The sacred, the symbol and the selfie.

Today marks one week since my city was subjected to a brutal terror attack and the entire country is coming together in a number of ways to remember the dead and show support for the bereaved Muslim community. Each event or social action says a lot about the motivations of different people groups within New Zealand. To my knowledge, the following events are happening over the next three days:

  • Two minutes silence at 1:39pm, when the gunman began shooting last Friday.
  • A Muslim “Call to Prayer” will be broadcast over mass media and the Muslims themselves will then pray to Allah for twenty minutes, with the nation invited to join in at mosques and vigils.
  • #headscarvesforharmony – non-Muslim women are being encouraged to wear a headscarf/hijab today to show solidarity.
  • A march around Hagley Park is planned for tomorrow and participants are encouraged to wear bright clothing.
  • A vigil is being held in the Park on Sunday night.

My husband asked me yesterday what I thought about these events, particularly the headscarf movement. As a woman I have the option to participate or refrain from taking part in this cause, and whichever one I pick demonstrates something about me. I personally find it deeply fascinating to see which of the women I know are joining this movement and having been confronted with the question, I find myself faced with an instinctual negativity towards it.

How would you categorise this event? Socially or spiritually? As compassionate activism or lazy tokenism? As a symbol of solidarity or an affront to faith? I have seen arguments for both, from muslims and non-muslims alike. What is it about the hijab that polarises opinion?

On the surface, this is intended as a piece of social justice, with the intention of including a subsection of society in the larger group and thereby dispelling fear and exclusion. The organisers themselves describe it as a “gentle” encouragement to do or not do as you see fit and within the context of Kiwi culture, this motivation is to be expected. Where choice and equality are the highest ideals, anything that demonstrates loyalty to this outcome is applauded.

However, this concept of putting on a sacred symbol of submission to a foreign god, is to me a demonstration of wilful blindness, acted out by a secular society with no concept of the difference between a cultural norm of fashion and the sanctity of an icon of faith. And you could write an entire column on the dangers included in absorbing the customs of a minority let alone the loss of meaning and conviction inherent in the admonition to “do or not do”.

Imagine that the shootings of March 15th happened at a Christian church and that events had panned out in much the same way, including the outpouring of support from the general public (which has been a beautiful thing to watch). I would be personally included in the grief of a faith community. How would it be, if in the midst of our suffering, the public decided to wear crosses on their clothing? Jewellery? T-shirt’s? Face paint even? While the sentiment is to be admired, I would grieve all the more for the surface-level understanding of a nation that neither knows nor understands what it is they are invoking. The cross is a sacred symbol. Mercy, grace and forgiveness flow from it – or more accurately, from the Saviour who is no longer on it and offers forgiveness and rest to the weary and broken-hearted.

I would consider it a very deep sadness for my non-Christian neighbour to think that wearing my faith on his or her body for a 12 hour period would be a suitable form of support. For my neighbour to walk around with the mark of salvation on their bodies and not to grasp hold of it, repent and achieve the peace Jesus offers them would be adding insult to injury. It demonstrates a childish naïveté towards the things of God and an ignorance of the spiritual realm and the consequences of their actions. One of the Muslim commentators I read this morning described this sentiment as ‘tokenism’ and I think she has hit the mark.

Solidarity is defined as unity or agreement of feeling or action. But in the world of faith, it is so much more than that. I believe it is wrong to invoke a symbol of faith if you do not intend to follow through on the requirements and beliefs of that faith. That would be to signal a certain superiority; that it is ok to sit on the fence and to head back to your own value set as soon as you have spent a comfortable day looking like A Good Person. What is all the more objectionable is the selfie opportunities afforded by this movement. I cannot respect your sentiment if it functions as a mere vehicle for self promotion.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:1-4

Then there is the nationwide call to prayer.

I consider this to be just as dishonest as the donning of a hijab – a temporary and wilful blindness to the significance of belief. While the people of Islam are “us”, Islam itself is certainly not. It is dangerous let alone disrespectful to pray to a god of whom you know nothing and have no intention of acknowledging ever again. It is for this reason that I actually supported the recent removal of Christian prayers from the opening of parliament. I would rather remove God from parliament entirely than have our ministers taking our Lord’s name in vain and paying mere lip service to Truth.

This co-opting of religion for the sake of so-called unity is a utopian fiction which makes liars, hypocrites and apostates of us all. I admire and share the desire to love our neighbours – Muslims are made in the image of God just as much as the rest of us – but this is a mockery of their faith and I will not participate in token gestures that miss the mark of true service towards these suffering families. I bow the knee to Christ and it is in his name and by his requirements of me alone that I act. I pray that I may have the courage to do so.

How does a secular nation navigate through grief?

It is a very strange thing watching my modern, western nation mourn. For five solid days my entire country has been throwing itself with abandon into a spirit of philanthropy and religious fervour such as has never been seen since WWII. Prayers are being offered to any god that will listen; religious leaders are shaking hands across the aisle; discussions on the correct procedure to denote respect at a mosque are being held on talk back radio; our Mormon-raised, atheist Prime Minister wears a headscarf (quite appropriately) out of respect to the Muslim families she meets with and the Mongrel Mob are standing guard outside local mosques. Non-believing office workers are visiting mosques in their lunch breaks, removing their shoes and joining in prayers to an Allah whom they have never bowed the knee to before and likely never will again.

