A Reflection for Holocaust day
Holocaust Remembrance Day is always a difficult day – most of all for those whose loved ones were murdered and survivors who are still haunted by their nightmares. May our remembering be of some comfort to them.
My good friend Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who was taken to Auschwitz as a teenager, said people sometimes asked him ‘Where was God?’ ; but his answer was ‘Where was humanity?’
The picture of God crying has been echoed by some recent Christian and On Atonement Day in 1944, I was at my place of work. Like many others, I fasted and cleared a little hiding place for myself amongst the stack of insulation board. I spent most of the usual working day there, not even emerging for the thin soup given to us at midday. I tried to remember as many of the prayers as I could and recited them, even singing the Kol Nidre, asking God’s forgiveness for promises made and not kept. But eventually I dissolved in crying. I must have sobbed for hours. Never before or since have I cried with such intensity and then I seemed to be granted a curious inner peace. Something of it is still with me. I believe God was also crying. And I understood a bit of the revelation that is implicit in Auschwitz. It is about man and his idols. God, the God of Abraham, could not abandon me, only I could abandon God.’
Like a number of recent Jewish and Christian thinkers, it is, I believe, more helpful to picture a God who weeps with us rather than to talk of an all-powerful God who did nothing. When pictures of Vietnamese boat people were in the news, the Asian theologian Choan-Seng Song, in his book The Compassionate God, said God’s face could be seen in the suffering of the Indochinese people. 'In the disfigured bodies of the children fallen victim to hunger and bullets, someone must have seen God disfigured with horror.' Through their pain God pleaded with the conscience of humanity.’ My own picture of God as suffering love has changed my attitude to war so that I am now committed to non-violence and it has convinced me that penal policy should be more about reform than revenge. God has put into our hands the future and it is a terrifying responsibility.
Our picture of God matters. On the morning I started to write this, a report in the press began with these words. ‘After prayers, the traders of Bab-al-Tob market in Iraq’s second city Mosul, formed a crowd around nine men lying on the street… A bulldozer approached and slowly ran over the prisoners, crushing them.’ To what God had those prayers been offered? Certainly not to ‘Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’ - to quote the opening verse of the Qur’an.
One rabbi said to me, ‘In the nineties we prayed for the revival of religion, now we wish we had not.’ Those of us who are believers need to come together to challenge the idols that we put in the place of God.
But I meant to focus on Hugo Gryn’s question, ‘Where was humanity?’ We can take this in the sense, ‘Why did the world not prevent the Holocaust or the other horrifying genocides?’ How did the Nazi’s come to power? Neither the League of Nations, the press, nor the legal system, nor public opinion, nor the Churches had the will or the strength to stop them. Indeed, as a Christian, I am ashamed that centuries’ of anti-Jewish teaching provided the seed bed in which the pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis could flourish.
I know that many people did sacrifice their lives to defeat Nazism. But how should we respond to genocide? Military action in Libya, however well-meant, has precipitated more violence. Even those who back air-strikes against Isis, know that they cannot by themselves end the conflict. We need urgently to strengthen the United Nations and international law. People of faith and goodwill have a responsibility to try to shape public opinion so that governments take their international responsibilities seriously.
There is, of course, an immediate need for humanitarian help, as there will be for a long time. Part of humanity is there helping the refugees – but much more help is needed. But the rebuilding will need to be spiritual as well as material. Families have been torn apart, neighbours have turned on each other, for many people nightmares of the past will haunt their future. This, I believe, is a call to the religions of the world to work far more closely together. Ma Ghosananda, the Cambodian Buddhist leader, told his fellow monks during the Phol Pot regime, to join the hundreds who had fled the country. ‘The refugee camps must now be our temples and our monasteries.
‘Where was humanity?’ It is a question to each of us to look into our own hearts. Would we have risked our lives and the lives of our families to protect the vulnerable? Would we have given into the pressures to support the Nazis or at least to have kept silent? Would we, in different circumstances, have been perpetrators? The Vietnamese spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Han, recognised the potential for good and ill in every human heart
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
Who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
The rescuers and the perpetrators were ordinary people. SS officers cared for their families. Rescuers said they did nothing special.
There were probably many more rescuers whose names have not been recorded. Few of the rescuers seem to have had a particular concern for Jews. Many of them said that they did nothing special. It was how they would behave to anyone they saw who needed help.
Listen to the words of these rescuers
‘I come from nationalist circles, often charged with Anti-Semitism. Why did I save Jewish children? Because they were children, because they were people. I would save any man [sic] in danger of death, and a child – every child – is particularly dear to me. This is what my Catholic religion orders me to do. A persecuted Jew somehow stopped being a Jew and became simply a man, woman or child in need of help.’ [i].
‘My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young, my parents always encouraged us, my sisters and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us ‘to love our neighbours as ourselves.’ And we also know from the Bible that Jesus Christ, who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was ‘to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself.’ Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service of others.’
Is that how we would describe our educational system, which seems geared to exams and careers?
‘Where was God?’ ‘Where was humanity?’ These are questions each of us have to answer for ourselves. God grant that in doing so we contribute to the healing of the world – tikkum olam. Perhaps we can take encouragement from the words of Abe Foxman, a survivor, who wrote that for fifty years we who survived bore witness to the evil, brutality and bestiality. Now it is time also to bear witness to goodness. For each survivor is living proof that even in the hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.’
We must never give up hope that the world can be changed.
[i] Quoted by Blumenthal, op.cit, pp. 222-3, from E Kurek-Lesik, ‘The Role of Polish Nuns in the
Rescue of Jews, 1939-45. See also Eva Fleischner in The Holocaust and the Christian World,
Epiphany. Dorchester Abbey 8.1.16
‘A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’
The star and the wise men capture our imagination at Epiphany, but in the Orthodox Church, the emphasis is on the Showing of Christ to the Gentiles.’
There are many theories about the star – was it an astrological sign, or a comet or perhaps a nova? The wise men were probably Zoroastian priests form Persia. Isaiah spoke of ‘kings coming to the brightness of your dawn.’ In the Middle Ages their names were discovered, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. To day they are sometimes taken as representing our three ages – youth, mid-life and old age – and some of the wise men become wise women.
To understand the significance of the Epiphany as the Showing of Christ to the gentiles, it helps to go back to last Sunday, the feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, which is an important reminder that Jesus was a Jew and, as the Church now recognises, a faithful Jew. He was loved by many of the people, which is why he had to be arrested at night. Sadly, for centuries this was forgotten. Long years of Christian anti-Judaism prepared the seed ground on which the evil weed of Nazism could grow. People attacked Jews saying, ‘You, Jews killed Jesus.’ There has during the last fifty eyars been a dramatic change in the Church’s teaching symbolized by Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Western wall in Jerusalem where he asked for God’s forgiveness. The circumcision, therefore, is a reminder of the close bond between Jews and Christians and of the need to be vigilant in our opposition to anti-Semitism.
