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Discerning the Signs of the Times – Reading the Weather

August 12, 2007

Mary Caygill

Pentecost 11     Luke 12:49- 56


I grew up in a household and within an extended family – where the central thread that held the family together and linked the family down through the generations past was that religion was good, it was necessary, and at the heart of life, because it dealt with issues of ultimate consequence and meaning.


Much later and to my ongoing sorrow I learnt and continue to be acutely aware of, that what made religion good and necessary also made it prone to intolerance and violence.


Religion kills, or more accurately, religion is used to justify killing precisely because issues of ultimate consequence and meaning are understood to be at stake.


The events of September 11th, 2001 which we continue to remember with such vivid mark indeed a bloody and violent beginning to a new century.


God predictably, is understood to be the benefactor of each side in the deadly conflict. The Muslims who flew aeroplanes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon did so in service to Allah. They understood themselves to be instruments of God’s will, agents of deserved punishments, and bearers of divine justice against enemies sufficiently evil as to do away with the category of innocent civilians. Terrorist actions were for them a faithful response to historic grievances based on a faithful reading of their sacred text.


Equally recourse in violent response justified in relation to faith, God and sacred text, was also evident in the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks. U.S leaders peppered their pronouncements of retaliatory actions – including the relentless bombing of Afghanistan and the broader war against terrorism – with references to God. The rhetoric of President Bush and his advisors post-September 11 was eerily similar to that of Osama bin Laden and his supporters.


Each side poses the conflict as a struggle between good and evil. In response to the depth of evil to be countered, each justifies the death of civilians, whether targeted, or as collateral damage. Each believes the grave depravity of the other can only be countered by lethal violence. Each invokes God’s name to ground the righteousness of their cause.


Andrew Sullivan writing in an article, “This Is a Religious War” in The New York Times Magazine, writes that the “general reluctance” to speak about “the conflict that began on Sept. 11” as a religious war is “admirable” but wrong. The religious dimension is central to its meaning.


This “surely is a religious war,” says Sullivan, yet it is not a war between Islam, Christianity and Judaism but rather “a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” Sullivan states clearly that the “use of religion for extreme repression, and even terror is not restricted to Islam. For most of its history,” he says, “Christianity has had a worse record.” The Crusades, Inquisition, and bloody religious wars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries meant that “Europe saw far more blood spilled for religion’s sake than the Muslim world did.” (Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? New York, Continuum. 2003, 17.)


Jonathon Sacks, Chief Rabbi for the Commonwealth writing in a book entitled, The Dignity of Difference, makes the central claim that, “one belief more than any other is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that that those who do not share my faith, or my race, or my ideology – do not share my humanity. At best they are second-class citizens. At worst they forfeit the sanctity of life itself. They are the unsaved, the unbelievers, the infidel, the unredeemed: they stand outside the circle of salvation.” (45)


If faith is what makes us human, then those who do not share my faith are less than fully human. From this equation flowed the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the jihads, the pogroms, and the blood of human sacrifice through the ages. From it ultimately came the Holocaust, of which the Western world in so many ways continues to seek to work out its redemption.


Religion is about identity and identity excludes. For every ‘we’ there is a ‘them’, the people not like us. The sense of belonging goes back to prehistory. Being part of a group was essential to life itself. Outside it, the individual could not survive. Some of our deepest, genetically coded instincts go back to that time and explain our tendency to form networks, attachments and loyalties. We call these predispositions tribal.


Tribalism has immense power. To surrender the self to something larger, more powerful, more elemental, is one of the deepest instincts of humanity.


Today ends a week of Islam Awareness. The core theme of the week has been ‘Unity in Diversity’ and around the country there have been a variety of opportunities and activities organized for New Zealander’s to consciously increase their awareness of Muslim diversity and beliefs, values and practices.


