Called to be neighbours

Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships

“Even though Jews, Christians and Muslims share the same covenant, in many of our cities and towns we continue to live as strangers to each other. A positive foundation from which to connect with persons in other faith communities is recognition of some of the gifts they bring to the human community. For instance, through Judaism, Christians can connect to the covenantal faithfulness of God; Islam illustrates the joy of life lived in obedience to God’s will; the spiritualities of indigenous peoples encourage a deep reverence for God’s natural creation; Buddhism offers contemplative ways to connect to the divine; and Hinduism in its varieties brings the gift of tolerance. Engaging in dialogue with positive expectation offers the possibility of sharing mutually beneficial spiritual gifts as well as overcoming past hostilities.”

This is a short paragraph from a document I found on the United Methodist Church website. One of the most important aspects of interreligious dialoue is the need to affirm the gifts others do bring to the human community.

I’ve been thinking about a whole new way of being open to the other. The abundance of grace and beauty that is yet to be affirmed. And it doesn’t contradict the integrity of one belief system. Because the belief itself is characterised by openness, diversity, infinite horizons, multiple possibilities. As much as there is good to affirm in the lives of others, other cultures, other faiths, other perspectives, there is the not so good that needs to be recognised in our own identities. Living life with a certain openness, engaged with others, respecting the value and importance of difference, is one way to guard against superiority. The division between good and evil runs not between us and them, but through us. Every human heart is broken and beautiful. Every expression of faith, by definition, requires another voice, perspective. We depend upon others for our sense of being in this world. Our very unique spiritualities are shaped by countless others, whether we choose to recognise them or not. We are, together, beautiful.

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The unexpected Christmas

The wonderful thing about the ‘real’ Christmas is the surprise of it. It’s not the predictable Christmas we’ve made it. The nativity was a series of unexpected events. It is the coming of the glory of God to the ordinary, everyday, messy, unscripted adventure of life. Now I know it’s January 8th and this Christmas blog is a bit delayed… but at Church we’re still on Matthew 2, studying the nativity, and anyway the message of Christmas is for the other 364 days too!

So, I was very moved by an article in the Church Times of a talk given by Tony Jordan, the director of the BBC series The Nativity which was first broadcast last Christmas, and repeated this year. Despite earlier ideas of presenting a comedy nativity set around an Inn, Jordan gradually became fascinated by the richness of the original story, and began some “research” into the history of what happened. He found a great variety of interpretations, historical insights that seemed contradictory and even realised the gospel account of Matthew and Luke told the nativity from different perspectives. However, when he began talking to “people of faith”, as Jordan put it, he was surprised: “in the face of everything I put in front of them, there was still this all-consuming faith that none of that mattered”. He argues “the one thing that stays is the heart of the story. Everything else is secondary detail”. He questions: did it really matter if Quirinius wasn’t the governor of Syria then, or not? What was produced, I hold, was an incredibly imaginative, yet equally faithful, piece of drama that wrestles with the reality of each character.

In The Nativity – and as I also read and imagine in the gospels – Mary was scared, hurting, and Joseph ran away at first. What would you do if your girlfriend turned up pregnant? You know you haven’t slept with her so putting two and two together means that someone else must have. So you blame the solider, you blame her, you blame yourself. The shame on the family must have been unbearable. And suddenly in the shock of it all, the heart of the gospel hits home: the surprise of God becoming incarnate in a young girl is too much. We turn to explanations, and blame, and anger, and frustration. And what seems to stem from this unusual twist in the plot is that God reveals herself in the reality of life, in the joy and the misery, in the frustration and the pain, in the most human of actions. And nothing – no status of wealth, nor social status, nor even social behaviour – was to be a barrier for God’s light to be born into the world.

I can’t help smiling at the irony of the wise men, who must have thought just like we do. “A saviour, a new King born today? We’re gonna need the finest gifts! Let us spend all our savings on some gold, some frankincense, something that will fit in with the undoubtedly rich palace this new king will be born into!” Could they be more wrong? It must have been fairly embarrassing walking up to the back of a shed on a farm out of town, dressed like royalty, handing over gold to a young unmarried girl, with sheep shit on her dress, Joseph in tear, in sorrowful repentance, having narrowly missed the birth of his son for fear of the consequences he’ll face. For me, this is God’s unconditional and saving love finding home in every corner of our lives, the unexpected, the surprising, and the mundane.