Buit Jesus was not just the ‘glory of thy people Israel.’ He was also ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles.’ Jewish expectation about the coming of the Messiah was as confused as our pictures of the Second Coming. Some Jews, reflecting on words of Isaiah, believed that when the Messiah came, gentiles too would be reconciled to God. In his dramatic conversion, Paul not only acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, he also that he was the one chosen to proclaim the ‘mystery hidden for ages’ that ‘Gentiles have become ‘fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise of salvation in Christ. (Eph, 3). Paul stressed that in Christ all human divisions are cancelled. We are freely loved by God in Christ Jesus just as we are. Race, colour, nationality, gender, success or failure count for nothing. ‘All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’ but equally ‘all are freely justified by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 3, 23-4). ‘While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ ‘There is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is in all.(Col 3, 11)
Sadly the Church often has forgotten this. We revert from Gospel to Law, telling people to be good rather than that they are loved; appearing to think the ordained are more important than the laity, forgetting that we all are called ‘to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood.’ (1 Peter 2, 9). Like the old Paul thinking God only loved Jews; many Christians think that God only loves them. This truth that God’s love is for all his children, regardless of status, just because every person is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1, 27) underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all work for international harmony. Once again, as in the thirties and forties, the moral basis of society is under threat. Archbishop William Temple said when CCJ was founded in 1942, that ‘antisemitism was symptomatic of an even deeper evil which was a threat to civilisation itself.’ The same is true of Islamaphobia.
In the troubled world of today, civilisation it itself under threat. We shall need great courage to proclaim the good news of the angels that God’s love is for all people, but seldom has it been more urgent to do so.
Here on the threshold of a new beginning,
by grace forgiven, now we leave behind
our long-repented selfishness and sinning,
and all our blessings call again to mind:
Christ to redeem us, ransom and restore us,
the love that holds us in a Saviour's care,
faith strong to welcome all that lies before us,
our unknown future, knowing God is there.
May we, your children, feel with Christ's compassion
an earth disordered, hungry and in pain;
then, at your calling, find the will to fashion
new ways where freedom, truth and justice reign;
where wars are ended, ancient wrongs are righted,
and nations value human life and worth;
where in the darkness lamps of hope are lighted
and Christ is honoured over all the earth.
The Dalai Lama’s Call for Compassion
Reproduced from the Interfaith Observer
‘West’s war with Islam to last 100 years’ was the banner headline of a recent Australian newspaper. Admittedly, the text referred to ‘extreme Islam,’ but the headline reinforces a very dangerous over-simplification sadly too often voiced both by Christians and Muslims on the social media.
On the same day that I saw the headline, thankfully, I started to read HH the Dalai Lama’s recent book Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. He begins by quoting what Rabindranath Tagore said in 1930: ‘The races of mankind will never again be able to go back to their citadels of high-walled exclusiveness.’ Even now, as the Dalai Lama insists religious believers need ‘genuinely to accept the full worth of faith traditions other than their own.’
The Dalai Lama tells of his meetings with holy people of different faiths. It was a ‘crucial learning experience … away from a parochial and exclusivist vision of my own faith as unquestionably the best.’ In describing what he treasures from the major world religions he draws upon conversations with believers. For example, when he met the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, they discussed the centrality of the compassionate ideal of relieving the suffering of others in the figure of Christ and the Bodhisattva ideal. For the Tibetan people, ‘the image of Judaism as a religion that has helped a people to survive in exile is deeply inspiring.’ The most admirable quality of Hinduism for the Dalai Lama ‘is the lack of dogmatism when it comes to the conception of the Godhead.’ He also respects the ‘unconditional embracing of God’s absolute transcendence’ in Islam.
He stresses the importance of personal meeting. ‘One of the special joys I have come to appreciate in my journey down the spiritual paths of other faiths is the wonderful privilege of opening my heart and hearing the voice of other traditions speaking clearly and directly.’ This, he suggests, springs from the fact that all the great religions urge their practitioners ‘to open their hearts and let compassion blossom as the core message for living an ethical life.’ This is why the academic study of religions is no substitute for the personal sharing that interfaith meetings make possible. You can learn about other religions from books, but you are more likely to learn from other religions by personal friendship and conversation with those who lives embody their faith – what has been called ‘mutual irradiation.’
The Dalai Lama’s words helped me to see why I find the discussion about ‘exclusivism,’ ‘inclusivism’ and ‘pluralism’ so arid. It starts from a priori doctrines rather than from ‘meetings in the cave of the heart.’ For example, some years ago when I was in hospital it was a friend who was a Scientologist, who telephoned my wife most days to ask how I was. Again, when we moved to a new job, it was the local Baha’is who arranged a party to welcome us, not the church. The Dalai Lama himself solves the exclusive-pluralist dilemma by recognising the uniqueness of each religion and its call for total dedication and by seeing that the diversity of religions is required because human beings are so different. ‘Just as a supermarket rightly takes pride in its rich and diverse resources of food commodities for sale, in the same manner the world religions can take pride in its rich diversity of teachings.’
Such an approach sees the variety of belief and ritual as enriching. The meeting point of religions for the Dalai Lama is their emphasis on compassion. He tells the story of a Tibetan monk called Lopön-la who spent eighteen years in a Chinese prison. Later in conversation with the Dalai Lama, Lopön-la said there were three occasions when he felt real danger. When asked what kind of danger, he replied, ‘The danger of losing my compassion for the Chinese.’ The Dalai Lama also quotes the eighteenth-century Indian teacher Shantideva who asked ‘If you do not practice compassion toward you enemy, toward whom can you practice it?’ Too easily, as the Dalai Lama recognises, religion itself – especially exclusivism – becomes a source of attachment and therefore of division, adding bitterness to disputes which have their origin in historical or economic factors.
Only by moving beyond past exclusivism will religions be able to offer humanity the deep spiritual resources to be found in all the great faiths. He ends the book with these words: ‘For there to be true peaceful coexistence in the world, harmony among the religions is indispensable. Seen in this light, the question of understanding among the faith traditions is no longer a matter that concerns religious believers alone. It affects the welfare of everyone on the planet. Nor is there space left for the secularists and the religious to enjoy the luxury of further bickering. I have always believed that the promotion of inter-religious understanding is not only a response to the call for compassion from my own faith, but also a service to the well-being of humanity as a whole.’
There is an alternative to a hundred years of war: cultivating compassion for the enemy.
HH The Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. Doubleday Religion, Random House, New York 2012. ISBN 9780385525053
Religion, the State and Politics
A talk given at Worth Abbey on 13.6.15 at an event arranged by Susses Interfaith
I am very glad to be here at Worth Abbey again and to share in another programme of the Sussex Interfaith group. Perhaps if this meeting had taken place before the election, the result would have been different.
On the day I prepared this talk, my reading from the Bible had begun, ‘Love justice, you rulers of the earth … No man can utter injustice and not be found out. (Wisdom 1, 1 and 8)
George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community had a favourite saying: ‘When you read the Bible, you should have the newspaper in the other hand’
Christians are bound to be concerned about politics because God’s call is for justice and mercy. Regularly Christians pray, ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ Christians’ relationship with governments has inevitably been very varied in different centuries and different countries. I want first to suggest that there have been four dominant responses and then to reflect on the complex situation in Britain.
The four responses are, first, withdrawal. The second is alliance with the state. The third is theocracy and the fourth competing in the public square.
Withdrawal may be forced on a faith community or it may be voluntarily chosen. In its early years the church suffered much persecution, as it did in Soviet Russia and as it and other minorities are suffering in the Middle East today. If you risk persecution, you keep your head down. Voluntary withdrawal of monks and some of the peace churches is, by contrast, a counter-cultural act. Christian monasticism dates back to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. His conversion made becoming a Christian fashionable and in some eyes it diluted the faith. So as an act of witness they withdrew to the Egyptian desert. But withdrawal is not necessarily an abandoning of concern for the world. Indeed it has been said that the visionary sees the real issues more clearly than those engaged in the daily power struggle of politics. Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest of deep spirituality, was imprisoned by the Nazis. He said, ‘Great issues affecting humankind have to be decided in the wilderness in unbroken silence – empty spaces that bring a person face to face with reality.’ Thomas Merton is a good example of this. He became a monk but also one of the most articulate critics of the Vietnam War. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do engage in politics, were one of the first and most determined opponents of the Nazis.
