A talk I gave tonight at an event run by Radical Middle Way ( event on Facebook) in Luton. I was invited to contribute a Christian perspective to discussion about peace, difference and cohesion with two reputed Muslim scholars - one was Habib Umar bin Hafiz, a Yemeni and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad. Seemed to be well received!
And overall a good evening. Habib Umar bin Hafiz was clearly well loved and well received. A privilege to share platform with him.
And in the language of my own worship liturgy: May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you!
These are words which have formed a part of Christian worship for 2000 years and which express something of our own contribution to the topic this evening. For in exchanging those words with one another at a central place in worship, we recognise the divine call to live as a church community in peace and unity; and to extend that peace to the wider community around us.
It's a privilege to be with you this evesning, and especially participate with you learned gentlemen, and also my valued Muslim friends and colleagues in Luton. Our relationship has grown amidst the challenge of conflict around us here in Luton over these past two years. It is a testimony to the ways of peace to which we are called by our respective faiths that I believe we can say we have seen peace triumph in the midst of conflict.
Peace for me, and I believe for you, is not something passive, but is something we work at. Indeed my response to the accusation that Luton is a breeding ground of extremism, is to say I prefer to see it as a workshop for peace. And it is particularly appropriate that in a conflict where some try to draw the battle lines between our faiths, that we turn that accusation upside down and instead we look to the central teaching of our faiths that promote peace, that call for mutual understanding in the place of diversity, that command neighbourliness, and which encourage friendship!
I am not here this evening to deliver a lecture on Christian theology. But I do want to say enough that everyone leaving here will have been reminded again that at the heart of the Christian faith is a message of peace. I want to refer to two scriptures that come from the Hebrew Bible, our so called Old Testament, from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, or as I believe you say it, Esh'eaa. These passages I believe inspire us to action.
The first passage, in Isaiah 2.2-5 is speaking of a time when all the peoples of the earth would come seeking God, asking that He teach them how to live according to His laws. Prominent among those ways is the pathway of peace:
He will judge between the nations, and settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Very powerful and inspiring words. This was a vision that guided the church in its first 300 years, before somehow that message became subverted into the idea that the church could spread its message by the sword. And from that came the crusades, the ultimate negation of the true heart of Christian faith. We still live today with the legacy of that message of hate, and are reminded of it regularly by the so called English Defence League who often carry the symbols of the crusades. I want to say again, very clearly, that I deeply regret and totally reject the message and actions of the the crusades which has done so much to drive rifts between faiths, nations and peoples.
Instead I look to the vision laid before us by Isaiah -- a bold hope that we would humble ourselves before God and learn His way of peace. It can happen in this town. If all the Christians of Luton would simply seek to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ on how to live peaceable lives it would make a lot of difference. But what about you who are Muslims? Some would say its takes two to make peace. True -- but since one of the ways of peace that Jesus taught is to look in the mirror at your own faults, rather than point the finger at the other person's faults, I will stop there. It is for your community to take responsibility for its problems; we have enough of our own to handle.
I find other keys to peace in the teaching of Jesus that are really just as simple.
- Be quick to apologise if you have done wrong.
- Be quick to forgive when someone apologises to you.
- Pray for your enemies and those who do bad to you.
- Dont be quick to judge others.
Little things, but they are oil that smooths things along when two cultures, two lifestyles meet and inevitably experience friction. And there are many, many such encounters every day in our town -- not deliberate, just a result of difference. And as a person who helps people sort out their conflicts I know that it is often these little things that lead to the bigger issues in conflict.
In summary, the picture we have from Isaiah inspires us to live gracious lives that make peace real.
Second I look to another forward looking passage. In Isaiah 25.6-9 the prophet speaks of God hosting a magnificent banquet for all nations!! It will be a day when tears will be wiped away, shame covered over, and death destroyed. And we as people from all nations would banquet together!! I find it interesting that this picture of the future is not of people bowed in prayer or worship, but of people eating and celebrating!
Its a simple picture but one that inspires me. I don't pretend to be doing God's future work for him. But I want to take hold of that picture and be inspired by it now. I want to see lots of little rehearsals, people of different nations, language, ethnicity and culture sitting down at table, talking, enjoying friendship. Here we move beyond the focus on the teaching of God's ways to a focus on us being humans together - eating, learning, understanding, celebrating!!
Quite honestly I am challenged by this second picture. I believe it calls us to look for ways to deepen our relationships, our understanding , our friendships -- across the faith divide. Many of us get on well at work, at college, over the wall with our neighbour, in the shops, etc. But because we have different customs and values and rules, and different lifestyles, where do we go where relationships can go deeper, where we can socialise, or have fun together. We lack those shared social spaces. There is still nervousness about going to another person's home, about inviting someone to ours. That's understandable. Maybe we are not there yet. But in the absence of shared social space that means there is often something missing that limits relationships. It means we have to be much more intentional in order for relationships to deepen beyond a certain place. Yet try we must if we are to take seriously the challenge of that second scripture.
We are called to peace. But if we are to be true to our respective faiths we cannot deny we are different, and that peace must work itself out despite the reality of our difference. My faith proclaims beliefs and certainties that conflict with the beliefs and certainties of your faith. Some use that as grounds to say we cannot be friends, we cannot trust each other; some would go so far as to say we must always be seeking to convince each other of the truth of our way. I am sometimes challenged by fellow Christians along those lines. And I am sure you experience that too. But if we are to be true to the full call of our faith we need to learn to be good neighbours, living at peace with one another; to be good citizens, working together for the best of our community and town; and we need to know how to share about our faith in a way that promotes peace. In my mind thatsharing of faith takes place best in the context of already existing relationships and friendships. I love to get to know more about Islam from my Muslim friends; it doesn't threaten me; and I love to share about my faith.
To conclude. We are different. And I love that!! I love the title you have given to this event, The Mercy of Diversity. God in His mercy made us different. And in that difference we can live together in peace, if we draw from the central teaching of our faith.
I hope I have shown you of the importance of that for Christians. Thank you.