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Social Unity

29/11/2010

Faiths Working Together.

Invited by Qamar Bhatti of the MRB Foundation to speak on Jewish approaches to community cohesion at the launch of their Societal Unity initiative on Saturday, so braved (!) the slight scattering of snow and went off to schmooze over coffee with the great and the good at the impressively new and environmentally friendly headquarters of the West Midlands Fire Service.

Talking about community cohesion and social unity to an audience of faith leaders and community development activists is a bit like promoting capitalism at a meeting of the World Bank – you are unlikely to meet with much resistance and the audience is likely to know more about your subject than you do. So my job was not as easy as it might have appeared, especially given that my slot was sandwiched between a former cabinet minister and a Methodist minister, both of whom are gifted public speakers of a quality I could only dream of reaching.

It was fascinating listening to Clare Short, for example, talking about her time as International Development secretary, or Bill Ozonne reminiscing about his work with the Vatican on various papal and interfaith initiatives. But, amid the talk of the military industrial complex, counter-terrorism and inter-faith dialogue, a string of research related issues came to mind.

A point which I took up in my talk – related to the eternal human need to find scapegoats among the out-groups of society. Previous blogs on this site (The Stranger in your Camp) have discussed this phenomenon, which persists across ethnic and cultural boundaries, irrespective of faith or affluence. We are excluders rather than includers by nature, it would appear.

This ‘them and us’ dynamic is related to our psychological predisposition towards binary opposites. We tend to see issues in terms of on or off, orthodox or progressive, nature versus nurture, and so on, even though reality is far more subtle and complex. Thus, even though we are more likely to be injured by an accident in the home than outside it and to be murdered by a friend or family-member, the familiar is perceived to be safe while the stranger is not.

Our thin veneer of civilisation, which appears to coincide with the better aspects of faith, encourages us to be inclusive. At the heart of most, if not all, religions is the injunction to look after the weak and the vulnerable – the widow and the orphan – and to be kind to strangers. Sadly, we don’t always manage it, especially if – like a refugee or a homeless person – they belong to an excluded group.

Whether you ascribe our better behaviour to human nature or faith in the Almighty, it often falls apart when religion meets politics. If there is one thing we can learn from history it is that when money and power meet faith, conflict and persecution are not far behind. Too often, this is justified and exacerbated by the manipulation of scripture. This appears both in the narrative and interpretive writing of the text and in its subsequent exploitation for political ends.

Perhaps, how politics and religion can work together to improve the community is a proper subject for the Societal Unity initiative to explore. Clearly, the religious label attached to a terrorist in a conflict such as persisted in Northern Ireland, for example,  can really only be understood in terms of politics, particularly of post-colonialism, not in the spirituality of religious faith.

The sacred texts that record the core narratives of the world’s religions are all human artifacts. Made by human hands, they are subject to the usual errors of translation and transcription that occur when any book is published and printed, let alone those that have been transcribed by hand for a hundred generations.

Yet, within every religion, there are more or less orthodox groups, who believe in the literal truth of a sacred text, and  progressive believers, who believe in the centrality of the message within that text but accept that some of it was written in the context of the time – with the limited world knowledge available and to appease the powerful.

Within orthodoxy, of course, there are kind, fair-minded, hospitable, gentle and generous free-thinkers just as there are illiberal, dogmatic and inflexible adherents among the progressives. Neither has a monopoly on  virtue. They are merely different in how they practise their faith. However, within each group there are extremes.

What should interest us here is to find out why people are drawn to the immutability of extreme orthodoxy. Surely, in some senses, the appeal of an absolute book of answers is similar to the attraction of  extreme political ideologies? It requires you to do, not think. It is the illusory silver bullet to rid you of the cause of all your woes.

Previously (In the Belly of the Beast), I identified the four ingredients that are needed, at a critical mass, to ensure that extremist conflict ensues: population density, a lack of education, poverty and political ambition. To this we ought to add, a cultural or religious environment which encourages belief in the black and white of simple solutions.

If the MRB Foundation can help us to understand and overcome the psychological, social and spiritual barriers to religious co-operation, their Societal Unity campaign will have been a significant force for good.

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