Secondly, Alliance. St Paul’s words, ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,’ have been used to support the divine right of kings and unquestioning obedience to the state.To go back to Constantine. After his conversion he sought an alliance with the church, only to find the bishops disagreed about how to define the nature of Christ. He backed the majority view, which became ‘orthodoxy’ – but this did not silence the arguments of the bishops, who left all their bills for the Emperor to pay.This is sort of alliance, often stormy, has been characteristic of much of European history – the principle that whatever the religion of the prince that should be the religion of all the subjects – so under Elizabeth the First, you get the persecution of Papists and Puritans, and a privileged position for the Church of England.
Whether it was right to rebel against an unjust ruler was a subject of strong debate
Thirdly, Theocracy. Just as secular rulers wanted to control and use the church, some Christian leaders wanted to control the rulers (theocracy)– especially the Papacy during the Middle Ages. The most famous example of this is the bitter row between the Holy Roaman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Emperor. The Emperor gave in and went as a penitent pilgrim to ask for the Pope’s forgiveness.
Calvin’s Geneva is another example
Fourthly, a secular state by which I mean one in which religion is a matter of private choice, it should not influence public life or legislation. Admittedly, the term ‘a secular state’ is used in different ways. In India it suggests that religion is to be respected, but no one faith should have preference; in Communist regimes, it meant religion should be suppressed; in the USA there is a clear constitutional separation of church and state, although any Presidential Address ends up with ‘God bless America.’ In France, the government tries to ban any expression of faith in public life.
Relations between Church and State in Britain has been a mixture.Scotland under John Knox or Britain under Oliver Cromwell is probably as close as we get to theocracy, but a relic of theocracy is the fact that the sovereign is crowned by the Archbishop.Queen Elizabeth II’s[i] coronation in 1953 by the Archbishop of Canterbury symbolised both the belief that all power comes from God and the interconnection of Church (then self-evidently the Established Church) and the State. I watched the procession down the Mall so missed the ground breaking live television of the ceremony – but those who did watch missed the anointing of the Queen by the Archbishop, because he felt this sacred moment was too holy to be shown to the public – ‘Such things were still deemed sacrosanct in 1950s Britain.’ (64) What form will the next Coronation take?
In reality, Elizabeth I made clear she was in control, but her ‘alliance’ between the State and the Established Church has lasted for nearly five hundred years and the Church has had real influence. Even in the 1930s, Archbishop Lang led moves to force Edward VII to abdicate because he planned to marry the divorce woman whom he loved. [In 1951 and again in 1959 reform of the Gambling laws was prevented by church opposition].
By the sixties, however, the church stopped trying to impose by law its morality on the public. The 1957 report which prepared the way for de-criminalizing homosexuality was written by a devout Anglican, Lord Wolfenden and the new law was backed by Archbishop Ramsey. The Church’s 1966 report Putting Asunder led to the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. A church report ( ed by Ian Ramsey, Bishop of Durham) initiated the debate about legalizing abortion in some cases. John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, defended the publication of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Love.Although many Christians, such as the then Monsignor Bruce Kent were opposed to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the church agonized about this, and by and large went along with government policy.
The gap between Church and State widened under Margaret Thatcher. Many Christians were uneasy about the Falkland’s War; even more opposed the wars against Iraq and the government’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. The same was true in home affairs and the Church became the unofficial opposition. Although she was deeply influenced by her Methodist upbringing, Thatcher’s emphasis was on individual morality: the Church’s was on social morality, as witness the influential report, Faith in the City. David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham declared, ‘Poverty is morally offensive as well as divinely offensive.’ (175) David Sheppard, who wrote Bias to the Poor, said on television that it was impossible to be a Christian and vote Tory. Wealth creation (greed) replaced welfare provision (need), although Maggie was horrified by this charge and assumed that most of those who became rich would be Good Samaritans. Her gloss on the parable was that the Good Samaritan would not have been able to help if he hadn’t got any money.
The Established Church’s role was also changing. As church going declined, members of all denominations increasingly spoke with a united voice, coming together in the British Council of Churches and then in Churches Together.
The last twenty years has seen a further decline of Christian influence on the state, partly because British society was becoming more multi-religious and so-called ‘secularists’ were becoming more vocal.Church leaders – if not all church members – used their influence to support other faith communities (and faith schools). A church report prepared for the change from Religious Instruction to Religious Education and the Bishop of London argued for the teaching of world religions against those Tory Peers who insisted Britain was a Christian country. Chief Rabbis have been strong supporters of the Establishment.
9/11 and the growth of Islamic extremism led to a shift from ‘multi-culturalism’ to an emphasis on ‘Britishness.’ At the same time, ‘secularists’ want to confine religious practice to private life, as if it was one hobby among others – and the government treated the churches and faith communities as one among many pressure groups. Under the heading ‘Dinosaurs’, with a picture of the Archbishop, Max Warren wrote, ‘The Church no longer has much success in promoting religion, but has become instead a clamorous lobbyist for socialism.
This, however, creates real problems for faith communities as former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ makes clear in his far-sighted if difficult book Faith in the Public Square. The first difficulty is where legislation conflicts with the deeply-held convictions of some believers – for example abortion, gay marriage, the adoption of children by gay couples and some medical advances and some scientific experiments.
The other issue is that for people of faith, their religious convictions shape their whole view of life. For example, because I believe that every person is loved by God, every person should have basic human rights. This is why I would strongly oppose the repeal of the Human Rights act. Equally, the mystical sense of the oneness of all life, underlies my commitment to concern for the environment. In canvassing for the Green Party, I used other arguments in favour of human rights and curbing the use of fossil fuels. But the fact that I have a religious commitment should not mean my voice is excluded from public debate.
But more important than detailed policies is for faiths, even if they claim no privileged position, is to offer a vision, although they may and indeed do disagree about the best way to realise the vision. The vision needs to be translated into practical policies, which was the strength of the Church’s witness, led by William Temple, in the 1930s.
Later this year, the Parliament of the World Religions, which has met every five years since 1993, is being held in Salt Lake City in the autumn. I am glad that the title of this year’s Parliament is ‘Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity: Working together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability. The vision is of a world in which every life is precious and of a global society committed to non-violence, economic co-operation and reverence for planet earth. It is a vision of a society which embodies the mystic or unitive vision of inter-connectedness and the sacredness of all beings in the Divine.’ Maybe if people of faith and good will come together to affirm the values that they share, the result of the next election will be different.Eliza Filby God and Mrs Thatcher The Battle for Britain’s Soul Biteback Publishing 2015Rowan Williams Faith in the Public Square, Bloomsbury 2012Sensible Religion ed. Christopher Lewis and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Ashgate 2014
Can religions help to heal the wounds of conflict ?
Soon after the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, I was asked to preach at St Mark’s Church in District Six in Cape Town. District Six had been a vibrant if rather run-down multi-racial community, which was cleared by the apartheid regime. Some of the residents told me that there was a knock on the door at 6.0 a.m. They ordered to be ready to leave by 9.0.a.m. and they were transported to land some twenty miles away where there was some corrugated iron for them to build new shacks. Many of the community have continued to make the 20 mile trek each Sunday to come back to the church. Afterwards I asked some of the women how they now felt towards the white community. ‘We must forgive,’ they said, ‘as Jesus has forgiven us.’ Jesus himself on the cross prayed, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.’
