Posted by: Andrew | April 10, 2017

Having Difficult Conversations

There is currently a growing desire to see interfaith dialogues tackle some of the grittier issues facing society and to have ‘Difficult Conversations’. This is combined with a tendency to be dismissive of ‘tea and samosa’ events that are deemed to be all well and good but don’t go far enough or deal with the real issues of today. Over the years I’ve also been critical ‘tea and samosa’ events that seem to focus solely on similarities between faiths and so have made an effort to find ways to discuss and affirm differences. In the past couple of years I’ve also been involved in running the Birmingham Conversations which have sought to have ‘difficult conversations’. So, whilst I am delighted to see others embrace the idea of acknowledging differences and hold difficult conversations I have a few observations and concerns that might be helpful for others wanting to get into discussing thorny topics.

Firstly when some people they say ‘We should discuss difficult issues’ what they actually mean is ‘we should discuss things that are contentious for other people because I’m concerned about them’. But those same people are too often very reluctant to discuss issues that they themselves find difficult. Discussing difficult issues becomes a way of highlighting problems in other communities without addressing issues closer to home.

Secondly many people find this really difficult for a variety of reasons:
1) They’re actually quite polite and friendly and don’t want to upset people or have an argument. If it’s with people you don’t know it can feel awkward to disagree when you don’t know their ideas or situation, or if it’s with friends people are worried that it might damage the friendship irreparably.
2) They don’t know how to raise or discuss a contentious issue in a constructive way as there are so few opportunities to learn or practise this skill
3) They lack confidence in their own position worrying that they’ll look silly if they are proven wrong.
4) They don’t want to be accused of being racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic etc. This is not something to be taken lightly. With people tweeting comments in meetings it’s easy for someone to accuse someone of being one of these ‘isms’ and for it to be public which can really affect people even to the point of them losing their jobs.

The result is that creating a constructive way to discuss difficult topics is quite hard work and doesn’t just happen. Someone recently said, surely all you do is put a lot of people in a room throw in a few contentious issues and stand back. In my experience this rarely works, it either ends in nothing much being said, or a blazing row between a few people with others feeling embarrassed and awkward.

So here’s what I’ve learnt about facilitating groups to have difficult conversations:
1) Never underestimate how long it takes people to feel comfortable in a group to have a constructive conversation about a contentious issue. They might actually need a few ‘tea and samosa’ events before they feel comfortable with difficult conversations.
2) Facilitate the discussion well using a variety of discussion activities and techniques. It doesn’t just happen naturally, try using art or music to create different atmospheres and ways for people to respond. Have clear ground rules to help even the best group function well and stick to them.
3) Be aware of people’s emotions and how they impact and inform people’s response to difficult topics. An issue is difficult rarely because it’s a complex philosophical or ethical issue usually it’s because it upsets or annoys people.
4) Make it a genuine conversation between people and not just experts giving clever answers to justify their position.
5) Make it clear that people are not ‘representatives’ but are speaking for themselves otherwise they’ll feel they can’t answer as they don’t speak for the whole community.
6) Be sensitive to the fact that most issues are not difficult for everyone. Consequently some people in the group will be much more emotionally involved and affected than others.
7) Create an atmosphere of equality where everyone has to grapple with an issue that’s challenging for them.
8) Keep going it’s hard work but worthwhile

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Posted by: Andrew | January 30, 2017

The State of the World

I’m so shocked and appalled and what’s happening in the world right now. I can’t quiet believe the behaviour of Donald Trump, the ignorance and vindictiveness of his travel ban leaves me speechless. It targets citizens from countries who have rarely, if ever, threatened the USA and is so blunt in it’s approach that millions of innocent people, Muslims, Jains, Bahais, Christians, Yazidis Jews, people of no faith and others will be affected.
I’m also aware that other nations and leaders are behaving appallingly and making the world dangerous and unwelcoming for so many people. Whether it’s the war in Yemen, Syria, the on-going situation in Crimea or other places there are so many hurting people.
But, for me, there’s something deeply troubling about a president of the USA with so much power and influence who can use it in such a crass and hurtful way, that makes his actions unique. Welcoming the stranger, the hurting, the vulnerable is at the heart of the Christian faith (which Donald Trump claims to be) and has also been an integral part of what it means to be American.
I hope my friends of all faith, but especially my Muslim friends at this time know that I value your friendship and the welcome and hospitality you have often shown to me, even at times when you and your communities are under great pressure, and I hope my American friends know that the actions of one president doesn’t change my views of you as good friends.
Being committed to building peace between people of different faiths and cultures is a really exciting challenge, but one which so many people would like to derail. I feel privileged to know that in the midst of the pain and confusion of this latest challenge I will continue to have friends of many different faiths and nationalities, and that we will continue to work together to create a world of bridges, friendship and welcome.