Finally, Tony Jordan ends his piece with the following: “There was nothing in my version of the nativity which is at odds with the Gospel of Luke or Matthew at all, not one thing. One of the most extraordinary parts of the story is when Joseph really finds his faith. Wow – isn’t that what the story is really about? Doesn’t Joseph represent us? Doesn’t Thomas the shepherd represent us when he kneels down and kisses the feet of Christ?”

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Any theology that justifies occupation, oppression, and the denial of human rights is an outrage to God

Any theology that justifies occupation, oppression, and the denial of human rights is an outrage to God. And I wonder why I’m often more comfortable with those who say ‘religion is a cause of the world’s problems’ than those who blindly adhere to religious dogma for their own political goals… At least those who rule out religion altogether have the courage to point to where ‘religion’ does corrupt humanity. We need the voice of religion’s critiques. However, I’m also not persuaded that all religion causes oppression, suffering, and all the ills of the world.

As I mentioned in my introduction to this blog I’m often too ready to lose the ‘Christian’ label, sadly. This highlights the tension in my faith, the frustration, and the disappointment, which ironically leads me to the cry for more of the true spirit of God. Yeah, I can laugh at the hypocrisy of the prosperity gospel preachers with their millionaire homes, or the sandwich board street preachers selling the ‘turn or burn’ ideology. But when it comes to forms of Christian Zionism actively justifying Israel’s occupation, oppression and the denial of human rights in Palestine, I am furious. This type of theology actively destroys human flourishing, diminishes diversity, and plants seeds of evil. Human flourishing, diversity, peace, reconciliation are all part of God’s dream for the world.

And yet I follow a Palestinian man, who lived his life under occupation, who suffered at the hands of those He had created, called Jesus Christ. Logically ‘Christian’ means ‘following Christ’. So, I guess I am a ‘follower of Christ’, but not a Christian who justifies racism, exclusion as part of their religion. I find it strangely consoling that Jesus himself wasn’t a Christian, and in fact he was mocked for being the so-called “King of the Jews” – the label given on his cross by the soldiers to make a mock of him. (Of course Jesus was also the perfect Jew).

In Luke’s gospel Jesus reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy that he would be a servant, proclaiming “good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61), which was lived out in his life, where Jesus countered forms of domination, so that Jew AND Gentile, Samaritan AND Centurion, male AND female could participate in a Kingdom of service for the other, in love, with care and a concern for justice for the “least of these”: those without clothing, food, who are trodden on, have no parents, occupied, oppressed, who are lonely, poor, weak (Matthew 25, and 5:1-12). All the prophets spoke of justice, peace, mercy – Isaiah’s saw a vision of the lion and the lamb sharing the abundance of God’s grace – and longed to see Israel established with justice and righteousness. How they would grieve if they saw how unjust the state of Israel today has become: declaring war and building walls for “security” that exclude others, denying the social, economic, political, geographic rights of the Palestinians; unlawfully claiming land and building illegal settlements; infiltrating media sources to dehumanise the other. And how a ‘theology’ backs this up…?! Not in our name. Never. For the prophets of the Jewish and Christian faiths, I am convinced, an Israeli dream is not an Israeli dream, until it is also a Palestinian dream.

(By the way my knowledge of Zionism is fairly limited, I’ve seen enough to state “Any theology that justifies occupation, oppression, and the denial of human rights is an outrage to God” but for more on the theology of a misguided Zionism, and its consequences see:

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Ubuntu, our global body

Taken from the Student Christian Movement UK blog:

For the fourth blog in our series leading up to the SCM Autumn Gathering, ‘No Hands but Ours’, Durham University student Sam Slatcher explores the global nature of Christ’s body:

In celebration of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth Birthday, I feel a mention of Ubuntu is necessary. This is especially as the concept of Ubuntu, I am discovering, is rather like the theme of this series “No hands but ours”.

Ubuntu is an African spiritual philosophy of human solidarity, which roughly translates as “I am a human, because you are a human”. Desmond Tutu, writing in the context of the Apartheid in South Africa, puts it: “If you dehumanise another, you are yourself inexorably, dehumanised”.The reason I am particularly drawn to Ubuntu – and Desmond Tutu’s articulation of such a term – is because of Tutu’s radical commitment to the inclusion of all peoples. Despite his official retirement from Public life last year, Tutu finds it difficult to remain silent where human rights are denied. Tutu often refers to the global family, arguing it would be ridiculously to demand a baby to pay the same as its mother: “each according to their ability” Tutu reminds us.

