Since the Friday afternoon attack on the Al Noor mosque here in Christchurch on 15 March, nothing has been the same. Whether or not we have been haunted to sleeplessness, refused to forget it, wished it had never happened, carried on regardless, named the killer or not named him – here it is. Not there it was, but here it is.
I drove past the mosque today for the first time since the massacre, with its sea of wilting flowers, the lone policeman with his machine gun sweltering in the early autumn heat, on my way to the Christian Superstore in Sydenham to buy a Māori-English New Testament for a friend.
As I drove I prayed. I’ve been praying lately, for these tragic families, wondering every day how I can help them in some small way, as many others here have done. I have begun greeting people with the blessing, “As-salaam-alaikum, Peace be upon you”, and meaning it. I passed two young women in hijabs out at the university where I have spent the past twenty years trying to understand the world, myself, and my place in the scheme of things. I greeted them thus. They looked surprised, then blessed me in return.
A small thing? Perhaps. If nothing else, it seems like a way of saying, I have to change, I have to show more than just tolerance, more than live-and-let-live. We have to start doing a better job of caring for each other. Yes, I have Muslim friends, one in Iran, another here, but that’s too easy, to believe that people in the same intellectual culture as me, who have adapted to the role of making no waves, are the only ones I need to welcome and support here.
When I arrived at the Christian bookshop, I asked a bookseller where I could find a bilingual Māori-English New Testament, was shown to the shelves, and there was my prize – Te Kawenata Hou, The New Covenant. I went to pay and the woman asked me if I spoke Māori. Yes, I said, a little rusty these days, but yes.
As she handed me my New Testament, I thanked her, “Kia ora mō tēnā, As-salaam-alaikum – thank you for that, may peace be upon you”. She looked startled, nervous, two strange sounding exclamations together – what was I saying? “It’s Arabic”, I reassured her, “It means ‘peace be upon you, it’s the same prayer used by Coptic Christians as well as Muslims”, all in a possibly vain attempt to avail her of my newfound awareness, that a language we associate with a particular faith is used by many others – like English, like Māori.
I wondered later why I’d been so attuned to her reaction. Is it just the present situation where we are discovering what parallel lives we have been living beside our Muslim brothers and sisters, or something else? Our old colonial wounds, our own tense relationship with the place and power of Te Reo Māori, our historic resistance to change? Perhaps it’s just me being hyper-vigilant, over sensitive to others, wanting to build a bridge where none has been asked for.
I was reminded that these very words – “peace be unto you” – were the words John the Evangelist recorded in his Gospel, when Jesus appears to his startled and unbelieving disciples after his death and resurrection (John 20:19). Here is a link between Christians and Muslims, that makes less of any division and more of an historic unity. This ancient blessing has deep roots in the three great religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I should be looking for more connections, in people, as well as in holy writ. I wonder what the bookseller would think of this? Her shop, after all, is full to overflowing of the words of Jesus. As-salaam-alaikum.