The Ven. Dr Michael Ipgrave, formerly Inter Faith relations Adviser to the
Archbishops' Council, asks: "Can friends of God be friends of one another?"
This article was first published in the Spring 2007 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date
The Ven. Dr Michael Ipgrave is Archdeacon of Southwark, with responsibilities for oversight of parishes in the religiously and ethnically divers communities of South London. He was previously Inter Faith Relations Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, and prior to that for thirteen years a parish priest in inner city Leicester. He has written and lectured extensively on Christian-Muslim and inter faith relations.
© Guild of St Raphael
Reconciling the Children of Abraham
What does it mean to speak of reconciliation between people and communities of different faiths, of the healing of inter-religious relations? At no time has that question been so insistently asked as at the present, when religious difference often seems to become the occasion for division, suspicion, and even conflict, whether in British society or globally. It is a question which can and should be addressed to every kind of religious tradition; but it is most insistently asked of Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three faiths which each in some sense claim descent from the zealous monotheism of Abraham. In Hebrew, Christian and Islamic scripture alike, Abraham is given the lovely title ‘friend of God’, yet those who claim descent from him have often found it difficult to live with one another in a spirit of friendship. Why is this, and where and how might ways to reconciliation be found?
THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM
Among the several dysfunctional family groups portrayed in the Bible, surely none is more evocative than that made up of Abraham, his sons Ishmael and Isaac, and their mothers Hagar and Sarah. The Genesis narrative unfolds on two levels. One is a human tale of rivalry between two wives, of contempt and of maltreatment, and eventually of the exclusion of the elder son in favour of the younger. Threaded through this story is another theme—of divine promise, the blessing given to Abraham to be transmitted through him to his rightful heirs and so to reach into the whole world. Feelings of anxiety and relief, of triumph and bitterness, of generosity and harshness, shift within Abraham’s family as the plot develops, and within the scripture there is no achievement of reconciliation between the two branches of Abraham’s offspring, nor any unambiguous expectation that there should be. Rather, the angel of the Lord tells Hagar, even as he promises a blessing to her son Ishmael: ‘He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’ On the other hand, there is a faint glimmer of hope when the time comes for Abraham to die, for it is both sons, Isaac and Ishmael together, who bury their father.
Despite occasional gestures of compassion towards Hagar and of recognition towards Ishmael, the Genesis account is clear that the line of divine promise and blessing is to continue through Sarah’s son Isaac. Christians and Jews would subsequently dispute among themselves how the category of ‘heir’ was to be defined—through physical descent from Isaac, or through the faith of Abraham? In the Qur’an, by contrast, it is Ishmael (Isma‘il) rather than Isaac (Ish?aq) who is the principal focus of attention as exemplar with his father Abraham (Ibrahim) of that obedient submission to God which is called islam. These different though related scriptural starting points suggest that, when we speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as all being ‘Abrahamic religions’, we should expect to find in that title as much contestment as commonalty, since each religious community has claimed for itself exclusive rights as Abraham’s heirs. This expectation is indeed in large measure borne out by historical experience: ‘Both the Christians and the Muslims claim, as indeed do the Jews, that they are the unique heirs to Abraham’s legacy. The exclusiveness of their claims has turned the three siblings into a notoriously fractious family since each doubts the legitimacy of the others, while at the same time acknowledging, often obliquely and always grudgingly, their mutual affiliation’.
Against this backdrop, what prospect is there for reconciliation between the children of Abraham, and what steps can be taken towards it? To begin to answer questions like these, it is necessary first to identify some of the barriers to friendly co-existence and co-operation, particularly between Christians and Muslims. This is a highly complex area, but I suggest that prominent among the factors impeding reconciliation are three: the historic and ongoing pollution of our memories of one another; a lack of attention in our knowledge of one another; and the influence of a particular type of supersessionist theology. In saying a little about each problem in turn, I shall also ask how we can respond to the challenge each presents, recalling finally that any genuine prospect of reconciliation must be set in the context of prayer to the God who remains the friend of Abraham and of all his children.
The past is closed: what has happened has happened, and cannot be changed. Our memory of the past, though, is not closed: what we remember, and the use we make of our memories, is not beyond our control. The history of Christian-Muslim interactions includes both confrontational and divisive episodes, such as the epoch of the Crusades, and also more positive periods like the convivencia of medieval Spain, in which Jewish communities also played a significant part. The lesson to learn from history is that the encounters of Christians and Muslims have been varied and diverse, shaped by and shaping the political and economic contexts of the times and places in which they happened. From our interlocking pasts, we can choose to draw out a story of conflict, suspicion and distrust; or we can discern opportunities of mutual trust, understanding and co-operation. The complexity of the historical experience opens to us both possibilities, according to how we select and use our memories.
This is a significant point to recognise in the quest for reconciliation, since memory is a powerful force which can easily be manipulated. Negative memories of the other inherited from the past can be evoked to sow the seeds of suspicion or to justify conflict in the present, thus generating yet more negative memories which can lock Christians, Jews and Muslims into future cycles of confrontation. This destructive logic needs to be broken for reconciliation to grow, as two examples can show.