If we are to rethink the body (i.e. the family) as the human diversity of our planet, of the people in the street of all colours, creeds, cultures, and complexities, and we read again St Paul’s words in Corinthians: “If one part [of the body of both Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it”, then we begin to grasp what ‘our’ collective body is. When I think of the poem “No body but ours”, I am reminded that “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (Corinthians 12:12). It’s not that Christ is outside of our realm of being, intervening when we pray, rather that the spirit of God, the reincarnation of Jesus, is among us – and that we are the “body of Christ”.

Back to Ubuntu: we have a wonderfully diverse, multiple, and holistic body to look after! The concept of Ubuntu reminds us that we need every part to be fully itself, in order for us to be fully human. Therefore we must look after our body! When one part suffers, we are inescapably caught up in the same suffering. To live-out Ubuntu (our global body) we must understand the ways in which our humanity is caught up in the humanity of the other, where there exists a complex web of relations to others within our body. This understanding of our inter-connectedness, coupled with the command to love our neighbour as our self, should be our driving motivation for our campaigning, for example, to end the UK government’s support of the arms trade – motivated by our sense of injustice that our tax is contributing to corrupt, and harmful regimes of governance – or whether we are actively reducing the carbon footprint we are responsible for, or ensuring the coffee we purchase, is not at the expense of the well-being of our family abroad. Let’s remember we have one body, which requires one heart, and one love. Our body – whether in our community, SCM, University, Church, or as a global human family – is all we have. Ubuntu reminds us to truly look after our body, our body of nearly seven billion.

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One city, One Voice For Peace

Last Sunday I found myself among a crowd of 5000 standing together in solidarity for peace in our cities, following the riots that swept across our cities last week. As I looked around, the sea of faces were white and black, coloured, European, African, Asian and American, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, and Christian, young, old, those with turbans, those with headscarves, those with dog collars, those with traditional wear, those with modern clothes. All scattered together. Not separated into ‘Muslim’ areas, or ‘white’ areas. As we stood there, listening to all the faith leaders expressing their pledges for peace and unity, and also hearing the father of one of the sons killed for protecting his property – who coincidentally in an interview found it in his heart to say “May Allah forgive him and bless him” – I noticed a T-shirt with “MADE in Europe” imprinted on the back; the slogan for one of the Muslim grassroots social action projects that I have worked with. It then suddenly occurred to me how wonderful it is when you see someone, who you don’t know, but who is working for the same better world you are working for! That tiny little symbol on the back of this man’s shirt was a reminder that through peace campaigning, the world becomes a little smaller, as the distance between peoples becomes less, and we unite with stronger bonds of love, and we arrive at a place of shared celebration, beauty and joy. This peace vigil of 5000 was just a small taste of the wider festival that is being danced at right now. I hope and now even expect I’ll run into you again – you who may be unknown by name, but by the colours you’re wearing, and the faith you’re putting into action, and the truth you’re standing by, we’ll be a little closer than we think…

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Some thoughts from Brother Roger from Taizé

On simple living:

“Very often, when things are too easy, it is not possible to create”

On forgiveness:

“All who strive to root their lives in forgiveness seek to listen rather than to convince, to understand rather than to impose themselves… resolve never to judge others harshly. Seek to understand rather than to be understood, and you will find joy”

And finally, on prayer:

“Sometimes it is true that we pray with almost nothing. We can feel as if we had been stripped bare. Happy is the one who can then say to Christ: “Christ Jesus, I hide nothing in my heart from you. You know how hard it is for me to express my desire for communion with you. You shared the human condition. You know that I am sometimes pulled in different directions at the same time. But when my inner being experiences a void, a thirst for your presence remains within me. And when I am unable to pray, you yourself are my prayer”



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Christian Muslim Forum on Trade Justice

The Christian Muslim Youth Statement on Trade Justice was presented last Wednesday at Lambeth Palace, London. It is the voices of young people, from the Christian and Muslim faiths, who share a passion for trade justice. The statement, co-written by young people, is the beginning of a campaign to ensure the future of West African cotton farmers, and subsequently the lives of millions of West Africans, are on the agenda at the upcoming CAP reform negotiations in the European Parliament.

