch the sun rise. With a barely-alight paschal candle, we then make a pilgrimage around our neighbourhood, seeking to catch glimpses of resurrection as the world begins to be flooded with light anew. It is, in many ways, a 'walk of witness' - but 'pianissimo' rather than 'fortissimo' (as one Anglican bishop last week put it), and as much 'witnessing' in the sense of seeing for ourselves as 'witnessing' in the sense of communicating to others.

Thirdly, then, the particular gift of Easter 2017. On Easter Eve, after our sunset gathering, I received a text. An invitation from one of the councillors in a neighbouring ward - a younger Muslim woman, and a passionate community activist. Could I, and any sister and brother Christians, meet her the next day, in the afternoon, to visit some shops on the Alum Rock Road where, the week before, Britain First had made their threatening and hostile presence felt? Could we come and show our solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers, sharing in peace together after our Easter celebrations?

How could I say No? What an invitation - and on Easter Day of all days! And so, after six hours of Easter morning services and breakfasts (many of manage at least 3 on Easter morning!), a small group of five of us from Hodge Hill Church headed down to the Alum Rock Road to meet Councillor Mariam Khan, with some of the local neighbourhood policing team, and they acted as both our guides and travelling companions (in a neighbourhood which, for some of us at least, was less familiar). We walked together up the road, we are taken into a handful of Islamic bookshops and gift shops, we were introduced to each other and greeted each other with words of peace ('as-salam-u-alaikum' is simply Arabic for 'peace be with you', of course), we listened to people's stories and to their deeply-rooted convictions and beliefs, we responded with a little of our own Easter gospel, we received warm welcomes and generous hospitality, and together we found ourselves sharing in a process of mutual encouragement, strengthening and peace-making - even perhaps in the healing of wounds.

It turned out to be quite a remarkable 'walk of witness' - again, with that double sense of 'witness' as both receptivity and communication. It evoked for me deep resonances with Easter stories from the gospels, both of Jesus appearing to his fearful friends behind locked doors, breathing on them and saying 'peace be with you', and also of two of Jesus' grieving disciples, journeying back to their home village of Emmaus, and encountering Jesus both on the road as a stranger, and as the guest-turned-host as he broke bread at their table. Perhaps it also had echoes of that encounter on the beach where Peter's three-fold denial of his friendship with Jesus was re-worked into a three-fold affirmation of love, at Jesus' gracious and challenging invitation.

Perhaps there will never be another Easter day where the invitation to such a 'walk of witness' will come our way. It would certainly be very different were we, the church, to decide to take the initiative on it. But of one thing I am confident: this is not the end of the story. It is only the very beginning.

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