On a recent visit to Sarajevo, I was forcibly struck by the way in which each community treasured the memories of its own sufferings at the hand of others, while being oblivious to the pain for which they were themselves responsible. At the same time, there was hope for the future in the determined effort to retrieve the history of Sarajevo as ‘Europe’s little Jerusalem’, a city where Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox and Catholic Christians had in the past lived harmoniously together. Following the terrible riots in Kaduna, Nigeria in which Christians and Muslims attacked each other, an imam and a pastor determined that they would together travel the country preaching the message that neither of their religions sanctioned the killing of others; the memorable friendship they formed as a result is presented in a moving film called ‘The Imam and the Pastor’, which is itself creating a positive memory for the future.
The point of engaging in what Pope John Paul II called the ‘purification of memory’ is precisely not to spend time agonising over the crimes of the past, or engaging in fruitless self-abasement, but rather, by naming and repenting for past sin, to be set free from the destructive power that polluted memories of the other can exercise over us, and so be set free to build together a new reality for the future. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in the extraordinary change wrought in Christian-Jewish relations since the Holocaust, where the Christian churches—led by the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate—have acknowledged the part that a distortion of Christian teaching has played in the oppression and persecution of Jewish people. This can be seen as a real sign of hope that a similar transformation in Christian-Muslim relations could be effected through openly addressing memories of the past.
Even when memory is discounted, it is easy for us to form false images of the other through the simple process of stereotyping—that is, agglomerating people different from us into a collective and undifferentiated whole in a way which does no justice to their individuality and diversity. Phrases like ‘Muslims think in a legalistic way’, or ‘they are likely to condone violence’ betray this kind of thinking. Conversely, the view among some Muslims that Western society is invariably characterised by moral laxity associates ‘Christianity’ with pornography, drug and alcohol abuse, and family breakdown. The less dramatic reality, that in both Muslim and Christian communities there will be a range of opinions and attitudes, and differing patterns of religious life and ethical behaviour, can only be realised by those who take the trouble to focus their attention on the complexity of people’s lives as they are actually lived. This can be particularly difficult when so many of our images of the other are fed to us through media which rely for their effect on simple and instantly recognisable images, and the development of technology has meant that people can increasingly tailor their media consumption to suit their own preconceptions and prejudices.
In such a context, small but certain steps towards reconciliation can be taken simply by getting to know people who are different from us. The effort of a local church to link up with a mosque or synagogue in the neighbourhood, or of individual Christians, Muslims and Jews to get to know each other and to count one another as friends, may indeed seem insignificant against the backdrop of global conflicts and societal tensions. However, it is only the lived reality of such relationships that will be strong enough to hold us together when the force of mass stereotyping tries to drive us apart. Whenever now I hear somebody opining about the way ‘Muslims’ think or act, my mind turns to my friends, and I ask: ‘Is this true of Faiyaz, or Dilwar, or Batul?’ It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus took the trouble to pay attention to individuals, rather than to stereotype, and the parable of the Good Samaritan is just one example of the way in which he described unexpected people in unusual relationships to break down people’s perceptions.
We need urgently to rediscover the rich and deep reality of people’s lives which we so easily conceal behind the shallow and predictable mask of the stereotype; and that rediscovery can surprise us into a new relationship with the other. In a mill town in the North of England in the autumn of 2001, at a time of intense strain in Christian-Muslim relations, a parish church and a mosque organised a joint door-to-door collection. Going in pairs from house to house, one would say: ‘I’m from the local church, and I’m collecting for people suffering in the bombing in Afghanistan’, and the other would add: ‘And I’m from the mosque, and I’m collecting for the 9/11 victims in New York’. The gasps of disbelief were audible: surely they had it the wrong way round, people would think; surely each should be collecting for their own, not for the other. So, in a small but significant way, preconceptions were upset, and people were nudged a little further towards reconciliation.
The factors I have mentioned so far stem essentially from human relationships rather than from inherently theological factors. It does seem that reconciliation between the faith communities is as much impeded by issues of politics, history and economics as by belief: ‘It is very dubious to assume that the bad record of Christians in relating to other religious traditions is the fault of certain Christian ideas. It is equally as likely that the bad ideas are projections of bad relationships.’ However, some ways of understanding core belief in the Abrahamic faiths can also themselves become barriers to reconciliation. In particular, the idea of ‘supersession’, that one religion has entirely replaced another so that the former has no continuing validity whatever, can poison relations between the faith communities.
There is no doubt that Islam and Christianity, and to a lesser extent Judaism, are in contest with one another over what constitutes the finality of God’s revelation. For Christianity, while the Hebrew scriptures testify to the purposes and character of God, they do so in a way which reaches its completion in Jesus, whose life, death and rising embody the fullness of the divine in a way which needs no supplementation.
