Monday, April 16, 2007

Creating a Sacred Space

Last Sunday's Encounter programme was "Creating a Sacred Space".

The City of Greater Dandenong is one of Australia's two most diversely populated municipalities and its local hospital has substituted a multi-faith 'sacred space' in the place of its old chapel.

Listen or download the transcript here:

I am not surprised that this little gem is located in Dandenong.

A few years ago I met the Mayor of Dandenong, a Lebanese, who places a high value on creating an ethos for interchange between religious communities and their leaders and religious understanding in his community. This ethos which provides the context for the initiative described in the Encounter program is outlined in the resource "Constructing a Local Multifaith Network" (in particular p25 ff).

One of the significant shifts in my chaplaincy over the past 8 years has been to place a higher priority on nurturing those who work in the background providing the underpinning that nurtures the possibility of the "Kingdom of God". It is a shift away from "church-centred" toward "kingdom-centred" concerns. (The two should not be mutually exclusive, but sometimes I wonder!)

The Encounter program, "Creating a Sacred Space" is an important resource for chaplains, particularly hospital chaplains, who are concerned about inclusive pastoral practice.

But equally, more attention is needed to support the construction of contexts that allow such initiatives to emerge.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Common Concern

Christians and Muslim Indian join hands to fight bigotry to

New Delhi (Ecumenical News International). Defying some perceptions of widening divisions
between Christians and followers of Islam, hundreds of Muslims
have joined a sit-in in the Indian capital organized by Christian
groups fighting discrimination meted out to Dalits, considered by
many in the country still to be "untouchable" citizens. "Give us
equal rights," shouted the protesters including senior church
leaders and Muslim activists at the sit-in demanding and end to
the discrimination against Christian and Muslim Dalits. [ENI-07-0193]

The urgent need for good interfaith relations is most clearly demonstrated when there is a community crisis. The "September 11" event, for example, brought religious and political leaders into contact with Muslim communities as never before. The best in these relationships has been drawn upon as other crises have unfolded, the "Bali Bombings", the "Boxing Day Tsunami" for example.

In quieter but more sustained ways, support for refugees, in the face of inhumane treatment by the Australian Government, has brought many compassionate Australians into contact with people of other religions. Unheralded growth in respect and friendship between people of different faiths continues in the workplace, haphazardly or by intention. Did I notice a hijabed lawyer assisting a Jewish judge recently, as a member of his staff, or was that in a dream? Did I hear of an Indigenous leader establish an "Afghan Room" in her house, as a compassionate gesture toward her hospitality of Afghani refugees?

Those who are sensitve to prejudice and injustice seem to be the ones who are bringing greater interfaith understanding. Whereas I would have expected, seeing we are talking about religious differences, that religious leaders would be at the forefront of developing religious healing and harmony among the different religions per se.

Sensitivity to prejudice and injustice and the motivation to confront it might be expected from those of faith, but not necessarily so. Just as the Howard Government seems to have reduced politics (how we organise our society) to the material and economic, so it seems that much of the vision of religious politics (how religious instituions prioritise and organise) seems to have narrowed to self-preservation.

This is not to discount some outstanding efforts to educate and dialogue among the religions. The initiative by the Muslim and Jewish communities to come together in Adelaide in 2003 as Project Abraham has been very fruitful.
( page=/site/eo_resources/publications.jsp ) The project continues nationally, now including the Christians. There has been Jewish-Christian dialogue for many years, through the Council for Christians and Jews. And there have been numerous services, meetings and observances over the last 5 years in particular, where people of other faiths have been invited to share something of their faith. There is nothing quite like face-to-face encounter to transform prejudice and build trust, provided it is done in the right spirit.

It should not be surpising to read the above report from India, seeing people of different faiths have lived side by side for so long, that Christian and Muslim seem to have come together in this way over a common injustice. But wouldn't it be wonderful to read a report that Australian religious communities have come together to protest a common injustice beyond their own self-interest, the treatment of Indigenous Australians, for example?

Then interfaith dialogue would take a giant leap forward to multifaith action.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Visit to the Local Mosque

On Sunday afternoon, five of us, representing Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting, met with the Imam and two members of the Marion Mosque. Although we did not formally present a communique to the Imam, the following points which we Christians had agreed on before the meeting, were communicated:

1. We regret the recent insinuations of the Minister for Foreign Affairs reported in the media, later revealed as unsubstantiated, concerning funding for the building of the new Parkholme mosque, and the suspicion such publicity generates in the wider community.
2. We recognise that aspects of international situations place the Muslim community in Australia under suspicion.
3. We want to express our support for efforts to reduce such suspicion in the community.
4. We recognise that there are aspects of Western culture and the behaviour of some individuals within the Christian church which also places the Christian community under suspicion.
5. We seek closer relations between our Christian and Muslim communities encouraging respect and greater understanding.

The meeting helped increase confidence and respect for each other and we plan to meet again in April.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Angels of Other Faith

Muslim praises Christian 'angels' bringing tsunami relief

Edavanakad (ENI). The head of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, has concluded a visit to India by laying the foundations for a disaster shelter and community centre at a Muslim-majority village in southern India hit by the December 2005 tsunami. The multipurpose disaster shelter is being built by the Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), the social welfare wing of 24 Protestant and Orthodox churches in India.
"God sends his angels in times of disasters. These are the angels God sent to us when we stood stunned unable to decide what to do next," said V. K. Equbal, the Muslim village council president, with his gaze directed towards the Christian dignitaries on the platform. [ Ecumenical News International -07-0150] 21 February 2007

The real test of Christian love is not undertaken with words but in deeds.
Jesus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, puts up the 'other', the despised Samaritan, as the model showing the love of God - a not-so-subtle rebuke to his questioners who thought they knew all the right, theologically correct answers (in their heads).
Perhaps for followers of Jesus in our age the players are reversed - the wounded one in need of assistance is now the 'other' - the refugee who cannot prove her story, our maligned Muslim community or our indigenous Australians - and the challenge for the follower of Jesus is not to 'pass by on the other side in 'theological correctness', but to stop and lift the 'other' and pay for their recovery. This is the ultimate evangelical act because it reveals the heart of God.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Threat or Opportunity

This morning, the following snippet of news from Ecumenical News International:

Karchi-born bishop warns, Britons must identify with Christian

Canterbury, England (ENI). A senior bishop in the (Anglican)
Church of England has warned that Britain could return to a "kind
of barbarism" if the decline that Christianity is facing
continues. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali,
in a newspaper interview described Islam as the biggest threat
facing the West since communism and called on British Prime
Minister Tony Blair to stop being embarrassed to identify with
the country's Christian roots. [ENI-07-0125]

There's a hankering there for a time long past when Christianity ruled the roost - both a denial that Christendom is finished, if not in intensive care, yet a recognition, an admission of that fact. So the conservative battle-cry, becoming shriller: "Fight the war, the barbarians are coming!"

There it is in the Bible - the Joshua story of domination by force, the armour metaphor of St Paul in Ephesians 6:10 ff - easy enough to link "fighting against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age" with an "axis of evil" in this world.

The reality is that most religions have texts that are either metaphorical, and were never intended for such ideological propaganda, or texts which are inapplicable within our cultural context. But we seem to love a fight!

Religious pluralism in our time need not be a threat, but an opportunity to live out the real gospel imperative to love our neighbour, to see in the Gospels, perhaps for the first time, a Jesus who embraces the one who is "other", not to crush her into an ideological cage, but to set her free to be more truly human, open also to love the other. This is the kind of conversion God yearns.