The Muslim Menace!

Muslims are invading our land!

Not content with persecuting Christians in their own lands, they are moving into countries like Australia and slowly taking over. Every Muslim is in on this evil plan. They have a multitude of strategies: building mosques everywhere, marrying Christian girls, training terrorists in Muslim schools, forcing Prayer Rooms to be provided in public places, insisting on praying five times a day, wearing the veil … where will it stop?

Beware of any Muslim you meet – they cannot be trusted! They are sneaky by nature. They don’t have loving families like we do – they just have children to populate the world with Muslims and to send them off to become suicide bombers.

Hmmm.

Does the above worry you? I confess it worries me greatly. Those words are the kinds of words I hear occasionally from people, both Coptic and non-Coptic. The thing that worries me most about them is that they are not Truth. As Christians, as followers of Christ who called Himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, we should be concerned with the truth above all else.

Now it is undoubtedly true that there are Muslims who are fanatical in their approach to their religion. Not in a nice way, that would make them pious and ascetic and full of works of charity (yes, giving to the poor is often commanded in the Quran), but fanatical in a way that says, “We are superior to everyone else and everyone else must submit to us”. Of course they don’t say it that way to themselves. To themselves, they say, “Our religion is superior to all others, and therefore everyone in the world must submit to Allah of Islam”.

Strange that they should take the foundational name of their religion, “Islam” and twist it so. It was meant to refer to a willing and free choice of the person to submit himself to an All-Powerful God. Instead, the fanatics twist it to mean forcing people to submit to God through submitting to them, here and now, politically rather than spiritually. That’s the fanatical fringe that gives Islam a very bad name. But they are only a minority.

Yes, it is very disappointing to see that often Muslim leaders do not stand up to this fringe and set them straight. For example, when 9/11 occured, I was incredibly disappointed that for a long time, no significant Muslim leader came out and publicly stated that this was an abomination and a disgrace to any religion. Instead, we heard Muslim leaders trying to change the subject and ask, yes, but why did the terrorists do this? Solve the problems of Palestine and you wouldn’t have 9/11s. Of course, this is ridiculous. It’s like saying to someone whose father has just been murdered by an irate neighbour (as was recently in the news) “Well if your father hadn’t expressed his opinion he’d be alive now – don’t blame the murderer!”

Put it another way: if Copts committed some horrible act of terrorism, what do you think Pope Shenouda and all the Coptic leaders would say? I’m pretty sure (going on past precedent) that His Holiness would immediately come out and condemn the violence, perhaps even excommunicate those who practice it or condone it. He would make it very clear that such violence has no place whatsoever in the life of a genuine Christian. I wish the Muslim leaders would do the same, and to be fair, they have moved a little in that direction in recent years, though not nearly enough, I suspect.

And yet, I fear that Christians have nothing to feel superior about here. The History of Christianity itself is strewn with horrible and vioolent acts, all perpetrated int he name of religion. Think of the Crusaders, the Byzantine army in Egypt after Chalcedon, Ireland of the 1970’s … Today we see clearly that this sort of behaviour is totally incompatible with authentic Christianity, yet the ‘Christians’ who performed those awful atrocities managed to twist their faith so much as to find support for their actions from it.

But put all that aside for a moment. What about the average Muslim ‘on the street’ so to speak. What has he / she to do with the fanatics? I believe the majority of Muslims are not in sympathy with the fanatical side of their faith. To wear the veil, to want to pray regularly every day, to fast and to go to the mosque – these are not acts of evil, these are acts of loyalty to their god, and this is not something to criticise. Considering what I wear out every day, I would be the last one to criticise a Muslim woman for taking the veil which seems so alien to Australian culture! And given the state of my facial hair, could I condemn the devout Muslim who grows his beard?

My experience with Muslims has taught me this – they are as varied a group of people as any other, and to stereotype them and pigeon-hole them is grossly unfair. We should take each individual for what s/he is as an individual. Certainly, there is a background of faith and culture that we do well to understand, but there are those who take the best of the Muslim faith and live by it, and there are those who take the worst. And many in between.

I recall that in Egypt soon after my ordination as a priest I encountered both extremes. On the one hand, is a group of little children, probably no older than 10, whose game of street soccer I walked past one day. They saw my clerical clothes and cross and stopped their game long enough to hurl abuse at me, and one even picked up half a brick and tossed it in my direction. Scary.

On the other hand, was Muhammad, the grocer in the shop near the flat were I was staying. Whenever I would enter his shop he would actually ask all the other customers to please wait while he served ‘the man of God’. He explained that it didn’t matter that I was Christian. By honouring me in this way he was honouring God Himself.

And everything in between…

We have to be very careful about stereotyping people, foir this is a form of judging others, and a very subtle and sneaky way the devil leads us to feelings of self-righteousness and superiority and pride. Yes, we should rejoice at the beuaty and purity and truth of our Orthodox Christian faith, but not at the expense of putting down others. Nor should we condemn a person, passing judgement and sentence on them without ever really understanding who they are and what they are like, simply because they belong to a particular race or a particular religion.

That is not how God looks at us. He looks at the Christian and the Muslim and everyone else and asks, “What is the best this person is capable of?” And then He strives to bring us to that ‘best’. Do not look for the evil in people, but look for the good, and strive to be the hand of Christ that leads all people to Him who is Truth and Mercy.

Fr Ant

Political Pantomime

Well, wasn’t last Tuesday night interesting!

We had the pleasure of the company of four politicians, Rev Fred Nile (Christian Democrats, State), Edmond Atalla (Labor, Local), George Bilic (Liberal, Local) and Paul Green (Christian Democrat, Federal). We expected some fireworks, but not quite what we got!

