There has been much discussion about the decision by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Arden, to arrange for the Muslim call to prayer to go out over the airwaves of national radio today, followed by two minutes silence. And all this in light of the atrocities in Christchurch last week.
On the surface it is a striking act for a secular nation to make. But, if you are completely secular, an act that is not particularly surprising, especially if you are looking for a way to grieve in solidarity with others.
Let me make two observations.
First this decision by the New Zealand Prime Minister is clearly an act of secular compassion.
It’s clearly an act of genuine care for the Muslim community, which comprises about one per cent of the New Zealand population of just under five million people. People in a small island nation, prided as one of the safest in the world. feel awful that such terror turned up on their doorstep, and they want to harness their feelings about this.
All over New Zealand people have gathered and held memorials during this time, and have expressed their love and common humanity with the victims, who had arrived in New Zealand from countries all around the world for safety and a better shot at life.
The Prime Minister then decided that in her capacity as the country’s leader, the memorial time would include the call to prayer, given the fact that it was during last Friday’s call to prayer that the shootings happened.
I’ve seen Christians express a range of emotions about it, all the way from a disinterested “meh” to a horrified outrage that what is plainly untrue (There is no God but Allah) is being broadcast around the nation.
The comment has been made that this is merely a capitulation to a false religion, and at the very time here in Australia our local parliaments are seeking to strike out The Lord’s Prayer in their chambers.
Let’s hold the outrage for a while if we can. We’ve seen enough argy-bargy all week from both sides of politics making mileage out of this for their own sakes. There’s little sense of dignity or decorum in that.
And I’m not sure comparing body counts from around the world (social media posts about “meanwhile this number of Christians have died and who cares about them?) is particularly helpful either, and probably just fuels your own anger.
This is a time to perhaps hold our tongues and be compassionate as our first reflex. And who can blame a secular nation for seeking the most obvious way to voice that compassion? After all what were you expecting?
What did you do to express compassion? I went to my local barber Ali, even though I hardly needed a beard trim, just so I could chat and see how my new Muslim friends were feeling.
Ali was teary as we talked, but beamed when I told him we prayed for the situation at church on Sunday. He said he was amazed and happy that Christians prayed for them. He then refused to charge me for my beard trim! Believe me, I’m in this for the long haul. I hope in thirty beard trim’s time we could be even talking Bible together, because Jesus will be the best friend he could ever meet.
So let’s not get caught up on what everyone is doing that you don’t like, just ensure you do something that expresses compassion when you get the chance.
But secondly this decision is clearly an act of secular confidence.
Have a read of the Islamic call to worship, the Adhan:
“God is the greatest.
I testify that there is no God but Allah.
I testify that Mohammed is God’s Prophet.
Come to prayer.
Come to security/salvation.
God is the greatest.
There is no God but Allah.”
Why is secular New Zealand so willing to allow this to be broadcast around the country, leaving aside the obvious matter of compassion?
Because secular New Zealand is confident that the Adhan is not in fact true. Secular New Zealand, like all post-Christian secular nations (and I would argue secularism is a Christian heresy), gives no weight to any god in terms of authority.
Secular New Zealand does not believe that security and salvation lie in Allah, but rather than both those ideals are possible in the progressive, modern god-evacuated public life that it is busy creating for its citizens. And if hosting such a prayer helps meet that noble end, then it’s probably the smartest thing to do.
You see it is not just that our God is weightless in the secular public square, every god is weightless.
It is not just that our God is seen to have no traction in shaping a compelling public moral vision in the secular public square, it’s that no god is seen to have such traction.
For the secular nation, every god is weightless when it comes to the crunch, when it comes to ultimate reality, when it comes to political actions and reactions, and when it comes to a vision of the good life it is shaping for its citizens.
I get the sense from some Christians that they’re annoyed by the idea that what secularists have so long fought for – removing the Christian frame from the public square and gaining that ground for themselves – is now being handed over to another religion.
As if that proves that secularists like Allah more than they like Jesus. As if New Zealand has somehow come under the thrall of Allah, after having been a purportedly Christian nation up until about five minutes ago.
However this misunderstands the goal of the secular state. The secular state is confident that Allah is not God alone, just as it is confident that Jesus is not God alone, just as it is confident that… [FILL IN THE BLANK]….is not God alone.
And since no god is god, except the unspoken god of the secular state, then the secular state is extremely confident that such a call can go out over the airwaves because all it is doing is expressing one opinion among many, rather than any particular public fact that must be adhered to.
Meanwhile the secular state rolls along nicely, ensuring that what religious people purport to be a public fact of such weight that all of life must bow the knee to it (either now or in the age to come), is merely a private opinion, one that is good for you, but not for me. One that cannot be totalised for the nation, never mind the whole earth.
The secular state is confident that it has tamed all of the gods, or is in the process of doing so, and so exhibits the largesse of the magnanimous winner who throws a sop to the vanquished; akin to Roger Federer giving his acceptance speech and thanking “whathisname” for turning up.
The gods are no longer a threat; they no longer carry the weight and authority that would threaten the secular agenda in any meaningful way.
What should the Christian response be? Well there are several. One immediate response would be to ensure that we don’t go around sounding miffed about what just happened, and instead start showing some compassion, with nary a “yes but what about…” in sight.
The other response might be to explore just how much weight our God has among us as His people, when we gather as His church.
We are, after all, a gathering that reflects the reality that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, by dint of his perfect life, substitutionary death on the cross and his triumphant resurrection.
Yet my primary concern is not that King Jesus has become weightless in our culture, but that he has become weightless in our churches. That’s where the rot sets in first. And that, according to 1 Peter, is where the judgement begins first.
Let’s make Jesus “heavy” again in our churches, and we might just see something happen in our public squares. That’s not to say we should vacate the public square, or settle in to quietism, but it is to say that we need to model what a weighty God looks like to ourselves, and live our lives as His people as if He held the weight that worship claims that he does.