This frenzy of religiosity seems admirable on the surface but to me, it sticks in the throat and leaves a bitter aftertaste of hypocrisy. Agnosticism is a banner flown high over our culture, tolerance and egalitarianism acting as touch points for our values. In practice, this works itself out as a base level of studied godlessness, promoting reason, feelings and politics as supreme. This has been pursued even to the point of an attempt to legalise assisted suicide, that peculiar combination of reason and emotion that works itself out in the destruction of our neighbours.

But when destruction visits without our permission, oh how different it is. Our priorities find their true order, our weaknesses and fears become immediately and embarrassingly obvious and people start looking at the faith community with a mixture of envy and hope. And it is for this reason that I am beginning to nurse a low-grade simmer of excitement for what the tragedy in Christchurch could do for the people of New Zealand.

As my family and I have suffered through the trials of mental and physical illness over the last five years, I had this piece of Scripture taped to my kitchen door:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. – Romans 5:3-5

We have learned that strength and hope follows weakness and our selfishness and laziness is pared away in trials of many kinds. Suffering has come to New Zealand and I pray that the provocation of evil in a place where independence of mind is an ultimate good, may cause the sort of soul-searching that leads not to the opiate of the masses but to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. He promises us that he is gentle and lowly in heart, a master that will lead us by quiet waters and restore rest to our souls. A true hope in his unseen presence and providence will bring the sort of peace that no river of flowers or money could ever achieve.

Naïvety dies alongside it’s people.

It’s the sort of thing that only happens to other people doesn’t it? Tragic, yes. Appallingly callous, certainly. But far away. Sometimes I call this my “only in America” file.

Not today.

A massacre has occurred in my own city, a community destroyed as they worshipped. There are fists shaking at the sky all over New Zealand, a great collective WHY welling up in a country that has lost its naivety in a truly brutal fashion.

Forty-nine lives. Forty-nine deaths. Another memorial to add to the years of mourning suffered by this city as the spectre of nihilism visits its terrible logic on a people whose biggest struggles revolve around the purity of our water supply. And boy have we been woken up to the reality of things.

We do not understand our own potential. The depths of human depravity have been exposed and we are forced to examine our own souls for the same capacity to destroy and deceive. One of our local commentators said something very wise today – that healthy communities require boundaries and consequences. The internet has neither of these things and the perpetrators of today’s atrocities have been allowed to breathe in the darkness and exhale insanity on the “other” without check.

I have been very struck by the juxtaposition of two things today. For some time now, a global strike from school has been planned by the children of the world to highlight the evils of climate change. They have received much air time. Arguments about the ethics of such a strike, it’s legality in light of truancy laws, it’s potential for exploitation and its good intentions. And sure enough, a large-ish number of conscience-stricken young people marched on their towns and cities, demanding for the supremacy of their cause.

Then death came knocking. And death will not allow you to prioritise anything else. When death comes to you, the supremacy of life becomes self evident as the dross of cultural concerns are washed away. Their moment of glory has been, I think rightly, subsumed.

May our Lord and Father bring his comfort to Christchurch. Our pain is not light to him and his sympathy is real. He will not waste an ounce of our suffering. Nor is he surprised by our sin. Lord use it to bring your glory.

Beginning.

In the beginning was the word.

And what word can I say that will make this project valuable? Perhaps I can call this a thought experiment, a working out of the things that plague and percolate through my brain, a distillation of chaos into clarity. I hope to find wisdom as I sort through the mess, to separate and pin down the conclusions that escape me. To actually speak what matters and to discern it at the same time so that I can stop endlessly chasing my tail and avoid the peaks and troughs that come with a busy and boring family schedule.

As I begin to write, I find myself in a season of audio. Podcasts, audiobooks, lectures and sermons fill my days with histories, stories, current events, theology, and more often than not, maddeningly stupid banter en route to the juicy discussions! The audiobook du jour in 2019 is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and having just finished all 15 hours of this compendium of psychology, timeless truths, political incorrectness and freedom of speech, I confess that Peterson’s final coda inspired my title “Pen of Light”. He uses a literal pen with built in LED lights to aid in writing in the dark, to challenge himself and his readers metaphorically – “What shall I write with my pen of light?”.

Light is what I intend to write. There couldn’t be anything more appropriate. Discerning the truth of things is my passion. I listen to it, read it, argue about it, ponder it and try very poorly to act it out. Yet I have never written about it. It has been difficult to even consider beginning – who would read it? Why would I want anyone to read it? What possible value could the thoughts of a flawed individual have to another individual? Can the uniqueness of my situation possibly speak meaningfully into another’s? Is that even appropriate? Can wisdom be transmitted or accepted outside of a contextual relationship? Who’s to say I have wisdom to share? What happens when my view clashes strongly with accepted norms?

All this to say I could argue for or against anything you wish. But if I can transmit light into dark places, whether those places are simply the dark corners of my conscience or the corridors of someone else’s tragedy, illuminated by my own, then that may after all be worth it. What shall I write with my pen of light?