Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why can't different religions live together in harmony?

Jesus had this wonderful way of turning questions round on people.   It certainly made them think.

The question I am going to offer some thoughts on today is the kind of really good and interesting question that you could devote a whole book to – it prompts all sorts of interesting questions and all sorts of interesting discussion.

Why can’t different religions live together in harmony?

You could begin to respond to that question by exploring all sorts of ideas – it’s down to the people who belong, it’s down to the way people read their sacred texts, it’s down to a creeping fundamentalism, it’s down to things that distort religion.

I’m not sure it’s very helpful to talk about religions in general – or the theory of different religions – I’m not sure how helpful it is ultimately to talk about ‘religion’ in theory.

I want to make the question about people – why can’t people in different religions live together in harmony.  I think you would get a little further maybe if you pursue that a little further.

The danger is that it is theoretical … I want to make the question even more personal.  What about you?   What about me?  How can we live together in harmony with people of other religions?

When Paul visited Athens what struck him was how religious people were – how many different altars – it was just the same in Nero’s Rome.  It’s telling that as Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Christian community in Rome and as he turns to the way they are called to live their lives in the light of the sheer grace of God that’s let loose in the world by Jesus Christ he is in no doubt:  “Live in harmony with one another ….If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Paul’s whole understanding of the Christian faith found its focus in Jesus.

Take a look at the story of Jesus and one thing becomes very apparent.  He engages with people as people.  When a Pharisee, one of those who seeks to take seriously the whole of the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures, came to Jesus by night, Jesus enters into conversation with him – and treats him as a person.  “God so loved the world, says Jesus to Nicodemus, that he sent his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

When a centurion sent for Jesus because his servant was ill, Jesus related  to him as a person and brought healing to his home.

As soon as you put a label on someone it’s easy to dismiss them, somehow reduce them as a person.

Instead Jesus wanted us to treat people as people.

His followers found that a tough lesson to learn.

It was as Jesus was setting off on his journey to Jerusalem that his route would take him through a Samaritan village.   You sense in the story a real division with the Samaritan people.  The Samaritan people in that village don’t want to have anything to do with Jesus … and that incenses the followers of Jesus …

1As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, he made up his mind and set out on his way to Jerusalem. 52He sent messengers ahead of him, who went into a village in Samaria to get everything ready for him. 53But the people there would not receive him, because it was clear that he was on his way to Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

55Jesus turned and rebuked them.
You do not know what kind of Spirit you belong to; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.”

6Then Jesus and his disciples went on to another village.

It’s as his mission gets really under way and he sends out 72 followers to bring the message of the kingdom to the towns around, healing to people’s lives and peace to their homes that he gets in conversation with an expert in the law.

That expert in the law got it right in Jesus’ eyes and summed up the whole of the Law in two things Love God and Love your neighbour, Jesus told the wonderful story of the Good Samaritan in order to show that we should think of everyone as our neighbour.

People not labels.

How hard a lesson to learn.

This week has seen the 70’th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  At Cheltenham’s Holocaust Memorial day ceremony in the Municipal offices last Tuesday there was a chilling reminder of the steps it takes to follow the path to genocide.

It starts with classification – that tendency to see people as stereotypes.

It is the tragedy of our Christian story that anti-Semitism took such a hold as Christianity became a state religion.  Jewish people were expelled from these islands for centuries – it was a contribution from our churches that Jewish people were allowed back in the middle of the 1600’s – as our forebears went back to the roots of the Christian faith in the person of Christ and in Jesus himself they felt that it was not for the state to determine which religion was acceptable or not – Karen has written a novel about those beginnings – one fo the figures that plays a part in that novel is Thomas Helwys – who seeks to confront the king in his defence of religious freedom and conscience …

n 1612 Helwys wrote that the king of England “is but an earthly king...: for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

The programme contains notes on other genocides since the holocaust – Cambodia 1975-79, Rwanda 1994, Bosnia 1992-1995, Darfur 2003 to the present.  It could have gone back in time to the Armenian genocide of 100 years ago.

At the end of a week that has seen the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I am drawn to a thinker who experienced at first hand the tragedy of genocide more recently in the Balkans.  The Croatian writer, Miroslav Volf in a powerful book Exclusion and Embrace challenges us to cultivate the capacity to see through the eyes of the other.

“We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed readjust our perspective as we take into account their perspectives”

This is something for us to take to hear in all sorts of settings.

If we are to see through the eyes of ‘the other’, Volf suggests that we need to cultivate the art of ‘double vision’:  “The practice of ‘double vision’… presupposes that we can both stand within a given tradition and learn from other traditions.”

This is something that seems to me to be important.

I want to come back to Jesus – and the way he treated people as people – coming for all people.  To see things from another’s perspective we need to know where we stand and how we see things from our perspective.

I want to reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ as the one who opens up the very nature of God as the God who is love.

Clear commitment to the faith that is important to me is the starting point for me.

This is the insight of Miroslav Volf

He is not unrealistic about the possibilities opened up by this way of seeing.  “Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached.  We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other.  Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.”

It was Hans Kung, a Roman Catholic writer who said,

No peace among the nations
without peace among the religions
No peace among the religions
without dialogue between
    the religions
No dialogue between the religions without understanding of
   the religions.

But the dialogue he advocated is
Dialogue with steadfastness

We need to reaffirm our faith in Jesus Chrsit as Lord and Saviour.

Do that, stand firm in that faith, and then see people as people made in the image of  God, and build relationships of love.

The beginnings for us of seeking such harmony is in a simple prayer …

Gracious loving God,
Teach us to live in harmony with one another
To live peaceably with all and so
give us eyes to see as others see
ears to see as others hear
and a gracious loving heart
that’s faithful to You
in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God and
the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s have those words in our hearts as we now listen to a piece of music played at the Holocaust Memorial from the Methodist Central Hall – and shared by Richard -  the beautiful cello and piano piece (Prayer) by Ernest Bloch. The cellist is the son of distinguished cellist Raphael Wallfisch (who was at college with Richard’s wife Alison) and grandson of Anita Wallfisch, who survived Auschwitz because she also played the cello and was part of the Auschwitz Orchestra.

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