In the same way, Muhammad when he returned victorious to Mecca showed a divine mercy. He called for the leaders of the Quraish and said to them,
Let no reproach be cast
On you: Allah will forgive you,
And He is the Most Merciful
Of those who show mercy. (12.92)
The Buddha said, ‘hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease.’
I could give many more quotations, although sadly also religion itself often enflames conflict. Yet, if it is easy to talk about forgiveness, but I know how difficult it is even in ordinary life. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is for those whose loved ones have been killed or tortured, but the only hope for healing and lasting peace is for us to mirror the forgiveness of God. As Desmond Tutu as said, ‘There is no future without forgiveness.’ •
One difficulty is that the word 'Forgiveness' is used widely. At our earlier UPF sessions on forgiveness, building on the work of psychologists as well as listening to testimonies, we found that recognising the various stages of forgiveness is helpful – as forgiveness is a process, it does not happen overnight. These, very much in summary are
The victim feels anger and hatred
The victim demands justice - public recognition of the wrong can do something to reduce the anger.
The victim recognises that the anger is damaging himself or
herself, making him or her twice a victim, and tries to let go of the anger.
The victim begins to think about the wrongdoer. Negative feelings begin to be replaced by positive ones. Perhaps the wrongdoer is a relation or member of the same faith community or the victim recognises that the the wrongdoer has lots of problems or poor background or ‘was obeying orders.’
There is some expression of willingness to forgive but, a key question, is whether this can happen before there is confession of guilt and repentance on behalf of the wrongdoer?
May be there is some form of reconciliation. For example one ex-husband, when his wife married again took the wedding photos.
Can what may apply to individuals also apply to communities. Of course, faith communities have a vital role in giving practical help to victims of violence, but can they also play a role in reconciliation?
One difficulty is that the rivalry and hatred between communities may have a long history.
The poet Edwin Muir wrote:
Revengeful dust rises up to hurt us.
History plagues us like a relentless wheel.
Who can set a new mark or circumvent history?3
This is what Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have tried to do - 'to set a new mark.' Their emphasis is on healing the memories of conflict and helping a country to move forward. As the recent Canadian Truth and reconciliation report says, ‘Shaming and pointing out wrongdoing were not the purpose of the Commission’s mandate. Ultimately, the Commission’s focus on truth determination was intended to lay the foundation for the important question of reconciliation. Getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder. Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed.’
Wikipedia lists some 40 Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Some have been set up by the United Nations, some by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the great majority by governments. Who sets up the commission, of course, has a bearing on its approach. Most of the governmental commissions were set up by 'transitional governments’ of often very fragile democracies as they tried to move on from the civil and human rights abuses of previous regimes. They thus had a political purpose. Sometimes a general amnesty was the price to pay for a cessation of hostilities.
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed, offered an amnesty the whole truth was told. Another body was responsible for recommending reparation to assist rehabilitation of the victims.
The importance of knowing what actually happened to one’s loved ones is very important. The Citizen's Pact in Mexico had as its first demand ‘the naming of the victims’ as well as an acknowledgement of the injustice. Desmond Tutu repeatedly emphasised his faith in the healing power of truth telling, captured in the banners which said ‘Revealing is Healing.’ This was also the emphasis of the Guatemala Truth and Memory Project, which the Guatemala Catholic Church established and which was chaired by Bishop Juan Gerardi - who was brutally murdered two days after presenting the report.[i] He was inspired by the Biblical verse, ‘the truth shall set you free.’ ‘To open ourselves to truth … are indispensable requirements for societies that seek to humanize themselves.’ ‘Atrocities … refuse to be buried.’[ii] The same is true of the community trials after Rwanda genocide. ‘They served to promote reconciliation by providing a means for victims to learn the truth about the death of their family members and relatives.’ Likewise a group of therapists who worked in Chile insisted that ‘the more victims try to forget their terrible experiences in the past, the more likely they are to reproduce them in the present in forms of emotional illness… A person needs to recount the traumatic experience in detail.’
People also need to have the injustice they have suffered acknowledged. This is why I think public apologies are important and are not empty gestures.
Pope John Paul's words of apology in the scroll put into the Western wall in Jerusalem were very significant. The prayer set a seal on Churches’ growing acknowledgment of the suffering caused to God's chosen people by persecution and centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching, which were ‘the seed bed in which Nazism could grow.’ It was a public and symbolic act underlining the new relationship between Jews and Christians.
By the endof the Battle of the Verdun three hundred thousand German and French soldiers had been killed. In 1984, President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl went there together. They did not just shake hands but held each other’s hand. As the historian Le Naour said, ‘Verdun ceased to be a symbol of nationalist pride. It became a symbol of peace and the stupidity of war’ and of the new Europe.
Symbolic events and public apologies are, I think, helpful. But the most persistent question about public attempts to heal the past is ‘Does the process allow justice to be done?’ The distinguished Christian thinker Naim Ateek wrote a book called Justice, only Justice. On the other hand, Arthur Balfour – famous or infamous for the Balfour Declaration – was for a time Chief Secretary of Ireland. When some people complained about the injustice of his policies there he replied, Justice? There isn’t enough to go round.’ The same is true in the Middle East – indeed Chaim Weitzman, a leading Zionist, spoke of the situation as ‘a clash of rights.’
To what extent does justice require the prosecution of those who perpetrated atrocities - as for example the Nuremburg trials. More recently after the genocide in Rwanada, more that 120,000 people were detained and accused of criminal behaviour. To deal with such an overwhelming number of perpetrators, a judicial response was pursued on three levels: First by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. After Rwanda abolished the death penalty it referred many cases to the national courts. Thirdly communities at the local level elected judges to hear the trials of genocide suspects accused of all crimes except planning of genocide. The courts gave lower sentences if the person was repentant and sought reconciliation with the community. Often, confessing prisoners returned home without further penalty or received community service orders.
The Liberian Commission recognised that prosecution was desirable to foster genuine national reconciliation and combat impunity, but allowed for amnesty in some circumstances, especially for children and for individuals admitting their wrongs, speaking truthfully and expressing remorse.
A trialsexpresses public horror – maybe it acts as a deterrent, but does it purge or perpetuate the memory? In South Africa, a person who made a full confession was freed from criminal or civil liability. Tutu has insisted that 'public exposure and humiliation' was a big price for the perpetrator to pay. Others more cynically have said it was a price worth paying.4
What too of compensation? It may help, but it cannot bring back the dead, or remove the hurt. At best probably it is a symbolic acknowledgement of the wrong that has been done.
Another question is whether the concept of a 'Truth and Reconciliation' Commission is culturally conditioned. Some critics in South Africa questioned whether it was appropriate to have hymns and prayers at a public hearing. ‘The Recovery of Memory Project’ in Guatemala was an unofficial initiative.
This is also significant because some Christians try to practice was had been called 'radical forgiveness,’ which encourages the victim to forgive even if the person who hurt them has not expressed sorrow or contrition. The victim initiates the search for reconciliation. Desmond Tutu in his beautiful Book of Forgiving insists on two simple truths, ‘there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.’ Yet I cannot forget the warning of a Jewish friend that ‘to be kind to the cruel is to be cruel to the weak.’
This may seem an abstract theological discussion: but I think it is of real importance to think now about the long and very difficult process of healing that will be necessary in Syria and the Middle East when at last there are no targets left to bomb.