I’m learning that upholding the values of honesty, integrity, and equality, as my Christian faith inspires me, is inescapably political. To ‘love my neighbour’, as Jesus taught, is to love those not only related to me, or those who live geographical close to me, but also to love those who are bound up in our globalised world. This includes those in the cotton farming industries in West Africa who increasingly struggle to make a living due to unfair trade rules in the EU.

EU subsidies given to large cotton farmers in Europe, resulting in overproduction of cotton, is driving the global real price of cotton down, decreasing the demand for cotton. This is leaving millions of West African families, who are dependent upon the export of cotton for their livelihoods, vulnerable. In Mali, for example, 2.5 million people depend upon cotton for their livelihoods. Trade justice isn’t simply an economic issues, it is also a development issue, a poverty issue, and a human rights issue. This is why, as a Christian, I am concerned. An opportunity, however, is emerging. The European Commission have called for a review of CAP policies, and it is our duty to ensure EU subsidies, and the voices of West African farmers, are firmly on the political agenda, as we campaign for making trade fair. 

It was a privilege to be joined by Zeenat Azmi (the Muslim representative), Harriet Lamb (the executive director of Fairtrade), the Archbishop Rowan Williams, Moulana Shahid Raza (the Muslim Patron of the Christian Muslim Forum), and thirty passionate and enthusiastic young Christians and Muslims in Lambeth Palace for the Muslim Christian Forum on Trade Justice. The event was a reminder of the energy, creativity and harmony when young people of two of the world’s largest faiths unite around issues of trade injustice.

Finally, if you are interested in getting involved, why not rally support from your faith community and sign the petition at: Contact me, if you are interested in getting involved with the campaign.

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“Did you enjoy my creation?”

At an advent meditation I recently attended, the Chaplain recalled and old Rabbinical saying:

“There’s only one question God will ask us when we meet him after death: ‘Did you enjoy my creation?’”

At first I thought, “yeah, OK”, sounds nice. But actually, you can unpack this in so many ways….

Did you enjoy my creation?

Did you value it?

Did you cherish what I gave you?

Did you cherish your life, that I gave you?

Did you enjoy the presence of other beings I also created?

Did you enjoy loving people?

Did you spend time in my creation?

Did you marvel at the stars, wondering what this life is all about?

Did it blow your mind away?

Did you ever wonder how far the skies stretch?

Did you ever wonder why the sun sometimes set in a glorious ray of red and orange?

Did you enjoy the plants, the trees, the forest, the animals, the insects?

Did you enjoy the snow, the rain, the colours of the rainbow, the long summer evenings?

Did you enjoy learning from others?

Did you enjoy playing, dancing, singing, writing, reflecting?

Did you enjoy the depth of friendship?

Did it ever move you?

Did you fall in love?

Did you enjoy walking, cycling, breathing, crying, climbing, laughing?

Did you enjoy my creation?

Did you love all that I have given you?

Did you do all you could to help others enjoy creation and recognise how sacred life is?

Did you enjoy my creation?

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This evening I went to a talk and discussion about faith. It was introduced by a gentleman from the Bahá’i society, who gave a brief introduction to a particular faith, the Bahá’i faith, and then shared a personal experience of his journey to accepting the Bahá’i faith as his own. However the group of fifteen or so then moved on to discussing, debating and questioning our own thoughts of faith and life. It was intriguing. So many questions. So many different thoughts and perspectives.

I often ask myself, why am I drawn to dialogue with others of different perspectives? I sometime wonder should I be sceptical of a place that inevitably brings contradictions and differences into the light? But actually I value it as a rare insight to what it means to be a spiritual human being. Are we not just bringing difference and diversity that appear under the sun anyway, under one roof?

I don’t get the opportunity to explore, to question and to wonder when I’m in a so-called “Christian” circle. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Christian friends, and we do explore, and marvel at the complexity of life – all the time. But I often get the feeling Church has had a tendency to silence questions, fears, and general musings on life’s interesting questions.

Tonight for example, I found myself asking questions of curiosity to this gentleman; showing genuine interest towards the Bahá’i faith, wanting to understanding it a little more. But as I did, I realised I couldn’t escape the religious jargon that I’ve grown too accustomed to. My words were imbued with with words like ‘redemption’, ‘salvation’, ‘sin’; all words of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And my concepts were largely Christian ones. Perhaps my questions were too. Which is interesting. Because do we as Christians (writing to myself again!) ask the ‘Christian’ questions? What if we were to start asking the questions other faiths raise, but applied to our own? Even questions such as ‘What is the soul’? ‘What is spirituality?’ or  ‘What about dreams?’ These are all questions we render unimportant in our Western mind set, but what if they were to enlarge our grasp of God?

