Perhaps, over the past few days, you've picked up the news that here in Sydney we're going to have another religious billboard campaign:
CHRISTIANS in Sydney will have their core beliefs challenged by provocative advertisements due to appear on billboards and buses in the next month.
The ads, paid for by an Islamic group called MyPeace, will carry slogans such as ''Jesus: a prophet of Islam'', ''Holy Quran: the final testament'' and ''Muhammad: mercy to mankind''.
A phone number urges people to call to receive a free Koran and other Islamic literature.
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The organiser of MyPeace, Diaa Mohamed, said the campaign was intended to educate non-Muslims about Islam. He said Jesus was a prophet of Islam, who was to come before Muhammad. ''The only difference is we say he was a prophet of God, and they say he is God,'' Mr Mohamed said. ''Is it thought-provoking? Yes, it is. We want to raise awareness that Islam believes in Jesus Christ,'' he said.
It's a clever strategy, trying to cash in on the mainstream approval of “Jesus” amongst the general Australian population. I say “Jesus” because, of course, most Australians don't actually have anywhere near an accurate view of who Jesus is, let alone what it means to “believe in” Him. But the point still stands – it's a clever bit of marketing.
You can see what's intended by the next thing that the smh report…
Mr Mohamed said he hoped the billboards would encourage Christians and Muslims to find common ground. They were not intended to downgrade the significance of Jesus. ''We embrace him and say that he was one of the mightiest prophets of God.''
“Not intended to downgrade the significance of Jesus”. I trust you allowed yourself a little chuckle with that one. It is, one has to point out, a little disingenous to make such a statement. The argument that Islam makes (and which is being made here) is that Jesus is actually not divine, as the Bible clearly states, but rather simply a “prophet”, albeit “one of the mightiest”.
But friends, when you say that someone who is God is actually not God then how is that anything other than “downgrading”? But of course, it's not like that's a surprise – it's the official Islamic position. Why would we expect anything else?
The smh know where to go to for some comment:
The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Rob Forsyth, said it was ''complete nonsense'' to say Jesus was a prophet of Islam. ''Jesus was not the prophet of a religion that came into being 600 years later.''
But the billboard was not offensive, he said. ''They've got a perfect right to say it, and I would defend their right to say it [but] … you couldn't run a Christian billboard in Saudi Arabia.''
The bishop said he would pay for billboards to counter those of MyPeace if he could afford it, and ''maybe the atheists should run their billboards as well''.
A spokesman for the Australian Islamic Mission, Siddiq Buckley, said the campaign would increase awareness of the positive facts of Islam. ''I would be looking at this as a good opportunity to explain what we mean.''
And I for one would welcome it. Sounds like something we could stage as a public debate.
The following day's letters lead with this and demonstrate the breadth of understanding about the issues at stake. First, an “orthodox” response from Sandy Grant, Senior MInister at the pro-Cathedral in Wollongong:
Like the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Rob Forsyth, I defend freedom of speech for Muslims claiming Jesus as their prophet. But I believe they are mistaken.
A simple example: the Bible claims Jesus died on the cross, a benchmark of Christian faith. But although Jewish and Roman historians of the time, such as Tacitus and Josephus, and present day ancient historians such as the atheist Gerd Ludemann and the Jewish Geza Vermes, also accept this fact, the Koran (4:157) denies the claim.
Christians and Muslims might both be wrong. But we can't both be right.
Reverend Sandy Grant Wollongong
A similar sentiment is expressed in the following day's letters:
I support unequivocally the right of Muslims to believe as they do and to advertise their belief to others (“Jesus billboard loses its prophet margin”, May 30).
However, I believe it is disingenuous to say Muslims “believe in Jesus” and to suggest Jesus could be a point of common ground between Christianity and Islam.
Under Ottoman rule, my Christian ancestors were subjected to torture (including being flayed alive) for refusing to confess Jesus is/was only a prophet rather than the son of God. Did these people go to their deaths for a non-issue?
Obscuring the differences between Christianity and Islam will not result in true friendship: only the semblance of it.
Jonathan Vasiliou Mascot
The flip-side is the “don't we all just believe in the same thing – the concepts?” approach. What I like to call the “you're all blind men who can't see the elephant but I have 20/20 vision and have so much more insight” position:
I applaud the efforts of MyPeace to try to educate people about the Islamic embrace of Jesus and seeking to find common ground between Christians and Muslims, if that's what they're trying to do.
I don't know whether most Christians believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus but the death and resurrection is a very powerful symbol. The early Christians trying to convert people in Europe did not tell them they could not celebrate their traditional festivals, they grafted Christian meanings on to them.
''Easter'' was a spring celebration in honour of Eostre, the goddess of the dawn. You can see the related meanings: spring as the return of life after the winter; dawn as the return of light; the resurrection as the life beyond death.
These meanings resonate with the soul and give people hope.
I don't believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus but I understand the truth of what it symbolises.
Elizabeth Andrews Clovelly
In response to Bishop Forsyth's suggestion of an atheist billboard to counter Islam's claim on Jesus, it might read something like this: ''Jesus, a pawn in the hands of religious power brokers to perpetuate their gods created by men.''
Maybe it's not such a good idea after all, Rob.
Alex O'Hara Burringbar
The first is, of course, a classic position that we hear a lot. It's Schweitzer remasked. And the second is something that, no doubt, you've encountered, particularly by the pop-atheists. You remember them? They, amongst other things, claim that they have a decent moral framework with no need for God – usually explained (in my experience) with a massive dose of profanity and invective. The answer to them comes in today's letters…
No, Alex O'Hara (Letters, May 30), your text for an atheist billboard about Jesus is far too long. Given the propensity for profanity among unbelievers your billboard should simply say – Jesus: atheists swear by him.
Kel Richards Lane Cove
It's funny because it's true.
So what to make of all this? Archbishop Cranmer has the right answer, I think…
His Grace would like to recommend a better way:
Instead of whingeing, fuming and fulminating, why not thank the Lord for the MyPeace advertisements, and as the Apostle Paul did at the Areopagus, seize the opportunity to tell Muslims that Jesus is not merely a prophet, but the Son of God and Saviour who died that they all may be free from the law of Allah which binds?
“Men of Islam! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found a billboard with this inscription: JESUS: A PROPHET OF ISLAM. Now what you worship as Isa the prophet I am going to proclaim to you…
This is a model for Christian proclamation.
Ask people: 'Have you seen the billboards? What did you think about it? Do you know who Jesus really is? Have you read the gospels?' And so rather than react negatively to it we can take it as an opportunity for sharing our faith.
I very much agree. This is another massive opportunity to talk about how we know what we do about Jesus. The New Testament is a far more reliable testimony of Jesus than the Qu'ran so I'm grateful to Muslims for raising the issue. But wold you be prepared to give an explanation for why they're wrong?