Let me end with the words of Kia Scherr after the death of her husband and daughter in a terrorist attack in Mumbai. ‘If we continue to love in the face of terrorism, we disempower the terrorist and the terrorist ceases to terrorise. Imagine multiplying this a million-billionfold around the world and over time, we will truly end terrorism.’ Should we pray for terrorists as well as for their victims? [iii]
Only love and forgiveness can disperse the revengeful dust of history rises up to haunt us.
[i] There was also a UN commisswion’Guatemala:
Memory of Silence.’
[ii] Tombs 91
A talk given at a meeting for World Interfaith Harmony Week held in the House of Lords,
arranged by UPF
Sermon at the Abbey Dorchester on Thames - 26.10.14
I never know how autobiographical to be in a sermon. As the Greeks said to the disciple Philip, ‘We would see Jesus’ and any preacher should be careful not to get in the way. On the other had a testimony may help us to reflect on our own spiritual journey. I am encouraged today to be more autobiographical because of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, ‘We were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well.’ (1 Thess 2, 8). The first lesson also tells how Moses was allowed to see the promised land from Mt Nebo, but not to enter it. And looking back over fifty years in the ministry, it is natural to ask what were my hopes then and how far have they come true.
As a teenager, I was already wondering if God wanted me to be ordained and I belonged to the USPG fellowship for potential missionary candidates. It was this that first sparked my interest in learning about other faiths and communicating my faith in Christ to them. This led me to apply for a scholarship to study for a year at Madras Christian College in South India. But first perhaps I should say that although I was a practising Christian when I started at university, it was perhaps too much my trying to be a good Christian and I still vividly remember after a sermon by the then well-known Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley, realising the over-whelming accepting love of Jesus, who loved me ‘Just as I am’ not for what I did. In Charles Wesley’s words,
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
That assurance gives one a deep down freedom and joy that nothing can take away.
Going back to Madras last month, brought back many memories - for breakfast, eating rice and curry with my fingers from banana leaves, or starting the day by throwing a bucket of cold water over myself, the fascination and frustration of Indian life. But it was a formative year.
First of all – this was the 1960s –I was part of the united Church of South India which had brought together Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and others. This experience of unity made it all the more painful that at our wedding service Mary, who was a Methodist, and I were not allowed by the then bishop to have communion. I have always felt that ‘all who love the Lord Jesus’ are welcome at his table. I also soon realised that most change in the church comes from enough people breaking the rules. Most of you may not know that in 1888, one of the most saintly bishops, Edward King Bishop of Linclon, was taken to court for allowing the singing of the Agnus Dei – ‘O Lamb of God’ – placing lighted candles on the altar and making the sign of the cross in blessing. He was found guilty, but promised to give up these practices, although some other high church clergy at the time were sent to prison.
Secondly, as I read some of Hindu scriptures and met holy people of different faiths I became convinced that
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea …
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind…
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own.
Even now, services in which people of different faiths join together are still controversial.
Thirdly: the constant reminders of the poverty suffered by so many - a poverty that destroys body, soul and family life. Sometimes in the heat of the day, when ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,’ I would go with other students to help at a Leprosy clinic. One day I went with a Roman Catholic student from Sri Lanka and a Muslim student. The doctor was a devout Hindu. Although of different religions, we were together in service of the sick and the outcaste. Surely, I felt that this was the task of the religions - not to compete, but to come together to bring peace and healing to the world.
Many others have had this vision as I discovered when I joined the World Congress of Faiths – but for this vision to come true, members of different religions have had to and still need to overcome centuries of persecution, competition, prejudice and ignorance. That has been a major concern of interfaith organisations. There has been much progress. In the year 2000, there were about 40 local interfaith groups in UK, now there are perhaps 400. In November each year, there is now an Interfaith Week, children in schools learn about the religions of the world.
Increasingly people of faith are coming together to work for peace, to defend human rights, to bring relief to refuges and support to the poorest people of the world – for example in the campaign for Clean Water or to ban the continuing Slave trade. The United Nations, with its programme of ‘Dialogue between Civilizations,’ now recognises the importance of interfaith and intercultural co-operation.
But yet, as we all know, religion today seems so often to be a cause of bitter conflict. It has been said that the daily news is a record of holy hatred. Often the causes of conflict are political or economic, but then religious differences embitter the conflict. Religion becomes a badge of identity – what you wear, what you should not eat, whom you should not marry. I remember a bishop saying religion is both ‘death-dealing’ and ‘life-giving.’
Yet, it has been said that the person who studies comparative religion, ends up ‘comparatively religious.’ There can be a superficial mixing of elements from different religions – but as I have learned more about other religions my faith in Christ has grown deeper. Some of you may have known Fr Murray Rogers who spent his last years in Oxford. Long before, he started a Christian ashram in India. I remember him saying to me that the external dialogue with people of other religions has to be matched by the internal dialogue with the Lord Jesus. Being asked to lecture on Christianity at a Muslim College, for example, meant I had to think more out what ‘saved by his blood’ or the doctrine of the Trinity really means if I was to explain it to others. When I was Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, hardly a day went by when I did not have to think about the Holocaust and this led me to picture God not so much as all powerful but as the God who shares our suffering – at the same time talking about the possibility of forgiveness made me aware of how radical is Jesus’ teaching that in Desmond Tutu’s words that ‘there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.’
I remember too a Hindu friend coming to a church service. Afterwards he said he enjoyed it, but then asked ‘tell me, when do you pray? You are always being told to stand up or to sit down and someone is always talking. When do you sit still and be quiet?’
As in silence, we go deeper into ourselves we become more aware of the Spirit of God in our inner being. At the same time, as we sense the presence of the Holy One, words and doctrines fade away. As the hymn puts it
‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.’
In the heavenly Jerusalem, there is no Temple – the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple. Every person, all beings are enfolded in the love of God
Mother Julian of Norwich spoke of this same sense of all-embracing love: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Rumi, the great Sufi mystic sang,
The religion of love is apart from all religions:
For lovers (the only) religion and creed is God.
Years ago the mystic Evelyn Underhill said, ‘religions meet, where religions take their source.’
This sense of Oneness inspires a deep concern for others. To sense the Oneness of God, the oneness of the human family, the oneness of all life is the well spring of compassion and a commitment to human rights, peace building, non-violence, and reverence for all life.
Each of us can contribute to this – to bringing nearer the kingdom of God on earth – by allowing the peace of Christ to enter more deeply into our hearts and minds and souls so that we radiate the love that we have received to others by our words, actions and our prayers
Fellowship of Reconciliation
100th Anniversary Conference at Cambridge
Years ago, when I was a student here at Magdalene College, Mary, who was to become my wife, was secretary of the Cambridge Fellowship of Reconciliation. The only way of seeing anything of her was to go to the FOR meetings. Whether it was the eloquence of the speakers or her influence, I have become ever more convinced that Jesus’ willingness to make himself vulnerable and to forgive is the only way to lasting peace.
Christians have traditionally applied to Jesus the words from Isaiah that
‘He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter
And as a sheep before her shearers is silent
So he did not open his mouth.’ (Isa 53, 7)
And according to John, when Pilate questioned him, Jesus gave him no answer. (Jn 19, 10)
The natural reaction when we are accused is to answer back and justify ourselves, when we are hurt to hit back. So one accusation is met by another accusation and the argument escalates, one blow is met by another and the fight intensifies. To make ourselves vulnerable and absorb the bitterness drains it away, but how costly that is.
