Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Bishop 3:28 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, in line with many noble Lords today, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for bringing one of the most fundamental and pressing issues in international relations today to the attention of this House.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to begin from these Benches by conceding to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that both Christianity and Islam—and, indeed, most of the world's great religions—have the potential to create immense danger for the world. All religions claim to mediate the absolute. It is easy to topple over the brink and identify that absolute with the finite and fallible human structures through which that absolute is disclosed to human beings. In short, our religions can reinforce countries, communities, organisations and individuals in being impervious to criticism.

However, I assert that both Christianity and Islam also have within their traditions the very roots of what the world needs to build peace. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, they have within them the resources to address the greatest questions facing the human race today. The patient learning of how to do that is most easily found on the streets and neighbourhoods of our diverse cities.

If it is true to say that the local is becoming globalised, it is simultaneously the case that the global is becoming localised. That is why it was important for this debate to begin with reference to the demography that lies behind these questions. The impact of tensions around the world is felt on the streets of many of our cities, not least in my own city of Leicester. We are living at a time when the pushes and pulls that prompt migration are especially intense. Present conditions of global inequality, commercial expansion, environmental degradation, oppression, war and famine, together with new opportunities for mobility and communication, all drive uniquely large flows of people. Globalisation, with its reduction of the constraints of geography and its web of instant communication, might initially seem to suggest that localities would become increasingly homogenous. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that globalisation has not eradicated local cultural diversity. In cities around the world, people are encountering the challenges of living in distinctive places marked increasingly by many forms of diversity. That leads to a new significance for the local in a globalising world. Global events affect local politics and local collective actions. An obvious example from my own city is that control of Leicester City Council changed hands as a direct consequence of Muslim reaction to the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

International affairs everywhere affect feelings of identity and security, especially among urban dwellers who often already have high levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. What therefore needs to concentrate the mind of this House is how foreign policy and domestic policy interact in that area. It is not just security on the streets of Baghdad, Jerusalem or Kabul that are affected by the stance of Her Majesty's Government, but that on the streets of Leicester, Bradford, Birmingham and London.

It is the case that faith groups in any of our cities are likely to be touchstones of international opinion. Within their memberships, they have networks spreading across the world. That makes them especially sensitive to violence and accident wherever they hear of it. In my own city, that has caused us to work hard at creating a rapid response to emergency. Within 36 hours of the attacks in London on 7 July last year, faith and community leaders were able to meet, consider the implications for our own communities and commit ourselves to staying in close touch with each other and with the security services. It is that careful, often laborious, time-consuming yet patient building of trust and confidence in localities that has to be part of the way in which the building blocks of a new international order can be created.

Sometimes the response of faith groups to emergency can include the raising of relief funds and gifts in kind, which makes a considerable impact in bridging community divides. In Leicester, large sums of money were raised for the victims of the Gujarat earthquake from the Christian and the Muslim communities. In Birmingham, a similar effort was made for the relief of those suffering and dying in Bosnia several years ago.

Agreement on certain fixed principles is essential to the building of the kind of trust that is needed both locally and globally if the challenges of a new millennium are to be met. One decision we have made in Leicester is that an attack on one of our faiths should be seen as an attack on all of them, whether a building or a person is a victim. How we then act together depends on the circumstances, but that gives each faith the security that they can bring their concerns to the others when they have been hurt. That principle was elucidated after 9/11 when local Muslims were being insulted and Muslim women were often afraid to put their scarves on for fear of being singled out. Sikhs were also being victimised, since many people are ignorant of the difference between faiths, as we know. When Muslim graves have been repeatedly desecrated, support has been shown by Christians and Jews alike.

Various speakers in this debate have listed the world's conflicts: in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Gujarat, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, north-east India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kosovo, Nigeria and Sudan. The list goes on. In many of those places, it is possible to find evidence that religions can react to events together and have the potential to act as a moderating and reconciling, rather than inflammatory, influence. In those areas, learning is often done in the crucible of diverse urban neighbourhoods. As other noble Lords have said, it is being done especially through dialogue at every level. We need to ensure that ideologies of isolation, competition or conflict give way to the ideology of dialogue, and that faiths see conversation about how their communities cohere as intrinsic to their very identity.

We are coming to see that building and sustaining prior relationships are essential to finding our way through crises. Regular face-to-face meetings, kept in good repair and sustained routinely, are vital. Rapid response is of the essence if anxieties and speculations, fed by the media, are to be well managed. Collective statements which speak out of the deep roots of our different religious traditions can have a cumulative effect of showing that Christians and Muslims are determined not to be divided.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently produced a report, Faith as social capital: Connecting or dividing?, of which the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, spoke eloquently. It points to the capacity of communities of faith to build the very links, bridges and social capital which communities will require if they are to live in harmony. The same principle, that social capital arises at its best from the great world faith traditions, has been explored in the report of the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, soon to be published.

In a world where global forces and foreign policy are often driven by the narrow values of profit, power and status, there is often little scope for consideration of the common good to which the world's faiths can so richly contribute. We need to find ways of renewing social organisation and justice in the face of fierce and destructive global dynamics. I am therefore hopeful that this debate will make a significant contribution to that enterprise.


Bob Churchill
Posted on 28 Apr 2006 12:10 pm (Report this annotation)

It is good of the Bishop to concede "that both Christianity and Islam—and, indeed, most of the world's great religions—have the potential to create immense danger for the world" through their absolutist claims. It is also correct so assert "that both Christianity and Islam also have within their traditions the very roots of what the world needs to build peace." But it is not a religious 'root'. It is all people who can build peace. If people stopped insisting that religiosity was the primary or sole conduit of human ethics and empathy, we might be able to have the good without so much of the bad.