Islam on the move in Örebro

In town today on a sunny Saturday afternoon we noticed a sprinkling of orange t-shirted, dark haired, olive skinned young men scattered across Våghustorget, one of Örebro’s busiest shopping squares. I was amazed to see on their shirts the words printed boldly, "Fråga mig om Islam" – Ask me about Islam – and then noticed that several of the "orange men" were engaged in earnest conversation with youths who were clearly ethnically Scandinavian. I walked past the tent that was apparently the Muslim base camp and noticed paper sample bags on trestle tables with the words "Converts packet" written across them.

As a believer in Jesus I wondered how to respond, and decided that what I saw was a good thing. We Christians have so often failed to stand publicly and proudly as representatives of Jesus in the marketplace. We have allowed secular governments and outspoken atheists to convince us that faith should be a private matter. We have retreated into our cosy fellowships, worried about offending people, scared that we might "put people off." Our society is becoming aggressively atheistic, increasingly secular, sadly materialistic, losing its connection with the force that made it what it is today, the simple but confronting teaching of Jesus. Western culture and society is tossed on a sea of confusion, set adrift from its Christian foundations, left foundering and wondering what faith really is all about. If the Muslim population of Örebro can contribute to putting faith and spiritual matters back on the public agenda it can only be a good thing.

Despite the changes in our society, thankfully many Swedish Christians have not remained silent, and indeed there is an increasing will among believers to speak out into the spiritual desert we see around us. From our own church here in Örebro believers are resolutely going into the streets to share the good news about Jesus with people they meet. In Stockholm the Jesusmanifestation has become a yearly event, when thousands of believers take to the streets to proclaim the message of Jesus. Christians regularly write to our local paper to present the Christian version of current events from a Biblical perspective. We have begun to realize that in our relationship with the living God we possess a treasure which it is selfish to keep back from the people around us.

The other thing that was encouraging as I reflected on these young Muslim men was the fact that they are presenting their message peacefully. The Western world has become increasingly terrorized by images of radical fundamentalist Islam. It is good to see another side of Islam, not as something to be feared because of the threat of violence, but as something to be considered for its merits. Muslims have started to understand that the Western world will never accept their message if it is presented with force. Such aggressive expansionism will just lead to conflict and hatred. If they want to be heard they must present their faith in a way that appeals to peoples’ hearts and minds, not that instils fear of reprisals.

For my part, Jesus will always have my allegiance. What I know of Islam, what I have seen, will not tempt me to convert, though I have Muslim friends who I respect greatly, and though there is much in Islam which impresses. I suspect that if Muslims could see Jesus with fresh eyes and not through the veil of a thousand years of conflict with Christians then they too would be impressed by what they saw. I suspect that Muslim people would find it hard to ignore this man on whose teaching the Western countries that they are now making their homes has built their political and social structures. I suspect also that if we followers of Jesus could present him as boldly and gladly as these orange men on the streets today were presenting their faith, that multitudes of secular Swedes would also stop and listen to us as they were listening to them. Perhaps next weekend there will be a crowd of Christians in the marketplace alongside the Muslim evangelists, with the words on their t- shirts, "Ask me about Jesus."

Therein lies the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. While their faith is about a religion ours is in a man who claims to be alive and who claims to be God.

The results of feeling outside

The week before last there was unrest in Örebro. In two suburbs there were acts of vandalism, primarily cars being set on fire. It happened on successive nights and there were various arrests made. Since then there has been much introspection and handwringing in the local press, and I suppose in the community in general. How could such a thing happen in such a prosperous land as Sweden? The general feeling is that it is all about the growing gap between rich and poor, the feeling of dissatisfaction of some people in the community that they are badly off when others have it all.

Ours was one of the two suburbs affected by the unrest, which was labelled an “upplop” by the press. Upplop can be translated as “riot” which seems to me to be something of an overstatement. The so called riot in Brickebacken amounted to the burning of a number of cars by vandals who rapidly disappeared from the scene. There was no crowd of angry young men shouting and throwing stones and bottles. You could almost wonder if the actions were the result of boredom, rather than anger. The press made a lot of it, but the local inhabitants of Brickebacken were quick to say how safe and secure they feel despite everything.

The paper contributed with an article summarizing the social and economic differences between various suburbs of Örebro. A couple of things stood out. The richest suburb, Adolfsberg, has a disposable income per household of more than 3 times that of the poorest suburbs. It also has more than twice the number of people with a tertiary education, and half the proportion unemployed. Needless to say, only 9% of those living in Adolfsberg has a foreign background, compared with 77% of Vivalla, which is one of the poorest suburbs.