The aim of the night was actually to explore whether sincere Christianity could be compatible with being a politician. Politicians get a lot of bad press these days. They are accused of lying, breaking promises, manipulating people and situations, being vain and so on. This is unfortunate, because most politicians I have met actually do strive to do a lot of good for their constituency, and do work incredibly hard to achieve it.

I think this side of the politicians came out last Tuesday – we found out how they deal with thorny ethical situations and how they do try to use their Christian ideals as the ‘compass’ by which to steer their decisions.

Unfortunately, something else also came out last Tuesday – the bitterness between the two major parties! Yes, George baited Edmond and Edmond fought back, and we got one of those classical ‘my party’s better than your party’ arguments going. Perhpas whoever said that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics was right! A pity, for that was the very thing we were trying to get behind, trying to see if one’s genuine ideals could be more important than playing the political game.

I wonder what you thought of it all?

I have often mused on whether our system of govrnment could be improved. Does anyone really benefit from all that time and effort and money that is invested into getting a party re/elected? Is it good for individuals to have to sacrifice some of their own personal ideals for the sake of ‘the party’? Or is it the only way to get enough people agreeing on something so that something actually gets done? If we abolished the party system, would our parliaments descend into a chaos of endless debates?

As Christians, we are meant to take an active part in the welfare of those around us. Having and effective and compassionate system of government has ahuge impact on the lives of everyone in this country. It was hoped that last tuesday might inspire some of our young people to consider entering politics in order to make a difference … if they felt that was their calling from God. I wonder now whether it might not have turned them off …

Fr Ant

Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that 🙂

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant

Giving God a Bad Name

I have now come across a grand total of THREE people who have looked on this blog, so I’d better get active!

There have been a lot of attacks on the Christian faith recently. You might have noticed Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion on the best sellers list for some months now. French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray recently visitied Australia and caused a big stir. He was publicising his latest book called The Atheist Manifesto. And then there is Christopher Hitchens and his latest book, God Is Not Great ( aplay on the Muslim confession of “Allaho Akbar” = God is great).

Why this sudden outburst of Atheist propaganda?

I think there are probably two main factors. The first is that 9/11 caused a lot of unhappiness witht he religion that is supposedly behind it, Islam. Personally, I do not believe that Islam necessarily condones terrorism. But I do believe that there are parts of the Quran and the hadith that could be taken out of context and used as justification for such atrocities. The saddest thing about the whole matter is that the ‘sensible’ Muslim community and the leadership of religious Islam has been very very slow to condemn the violence. Even today, their statements against violence have tended to be very lukewarm, although the new Mufti of Australia, Melbourne’s Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, seems to be much more sensible; so far…

People have reacted strongly to this. The three authors I mentioned above all blame religion for most of the evils and violence in the world. Their views are not new – they have all been saying the same thing for decades. What IS new is that after 9/11, people are far more willing to listen to them. The problem is, though, that they throw the baby out with the bath water! Yes, religion, like anything else in life, can be used for great good or for great evil. Their approach is that religion can only produce evil, so we should be rid of it. They purposely ignore all the good that religion does in people’s lives. One of them, Christopher Hitchens, even goes so far as to attack Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and has written widely of his dislike and disrespect for her.

Mother Teresa? Wow! Now that tells you a lot more about Mr Hitchens than it does about Mother Teresa!

The second factor is the growing power of American Protestant fundamentalists in politics. As you probably already know, Southern baptists have increased their political influence greatly, and both Bill Clinton and Goerge W Bush have come under their umbrella. This has resulted in a situation where President Bush can publicly state that God told him to invade Iraq. What’s wrong with this? What’s wrong is that I am pretty sure that God told him no such thing! He is simply using God to back up his own philosophy, whether sincerely or deceitfully, we may never know.

This opens the Christian faith to attack. “Your God tells you to invade Iraq, and kill thousands of innocent women and children? Well then, we want nothing to do with your God!” That’s pretty much the reaction the above authors have expressed, and sadly, they have found a lot of sympathetic hearts out there.

The latest Australian census data shows “No Religion” to be growing at an amazing rate. It is likely that this means that many people who were Christian in name only are now being more honest and putting ‘No Religion’ instead of the Church of their parents, but it is sad, for I ma sure that such abuses of faith as those above have indeed turned many sincere people away from God.

And that’s the big issue here, and the issue that all those athiest authors seem to avoid. All this evil does not come from the religion itself, it comes from the abuse of the religion. I can speak with confidence only for Christianity, but it is certain that Christ never intended His followers to be doing the sort of things our friend President Bush has been up to, and to associate Jesus with those actions is almost blasphemy!

I think it is a really wake up call for all of us. It is a warning to all Christians that we must get back to the basics of our faith and not allow it to be hijacked and corrupted in these ways.The Kingdom of God was never meant to be an earthly kingdom. Sure, we have to get involved in the society around us, and strive to be a light in the midst of the darkness, but if we allow that very darkness itself to enter our hearts, haw can we shine? If the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?

So we MUST build our own lives with God first. All that we do in society must be firmly grounded in the foundation of a sincere, Biblical life with Christ. He must be the one who speaks and acts through us, not we ourselves, and this requires a lot of honesty and humility on our part, not to mention genuine submission to Him.

We are in the midst of a major battle, and the temperature is rising. I think that over the next 10-20 years, this direct attack from atheism is going to be the biggest danger to our Church in Australia. We have to start equipping ourselves from now, if we are to be prepared to meet it head on…

PPFM