The supreme religious challenge shared by the three world religions – bound together in a common history – Islam, Judaism, Christianity – is to see God’s image in one who is not our image. That is the opposite of tribalism. But it is also different than universalism. The major difference being that it takes difference seriously. It recognizes the integrity of other cultures, over civilizations, other paths to the presence of God.


The Gospel reading today from Luke 12, in the latter verses 54-56 has Jesus speaking to the crowds about the weather, in particular their ability to give reports of the weather. He notes how accurate they are – it’s going to rain – and it does- the south wind is going to blow and it is hot as predicted. They are skilful weather reporters but in contrast their ability to be able to read in the most discerning way the nature and climate of the times is far from accurate.


My take on seeking to be a perceptive and insightful discerner of the signs of the times is caught up with what I believe is the critical test of any religious order – the mark of whether it is truly good – is the core question – does it make space for otherness? Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?


I believe and passionately so that this is now the most crucial and central question of the global age. The very future of the global world will depend on how much we deal with ethnic, religious and cultural otherness.


As Sacks maintains, “nothing has proved harder in the history of civilizations than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.” (60)


There are and there must be for the future of the next generations, many ways at arriving at this disciplined, gracious, generosity of spirit, and each faith must find its own way.


For me, this committed task of engaging in the possibility of creating a surplus of generosity of spirit lies at the centre of interfaith dialogue, and given the focus of this week around the country must lie at the heart of ongoing dialogue between and around the distinctive faiths of Christianity and Islam.


Let me say a little about my understanding of the task and process of dialogue in order to respectfully make space for otherness.


The etymology of the word “dialogue” is dia in Greek – referring to the act of seeing through.


Dialogue empowers us to ‘see through’ the faith of others, and enable us to reexamine our assumptions of the other based on the other’s definition of itself. Each group is able to better express what it believes and, in the process, to understand more deeply the meaning of what it means to be committed to a particular faith tradition.


The process of self-definition also requires that each group express itself on its own terms and for the partner in dialogue to accept and respect that self-definition. In the process, our preconceived notions of the other are challenged and often dramatically altered. That has certainly been my experience.


This is the first step and a crucial step to moving beyond the stereotypes and misrepresentations of the past.


The purpose of engaging in interfaith dialogue is not to reach doctrinal agreement or at worst – conversion to what I consider to be the one and only ‘true faith’. As the Parliament of the World’s Religions affirmed in Chicago 1993, “The earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of the individual is changed first.”


Dialogue provides access to windows of understanding of how others define themselves and challenges us to grow in our own faith through the experience of the other. It necessitates a shift in paradigm, asking us to embrace those we have previously excluded or demonized. For exclusion is also conjoined with the distortion of rather than simply ignorance of the other. As Miroslav Volf states, “it (exclusion) is a willful misconstruction, not mere failure of knowledge. (Exclusion and Embrace, 76)


Dialogue is the first step toward accommodating or making space within oneself for the other and it is essential that in this first step we move away from defining ourselves over and above and enemy “other.” This is a crucial measure and a disciplined measure in seeking to establish a peaceful relationship.


The will to embrace is a crucial first step in the process of attempting to build conversation. It is a crucial movement towards the possibility of – building a bridge across the divide in order to speak with rather than remain speaking about the other in an objectified manner – continuing to keep an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ at arms length.


As I consider this act of embrace – this willed act of embrace – I recall the beautiful and powerful imagery described by the Jewish novelist writing in his memoirs – former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel.


“In an embrace I also close my arms around the others – not tightly, so as to crush and assimilate them forcefully in myself, for that would not have been an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently – (very light touch) so as to tell them that I do not want to be without them in our otherness. I want them to remain independent and true to their genuine selves, to maintain their identities and as such become part of me so that they can enrich me with what they have and I do not.” (Wiesel…)


Why should I engage in dialogue – Christian to Muslim, to others of different ethnicity, others of different faiths?


Why should I embrace the other? Because the others are part of my own true identity. And I cannot live authentically without welcoming “others,” into the very structure of my being.

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