I spent this last weekend in Granada, a city steeped in history. Not that visiting with two fifteen year olds is particularly conducive to the appreciation of history… But Granada – it was here that the Nasrid dynasty built the Alhambra palace and survived for over two centuries as the last bastion of Muslim Spain. Civil war internally, and pressure from “Christian” forces externally, finally led to the surrender of the city in November 1492, thus ending nearly eight centuries of Muslim presence and rule in the Iberian peninsula.
Having handed the keys of the city to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, Boabdil, the last Nasrid emir, headed south towards the coast. The path wound up and away from the fertile plains of the Genil river into the Alpujarra hills, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that lie between Granada and the Mediterranean. After riding for twelve kilometres with his back to the city, he turned for a final glimpse of his cherished Alhambra and broke down in tears, sobbing “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) in resignation to his fate. His mother’s retort figures amongst the most famous in Spanish history: “Weep, weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man”. The Al Badul pass where he broke down and that would forever hide Granada from his view now finds its identity in that event, being known in Spain as “El Suspiro del Moro”, The Moor’s Sigh.
Christian monarchs and Muslim emirs, Spanish Catholics and Moorish followers of the prophet Muhammad. This was not just another conquest, another battle won, another city possessed. Two civilizations had collided; the wa-la ghaliba illa-Llah of the Nasrids – “there is no victor but Allah” – had given way to the Te Deum and “Santiago, Santiago” of the new occupants. (Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, is popularly known as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moorslayer. His help was in constant demand during the centuries of reconquest, and, if legend is held to be true, on more than one occasion he was happy to oblige and make an appearance on his white horse to personally despatch a few thousand of the infidels…)
Conflict does not just happen because of religion — the reconquest had witnessed plenty of fighting within both the Christian and Muslim camps as well as cross-religious alliances against common enemies, of whichever faith. However, religion certainly helps to create a deep-seated sense of identity and belonging that can also fuel mistrust and antagonism of “the other”. For there is nothing like “otherness” to feed the flames of fear and hatred that contribute to conflict and emphasize the lines of separation between communities. When we understand a nation to be “a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours” (attributed to Karl Deutsch), religion becomes a powerful element in the creation and defence of perceived ethnicity.
This is what makes conversion such a touchy subject even today. To be Spanish – until very recently at least – was to be Catholic, albeit in name only; you are not expected to be practicing, or even to believe everything that the catechism says you are supposed to believe. It is a cultural construct, a national sense of belonging, rather than a personal faith or practice. To be Moroccan is to be Muslim, Sunni Muslim at that. After the wave of deportations in 2010 aimed at those who were perceived as a threat to national stability because of their “proselytizing” activities, the debate there about religion and national identity continues.
Whenever embracing the message of the gospel involves taking on a cultural identity not shared by the community, the potential for conflict exists; where a declaration of faith is identified with a foreign power, conflict is virtually guaranteed. Two notions follow on from these statements.
Firstly, it is vital that conversion be to Christ, not to “Christian culture”. Somehow, the peoples of the world need to have the chance to believe in Christ and then express that faith within their own cultural framework, whether African community awareness, Confucian filial piety or Western postmodernism. As any missiologist will confirm, separating “the gospel” from the cultural trappings with which it has become associated is not simple, but the inherent difficulty in no way removes the obligation. Then, just as the person of Christ must be central in proclamation, the person of the Holy Spirit must be trusted in the formation of Christian communities. In the West we tend towards cultural blindness to the syncretism of the Semitic gospel with Greek philosophical thought that produced Western theology. We are thus loathe to allow others the same freedom to explore creative understandings of eternal realities, being very quick to label as “heresy” anything that does not square with our own definitions and deductions. Both ecclesiology and theology need to be given the space to reflect local realities.
Secondly, the sooner the gospel is freed from identification with the West, the better. As long as Christianity is perceived as a Western religion then in many parts of the world conversion will remain an act of treason, a public political statement as much as a personal religious choice. We hear much about martyrdom and persecution in the Roman Empire, finally brought to an end by the conversion of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century. We hear less about the effects of this event on the then flourishing Christian communities in the Parthian Empire, Rome’s eastern neighbour and sworn enemy. Overnight, Christians became labelled as potential fifth columnists; the ensuing persecutions were massive and bloody, claiming many, many more lives than were ever lost under Roman emperors.
This imperative need for the de-Westernization of Christianity – in the eyes of the watching world, for statistically we are already there, and have been for a good few years – is the one consolation I draw from the progressive secularization of the West. If the conscious and deliberate moving away from their Judeo-Christian heritage that seems to have Western nations under its grip at present, together with the impressive growth of the non-Western churches, can contribute to the realisation that Christianity is not a Western faith, I for one will be happy.