Brickebacken, where we live, is not the poorest suburb though the average household income is still less than half of that in Adolfsberg. It is however, one of the most immigrant dominated areas, with some 53% coming from outside Sweden. Vivalla and Brickebacken were the two suburbs of Örebro affected by the so called riots.

Local politicians were asked for their opinions about the causes of the unrest, and their suggestions of solutions. The general consensus seems to be that the underlying problem is “utanförskap” – literally translated as “outsidership”. The perpetrators, like many in the community, feel outside. The solution, therefore, is to reduce this feeling of being outside. How to do that? Various ideas have been floated, but the general consensus is that educational opportunities need to be improved, free time activities need to be provided, especially for youth, and unemployment needs to be reduced, to give people more income, and to give them something to do with their time.

I read another editorial the other day which commented on Sweden as being, according to an international survey, one of the happiest nations in the world, with only a couple of other nations ahead of it (one of which was Australia!). The article wondered what happiness really is. Interestingly, I am fairly sure that the rich-poor divide in Australia is significantly greater than in socialist Sweden, even if according to the survey Australians as a group have it better than Swedes. I also remember seeing a documentary a few years ago about poverty in the UK, where the richest people earn up to 300 times the poorest, so a threefold difference in Örebro seems fairly trivial.

There is no doubt that a huge gap between rich and poor creates resentment and envy, a feeling of injustice. The revolutions of the last two hundred years bear witness to that. Neither is there any doubt in my mind that feeling like an outsider leads to discontent and depression. We all desire to “belong” and we all want a meaningful existence, where we do something worthwhile and where we are rewarded for our efforts. There are too many people who have neither a sense of purpose or belonging in our society. Helping people to gain that must surely be one of the major tasks of our times.

Vision of a new world

Its been a busy weekend in Sweden. Its Spring, so there is a buzzing in the air. Its Pentecost, which escapes the notice of a large part of the world, but which has deep meaning for us who follow Jesus, as the day when the Holy Spirit was “poured out” on believers after Jesus’ death and resurrection, making possible the continuing work of God in the world through his people. Yesterday there was a “Jesusmanifestation” in Stockholm, which has become an annual event the last 5 years or so, when Christians of all persuasions take to the streets to celebrate their identity as believers. This is particularly significant in Sweden where faith is seen as something private, not to be displayed to the world; the Jesusmanifestation gives Christians a chance to do something rather countercultural, to acknowledge with pride the one they believe in.

But most Swedes think little about Pentecost; they recognize the word, “Pingst” in Swedish, since it is a holiday, but its meaning is lost on them. For most Swedes yesterday the focus of their attention was not the coming of the Holy Spirit but the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which is celebrated in Sweden with religious fervor. Along with the majority of the Swedish population we gathered around the TV set last night so see this musical extravaganza, which I have to admit I enjoyed more than I have in years.

The winner was Denmark, with a fairly meaningless song sung by a very cute girl called Emelie. France had opened the evening with a particularly dark song about hell, which did not exactly set the tone for the celebration of friendliness that followed, but thankfully things got better (for the most part). My favorite tune was from Malta with a silly song about someone called Jeremy, sung by a young doctor who made me happy by his smile. Russia chimed in with a catchy song (written by a Swede) about unity and reaching out to the needy, catching the theme of Eurovision since its inception 57 years ago as a musical contribution to peace, so longed for after some 30 years of Europeans killing each other in two world wars.

It is easy to be critical of events like Eurovision. We Christians are famous for picking on such celebrations as godless tributes to the empty promises of humanism. Indeed, some even see in Eurovision something sinister, vaguely evil, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Similar criticisms have even been made of the European Union itself, which was also conceived as a means to prevent the tragedy of European conflict which had so horrified the world over the previous decades. Indeed there are aspects of Eurovision that are worrying for us believers, but I think our anxiety is misplaced.

God is never silent. He speaks into every situation and I found myself listening in last night’s performance for what he was saying. I remember a friend in Mercy Ships who always used to speak about how God “hijacks” situations, taking over with his agenda even when other plans have been made. I wondered if he would hijack the Eurovision song contest. It came, I believe, with the English contribution, though Bonnie Tyler was a long way from winning the competition with her song, Believe in me. But listen to the words. If this is not Jesus challenging the world then what is?