Posted by: Andrew | January 24, 2017

New Frontiers of Interfaith Work

After twenty years of involvement in interfaith work, the start of 2017 it seems a good time to reflect on some of the current challenges I’m seeing and suggestions some new issues that we might need to engage with. They are all a critique of the way I’ve worked, or events I’ve been involved in, over the years so it’s not a criticism of others but a personal reflection that might be of interest to others.

  • It’s too Middle Class.
    Most of the interfaith events I see happening largely involve middle class people of different faiths. However as more people of different faiths move into, what used to be thought of as white working class estates. This will become the new frontier of interfaith work. We have the opportunity to learn from good practice and mistakes in other communities in order to equip these areas to develop good relationships between people in the area. Specifically finding ways to welcome incomers whilst making the indigenous community feels valued and appreciated. Those of us involved in dialogue will need to learn how to work authentically with working class communities.
  • It’s too left wing.
    The vast majority of people in this field are broadly on the political left and socially liberal. Yet all faiths include members who are politically conservative and those who are socially conservative. I’m meeting increasing numbers of staunch conservatives of all faiths who want to get involved in dialogue but, consequently, have a different perspective on a number of issues compared to the majority of people involved. With the political right on the ascendancy it will be vital that people who are politically or socially conservative can be included in interfaith dialogue to both challenge and be challenged by those they disagree with.
  • It ducks too many difficult issues.
    With debates over immigration around the Brexit vote and matters of cohesion in the Casey review these are issues that matter to a lot of people but are rarely discussed within interfaith dialogue groups. Dialogue groups have started to discuss difficult issues such as conversion, however, if dialogue is to increase its impact on society it has to be willing to discuss these societal issues and model good ways to discuss difficult topics.
  • It’s too deferential.
    I think respecting people and listening to the wisdom of elders are good things, but when this becomes uncritical deference it renders dialogue impotent. Too often ‘faith leaders’ or ‘community leaders’ make pronouncements at dialogue meetings that many people in the room disagree with, or that outside the meeting would be considered controversial, yet go unchallenged because of their status. In dialogue have to be able to question even the most revered faith leaders if the conversations are to be genuine and not just one-sided pronouncements.
  • It’s too focused on Christian-Muslim Encounters
    This is, perhaps, understandable given the size of these faiths in the UK and the long history of encounters, good and bad, between Muslims and Christians. However, given the size and number of different faiths in the UK there needs to be more engagement with faiths other than Christianity and Islam. To draw people of other faiths into interfaith activities for the enrichment of all and to address issues other than ones relating to Christians and Muslims
  • It needs to grapple with Gender engagement
    From my observations over the years there is real disparity in the ways men and women are welcomed into interfaith activities or how they choose to participate. To put it simply I see too few women involved in leadership discussions and too few men involved in grassroots dialogue. We need to encourage more women into leadership, support the many local dialogue groups for women and enable more to grow, but also encourage a far greater participation from men in local, grassroots interfaith initiatives.

Adapting to these challenges will be hard for many of us. But if dialogue is to continue to have relevance and to have an impact beyond the ‘usual suspects’ I expect these are issues many of us are going to have to grapple with.

Posted by: Andrew | January 24, 2017

Racliaising Interfaith Encounters

Mixed Group

I ran an interfaith discussion recently that involved a group of about six of us of different faiths (the people in the picture with this post). When I described the group to people I got a really interesting response. If I said I met with six people for an interfaith discussion, and they were all White, everyone I’ve told has looked disappointed or disapproving. Clearly the implication is that the group wasn’t very mixed and was lacking real diversity. However, if I say that the discussion was between Jews, Christians and Buddhists and that we had Progressive and Orthodox Jews, Buddhists from two different schools of Buddhism and Christians from different denominations, the same people think the group sounds really interesting. There is no hint of disappointment.

On the other hand when I talk about running groups including Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims where everyone is Asian, no one ever seems disappointed or disapproving.

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So what’s going on?

Firstly there’s a very simple issue that, too often, we have stereotyped ideas of what an interfaith group meeting in the UK will look like. We assume that it will include White Christians and Asians of different faiths but, whilst this might often be the case, in an increasingly diverse city like Birmingham the reality is often different. Faith groups include people from a variety of ethnicities so any group can be mixed in a variety of ways.

