Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Ranting pastor McConnell needs to know when to be quiet

Pastor James McConnell
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It's easy to dismiss Pastor James McConnell's vilification of Islam as the irrelevant rantings of a deluded old gentleman. After all, how many times have we heard similar outpourings from hardline evangelical preachers over the years: you know, the usual stuff about how hurricanes are sent from God as a punishment against licentious gay people, or how Harry Potter is not a speccy fictional wizard, but a temptation sent from Beelzebub to lure youngsters into evil ways?

Weird, superstitious, magical thinking, laced with more than a little old-fashioned paranoia. Too bizarre even to bother getting especially annoyed about.

The recent claims made by Pastor McConnell – that the Islamic faith is "heathen", "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell" – sound equally ludicrous. It's the language, apart from anything else: all that lurid devil-talk.

Satan always seems to be poised somewhere close, perhaps lurking behind the nearest bush, ready to jump out and annihilate our souls. And "spawned in hell" sounds more like the title of a ho-hum horror flick than anything approximating to a reasonable description of a major world faith. That's why it's difficult to take such hysterical pulpit-thumping very seriously.

But we should sit up and take notice, all the same. Because, in some ways, Pastor McConnell is a very powerful man. He presides over an enormous pentecostal church, the Whitewell Tabernacle, hovering like a giant spaceship down on the Shore Road, where thousands of people gather each week to hang on his every word and a hundred-strong robed choir accompany all the hymns.

It's glossy and glitzy: with its chandeliers and velvet curtains; one observer said it looked like a six-star hotel. Peter and Iris Robinson were part of the congregation at the time of the Kirk McCambley scandal and a number of high-ranking DUP politicians are still known to attend.

So this isn't some obscure, backwoods operation in a barn somewhere north of Cullybackey. It's slick and influential, a wealthy, confident church which has the ear of government, right there in the front row, ready to hear what the charismatic pastor has to say.

Do these worshippers endorse their spiritual leader's condemnation of Muslims as a heathen bunch who cannot be trusted?

Coming in the context of a dramatic rise in the number of racist attacks in Northern Ireland, Pastor McConnell's remarks couldn't have been made at a worse time.

To those intent on attacking somebody, because they look, or sound, different, such irresponsible, inflammatory words could potentially be seized upon and used as a justification for further hatred.

They feed intolerance, fan the flames of suspicion, reinforce the insular notion – already deeply engrained by decades of bitter sectarianism – of "us" and "them".

I'm not surprised that Raied Al-Wazzan, of the Belfast Islamic Centre, has contacted the police, adding that he would hold Pastor McConnell "responsible for any racial attacks on any Muslim in Northern Ireland".

Speaking on the BBC Nolan Show after the Belfast Telegraph first reported the story, Pastor McConnell was unrepentant, responding to critical questions by claiming that sometimes it is necessary to demonise people. He was also keen to highlight the case of 26-year-old Meriam Ibrahim, who has been sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy, the so-called "crime" of refusing to renounce Christianity.

It is, indeed, an atrocious, barbaric situation. Ibrahim, who is eight months pregnant, is shackled to the wall of her cell as she awaits her execution. Her 20-month-old son is with her in jail. When Ibrahim has given birth, she will be taken away and hanged, leaving her two young children motherless.

Appalling as it is, none of this justifies Pastor McConnell's intemperate outburst. Speaking of Islam as one homogeneous spiritual body, a single uniform entity to be condemned in its entirety, is an act of pure, wilful ignorance.

In fact, by caricaturing the faith in this way, it distracts attention from the serious human rights abuses which actually are carried out in the name of Islam. Pastor McConnell merely makes himself look foolish and drains his words in defence of Meriam Ibrahim of all meaning. Rants about Satan won't help her.

But that's what's so troubling about the evangelical tradition in Northern Ireland. There's too much feeling, not enough thinking. Too much heart, not enough head. Too much ranting, not enough listening.

Reason is not incompatible with faith. It's what tells you when it's a good idea to speak out and it also tells you when it's a better plan – smarter, kinder, more socially responsible – to keep your mouth firmly shut.

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