Further on James McConnell and Islam

The three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have many things in common, and perhaps the most significant is that they all claim exclusive truth.

That is to say, there are elements in each faith, belief in which is mutually exclusive, such as the differing views of Jesus between the three faiths – he cannot be solely a prophet, a false Messiah and the Saviour of the world all at the same time.  The three faiths thus stand in opposition to each other.

That perhaps is the lens through which we should see Pastor McConnell’s remarks, one where a Christian pastor who believes that Islam is not the way to God, but Christianity most certainly is, must out of integrity proclaim Christ as the only way and all other religions by implication false.

I then step back a bit and look at the big picture.

Perhaps through a different lens.

Maybe through the lens of St Paul.

Throughout the book of Acts, Paul is recorded as reasoning from the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah with members of local synagogues. In Athens, a city with altars to every member of the Greek pantheon and at least one more just to be certain, he referred to their altar “to an unknown God” and quoted their own poets – he came to them where they were with absolute integrity, he challenged thinking, and proclaimed the truth as he believed it. Many people sneered and turned away, perhaps deeply offended that he was challenging their beliefs, but others listened and either wanted to know more or were converted.

Now, suppose Paul had started by telling everyone that the Greek pantheon was satanic and heathen.  He would have lost his audience before he’d even started.

It would have been worse had he started with local Jews by telling them they were of the Devil. Now, Jesus did call the Pharisees children of the Devil, but that was only after they had heard and rejected his message, and he had also pointed out their hypocrisy in telling people how to live, but then not living up to it themselves. Instead, Paul reasoned carefully that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The lesson from Paul is this: remember that people who belong to faiths other than your own are your mission field. Christians, Muslims and Jews cannot be asked to deny their exclusive truth claims, and in the end we have to let people choose to be “wrong.”

However, if I, as a Christian, criticise a whole religion by reference to its most extreme elements, rather than remembering the vast majority of ordinary Muslims in Belfast and elsewhere whose only intention is to live quietly alongside their neighbours, working hard and honouring Allah, I should not be surprised if they take “gross offence” and I thus lose any chance to tell them why I believe that Christianity is the only way to God.

The same principle applies when talking to the non-religious. With them, I have to begin in a world with no concept of the significance of God, let alone “jargon” like sin, salvation and so on.  Start by telling them how awful they are, and you lose them because it’s something of which they have little or no concept, and you’ve just dehumanised them.

In summary: this may be a free speech issue, but does the freedom to say what you wish come at the price of losing your effectiveness because you have lost more of your audience than you have gained by saying it?

{There could be a parable there for our politicians. Playing to the gallery of your own resulting in losing confidence from the other side.}


  • Chris Jones

    I am reluctant to debate this as he is before the court but the Article 10 right to free speech isn’t absolute. It is constrained by

    “such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

  • AndyB

    I hadn’t even considered the Article 10 argument, to be truthful!

  • aminahyaquin

    This is a very insightful article but your main premise can be argued against quite cogently and of a necessity, so that conversion ceases to be the main motivator in any conversation with a member of one of the three great Abrahamic religions besides one’s own.
    Only Christianity claims a monopoly on God. Judaism simply asserts that God is one and that is also true of Islam. It is Christianity that at the Nicene Council took a vote which was politically motivated and came up with the Trinity as a coerced concept which of itself separates the other two religions from communion, shall we say.
    Finally, Jesus did not convert anyone, nor did he see that as his aim; he forgave many and invited some to his faith path, others he left to practice their own but also forgave.
    His faith path was unequivocally a call to the one God the father and those on that path as guided by Jesus therefore have no beef or fundamental reason to hate, despise, or coerce anyone who is a Jew or Muslim . In point of fact, it is the followers who preach and change the course of the religions that are founded after the gifts of prophecy that awaken the love for God as modeled by a holy one, and the followers of the religions that are open to all who love the one God faithfully who impose their own notion of exclusivity on their faith and that in denial of God’s own invitation to every human to worship God.
    So, as a Muslim, I find that the cynical nature of this essay in its practical guise of trying to be less odious in persuading people that one’s own path is the only true path to God, is anathema, but the actually beautiful spirituality of being mild instead of hatefueled, is quite blessed.

  • Trevorabh

    It would appear McConnell is being done on a technicality. Some might say a slap it up ye like Capone, others that he’s being persecuted. Either way, and I didn’t agree with his comments and still don’t, you must admire that he’s willing to face the music rather than accept the caution.

    He knows that he can play the role of martyr now. That’s got to be pretty powerful for one who believes in the righteousness of his cause?

  • Thomas Girvan

    After listening to Talkback, it seems the main bone of contention, is not what he said about Islam, but the manner in which he has been treated by the PSNI and the other agents of the law, compared to Republicans who have said things in public, that would be deemed offensive
    Pastor McConnell acknowledged that he had regrets about what he said and apologised for the words he spoke. He was subsequently spoken to by the PSNI, and offered a warning which he declined to accept.
    The main contention seemed to be why the Druids were not even spoken to by the PSNI after their contentious remarks at the Ardoyne fleagh.
    It seemed that the technical difference was about posting the remarks on social media.
    Then the question arose,did the PSNI attempt to find out who posted it on Youtube?
    Then it was queried why the bandsmen playing a tune at the Chapel where there are no residents and the building was empty, were brought to court, and convicted, when they didn’t post it on the net.
    Apparently it was posted by a Sinn Fein activist, who has not been questioned. So how does that work?
    So there you are, it will be interesting to see how it pans out and we can all watch with interest to see how the law is being deliverd impartially, in Northern Ireland. and public money is being spent in times of austerity.
    Maybe Gerry “Landrover” Kelly could explain.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Or is he just protecting his brand identity? Have annual subs to the Whitewell Tabernacle been cancelled since his sermon?

  • Granni Trixie

    So you take a definition of an issue as it has evolved on Talkback as gospel? Or is it because it suits? What I took from Talkback discussion was that some contributers appropriated the original issue to change it into one concerning the Druids. Ostensibly this was to question if there was consistency in applying the law but really it was a load of whataboitery. (Sorry about spelling – predictive text won’t let me correct!)

    Also, the Pastor did not make an apology in terms of acknowledging the wrong but in terms of “if I gave offence to anyone” something supported by his not signing a police warning. His vile utterances were amplified not only because of u tube but because Of Peter Robinsons defence – which,whether or not it was intended, consisted of more insults.

    No matter how ‘sincerely’ the Paster has such feelings towards Muslim it’s hardly Christian is it? And remember “by this shall you know them….”.