However, there is something more troubling in people’s response to the groups I was in. Why is a group of White people seen as disappointing, when a group of Asians is seen as interesting (by the way I got this response from people of different ethnicities)? Is this some form of Orientalism whereby the Asians are viewed as ‘exotic’ and ‘interesting’ just by dint of their ethnicity regardless of what they have to contribute? Is this some form of discrimination where White people are seen as a homogeneous group with little internal diversity, or Asians are similarly pre-judged as being religiously interesting? In the same way as Black people have been caricatured as being athletic are Asian being caricatured as Religious?

I’m not really sure, yet, what was going on, but I do know that I’ve received the same sort of responses enough to be troubled by this and to think that this is an issue people in the interfaith world ought to be considering and tackling.

Many years ago when my son was 4 years old I had the following conversation with him on the way to nursery school:

Son: Dad how big is God?
Me: Bigger than everything
Son: Bigger than that house?
Me: Yes, bigger than everything
Son: Bigger than that tree?
Me: Yes, bigger than everything
Son: Bigger than a rocket?
Me: Yes, bigger than everything
Son: Bigger than the moon?
Me: Yes, he’s bigger than the moon and the sun and the whole universe, he’s bigger than EVERYTHING
Pause…
Son: Even bigger than that car?
Me: ARRRRGGHHH YES!!!

Sadly in the last few years than have been several terrorist attacks committed round the world by people claiming to do them in the name of Islam, whether this is AL Qaeda, (so called) IS, Boko Haram or others, and they tend to use Qur’anic texts to try to justify their evil and terrible actions. This, inevitably, has led to scrutiny of Muslim communities around the world and a demand that Muslim leaders condemn the terrorist attacks. However, as time has gone on the conversations between some people in the media and Muslim leaders is starting to resemble the conversation I had with my son:

Journalist: What is your response to this terrorist attack?
Muslim leader: We condemn this and all acts of terrorism
Journalist: What is your response to the terrorist attack in London?
Muslim leader: We condemn this and all acts of terrorism
Journalist: What is your response to the terrorist attack in Australia?
Muslim leader: We condemn this and all acts of terrorism
Journalist: What is your response to the terrorist attack in Tunisia?
Muslim leader: We totally condemn this and all acts of terrorism wherever they take place.
Pause…
Journalist: So what about the terrorist attacks in France
Muslim leader: YES, We condemn this and all acts of terrorism

If you haven’t heard condemnation from Muslim leaders can I suggest you google something like ‘Muslims condemn terrorist attacks’ where you’ll find plenty. Sadly their condemnations don’t always hit the press so don’t get heard, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been said.

And maybe it’s time to trust people that when they say all, they do actually mean all.

I’ve started making some trees to add to my railway. I used a rather good and simple method of twisting wire, gluing on stands of sisal string, painting and adding flock for foliage, and I have to say I think they look rather good. But as I was making the first couple I thought they looked a bit big, too tall and bushy. So I started looking at trees as I was driving round Birmingham. If you’ve never been to Birmingham, one thing you notice here is that, for a large city, it has a lot of trees. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them but have never really looked at them before. So I looked to see how big they are and many of them are massive, much taller than the ones I’d made, and then I started to notice the shapes and colours, how high the branches start, how thick the trunks are. I started to really look at the world around me.

Then I remembered something I was told as a young boy trying to learn how to make model railways. A man at the model railway club told me that the thing about making a model railway is that you have to learn to be really observant. You have to look at the trains, but if you want to make good scenery you have to carefully observe the world around you, and see how buildings are made, where they stand, what plants are nearby what sizes and shapes they are what colours different items are made of.

Nearly forty years later, I’m now learning that message anew as I come to appreciate the trees around me all because I want to continue by boyhood desire to build a model railway.

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Posted by: Andrew | October 8, 2015

When is a Sacred object Sacred?

Many people of faith find spiritual enrichment, solace or encouragement through the veneration of certain objects. A statue, painting, relic etc. I’ve started to get really interested in people’s relationship with these items and particularly how our relationship with them changes when they are in different locations.

My interest in this was sparked by a conversation with Rev Dr David Cheetham who has written about this in his book ‘Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions’. He noticed that if he took a group of evangelical Christians to see Hindu statues in a museum they were all happy to look at them and learn about them. However, if he took the same group into a Hindu Temple where they saw people venerating similar statues the group were troubled by the ‘idol worship’ and were far less willing to learn about the Hindu deities.