This means, on the one hand, that Christians have often regarded Judaism as a religion which has been superseded in its entirety; Jews who do not recognise in Jesus the fulfilment of God’s purpose have therefore been seen as wilfully blind. On the other hand, they have equally seen no need or space for a revelatory event later than Christ, such as that claimed for the prophetic message of the Qur’an delivered through Muhammad; Islam, accordingly, has been seen as a deviation from or a falsification of true Christian faith. Muslims in turn, believe the Qur’an to contain the full and final revelation of God, completing and perfecting that delivered through earlier messengers including both the Hebrew prophets and Jesus; they therefore view both Judaism and Christianity as being superseded by Islam. If Muhammad is indeed the ‘seal of the prophets’, then Christians and Jews, while recognised as ‘People of the Book’ entrusted with a divine revelation, are unreasonable in refusing to accept Islam. Moreover, their own accounts of their own religions, particularly the Christian doctrines of incarnation and Trinity, must be erroneous or even corrupt.
It is not difficult to see from this outline of the idea of ‘supersession’ how attitudes can be formed on either side of the equation which will make friendship difficult. Followers of the ‘earlier’ religions—Jews vis-à-vis Christianity and Islam, Christians vis-à-vis Islam—can be at best irritated, at worst outraged, by the way in which their own faiths are appropriated, reinterpreted or added to by impertinent newcomers. Those who come ‘later’—Christians in relation to Judaism, Muslims in relation to both Judaism and Christianity—can be stupefied that others can cling to ways of believing and acting which are clearly outdated and discarded. From both perspectives, there can grow an attitude which dismisses the other as inferior to ourselves, since we are the ones who hold the truth of God. Either way, the harsh application of a supersessionist theology can lead to a distancing from the other which makes reconciliation harder to achieve.
However, we should pause before accepting this bleak logic as compelling. It is a way of arguing which has in large measure succumbed to human patterns of thought in leaving no room for the mysterious and enlarging grace of God. Without in any way wishing to dilute the convictions that each community has of the sufficiency and finality of the revelation of God entrusted to them, there needs to be a recognition that divine truth is not given to us as a possession by which to enhance our own status, but rather is offered through us to all as a liberating reality into which all can grow. To be convinced that God has acted decisively and finally in the person of Jesus does not mean that I must dismiss the very palpable evidences of holiness that I see in my spiritual kindred who also seek the God of Abraham, nor that I should immediately seek to reinterpret their religious practice in Christian terms. On the contrary, that very conviction of the reality of God’s communication should lead me, in openness to the Spirit who guides into all truth, to listen attentively to faithful Jews and Muslims who themselves listen attentively for the divine Word.
One of the most creative, and simple, ways of doing this is for Christians, Jews and Muslims to read together, in one another’s company, passages from the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. This process of ‘scriptural reasoning’ can bring home to each of us a strong sense of ourselves as people of faith each engaged through the scriptures in a dialogue through which God teaches us the way of holiness, and each privileged to be learners from one another’s learning. This is not at all to say that such shared study will lead to agreement or to the resolution of theological differences, which are profound and irreducible. On the contrary, one of the most valuable results of the dialogue may be precisely to understand those differences better. But there can be also a strong sense that the very act of being addressed by the Word, of learning together from God, is itself a spiritual exercise; as one theologian said of an early exercise in inter faith dialogue: ‘The Spirit was not a topic for discussion, but the milieu in which we met’.
PRAYING FOR RECONCILIATION
As participants in genuine dialogue between people of different faiths have come to realise, reconciliation between Jew, Christian and Muslim cannot be achieved if it is essayed in human terms alone. A recurrent danger of inter faith dialogue is that it can easily be limited to a kind of negotiation between religious representatives facing one another across a table. Such a dynamic shuts out the reality of the divine, however much the name of God may be mentioned in official dispatches. The children of Abraham can only hope for reconciliation when they are present to one another as people facing together towards the God of Abraham whose Word has brought them into being.
The issue of ‘inter faith prayer’ or ‘multi-faith worship’ is fraught with complexity, and some of the activities which go under that name can seem little more than a mélange of items from different traditions combined with little awareness of the different integrities in which they find meaning. There can and should, though, be times and places at which the children of Abraham can come together before their one God. At the height of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, above five hundred Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths gathered in a park in Leicester to pray for peace. First the bishop, and then the imam, each addressed the gathering, as a Christian and a Muslim respectively calling their people to prayer. Then, for ten minutes, we stood together in silence, alongside one another as we all faced towards God in prayerful repentance and hope. That for me was a glimpse of what reconciliation between Abraham’s children could be—a reconciliation which can only be found in Abraham’s God.
Lord of hope and compassion, Friend of Abraham,
Who called our father in faith to journey to a new future,
May we who name ourselves children of Abraham,
Call to mind all who honour him as father.
Those who guard and celebrate the Torah,
Those for whom the Word has walked on earth and lived among us
Those who follow their Prophet, who listened for the word in the desert
And shaped a community after what he heard.
Lord of reconciliation, God of the painful sacrifice uniting humankind,
We long for the day when you will provide for all nations of the earth your blessing of peace.
But now when strife and war are at hand, help us to see in each other a family likeness, our inheritance from our one father Abraham.
Keep hatred from the threshold of our hearts, and preserve within us a generous spirit which recognizes in both foe and friend a common humanity.
This we ask in the name of the one who came to offer us the costly gift of abundant life.
© Guild of St Raphael