Jesus made himself so vulnerable that he endured the passion and cruel crucifixion.
But more amazing, Jesus was willing to forgive those who had deserted him, those who had falsely accused him, those who nailed him to the cross. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ ( Lk, 23, 34). These words were so radical that they were deleted from some of the early manuscripts. Desmond Tutu, in his recent The Book of Forgiving, affirms ‘two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.’ ( p.3)
Over the years I have become ever more deeply aware of just how radical and revolutionary is the way of Jesus – of being willing to accept unmerited suffering and to offer total forgiveness. And this came home to me very clearly when with the Peace Council Mary and I were in Jerusalem and shared in an act of Remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. At the end, a Tibetan monk said, ‘In our tradition, we are taught to be grateful to our enemies, because they help us to grow in compassion.’ The Buddha himself said, ‘Hatreds do not cease in this world by hating, but by love, this is an eternal truth.’[i]
For Christians, Jesus is not just should I say ‘the model martyr’ but in his death and resurrection he reveals that ‘The heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.’ Increasingly, Christian theologians speak of a God who shares our suffering – or of ‘A Suffering God.’ Like a good parent God points us to another way but does not override our free will. Instead, God offers infinite forgiveness. At the same time, belief in God is the ground of our hope that love is stronger than hatred, goodness more powerful than evil.
At the same time as I affirm that healing and peace come only by way of vulnerability and forgiveness, shown by Jesus and other known and unknown holy people, I am very aware how far I am from following his example. Yet that failure should not lead Christians to dilute his message. We need to affirm the ideal, even if at the same time we confess how far we fall short of it. I salute the memory of conscientious objectors – some of whom have paid for their convictions with their lives. I salute too members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and all who have shared in the Peace Movement for their courageous witness.
Yet if we try ourselves to follow the way of Jesus, what is our responsibility for other defenceless people who are the victims of violence. I remember a Jewish friend saying to me: ‘If you are kind to the cruel, you are cruel to the weak.’ I recall also last year waiting at the bus stop with a man who was severely disabled. Talking to him, I discovered that he had lost an arm and a leg in the fighting in Afghanistan. How could I say to him that I thought it was a pointless sacrifice and many who have lost family members in Afghanistan are wondering what was achieved. So easily war is glamorised, because we cannot face the political and military failures
Peter Bishop in his book A Technique for Loving: Non-Violence in Indian and Christian Traditions, draws a distinction between pacifist and pacificist. Peter Bishop means by a ‘pacificist’ - someone who puts the emphasis on making peace rather than refusing to use any violence (although perhaps we can be both). Gandhi c the word ahimsa, because more than non-violence it had a positive meaning. If I am a follower of ahimsa, he said ‘I must love my enemy or a stranger to me as I would my wrong-doing father and son."
We do have a responsibility for others who are the victims of violence.
What should we do to stop genocide? How should we protect the weak? Still urgent questions today.
This at its best is what the doctrine of the just war was intended to address. I am aware how often it has been misused to justify blatant greed and aggression, but because I am meant to be giving a summary of Christian teaching, I need to outline the doctrine, even if I do not agree with it partly also because it has influenced international law on the subject.
The theory requires, first, that there is a just cause, which may be to regain something that was wrongfully taken or to punish evil or in defence against planned or actual aggression. Second, it requires that war is initiated by a legitimate authority; third that there is a right intention on the part of those involved. Fourth, the use of force must be proportional: that is to say, relevant to the issue and not doing more harm than good. – which is may be the case with drones that often kill innocent people. Traditionally, a just war also had to be for the sake of peace and have a reasonable hope of success. The teaching also tried to limit the cruelties of war.
We all know that no one wins a war and that the suffering is colossal. Many of us would feel that the doctrine of the just war is now outdated and probably that it has always been a distortion of the message of Jesus. On one occasion, I was asked to be on the panel at the launch of a book called The Ethics of War and I remember saying that I did not think any war could be ethical.
At most the use of force by the UN in a peace-keeping role may be necessary – but the UN has become itself a battle ground for competing world powers and urgently needs reform.
What is essential is that we work to create a culture of peace, which has from the beginning been one of the goals of FOR. This, of course, is an enormous and multi-dimensional task. Let me highlight some priorities
First: Reject Violence
It must be clearly said again and again that violence in the name of God is always a crime against God.
Secondly people of all faiths need to reject the exclusivism of the past and act together
Holy people of every faith teach the way to peace. Sadly their followers have often been exclusive and competitive.
As Hans Küng has said, there will be ‘No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.’
As Golda Meyer, a former Prime Minister of Israel said, the ‘tragedy of war is that we teach are young men to be murderers.’ How can we make the priority teaching them to be peace-makers.
Fourthly: Social Action
We must seek to relieve poverty, defend human rights, and protect the environment – all causes of conflict
Fifthly: Call for Structural Change and Economic Justice
Besides helping individuals, people of faith also needs to work for structural change. [For example, they should challenge economic injustice or the dominance of a few great powers at the United Nations. Some faith leaders are pressing for changes at the UN to the way the veto is used and has prevented effective action by the UN. The Dalai Lama has suggested that every nation should have a veto, but this could be over-ridden by a two-thirds majority. Others are calling for an advisory ‘World Council of the People,’ which would include artists, environmentalists, religious leaders and representatives of civil society.[ii]]
Sixthly: Healing the Past
Let me say a little more about this, because Reconciliation is at the heart of the purpose of FOR.
So many of today’s conflicts are rooted in past hostility and atrocity. The poet Edwin Muir wrote:
Revengeful dust rises up to haunt us.
History plagues us like a relentless wheel.
Who can set a new mark or circumvent history?[iii]
Two years before Bat-Chen Shahak was murdered on her fifteenth birthday in Tel Aviv on March 4th, 1996, she had written in a school magazine of the need for Israelis and Palestinians ‘to be rid of the hatred buried deep inside us for so long.’ ….[iv]
My Christian faith encourages me to hope that this is possible. And several of the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been inspired by Christian teaching – indeed there were complaints that the South African Commission was ‘too Christian.’ Work on a ‘Charter of Forgiveness’ shows that this is a concern deeply rooted in many traditions.
[There is a place for apology. Pope John Paul's prayer on the scroll he inserted into the Western wall in Jerusalem set a seal on the Roman Catholic Church's growing recognition since Nostra Aetate of the suffering caused to God's chosen people by persecution and centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching. It was a public and symbolic act that heralded the new relationship between Jews and Christians.]
Since 1973, more than 20 ‘truth commissions.’ The ones in South Africa, Guatemala and more recently in Rwanda, all emphasise the healing power of the truth. As banners in South Africa proclaimed ‘Revealing is Healing.’ The Guatemala project was based on the words of John’s Gospel, ‘the truth will make us all free.’ (John 8, 32). Many of those who took part testified to the fact that breaking the silence was the starting point for healing. As one said, ‘To make things bearable we have to bring them to the light. That’s the only way wounds will be healed.’[v]
In Rwanda, one of accused said, ‘Before gacaca I could not go to my homeland. I was afraid they would kill me.’ gacaca helped survivors return to the homelands … we had the courage, because people had said sorry.’[vi]
I remember too after I had preached at St Mark’s church in District Six in Cape Town, I asked some of those who had been forcibly relocated under the apartheid regime, how they felt about it. They said, ‘We must forgive, as Jesus has forgiven us.’
Finally, let me stress the importance of Prayer and a Spiritual Contribution
During the campaign to ban land mines, the Peace Council at several of the major conferences, arranged interfaith prayer services.