I’ve also been working with the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on their new interfaith gallery as part of a working group they’ve set up. What’s fascinating is that when all the religious objects are spread throughout the museum under different categories (painting, sculpture, Asian art etc) they cause little comment or controversy. However, when you collect items from different faiths into one room and call it an interfaith gallery the objects start to have a meaning in relation to each other as well as for themselves. For example do you put them all at the same level, thereby suggestion that all faiths are equal; or do you place some higher than others in order to be faithful to the beliefs of a particular religion, ie  placing a Qur’an higher than other texts. Suddenly objects that were just considered as ‘Interesting’ now have meaning both for themselves and in relation to their location and other objects around them.

It occurs to me that our veneration of sacred objects is far more complex than just our relationship to the object. What meaning we place on an object (and therefore the way we respond to it) is also influenced by where it is, what else is around it and how other people are threating the object. This is a line of enquiry I’m just starting on so these are just some initial thoughts. But perhaps some good questions to ask are:

How would we feel if this object was in a different type of building or space?
Does it matter how other people are treating it?
What would happen if we placed sacred items of other faiths near to it?

 

Posted by: Andrew | September 10, 2015

Being on (someone elses) Pilgrimage

A short while ago I was privileged to be taken to Amritsar and the Punjab by Sikh friends in Birmingham. I went as a guest of the Birmingham Faith Leader’s Group in their inter-faith trip to Sikh holy sites and especially the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was this my first trip to India, so travelling round the Punjab seeing both city and rural life was amazing – I can’t wait to go back.

I’ve been asked by many people what was the highlight of the trip, and there were many – almost too many to choose from. But what really stands out in my memory and what impacted me most deeply was being there whilst my Sikh friends were on a spiritual pilgrimage. They didn’t go just as tourists, or treat the various Gudwaras as interesting historical places of worship, rather they went to worship at places which for them were holy and had deep spiritual and historical significance.

One event stand out in particular. One was at about 11pm when a few of us went back to the Golden Temple. Every night of the year volunteers perform Seva (service) by cleaning the entire temple inside and out. They start at about 10pm and go right through to early morning. Inside the actual temple they take down the drapes and polish the gold and clean everything. This is done by a team of about a dozen who seemed to work with little or no direction or management but each just did the job which had, presumably been allocated to them earlier. However, whilst they were doing this a group of women and men sat singing their worship, again it was all informal and spontaneous but it was done with such passion and intensity that it transformed the atmosphere of the temple.

I sat there, as a Christian, listening to songs that I didn’t understand (my Punjabi is sadly non-existent) and watching people clean the temple. Now I’ve been part of church cleaning groups, and participated in many worship times, but never combined and never ones quite like this. There was something very powerful about the way that service and worship came together seamlessly they were both as important as each other. But there was also something that moved me spiritually in the intensity and sincerity of the event.

This sense of being moved by the worship and spiritual journey of others happened a few other times as we visited different sites and Gudwaras that were particularly significant. It raised a number of questions for me both theological: What does the Trinitarian God of the Bible make of their worship to the One God (but definitely not in Trinity)? and personal :What is it that I’m feeling in the moment of being moved by the worship of others in ways and language that are totally unfamiliar to me?

In many ways these are still questions that I’m grappling with. One of the reasons for writing this blog now is that I’ve been invited to go to a Shia Muslim pilgrimage to Iran in a few weeks and want to be able to reflect on that in the light of this trip to India and my own faith.

It’s easy to say ‘well we’re all worshipping the same God so of course it’s moving’ yet that is to avoid the very big differences in our understanding of God and how he deals with the world. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and came to earth fully God and fully human. That sense of God taking human form runs counter to Sikh understandings of God as far as I know. Furthermore I believe that God creates us to have one life wherein we can choose to follow ad worship him or not, and that when we die there is the possibility of being in total closeness to God in what gets called heaven (I realise that these are really simplistic descriptions, but hey it’s a blog post not a theology book). Whereas my Sikh friends explained to me their belief in the transmigration of souls so that a soul has many millions of lives. So whilst we may all be seeking to offer worship to God there are some profound differences in our understanding of God and how God relates to us.

So what do I think, I think I experienced genuine worship and a reaching out to God? Maybe, like Jesus encountering the Roman Centurion, I can describe this a great faith. Perhaps what I experienced spiritually is what I teach people cognitively, that life is not a simple as we’re ‘in’ and they’re ‘out’, we’re the Holy ones they’re the sinners in need of salvation. In Luke 4 Jesus reminded people that God blesses those outside of the Judeo (and now we would say Christian) tradition, and he nearly got killed for it! He told stories of Good Samaritans, and made sure his disciples met (and learnt to love) people other than fellow Jews. All this I’ve taught for years and know it and believe it. Perhaps in the Golden Temple the Sikhs helped me encounter and experience it spiritually as well.