What ya gonna do when your ship is sinking?
And you’re crying out for help and just the seagulls listening
In the dark of the night, in the middle of the fight
When you’re reaching out for something and there’s nothing

Believe in me, yeah
Believe in the way I look at you and stand beside you
The way I speak the truth, I’d never lie to you
If you’d just believe in the things that your eyes can’t see

I read this morning the vision for the world of an ancient prophet of Israel, his name, Joel:

Our God, be kind and bless us! Be pleased and smile. Then everyone on earth will learn to follow you, and all nations will see your power to save us. Make everyone praise you and shout your praises. Let the nations celebrate with joyful songs, because you judge fairly and guide all nations. Make everyone praise you and shout your praises. Our God has blessed the earth with a wonderful harvest! Pray for his blessings to continue and for everyone on earth to worship our God. (Joel 3:1-7)

It could almost be a Eurovision song!

Fighting injustice in medieval Sweden

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Örebro is in an area of central Sweden called Bergslagen, which was particularly important in medieval times because of the rich deposits of iron, copper and other minerals. The mines are largely derelict now, lost to time, but in the 1400s they were an important part of the Swedish economy. The miners were, of course, poor. The mine owners were wealthy. As well as being an important commodity for local production iron was an important export providing income for the wealthy mine owners through sales and for the nobility through taxes. For the poor it provided employment and meagre wages to support their families.

The king in the 1430s was a certain Erik of Pomerania. Like many of the royalty of Sweden in those times he did not even live in Sweden, but in Denmark. Having said that, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland were joined as the so called Kalmar Union at that time, much as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are now joined in the United Kingdom. Erik ruled over all. He spent much of his time, and lots of money, fighting wars with neighboring Germany. These wars were financed by taxes collected largely from the meagre earnings of the miners and farmers of Scandinavia who had little or no interest in the king’s foreign adventures.

Nobles were appointed by the king to collect the taxes. Many were unscrupulous, even downright brutal in their execution of this privilege. One who was particularly hated for his cruelty and inhumanity was the sheriff of Västerås. He was known for his practice of punishing tax offenders by hanging them in smokehouses to suffocate them. Their wives would be forced to drag wagons piled high with hay through the streets. Pregnant women were not exempt, and contemporary writings record the premature labour and stillbirths that resulted.

The poor had, however, little power or opportunity to react to this injustice. Like the poor of all ages they tended to accept their lot, paralyzed by a fatalistic sense of impotence. They were angry certainly, but they lacked military training or resources, and most importantly, organization and leadership. Into this vacuum, however, stepped a man called Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson. He was a mine owner from the small mining community of Norberg, north of Västerås. His wealth and power made him in many ways closer to the nobility than to the workers and farmers. But in one important way he was completely different: he did not see the men and women of the communities around him as a faceless source of income for personal enrichment, but rather as people with their own intrinsic value. Hearing them, and seeing their suffering, and recognizing the injustice and cruelty of the nobility of the land, he decided to stand with the poor, rather than the wealthy and influential. He was a man of compassion and mercy. He was also a charismatic speaker and a leader.

The Engelbrekt uprising that resulted is a central event in Swedish history. It is the story of a fight against injustice, a fight that succeeded in a way that no rebellion of the common man had ever done so in Sweden’s past history. Sadly, Engelbrekt came to a tragic end, murdered by a fellow noble who had a grudge against him. He was only around 40 when he died. But he has lived on in the consciousness of Sweden as a figure symbolizing the strength of the ordinary people united against injustice. Within a few years of his death he was canonized and stories started to circulate about miracles happening to pilgrims visiting his grave. The Reformation put an end to his recognition as a saint, but he became instead a folk hero, and lives on even now in the minds of modern Sweden as a leader of the people.

Örebro is rich in memories of Engelbrekt, for Örebro Castle was his home for a short time after his military successes and before his violent death. In the town square there is a statue of Engelbrekt, erected in the 1800s, although it is an imagined likeness since no contemporary images of Engelbrekt exist. His name is seen on street signs and there is even an Engelbrekt school.

I am inspired by this man because of his willingness to follow what I understand to be the values and principles of Jesus. Despite his wealth and privilege, Engelbrekt threw in his lot with the poor. He was committed to justice and mercy. He stood against the evil he saw around him. His methods, it is true, were violent – armed rebellion – which is not the way of Jesus. But Engelbrekt lived in violent times, and perhaps knew of no other way to right the wrongs he saw around him. How much he understood the Bible and the mind of God we cannot know. Indeed, few people read the Bible in those days; it was not available in the language of the people. People were dependent on the biblical interpretation of churchmen who were educated in Latin. Who knows what they said.

