Like most Australians I watched with horror the reports of a terrorist incident at a Mosque in Christchurch New Zealand killing some 49 people. It was an evil, despicable, and cowardly act, mass murder of innocent men and women as they took time to pray and worship, by a man evidently consumed with Islamophobia and white supremacy.
Like most Australians I was also shocked and horrified to read the remarks of Queensland Senator Fraser Anning who used this tragedy, not to sympathize with the Christchurch Islamic community, but to rationalize and rehearse his own prejudice at Muslims.
Anning condemned the perpetrator’s violent action, he then projects the blame for the incident not on ethnic-prejudice or religious hatred, but upon the multi-cultural immigration policies of New Zealand, and even upon Muslims themselves who Anning claims are normally the perpetrators of industrial scale murder. Even worse, Anning calls the attack not terrorism but an act of “violent vigilantism,” as if victims were guilty and someone was merely taking justice into their own hands to punish them.
Anning proceeds to demonize Islam as a type of religious fascism and to stereotype all Muslims as advocates for the killing of non-Muslims. And then, in a remark that is utterly callous as it is inhumane, Anning goes on to say that, “And just because the followers of this savage belief were not the killers in this instance, does not make them blameless.” Anning’s point is that Muslims are the equivalent of combatants who, it would seem, are culpable for their own deaths simply for being Muslim.
Jesus warns that violence begets violence and it is futile to resist senseless violence with further violence.
And if such remarks were not affronting and unfeeling enough, Anning then goes on to quote the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, “All that take the sword, shall perish by their sword” (Matthew 26:52), so as to claim that if Islam begets violence then one should not be surprised or empathetic when violence is visited upon them.
Anning distorts the word of Jesus as Matthew reports them. In context, Jesus is being arrested by the security apparatus of the chief priests, when one of his disciples grabs a sword and strikes the slave of the high priest. Jesus in turn admonishes him to put his sword away because taking up the sword means perishing by the sword. Jesus warns that violence begets violence and it is futile to resist senseless violence with further violence. Whereas Anning twists Jesus’s words to mean that violence against Muslims is merely the logical result of violence by Muslim extremists, Jesus asserts that violence creates a further spiral of violence and his disciples must extract themselves from such a deadly spiral.
So what is a Christian to think or do about such things?
First, we must pray for the victims and show solidarity with a fellow religious community for an act of senseless violence and hatred. It is truly sad that houses of worship of all kinds – Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques – have been increasingly targeted by extremists of all kinds all over the world. Whatever our differences about faith, we can respect and recognize the right of people to practice their faith without fear of reprisal or violence as they worship. This Sunday, 17 March 2019, is meant to be Mosque Open Day in Victoria. If you’re in Victoria and it still goes ahead (understandably it might not), make a visit and let your local Muslim community know that you’re praying for them.
Second, we must do all we can to ensure that public debates do not trade in prejudice and hatred. Immigration debate is appropriate, but xenophobia should never be accepted as normal in political discourse. Similarly, debating the limits of religious freedom is appropriate, but gaslighting the Australian public that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are out to harm gay children is unacceptable and only reinforces prejudices.
Third, beware of those who twist the words of Jesus for their own dark ends, or try to use Jesus to give a veil of legitimacy to their own dark and twisted prejudices. Call them out for it!
Fraser Anning is a mouthpiece of anti-Muslim hate and he has got to go in the next federal election.
Michael F. Bird is an Australian theologian and New Testament scholar at Ridley College in Melbourne.