Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 24 July 2011

24 July 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

At the beginning of the sermon, a minute’s silence was kept in memory of the victims of the massacre in Norway, Friday 22nd July.

This sermon is part of a series during July – available on the Abbey website – on the theme of ‘Religion in a world of Faiths’, in which I am exploring how the Christian faith relates both to secular society and to other world faiths.

I began a fortnight ago by charting some of the changes in public perception of religious faith over the past ½ century. Catastrophic acts of terror such as the Holocaust or, more recently, 9/11 have created an impression in some that religious faith is a problem for society. I argued strongly for the public place of religion in society, not merely as an ‘allowed-for’ liberty, but as central to our national and cultural identity.

Last week I moved on to look at how one of the key markers of a liberal democracy, freedom of faith, is worked out in the relationship between Jews and Christians.

This week I want to consider the relationship between Islam and Christianity. In my first address, I drew attention to the way in which radical, secular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have used the example of violence by terrorists – who happened also to be Muslims – to condemn the whole notion of religious faith as evil and violent.

Dawkins argument seems to run like this: 

• the 9/11 terrorists did violent things

• the 9/11 terrorists were religious

• therefore religious people are violent

thus neatly avoiding both the violence committed in the name of secular politics and the millions of acts of compassion and kindness by people of faith.

However warped Dawkins’ analysis, I fear that many in our countries harbour an association of Islam with violence which has been fed by media’s focus on violent parts of the world where Islam predominates. In the UK, this was borne out by last year’s British Social Attitudes Survey.

Just how deeply rooted this link is embedded in our psyche was illustrated in the reaction to the appalling and murderous rampage by Anders Breivik in Norway on Friday. The initial speculation among media channels was that this was a terrorist attack inspired by Islamic fundamentalism. As the truth emerged of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian nationalist, the vocabulary changed: the focus was no longer on a matter of faith – fitting the stereotype of a Muslim jihadist – but on his far-right, neo-Nazi political views.

But I wonder whether you noticed another story this week, also connected with Islamophobia, buried beneath the headlines of phone hacking and the Euro crisis.

On Wednesday, an episode lasting a little under 10 years came to an end with the execution of a man in Texas. After a nine-year wait, having seen 208 others go before him, it was finally his turn. He had murdered two men, and a third survived with serious injuries after pretending to be dead.

The astonishing thing is that what had kept him alive for so long was a campaign mounted by the victim who survived, who believed that the cycle of violence should be halted and so petitioned for the commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment. This supreme act of forgiveness arose out of the victim’s faith in God: ‘This campaign’, he said, ‘is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward’.

But now let me tell you their names and a little about them.

The man on death row was Mark Stroman, a Christian, white supremacist who was enraged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and went on a rampage against Muslims.

And what of his victims? Vashdev Patel was an immigrant from India and a Hindhu. Wasqar Hasan, a Muslim from Pakistan. Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi-born naturalised US citizen.

It was the Muslim Rais Bhuyian who campaigned against the death penalty to give the families of the victims the opportunity to meet Stroman Bhuiyan. He ‘believed that such a dialogue would be beneficial, given Stroman's evolution over the years from a hate-monger to a more thoughtful person filled with regret for his actions’.

So the first point I want to make this morning is that to an extraordinary extent our views of Islam are conditioned by the streams of information coming from global media. And if we are to overcome this – and as Christians we surely must – it takes an immense effort to set these stereotypes aside, to engage in personal friendship which teach us otherwise and to seek actively for countervailing experience.

So let me give another contrary voice, one which is not often heard in our churches. This is about inter Faith dialogue, which we most often think of as an initiative of the Church reaching out to other communities of Faith.

And what do we hear of Islam’s attempts to reach out to Christianity in a spirit of generous friendship?

In October 2007 the document ‘A Common word between us and you’ was published. In it Muslims scholars and politicians addressed the global leaders of the Christian faith, calls for peace on the basis of common understanding, in line with the Q’ranic commandment: “O People of Scripture! Come to a common word as between us and you: that we worship none but God!”

From this simple premise, rooted in the Muslim scriptures, 27 Church leaders were addressed, including Partriarchs, Pope Benedict, The Archbishop of Canterbury and the World Council of Churches.

Authored by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal of Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, he was assisted by Prof. David Ford of Cambridge University, together with some 300 signatories from all branches of Islam.

Here is a flavour: ‘Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world’.

The authors were speaking against the background of violence in 9/11 and the wars which ensued. But the tone was hopeful: ‘The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love the neighbour’.

In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury was tasked with shaping a reply following a Consultation of Church Leaders and representatives in June 2008, under the title: ‘A Common Word for the Common Good’.

While saying that there was no quick fix, Rowan Williams identified five areas for exploration between Christians and Muslims:

• How we understand the love of God as an absolutely free gift to his creation;

• Our commitment to a love of neighbour being rooted in the love of God;

• Grounding what we say in Scriptures as authoritative and central, rather than marginal, though scriptures are used differently.

• Relating to each other from the heart of our lives of faith in God, rather than out of fear;

• Acknowledging that our differences are real and serious, but at the centre we have a shared calling and shared responsibility.

The Archbishop concluded: ‘So to your invitation to enter more deeply into dialogue and collaboration as part of our faithful response to the revelation of God’s purpose for humankind, we say: Yes! Amen’.

Between them, these two documents from global leaders of two major world faiths, making up well over ½ the world’s population, are little short of miraculous.

But I wonder if that is news to you as the coverage given was not wide. Because however well-intentioned we may be the inertia of our personal lives and the world-view presented in the media act against any generous presentation of how Christians and Muslims should relate.

So I end with the same challenge I made last week in relation to Judaism. If you are appalled by the Islamophobia expressed by Anders Breivik; if you find yourself shocked that Rais Bhuyian, the Bangladeshi-born American Muslim, could say that his religion required forgiveness of him; if you are surprised to hear the attempts made by significant Islamic scholars to find Common Ground with the Christian faith, then set yourself a personal task. Among your friends or neighbours or colleagues, seek out a Muslim you can trust. Ask them about their faith, what they believe, what they practice. Do so in a spirit of heart-felt generosity, trusting that the God of truth will lead you into all truth. And in so doing, hear the words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words’.

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