A sad story reminiscent of Oldham

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In today’s Guardian is a story about ten men from Rotherham, currently in court charged with violent disorder due to a clash with a far-right group. The men were attending an anti-fascist demonstration in Rotherham town centre following the death of an 81 year-old Muslim man. On the same day, Britain First staged a protest – one of a number of far-right demonstrations in the town following the child abuse scandal linked to a segment of the Pakistani community (1). The prosecution do not deny that the far-right group provoked the men with vile racist abuse and were the initial physical aggressors. However, having started a fight and found themselves outnumbered, the prosecution allege the men went beyond what could reasonably be considered self-defence. The trial is ongoing.

The case is an interesting one because it mirrors something very close to my own town. Oldham, like Rotherham, was implicated in child sex abuse scandals linked with a section of the Pakistani community. Indeed, there was a link between the rings in Rotherham and Oldham. Just like Rotherham, we too have found Britain First staging demonstrations in the town centre.

Every month, Oldham Bethel Church go into Oldham town centre for an Open Air. At our most recent meeting, on our arrival, we were greeted by the sound of militaristic music, skinhead men dressed in stereotypical far-right garb and a large banner stating, more than a little provocatively, ‘No more mosques’ whilst handing out similarly inflammatory printed materials containing some choice headlines. Whilst there were no fights (as far as I’m aware), there were more than a few raised voices from both White and Asian locals. Local police soon came along to act as ‘a presence’ after Britain First members provoked reactions from passersby and subsequently filmed any infuriated response in a bid to suggest they were the victims of local aggression.

Most troubling of all, Britain First were claiming to be a Christian group. As we were conducting our Open Air, more than a few (rightly) concerned people asked whether we were linked. It did give us a good opportunity, not only to distance ourselves from Britain First, but to share the true gospel of Jesus Christ that transcends the boundaries of race (cf. Galatians 3:28). Incidentally, this same weekend also saw local Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon groups out in the town. It brought home the importance of being a public gospel witness in the town, sharing the truth of what the Bible actually teaches and speaking in a winsome way to those who actually want to engage rather than seeking to provoke and impose views on others.

As I write this, I am watching a documentary called Americas Hate PreachersI rather suspect those included represent exactly the kind of image conjured up when people think of street preachers. Such people ought to be called out for exactly what they are. They neither preach the true gospel nor represent the person of Jesus Christ. They exist only to provoke and ignore the grace of God, choosing to focus only on his wrath and justice, an overemphasis ironically shared by the many Muslims with whom they take such issue. They use vile language, ignoring Colossians 4:6 and Ephesians 4:29, and teach a legalism that condemns other ‘sinners’, a label they believe does not apply to themselves (contra 2 Corinthians 3:6; 1 John 1:8-10).

Whilst we should not shy away from speaking about the reality of sin, we must surely be clear that we all – Christian and non-Christian alike – fall short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23). Whilst we should be clear that God is indeed a God of justice, the gospel is nonetheless a message of grace. Note what the apostle John says:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16f)

As the apostle Paul puts it:

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Romans 10:9-13)

As he goes on to explain:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

This is why preaching the gospel is vitally important. As Paul said, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith”.’ (Romans 1:16f). It is why not only preaching is important, but preaching what is truly in the Bible. That gospel which transcends boundaries of race and relies not on legalistic law keeping but the grace of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Notes

  1. Note there is no suggestion that this is a problem unique to the Pakistani community nor that most Pakistanis are in any way engaged in such things. It is just the case that these particular scandals were linked to a segment of the Pakistani communities in the respective towns.
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