The recent disturbing events in Paris are the latest in a global series of religiously motivated terrorist acts. In his new book The Jihad of Jesus – the Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice, writer and community worker for TEAR Australia, Dave Andrews, warns of the dangers of ‘closed set religion’. He spoke to Roland Ashby from The Melbourne Anglican, December 12 2015.
Dave Andrews experienced first-hand what happens when inter-religious tensions erupt into savage violence when he lived in India in the early ’80s. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards in 1984, Hindus were slaughtering Sikhs in their thousands in retaliation.
“Hearing the screams of a terrified young Sikh family on the roof of their home which was being attacked by an angry Hindu mob intent on murder, I and some neighbours decided to try to prevent them from entering.
“Amidst the chaos and terror we stood at the door with our hands together pleading with them not to hurt the family. The mob screamed and yelled and came closer and we knew that if they had begun to hit us, then it would have ended in us being cut to pieces. But we looked into their eyes, we begged them, we prayed desperately, and they hesitated… before running off in search of others. Then the Army arrived and the mob fled.”
This experience is one of the reasons, he explains, why he stands up for Muslims. “I know how quickly things can turn and how the mob mentality can take over; and how we can scapegoat people and end up slaughtering innocent people in the process.”
This human capacity and potential for violence, he says, has made him confront his own dark side, and develop a spiritual practice which allows him to be centred and focused in the midst of turmoil.
The heart of this practice, he says, is his own version of the Jesus prayer: “Jesus, Saviour, may I know your love and make it known.” “For me, the most important place for that prayer is in the nanosecond between action and reaction, where I try, rather than react and retaliate, to slow down, to create a space between action and reaction and in that place I critically reflect on myself and I pray that prayer.”
He repeats it silently during his time of prayer and meditation each morning and evening. “But what’s really important is that I learn it by heart and it becomes the prayer of my heart, and I can pray it without thinking, as a way of focusing and centring on the love of God revealed in Jesus.
“So entering that deeper place of love becomes the formative way of shaping the way I engage with the Muslim community and the conflict between Christians and Muslims. This is also to enter a place of humility, and of taking the log out of my own eye before I try to take the speck out of somebody else’s.”
In explaining his confrontational title for the book The Jihad of Jesus, he writes: “Jesus embodied the original Jihad of non-violent struggle for inspirational personal growth and transformational social change… [He] demonstrates a life of radical non-violent sacrificial compassion as the only way of life that can save us from destroying ourselves and our societies”.
He believes understanding the term ‘Jihad’ is critical for Christian/Muslim dialogue. “My Muslim friends say that the extremists have co-opted the word ‘Jihad’ and used it as a by-word for terror in a way that’s not true to the original understanding of Jihad in the Quranic text. They would say the words Jihad and Jihada are used 35 times in the Quran, and only four times is the word associated with violence. So they’d say the overwhelming emphasis of the idea of Jihad in the text itself affirms a non-violent struggle for justice.
“Where it is associated with violence, it is the sort of violence that in the West would be permitted according to the theory of just war: if, in a struggle for justice you need to use force, you should never be the aggressor, it should only be defensive; then in the conflict you should make sure that you protect other people of other traditions and religions, never destroy their holy places or property. You have to guard against the death of any innocent civilians, never use force to coerce people into conversion and if there’s any sign of a willingness to make peace, you make peace, even if you’re sceptical about whether people mean it or not because peace is what Allah wants”.
When interpreting the Bible or the Quran, Dave says context is crucial. “My Muslim friends would say even more than that; they would say if we are going to interpret the Quran fully and faithfully we need to recognise that every surah in the Quran except one begins with Bismillahir-Rahman ir-Rahim – in the name of God the most merciful and gracious and compassionate. And they say they wouldn’t see that as an invocation that they set aside and then do their interpretation; they say we should see that as a hermeneutic for interpretation
So when we invoke the mercy and grace and compassion of God, that should then be the hermeneutic for interpreting the text and any interpretation of the text that does not reflect the mercy and grace and compassion of God is not of God. Now, to me, that is profound as a hermeneutical way of engaging the text and I think it makes all the difference.”
In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, he believes Jesus showed how to dialogue with people of other faiths.
“I believe that the relationship between Jesus and the Samaritans is analogous to the relationship between Christians and Muslims. I think what’s really interesting in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is that, first of all, he acknowledges the contribution of the Jews; and I think both Christians and Muslims both need to honour the Jewish tradition that we both derive from.
“The second thing is that then he is really clear that he doesn’t operate in the way that the disciples did in wanting to bring down fire on somebody else who is different.
“In the conversation the woman begins by pointing out that they’ve got very different traditions, but he doesn’t enter into a debate about that, he just acknowledges it and he accepts that those distinctions are there. What he affirms in the relationship is the universality, and that the fundamental call is to worship God in spirit and truth, regardless of what your tradition is.
“Then they have a conversation about the Messiah and I think it’s very intriguing that he actually, in the context of that conversation, affirms the importance of the Messiah in a way that she can relate to and can embrace, yet he doesn’t expect her to change her religion from Samaritan to Jew. In my engagement with my Muslim friends, I want to affirm who Jesus is as the Messiah or Masih – something that’s acknowledged by both the Quran and the Gospels.
But I do not believe I am being called to convert Muslims to Christianity. I believe I am called as a follower of Jesus simply to witness to Jesus in what I say and do with my Muslim friends”.
Jesus’ dialogue with the woman is an example of “open set religion” he explains. “Jesus challenged religion as a closed set, which defines itself over against the other, is hard-hearted and has a closed mindset, with hard doctrinal differences competing with one another in a zero sum game.
“Jesus called people from different traditions to respond to the Spirit in an open set way, which is inherently non-violent.”
Despite the brutal acts of violence around the world he remains positive about the future. “I am inspired by such Muslims as Muhammad Ashafa and Christians such as James Wuye.
“Muhammad Ashafa was brought up in Nigeria in a very strict, austere Islamic tradition where his family taught him that his role was to aspire to the return of an Islamic Caliphate, and he was very attracted to that. He found himself in conflict with a pastor by the name of James Wuye and they formed militias fighting against each other. They killed one another’s families and in one of the conflicts, James Wuye’s arm was chopped off. So serious violence. But both of them were converted – not to one another’s religion – but to a God of mercy, grace and compassion. So open set rather than closed set. A God who was bigger than their religion, who encouraged them to reach out to one another. They forgave each other. They became friends. They established the Christian-Muslim Peace Centre and now they train teams of Pastors and Imams to go into conflict areas to negotiate peace.”
Although Dave was raised as a Baptist, he began attending St Andrew’s Anglican Church in South Brisbane after returning from India 30 years ago, and helped to establish a local network of residents called the Waiters’ Union, offering friendship and assistance to the most disadvantaged and marginalised in the community – including Aborigines, refugees and people with disabilities.
“We called ourselves the Waiters’ Union because we wanted to wait on God and wait on our neighbours. Our main focus is on developing friendships, rather than providing services. We invite people into our homes and visit them in their homes. We picnic and barbeque together. We run support groups for people going through a crisis. We help settle refugees. We advocate for the marginalised.
“We see ourselves as a catalyst for transformation seeking to create community which reflects the radical compassion of God”.