I was new in this large Middle Eastern city, about to embark on a year of study. I was travelling in the women’s carriage of the tram, at a time of day that was relatively quiet. I was standing with a friend when suddenly a group of about seven young women formed a semicircle around us. They were heavily veiled including black gloves and suddenly I felt vulnerable.
They wanted to know what I thought about the prophet Muhammad and it felt like they were very aggressive in their questioning. I had come to the Middle East from South Asia where people were being imprisoned and sentenced to death for blasphemy, accused of saying something offensive about the prophet or the faith. I wanted to be careful not to offend, and as the questioning continued chose to respond in a language from South Asia which I hoped they would not understand.
How do we respond to questions that appear to be controversial? In our increasingly polarised world can we really give an answer. I continue to ponder that event and wonder how I could have created an opportunity out of this situation. I am sorry to say that fear shut me up.
There are a few different possibilities that I might consider.
I have thought about and tried in other contexts to give an invitation to the questioner to tell me about why this person or topic is so important to them, to use it as an opportunity to learn. I might even then be able to respond by sharing something about a person, Jesus Christ, or a topic that is similar that is important to me, to tell something of my story.
Another possibility is to simply say I don’t know because this is not my faith practice, then tell a story. I don’t always feel obliged to ask permission to tell a story, though I often do, when someone approaches me to speak about a religious issue.
Then there is what Jesus sometimes did, respond with a question. I often used this when girls where I worked challenged me about believing in three gods. Rather than start trying to prove what I believed I would ask a question that caused them to try to explain something unexplainable about God, using that as a place from which to talk about how unknowable and yet knowable God is.
On one occasion a senior teacher at the college where I was working called me out as a corrupt unbeliever in front of a group of other staff and senior students. She tried to make it sound like a joke, but I knew from other conversations she held very specific negative views about followers of Jesus. I was quite taken aback by this apparent rudeness. In one of the moments when God by His Spirit gives us what to say I responded to her with a very specific acknowledgement that as one who submits to God I had to agree with her, except that was not the end of my story. I went on to speak of God’s mercy and compassion and forgiveness that meant I was being changed. Later that week two teachers came to me, firstly apologise but then to ask me what it meant to be changed and how could I be sure.
I am no longer afraid to say, I don’t know. Once I thought I had to be able to answer everything. When I say I don’t know I use it as an invitation to explore our scriptures and faith together and see if we can find an answer.
I’ve found myself caught in arguments more than I would like to admit. However, my focus has grown to speak about that which cannot be disputed, my story as God is writing it.
How do you respond to those difficult questions and challenges that your friends confront you with?
© When Women Speak … October 2021
CH spent more than three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. She recently returned to a leadership role. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University