In October Mary and Marcus visited the Centre for
Thanksgiving in Dallas.
This is a picture of a windoww there by Jiohn Hutton
[iii] Edwin Muir, Collected Poems by Edwin Muir, ed by Willa Muir, Oxford, Oxford University Press, © 1960.
[iv] Bat-Chen Shahak, The Bat-Chen Diaries, Minneapolis, Kar-Ben Publishing (Lerner Publishing),
2006, p. 107
[v] Quoted by David Tombs in Explorations in Reconciliation: New Directions in Theology, Ed David Tombs and Joseph Liechty, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006, p. 91
[vi] Quoted by Colin Murray Parkes in Responses to Terrorism, Ed Colin Murray Parkes, London,
Routledge, 2014, p. 223
Parliament of Religions Calls for Action
“The best ever,” was how chairman Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid described the recent Parliament of World Religions, held in Salt Lake City, USA. The focus was on what religions can do together to “Reclaim the Heart of Our Humanity.” Participants made personal pledges to help reduce the damaging impact of climate change on the most vulnerable people in the world. They also warned of the dangers of the widening wealth gap, “which we cannot reconcile with what our religious traditions teach us.” They also committed themselves to do all they could to resist “hate speech, violence and war” – and especially bombing and terrorism targeted on innocent civilians.
Some 8, 000 people attended the Parliament, although only a handful from the UK. Members of the World Congress of Faiths from Britain arranged a multi-media meditation on “Peace in Our Hearts: Peace in Our World.”
Many speakers stressed the need for participants to turn what they had learned into action in their own communities to overcome poverty and fight for justice action and not just words. H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, president of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, one of India’s largest interfaith spiritual institutions, said the work of the interfaith movement is needed worldwide. “There is a shortage of food, clean water and arable land across the globe. If there’s any shortage, “There is a shortage of food, clean water and arable land across the globe. If there’s any shortage, there’s a global consciousness shortage." The Dalai Lama in a message said “action not just words is needed.”Even so, there was time to learn about many spiritual and religious practices and for transforming individual conversations. A highlight was a concert of sacred music in the Tabernacle of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ (M0rmons). The children’s choir, with youngsters from most of the many faith communities in Salt Lake City, inspired everyone with their hope that a new world is possible, but that “only we can be the change.”
it me. I’m a great place for you to tell a story and let your users know a little more about you.
From Interfaith to Interspirituality
It is interesting how words change their meanings. When in 1936 Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths, he meant by ‘faith’ ‘personal belief.’ Because of his great friendship with the philosopher McTaggart who was an atheist, he said that ‘spiritual atheists’ would be welcome. Indeed members of the Ethical Society and other humanists have belonged. Younghusband’sunderstanding faith is close to our modern use of ‘spirituality,’ which may be independent of religious observance. Indeed in the 1940s there was a sharp disagreement about a contemplative group. Some wanted only committed members of a religion to come – others wanted to welcome’Seekers.’
Today, we often speak of ‘faith communities’ – perhaps as a way of recognising the different denominations within each religion. ‘Faith’ today is often used of communal identity, which may be a matter or the clothes you wear, the food you do not eat, the person should not marry. Recently I met a ‘Marxist Muslim’ or should I say ‘Muslim Marxist?’ Or do you say I am a British Sikh or Sikh Scotsman.
Taking faith in this sense of community identity, interfaith work becomes a branch of social cohesion, which is important. The emphasis then is on getting people from different faith communities to meet, to learn about each other, to dispel prejudice and to work together for peace or some social project. For example, Three Faiths Forum, has started a ‘Mixed Up Choir’ – as a way of getting people from different communities to enjoy being together – and of course multi-ethnic meals are great. In Israel/Palestine some youngsters were got together for a football match - -but first they were mixed up so in both teams there Israelis and Palestinians, who had to learn to co-operate.
he pioneers of interfaith certainly hoped it would issue in practical benefits of reinforcing shared moral values and promoting peace. Yet this would arise from a new awareness of the underlying unity of all life. It was not just a matter of learning about other religions: it was also a learning from them – what some people called a ‘meeting in the cave of the heart’
or ‘mutual irradiation.’ For example, I first read the Qur’an to learn about Islam – but the Qur’an is a ‘mercy to the world’ not just to Muslims. So now I try to read a Surah with the same expectancy that I read a chapter of the Bible – as ‘a love letter from God.’ In my books Islam: A Christian Appreciation or Hinduism: A Christian Appreciation I try to show how my own spiritual journey as a disciple of Jesus has been enriched by meeting with people of others faiths and reading their scriptures. In the past WCF has arranged spiritual retreats led jointly say by a Hindu and a Christian. It is a meeting in shared awareness of the presence of God. Western wall – Sikh pilgrimage
This, of course, assumes that God is present in each religious tradition and we can learn from the insights of others – indeed I feel we hold in trust our sacred scripture for the benefit of all – just as those who live in a stately mansion look after it, but also open it to the public.
Such an approach appeals especially to those of a mystical inclination. Now the word mysticism of course also can be misleading. It has been said that it begins in mist and ends in schism. The physicist Stephen Hawking once said mysticism is for those who can’t do maths. George Cairns replied, ‘Mystics are people who don’t need to do maths. They have direct experience.’
Let me give some examples that may make this clearer. Think for example of the prophet Isaiah’s vision when, as he says, ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne high and exalted and the train of the temple filled the temple.’(Isa 6, 1). Seventeen years before Thomas Merton - a popular guru of the seventies - became a monk, he was shopping in the centre of Louisville. ‘I was,’ he said, ‘suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers... There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun...'
It was a similar experience that inspired Sir Francis Youghusband, who founded the World Congress of Faiths in 1936. In 1903 he led a mission to Tibet. After agreeing a treaty with the Tibetan leaders, the next day by himself, Younghusband climbed a mountain near Lhasa. ‘Exaltation thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. I was beside myself with untellable joy. I felt in touch with the flaming heart of the world. What was glowing in all creation and in every single human being was a joy far beyond mere goodness. A mighty joy-giving power was at work in the world.'
The living experience of the Holy One always transcends our ability to describe it. Hindus say ‘Neti, Neti’ – not this not that. The early Church Father Gregory of Nyssa wrote, ‘What shall we call you, you who are beyond all name?’
This so-called apophatic tradition – i.e that no words can fully describe God – e.g ‘Immortal, Invisible God only Wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes’ – is to be found in every faith.
It also puts creeds and dogmas into perspective – even scriptures. They are important, but of secondary importance. As a Buddhist saying puts it, ‘They are like fingers pointing to the moon’ – they point beyond themselves to a living experience of the Divine. A Hindu swami I heard speak explained that the experience of God’s love is the medicine our soul needs, but we need a spoon or glass of water – to take the medicine. Most of us need rituals and cults just as we may need satnav to find a place – but they point beyond themselves.
They who have been touched by this experience recognize a kinship with mystics of all traditions. Jesus told the woman of Samaria that a time was coming when people would not worship on Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion but 'true worshippers would worship God in spirit and in truth.' There are parallels is most religions. For example there is a Jain saying, ‘Consider the family of humankind as one.’ The Bhagavad Gita says, ‘He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings.’ Lao-Tzu said, ‘Simply see that you are at the centre of the universe, and accept all things and beings as parts of your infinite body. When you perceive that an act done to another is done to yourself, you have understood the great truth.’
