Sound and Vision

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

On no less than three occasions in the last couple of months, we’ve seen complaints in the media over the activities of some Christian groups. In every case the problem was ostensibly noise. And in every case, we’re left with the distinct impression that, while volume might be a problem, people objected to the content, too.

Now, I would be amazed if there were more than a handful of individuals in the entire country who actively object to the basic lessons of the New Testament. Love thy neighbour and live peaceably with him; turn the other cheek when struck; forgive others for their actions – these values and others underlie virtually everything we as a society hold dear.

So why, then, do some begin to feel uncomfortable when others celebrate these lessons joyfully, loudly and at length?

In a 1995 report by a Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches, church members from numerous denominations sat down together to consider the ways in which proselytising might actually be seen as threatening by some churches. In a nutshell, they found that spreading the Good News was not always a welcome activity, especially in places where other churches had already established themselves.

The Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches are particularly touchy about what they call ‘canonical territory’ – areas they consider their own. In some cases, people performing missionary work door-to-door (public events were out of the question) were arrested repeatedly by authorities.

Some churches and religions consider proselytising to border on coercion. They claim that belief is a matter of conscience, and that people must invite conversion before any approach is made.

Sometimes, the contrast between some churches and their approaches seems to be driven more by personal inclination than anything else. For example:

Francis of Assisi was sainted in part for his endless desire to preach to others. Such was his devotion that he crossed the battle lines between the crusading Christian army and the Muslim host, led by Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. Francis so impressed the Sultan that he was given permission to preach among the Muslims.

The Franciscan approach was a quiet one, performed by individuals who spoke only to those willing to listen. This aligned well with the Koran’s assertion that ‘there be no compulsion in the religion….’ The Franciscans who traveled into the Islamic world were largely unsuccessful, but with only one or two exceptions, they were respected, even welcomed.

Others, though, are not so staid in their approach. Some claim that the Christian message is something to be reveled in, shouted from the roof tops if need be and celebrated in song at every opportunity.

When these two approaches co-exist, some degree of friction is a near-certainty. Imagine two Art lovers: a constant reader and a music aficionado. While the two would no doubt agree on countless fundamentals, it’s doubtful they’d want to spend more than a few hours under the same roof. Between the reader’s love of silence and contemplation and the music lover’s passion for noise, there’s little common ground.

While a pair of headphones could easily reconcile the reader and the music buff, no such remedy is available for neighbouring (and sometimes rival) churches.

The problem is made worse when doctrinal differences come into play. I have on more than one occasion been passed literature claiming that the Papacy is a creature of the Antichrist. While I’ve got more than a few reservations about many aspects of Papal history, that kind of open enmity makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Sometimes, the reader objects not only to the volume, but to the music itself.

So how do we all get along? With some recently-arrived churches being treated as interlopers and others looking askance at one another’s doctrine, can we arrive at an accommodation?

Well, we could always take our cue from a rather sage individual who suggested a couple of thousand years ago that if we start by loving one another and treat our own desires as secondary to others’ needs. That might help us to make a start.

While the conflicts between congregations and churches in Vanuatu remain little more than a nuisance right now, I feel it’s important to keep it that way. My own parents left their homeland, economic exiles fleeing the effects of 400 years of religious conflict. Argue as much as you like over the rectitude of a given doctrine or belief, but remember: We all have responsibilities towards our neighbours. Conflict isn’t one of them.

The WCC report recognises that ‘God’s mission towards a “reconciled humanity and a renewed creation”… is the essential content and impulse for the missionary witness of the Church.” But it does not anywhere suggest that the end justifies the means. While we may not be able to reconcile ourselves to the intransigence and petty differences all individuals inevitably experience with their neighbours, that does not mean we cannot recognise that these differences will certainly persist.

Playing less music may run counter to our taste, but playing it louder and more often isn’t going to make any more readers into music lovers.