We cannot know what Engelbrekt thought. We have no record of what he spoke to the miners and farmers who rallied around him. But we know what he did, and we know how he was remembered. And that tells me that he was a follower of Jesus, knowingly or not.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18, 19

Faith in the midst of despair in Bulgaria

I read an extraordinary article about Bulgaria today. It seems that despair has grasped the nation, due to poverty and corruption. There has been a string of suicides by people for whom life has become so hopeless that death seems the only way out. Bulgaria is one of the European Union’s smallest nations with a population of just 7 million, down from 9 million some 20 years ago. It is part of the area of Europe known as The Balkans, bordering on the Black Sea to the east, sandwiched between Romania to the north and Greece and Turkey to the South. Its capital has the beautiful name of Sofia. Despite its rich historical heritage the last 100 years have seen a string of failures. It sided with the Germans, the losers, in both world wars. In 1946 it became a Soviet state, another regime doomed to ultimate failure, and finally emerged as a democratic nation after free elections in 1989. But it seems as if Bulgaria has not achieved any real measure of prosperity, despite its nominal freedom. Put simply, Bulgaria is an unhappy land.

What amazed me about the news article I read was the response of the current president to this string of suicides. Beginning on April 5th, just over a week ago, the president called Bulgarians to three days of prayer for the nation, citing faith and hope as the key to future prosperity, health and well being. Bulgaria has a strong Christian Orthodox tradition despite years of Communism, and also is home to many Jews and Muslims. The president of Bulgaria was encouraging his countrymen to seek answers from God, believing that only there would they find the hope needed to save them from despair.

I thought of Bulgaria when I read Jeff Fountain’s weekly column later today. He spoke of the forces that threaten to destroy the faith of modern Europeans, particularly the present ascendancy of so called secularism. He wrote:

Today secularism threatens to swallow up the church. Yet it is not here for ever and ever, amen. It is not sustainable and tends to produce lifestyles that undermine sustainability. Charles Taylor in his weighty tome, A Secular Age, speaks of the ‘long march’ of secularism as it has developed over centuries. Yet he concludes: ‘we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no-one can foresee.’ No, God hasn’t finished with Europe yet! Who knows what the next 40 years will bring?

Secularism has little to offer the Bulgarians, as dependent as it is on relative material prosperity. The cynics might say that Christianity, indeed faith of any flavor, can only thrive in conditions of poverty and deprivation where people cannot find any other hope. They may say, like Marx, that religion is “the opiate of the masses,” a pain killer administered by the same oppressors who inflict the pain. That the only real path to happiness is economic prosperity and security and freedom form oppressive and corrupt regimes and that religion is just an imaginary solace for those stuck in grinding poverty.

Marx’s solution to world misery, which was communism, has failed. It failed Bulgaria, for a variety of reasons. It has failed many other nations that tried it and lost. The vacuum left by the fall of communism in Europe has sadly been filled by the moral bankruptcy of secularism. But it does not satisfy. Many, it seems, in former Soviet countries, wonder whether things have changed for the better. Some long for the old days of Soviet solidarity and state welfare.

We live in a prosperous western democracy, and unhappiness is rife. Suicide is no stranger to the society in which I live. Prosperous secularism should surely have taken away the need for the opiate that Marx spoke of. But though we may not feel the desperation that some Bulgarians feel, we are not living is some kind of utopian ecstasy. Indeed, the opposite often seems to be the case. Secular prosperity has failed to deliver that for which we long. Even without the oppressors that Marx railed against we still need an opiate, we still look for something to relieve the pain of existence.

As a follower of Jesus I believe that God has the answer. Not that I am always happy. But there is hope in Jesus, there is joy and there is love. And I don’t believe it is imaginary. I believe that Jesus was an historical figure and I believe that what he said about himself is true. I believe in things that are beyond what I can see, feel, touch. I believe in the unbelievable, the supernatural. Simply because Jesus said they were true, and because he proved his credibility by rising from the dead.

Bulgarians can chase after secular materialism. They may well achieve prosperity that way, though with the economy of Europe in its current state it seems unlikely to happen in the immediate future. They can also seek the prosperity that comes from knowing God, which is not dependent on material wealth for its promises. I believe that the keys to addressing both poverty and corruption lie in knowing and following Jesus, not in chasing after riches. I hope the people of Bulgaria find those keys. I hope we in our relative prosperity find them too.