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Walking Beside Our Neighbour

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by the Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Everyone of us has been appalled and deeply shocked by the wicked terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday night. We abhor the horror; we mourn the terrible loss, and the deliberate targeting such young, innocent lives. The aim of the attack was to create a climate of fear designed to shatter peace and tear communities apart.  All our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with those affected by the terrible atrocity.

Despite the destructive aims, the opposite has occurred. Yesterday’s one minute silence, a time for prayer and reflection, showed the Mancunians —  all people, all races, all religions — standing together and then bursting forth at the end with long applause. We have also seen extraordinary acts of kindness to random strangers, feelings of strength and unity, unbowed spirits and moving tributes to those still fighting for their lives.

Radicalisation, terrorism and all forms of extremism are abhorrent, and we must fight back in every way and on every level. We must make community cohesion and international cooperation priorities amongst all faiths. It was pleasing to hear Iman Monawar Hussain, Founder of The Oxford Foundation, say that “One thought on Manchester is that not a single classical Jurist has justified the killing of innocent people, what is happening now is anti-Islam and against all that the religion stands for”.1

And one of the most moving pictures from Manchester showed an Imam and elderly Jewish women side by side expressing solidarity for victims of Monday night’s bombing. Imam Sadiq Patel and Renee Black (93 years old) prayed together, having traveled together from Blackburn to express unity and compassion for the victims.

Such images and actions are important testament to combat hatred and division. And Oxford also hosts an interfaith action which tries to do just that.  On the eve of the transfer of power to Iraq in 2004 over 14 years ago, I founded an Interfaith Friendship Walk in recognition of the need for community cohesion. We walked from the University Church, St Mary the Virgin, to the Central Mosque in Manzil Way, Oxford in solidarity against the brutality to Iraqi prisoners in Basra prison. The following year the Jewish community joined, so the walk now starts at the Oxford synagogue, and goes from there to St Mary’s and then on to the Mosque, sharing prayers at each place of worship. The walk is led by a Bishop, a Rabbi and an Imam and now includes 9 other faiths, such as Hinduism and Sikhism.  Movingly, the Jewish community makes cakes and delivers them to the Mosque so we can all share a meal at the end of the walk. This event has fostered community cohesion, friendship, mutual respect, and fosters dignity in our difference. And out of this trust and shared action Oxford has created a Council of Faiths, which on Tuesday evening held a candle-lit vigil for those who lost their lives in Manchester.

Sadly, some Christians have declined to participate because the aim of the Inter-faith Friendship Walk is about conversation not conversion, about friendship not judgement.  Their response has saddened me deeply, as it indicates an agenda of separateness, and underscores their belief that there is an ‘other’ with whom it is impossible to connect. This kind of thinking has often been referred to as the “sheep and goat” theology.  2. (For many, I too am a “goat” because of gender, as I am a women priest in ministry teaching and leading worship).

Interestingly the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, The Rt Revd Dr Martyn Percy, said that in the early 1990s the LGBT community was regarded in a similar vein in conservative Christian circles. He said that at that period “Gay men and women are “the other”, not thought to be in the “kraal of the redeemed”. 3

The avoidance of the “other,” whether they are of another faith or a Christian of different theological persuasion, does not work. In a speech he made in St Martin in the Fields called “Who is our neighbour? The Ethic of Global Relations,” the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said we cannot afford now not to engage with the “other” in a deep and profound way. By referencing the story of The Good Samaritan, he claimed, “It is not a matter of deciding who out there deserved to be loved by you. It is a question of your decision to be a neighbour, your decision to be someone who offers life to others. This is a basic choice, which turns our lives into life-giving realities”.  He continued:

To love our neighbour is to love the person who can save our lives. The extra catch in the parable of The Good Samaritan is that we never know quite who that person is. It is likely to be the most improbable person around, so our openness to neighbourliness has to be profound, all encompassing, all embracing thing”. 4

On Monday night the world saw people acting as true neighbours.  Taxi drivers, homeowners, emergency workers, doctors and nurses all came to help those in need and brought light into the darkness.

Narrow conservatism and inflexible dogmatism prevent believers from seeing that they have more in common with the “other” than one might first understand.  All of us of faith need to encourage and to engage with the “other” in open-hearted and open-minded ways. As the OT scholar Professor Bruce Birch said, “the basic meaning of Shalom is peace – a wholeness, a state of harmony among God, humanity and all religions”. 5

Only with this can we all fight shocking extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. Then there is a possibility that there may be light where there is darkness, hope where there is despair. We as people of faith, can choose understanding over hatred, love over fear, hope over desperation.  Without this understanding, we are failing Christ and all those who lost their lives on Monday night.

References.

  1. Iman Monawar Hussain: The Oxford Foundation – Statement 26/5/17
  2. Matthew 25 31-46: The Sheep and the Goats.
  3. The Revd Dr Martin Percy: The Wisdom of the Spirit Gospel, Church and Culture.
  4. Lord Rowan Williams: Who is my neighbour? The Ethics of Global Relationships. Autumn Lecture Series. St Martin’s in the Field. London. 2016.
  5. Prof Bruce Birch: The Predicament of the Prosperous. Chapter V11 p149

 

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