Appeasement is not a word to be used lightly by anyone of my generation – we saw its results in our childhood, with the bombed out cities and the austerity, but it is hard to think of a better term to describe the decision by a County Court Judge that a Pakistani man cannot take his son to church because it upsets his mother, who is a Muslim. The man himself is a ‘non-practising’ Muslim, but found after his divorce that the local Christian community embraced him and his son, who likes going to the leisure centre run by a local church. But his ex-wife ‘insisted that their son could “become confused” if exposed to religions other than Islam – a notion the boy’s father rejects’. The Judge accepted her argument and the father cannot take his son to the church or its leisure centre.
Clearly we have here only one side of the argument, but let us look for a moment at the idea that the boy could ‘become confused’ if exposed to other religions than Islam. Perhaps the mother should take the child back to Pakistan, where, as events in Lahore this morning show, the Taliban have their own way of ensuring that no one gets confused by other religions – going to the trouble of planting a bomb in a park to target Christian children and their parents celebrating Easter. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, a Muslim shopkeeper was stabbed to death by a Pakistani man hours after posting a message on his Facebook page wishing his ‘beloved Christian nation’ a happy Easter. The man’s family are now in hiding, fearful of their lives. This seems one of the results of not allowing children to know about other religions. So how thoughtful of the Judge to ensure that another child will not be exposed to disturbing ideas such as tolerance, ecumenism and religious freedom.
And yes, before we get all hot under the collar, let us remember those within our own churches who are not that far away, mentally, from these people. I saw, in Belfast, what happens when Christian children are brought up in enclosed communities where they are taught that it is a sin to depart in any way from the strict letter of whatever law it is the church leaders set down. I remember talking to a Catholic boy when I was about 12, and he said he really shouldn’t be talking to me, because I was a ‘proddy’ and was going to go to hell – Father Flannery had told him that, and Father was a saintly man who had ensured his sister got sent off to the Magdalene laundries for the sin of getting herself pregnant out of marriage. I got a ticking off from the local Minister for talking to the Catholic boy, who was a spawn of Satan and a follower of the whore of Babylon. If I fail to share the rose-tinted view of the past of some here, it is because that sectarian past was far from rose-tinted. That little Catholic boy grew up to plant bombs which killed people we both knew, and but for the Grace of God, I could have gone the same way.
Like that poor little Pakistani boy, we were kept away from children who worshipped differently than we did; like that Pakistani shopkeeper, we were berated if we wished a Catholic ‘happy Easter’ – and yes, God help us – like those Pakistani Taliban, I knew people who called themselves Christians who took up arms to kill others in ‘the cause’. If I am wary of legalism in religion, it is because I have seen where it can lead. On the rare occasions I go to Belfast nowadays, I am amazed at its modernity – it seems like any other city elsewhere – until you to some of the places where it isn’t.
Quite how it can be that any Christian can genuinely believe that Jesus would be in favour of treating others who confess his name badly because they don’t do as I do, I fail to grasp any more. when I was a young man, I was taught that we, alone, had the right way, and that it was an act of Christian love to tell others they were wrong, and to make them see things our way. It was, I came to realise, the mind set of narrow sectarianism, which was so far from the love of Christ, that it had done what Paul forbade, it placed salvation on the back of the strict letter of the law and not faith. What was it we were so frightened of that we wanted to insist on the sound of our own voices and drown out those of others? Where had Jesus said so? The one time he resorted to violence was driving the moneylenders out of the Temple – to listen to some of my preachers in my youth, you’d have thought it was his main activity.
I hope the story about the little boy is exaggerated, and if not, that common sense prevails. If we appease those who wish to destroy us, if we forget our common humanity and insist on our identity as a Catholic, a Protestant or a Muslim, then we risk going further down a road which, having been down, I do not recommend.