Posted by: Andrew | September 3, 2015

Loving the Rich?

I’ve read, studied and preached on the account of Jesus meeting the rich young ruler from Mark chapter 10 many, many times. Yet this morning I read it more slowly and reflectively and things leapt out at me that I’d never seen before.

The story started familiarly enough, the rich young ruler comes to Jesus

1st surprise: He kneels in front of him. Never noticed that I always pictured him standing arrogantly and confidently. But the image is of him kneeling in front of Jesus.

Then the story continued as expected. He asks how he can receive eternal life, Jesus tells him to obey the commandments and famously the ruler claims to have kept them all. So he might be kneeling but the image is familiar of the boastful, proud ruler wanting eternal life (perhaps he sees it as a commodity to add to all his other possessions and achievements).

2nd surprise. Jesus looked at him and LOVED him. That’s right Jesus loved the arrogant, proud, rich ruler. Recently the church here in the UK has really embraced Jesus’ love for the poor and marginalised. It’s brilliant to see how many churches are challenging injustice, siding with the poor, speaking up for the marginalised etc. Brilliant, and I think they’re being obedient to Jesus’ teaching and example. BUT with almost everything Jesus said and did there’s more to his ministry. Here in the small story we see another side of Jesus, one who also loved the rich, in all their arrogance and pride he still saw a lost man seeking after God (perhaps with motives that we would question) but Jesus still loved him.

The next part of the story is perhaps the most famous – when he tells him to go and sell all he has. That always had a harshness to me, Jesus was revealing the truth of the man’s condition (greed) and challenging him to get rid of that. But if Jesus loved him maybe this was spoken with deep compassion. Because…

3rd surprise. Jesus says that when he has given his wealth to the poor Then he will have rewards in heaven and only then does he say ‘come follow me’. The rewards in heaven come not as a result of following Jesus but as a result of getting rid of the things he held more dear that obeying God.

Perhaps we can read this as Jesus longing for the man to follow him, but knowing that he’ll never be able to unless he puts aside his greed and love of money, but he offers him other rewards immediately. Jesus offered the man just what he wanted out of his love for him.

And the man said No! It must have been heart-breaking for Jesus, yet he doesn’t chase him and say ‘it doesn’t matter’ or plead with him to come back. He let’s him leave.

So I’m now challenged to think about whether we can also love rich, proud, boastful rulers? Would we be able to challenge not out of anger or jealousy but compassion? Do we let people reject Jesus when we tell them about him or are we so desperate for converts we’ll do anything and say anything to get them ‘in’?

Posted by: Andrew | January 20, 2015

Why Similarities are so Divisive

‘Of course we all believe the same really’ These words that seem so innocuous are the reason why so many Christians give up on interfaith work at the first hurdle (they may also cause problems for people of other faiths but I can only speak for Christians here). Why on earth should these words of inclusion cause a problem? Surely the problem is that we spend too much time on our differences and not enough time exploring and affirming our similarities? Let me try and explain. The simple fact is that we don’t all believe the same things. we have lots in common and I find increasing numbers of similarities and resonances between faiths that are inspiring, interesting and hopeful. But at the same time I’m also increasingly aware of the significant differences between what we believe and the impact that has on our understanding of God, humanity, the world and the relationships between and within all these entities. Learning to live with and negotiate our differences seems me one of the highest callings of dialogue (if that’s not too pretentious a term). Many people I know go along to a dialogue event or visit a place of worship of another faith and one of the first things people say to them is ‘We all believe the same don’t we’. This puts them in a difficult dilemma, do they say ‘Yes’ for the sake of peace and harmony  but feel that they have somehow betrayed their faith or say ‘Well no we don’t’ and risk sounding rude or starting an argument within two minutes of entering the room. I know that some people express the belief that we all believe the same as they genuinely think we do, others as they believe it to be a welcoming and friendly gesture. I think it’s important to recognise that often people are saying this to put us at our ease and we should accept the statement in the manner in which it is meant. My response when people say ‘We all agree’ is to acknowledge that there is lots we agree on but that there remain significant differences and discussing those in a friendly way is what I find so interesting. So if someone says this to you and you feel uncomfortable, don’t be anxious. Accept their friendship and have the confidence to politely acknowledge the many similarities and admit you think there are some differences – which can be discussed another day. And if you’re the kind of person who says ‘We all believe the same’ next time pause and think about how the person in front of you will feel. Perhaps saying ‘There’s so much we have in common’ might be easier as it’s likely they will be able to agree.

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