This sense of Oneness inspires a deep concern for others. Thomas Merton, in describing his Louisville experience, went on, ''There are no strangers... If only we could see each other (as we really are) all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.' Francis Younghusband continued his Lhasa account by saying, 'Never again could I think evil. Never again could I bear enmity. Joy had begotten love.' Mother Julian of Norwich spoke of this same sense of all-embracing love: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Rumi, the great Sufi mystic sang,
The religion of love is apart from all religions:
For lovers (the only) religion and creed is God.
To sense the Oneness of God, the oneness of the human family, the oneness of all life is the well spring of compassion and a commitment to human rights, peace building, non-violence, and reverence for all life.
Let me try to illustrate this and to suggest why spiritual experience is so important for our world today.
Soon after the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, the Dalai Lama said that two responses were possible to those terrible events. One came from fear, the other from love. ‘If we could love even those who have attacked us, and seek to understand why they have done so... we would become spiritual activists’.
The next day, I was myself contacted by e-mail by someone I did not know who lived in the outskirts of Washington. As he heard the grim news, he returned home and gathered his family and then happened to pick up the copy of my anthology, Bridge of Stars, which had arrived that morning. He opened the book and tried to focus his thoughts on this extract from the Jain scriptures:
I give friendship to all and enmity to none.
Know that violence is the root cause of all miseries in the world.
Violence, in fact, is the knot of bondage.
“Do not injure any living being.”
This is the eternal, perennial, and unalterable way of spiritual life.
A weapon, however powerful it may be,
Can always be superseded by a superior weapon;
However no weapon can be superior to non-violence and love.
There is an alternative: to seek reconciliation rather than revenge, to live more simply that others may simply live and to reverence all life with which we share this planet. This alternative is rooted in the conviction that every person is precious to God – that the terrorist as well as his or her victim is God’s child. Such teaching is to be found in all the religions, although often it has been obscured. It also flows from the mystic sense of the oneness of all life.
This sense of our shared humanity is vividly expressed by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist peace worker, in a poem entitled, ‘Please call Me by My True Names’.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons to Uganda.
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee
on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after
being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with
plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his
“debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labour camp....
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
In the same way Desmond Tutu is his recent The Book of Forgiving shares two simple truths: ‘There is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.’
Such a viewpoint commits one to the search for peace but also to reconciliation after conflict. It also promotes deep concern for the poverty in which so many people live. This involves giving practical help, but also challenging the injustice of international trade and the structural imbalance of the financial world.
Let me however concentrate on the sense of oneness with all life which the mystical sense of Oneness encourages and which is particularly relevant to the environmental crisis which threatens us all.
Father Thomas Berry, a leading environmental theologian, insists that religions have to recognise that that ‘the universe is now experienced as an irreversible time-developmental process… Not so much a cosmos as a cosmogenesis.’ This implies that human beings are co-creators with God. For weal or woe, the future is in human hands. ‘The first great contribution this new perspective makes to religious consciousness’, writes Father Berry, ‘is the sense of participating in the creation process itself. We bear within us the impress of every transformation through which the universe and the planet have passed.’ This also means that human beings have to see themselves as part of the earth community and recognise that all life is bound together.
Perhaps it is only as we recognise our inter-connectedness with all life that we shall find a vision to motivate us. Pictures of the earth taken from space have provided such a vision for some people and have been called a symbol for our age. Astronauts David Brown and Kalpana Chawla, who both died in the Columbia spacecraft disaster, spoke of the magical beauty of our planet as seen from space. ‘If I’d been born in space,’ David Brown said, ‘I would desire to visit beautiful Earth more than I ever yearned to visit space. It’s a wonderful planet.’ Kalpana Chawla said, ‘The first view of Earth is magical… in such a small planet, with such a small ribbon of life, so much goes on. You get the feeling that I need to work extraordinarily hard along with other human beings to respect that.’
Mystics who have explored inner space proclaim the same message of unity. The French Jesuit and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin said, ‘I live at the heart of a single, unique Element, the Centre of the Universe, and present in each part of it; personal Love and cosmic Power.’ As the environmentalist Jane Goodall says, ‘We are moving toward the ultimate destiny of our species – a state of compassion and love.’
‘A Civilization with a Heart’ is the beautiful name that Wayne Teasdale, a prophet of inter-spirituality, gives to the alternative global future. It will be a world in which every life is held precious and therefore a society committed to non-violence, economic co-operation and reverence for planet earth. It will be a society which embodies the mystic or unitive vision of inter-connectedness and the sacredness of all beings in the Divine.
In all the great spiritual traditions, there are pointers to such a civilization with a heart and there is also evidence in many places of an emerging global and spiritual consciousness. At the same time, the media reports escalating violence, growing economic inequality and ever greater threats to the environment.
I believe the great spiritual traditions offer us an alternative to the gloom-laden predictions of popular pundits. All people of faith need now to concentrate together on proclaiming and living the alternative vision. It is our choice and our responsibility. If we are co-creators with the Divine of the future, we can help to shape ‘a civilization with a heart’. In the words of Mairead Maguire, the Irish Nobel Peace Prize Winner, ‘Dream the impossible, then so live that the dream is fulfilled.’
Wayne Teasdale describes the Interspiritual Age in these words:
We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world. This birth into a new awareness, into a new set of historical circumstances, appears in a number of shifts in our understanding:
The emergence of ecological awareness and sensitivity to the natural, organic world, with an acknowledgment of the basic fragility of the earth.
A growing sense of the rights of other species.
A recognition of the interdependence of all domains of life and reality.
The ideal of abandoning a militant nationalism as a result of this tangible sense of our essential interdependence.
Deep, evolving experience of community between and among the religions through their individual members.
The growing receptivity to the inner treasures of the world’s religions.
An openness to the cosmos, with the realization that the relationship between humans and the earth is part of the larger community of the universe.
Each of these shifts represents dramatic change; taken together they will define the thought and culture of the third millennium.
 A phrase used by Jacques-Albert Cuttat, Swiss ambassador to India in the nineteen sixties, who shared in dialogue with Abishiktanada and other spiritual leaders
 A term used by Douglas Steere a Quaker professor and peace worker who arranged inter-religious meetings in Japan.
 Quoted by Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart, Novato, CA, New orld Library 1999, p. 3
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp.140-42
 Francis Younghusband, Vital Religion, John Murray.1940, pp.3-5
 John, 4, 24.
 Jinasena (a Jain monk) in his Adi-purana
 See note 10.
 Quoted in The International Interfaith Centre’s Newsletter, Oxford, December 2001.
 Quoted in Bridge of Stars, ed. Marcus Braybrooke, Duncan Baird, 2001, p. 197
 Thich Nhat Hahn, Being Peace, Parallax Press Berkeley 1987, pp. 63-64.
 Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, William Collins, 2014, p.3
 Dr Thomas Berry, ‘The Cosmology of Religions’, in A Source Book for Earth’s Community of
Religions, CoNexus Press, 1995 edtn, p. 95
 ‘The Cosmology of Religions’, p. 96.
 Quoted in Marcus Braybrooke, 265 Meditations for a Peaceful Heart and a Peaceful World,
Godsfield , 2004, p. 380
 Teilhard de Chardin, quoted in ‘The Cosmology of Religions’, p. 97,
 Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope, Warner Books, 1999, p. 267.
 Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, New World Library, 1999, On pp. 4-7 he mentions signs of the inter-spiritual age, which together ‘are preparing for ‘a civilization with a heart.’.
 Mairead Corrigan Maguire, The Vision of Peace, Orbis