I often struggle with the concept of truth. What if we’re all talking of a different truth? There is no doubt a lot of common ground. We’re all speaking of “putting faith into action for the betterment of the world”, most of us are speaking of a creator God that is beyond our comprehension (You know, one thing that amazes me, is how other people’s concept of ‘God’ can actually enlighten our own thinking of almighty God – it’s as though we were made to help one another out trying to come to grips with God!), and also the golden rule of loving our neighbour. However, we don’t all share the same truth. Truth claims certainly differ. For example, my belief in Christ as saviour and redeemer, and as an example, and as a humble King won’t resonate with other religions or philosophies. However, in this place of reflection and wonder, intriguing questions are raised. Serious questions are brought to life, and lead to truth. Questions which are otherwise buried deep in the earth and dead to the mind.

Not only those particular questions intrigued me and made me think. Also, the way in which Christianity has become convoluted with Western (perhaps European?) thinking. Western Enlightenment with its giving rise to individualism, personal fulfilment, the removal of suffering and loss, and the desire to do something purely for personal gain all seem to creep in our ‘Christianity’. Maybe it’s just me – or perhaps it’s common sense living in the West practicing Christianity. But I certainly felt a glimpse tonight of thinking from a different perspective. Perhaps the Bahá’i faith, arising out of an Iranian Muslim context only a 150 years ago or so has been less exposed to Western domination and therefore raises reflections, and questions that appear different to what we’re use to? Rediscovering the genuine, authentic Christian faith, redeeming it from the culture of the West – now there’s a blog for another day! In fact that would make a book, or a lifetime of study…

As I walked home tonight, I felt humbled that I could explore these questions alongside other wandering and searching human beings. We’re all so unique, in some senses so alike, created with one mind, heart and spirit. Spiritual beings. What was most fascinating what being able to think about my own faith outside of the custom “Christian” framework. To be an outsider looking into the window of what I’ve grown to know without a second of interrogation or serious thought. To be free to think and explore without being tied down to what one ought to think. I came away with that feeling of ‘awe’ that God is so much bigger than I imagined. ‘Cor’ – is the nearest slightly English equivalent word. ‘Cor’ – with an expression of wonder, astonishment and bewilderment. I am moved deeper in love with Christ.

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Peace: it’s so much more revolutionary that we think. I’ve been thinking a lot about this word ‘peace’… It’s so easily discarded as being a fluffy word, maybe something only a hard-core pacifist might use, or something that became stale after the hippie 60s… but actually peace is the very thing missing in our lives

I know I wish I could have more peace in my life

Yeah world peace I’m definitely trying to be an advocate for. But what about peace in our day to day lives? Peace in our relationships, peace in our time commitments, peace in the shower, peace on our way to work, peace before we go to bed, peace with our family, peace about the future, peace about who we are…

I was reminded this by a Muslim friend who explained the Arabic greeting they use ‘As-Salāmu `Alaykum’ – as meaning “peace be with you”. In response to this greeting you reply “Peace also be upon you”. Wishing peace upon someone. Sounds much better than our mundane “hi”…

I sometimes forget the heart of the gospel I try and follow. Following Jesus is about receiving the gift of peace that Jesus came to give each one of us – remember the words “my peace I give you…” – and also called us to embody peace actively. Peace isn’t passivity. Peace, according to the teachings of Jesus, is acting out love. Jesus calls it peacemaking. Turning the other cheek, doing good to those who even hate you, blessing those who curse you

‘Peace’ in its original translates as ‘Shalom’ which means inner peace, a deep holistic peace that gives you life. Peace is ultimately reconciliation with God. Someone one described God as living deep within and yet far beyond us. As we’re reconciled to God, our weary and tired souls are reconciled with our true selves, and we’re reconciled with our neighbour.

So if you see me about and I say ‘peace be with you’. I don’t mean to sound retro, or like I’m playing the character of Gabriel in a nativity play as an old lady with a queer voice. I mean seriously, I hope there is peace in your life.

I hope there is peace that gives you the space to be yourself, a peace where you can breathe, and manage your work and all your commitments, a peace where you’re not measured by your success in summative essays, but a peace that transcends all understanding and gives you life!

Peace be with you

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