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.

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