For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.Romans 5: 10 (ESV)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.Matthew 5:9
There is a saying dating back to before the Second World War, concerning the military significance of the high plains of Kupres (see photo); “Who holds this high plain can negotiate with its enemies in any way he wishes”. In 1996 I too was strategically placed, in the fifth floor of the partially destroyed hotel Adria that overlooks the plain; excellent visibility and great communications. 95 km away, the ancient medieval bridge in Mostar has been rebuilt using exactly the same techniques that had been used centuries before in its initial construction. I was interested to see that each block had to be painstakingly placed in perfect symmetry with its pair on the other bank, the final block being inserted last; one slip and the whole bridge is at risk of collapse. Further north in Sarajevo they have filled the mortar craters with red acrylic resin to represent the blood of those that died during the siege; flowers are laid by relatives and then trampled by tourists, as in their groups they roam the streets, marvelling at the architecture of war.
All three are metaphors, perhaps, to the tensions that exist in the midst of any conflict, but especially a religious one. Tragically, attempts at reconciliation often only come when either magnanimously we see ourselves as having reached the high plains of moral and religious correctness (when we feel that God is ‘on our side’) and therefore can now make space from a place of perceived advantage, or when searching for justice after some tragedy born of an extremist agenda. It is then that we attempt to engage in a meaningful and urgent dialogue with the ‘others’. And yet surely any multi-faceted, heterogenous relationship (especially amongst the melange of different religions, cultures or ethnicities) has to be built from a place of mutual giving and equality of purpose. The symmetry of a truly Christ-centric approach to difference can arguably only truly be built during peace; it is so difficult to find space for it in the chaos and pain of conflict, or its immediate aftermath. So often, after the initial euphoria of ‘victory’ fades and blood has been spilt (actually or metaphorically), both sides recognise that they have lost so much more than they have ever gained through aggression and inevitable retaliation. By which time the damage has been done, damage that can take generations to repair, if ever.
Miroslav Volf describes religiosity (in this context) as being either ‘thick’ or ‘thin’. An example of ‘thin’ religion [he propses] would perhaps be Serbian soldiers sitting on tanks and holding up three fingers in a type of victory salute, representing the Trinity; the first and index fingers held together representing the two natures of Christ. The gesture simply designed to challenge the way that Catholics (and some Protestants) cross themselves; a religious statement that was also a marker of a deep cultural identity of belonging to a particular group, coupled with the suggestion that the God of their particular signum crucis was tacitly in agreement with their motives. When religion is reduced to certain formulas around which we gather [Volf argues], we loose both the richness and thick texture of an understanding that resonates in the soul, allowing a differentiated response to a wide variety of situations. One side becomes white, the other black; the ‘thin’ religious formula seeking to bring a popularised differentiation between the two.
When my wife and I returned from a short spell working in Bangladesh we decided to continue to express our heart to reach out to ‘the other’ within the Muslim community of South Sheffield. In Dhaka, we had been energised by dialogue, not least with the son of our next door neighbour who was the local Imam. In our discussions together he rarely wished to consider what we held in common (I’m not sure he thought we had anything in common at all). Rather, far more confrontationally it seemed, he wanted to tackle what he saw as separating us. This was uncomfortable. When we returned, we decided to take the opposite approach and establish a Fresh Expressions community called Common Ground. In the several years that followed, we engaged with our Muslim neighbours on many different levels. I remember enjoying some very moving discussions with local Imams, as we sought commonality as a way of shaping our shared space, and yet often it seemed as though there were so many elephants in the room that it was difficult to know where to sit!
Then one day an Imam from the local British Bangladeshi mosque taught me a valuable lesson. Whilst having tea in his home, he produced a copy of the Gospels (Injil) from the high shelf that contained his numerous versions of the Qur’an. In it he had annotated verse after verse of red letter scripture. We sat and discussed it, not focusing upon what we could find that we held in common, but upon what divided us. Trying to explain hypostatic union was a challenge! It was inspirational. We parted as brothers, not necessarily in Christ, but in a shared passion for truth, holding honest value in and a fresh understanding of difference. Volf argues that, counterintuitively perhaps, it is when we properly wrestle with our differences together early enough, that we may find enough convergences of opinion to avoid conflict. This is what Volf describes this as ‘thick’ religion; an understanding strong and rich enough to stand the test of disagreement, but in a way that builds mutual appreciation and allows respectful and healthy challenge.
Bringing this closer to home perhaps, I was challenged earlier this year when my mentor (an Anglo-Catholic Priest) suggested that I read Vatican II. What I had not appreciated was that much of it had been written in dialogue with a very broad church (a process in which he was a party to). Although my childhood theological tradition was high Anglican, my adult experiences of faith had diverged from this. I decided that I would bookmark in three different colours what I firmly agreed with (green tabs), what I could live with (orange) and what I really couldn’t in all conscience identify with at all (red). Needless to say, there were very few red. What is important in this tale of theological gymnastics has less to do with my sense of self righteousness at how many green tabs I had stuck to the now grubby pages, and far more to do with the freedom I felt at being able to honestly engage with my sister and brother in law, both Roman Catholics, with the issue of the red. What for years had been unspoken differences, placed upon the back burners of our relationship and yet still simmering away, had now become a new basis for dialogue. This was no mere theological exercise, but a means of building closer and deeper relationship within my own family.
Volf argues that whilst pluralism definitely has its place as a practical means of making space to work together, we should not neglect our differences, but work at them together as a recurring discipline. It makes me wonder how much of our lives are lived within the echo chamber of our own traditions and cultures. If we are not careful, this may thin out our perspectives, not to say our theology, and become like a duvet, warm and comfortable, but isolating and hard to get out from under when things get cold. It’s hard not to notice that in the story of the Good Samaritan, it was the man that had lived an uncomfortable life no doubt, amongst the challenges of being ‘different’ and not ‘belonging’ that found the most compassion for his neighbour. This is especially so perhaps when the lines between religious identity, culture and politics are blurred, which increasingly they are.
So to conclude, when Christ came to reconcile the world to himself, we were still his enemy; he took the initiative. Nicole and I love being back in the Anglican fold, not because we have found a place that we find over comfortable, but because we have found a place of such diversity and mutual acceptance amongst the various different traditions that we can feel our faith ‘thickening’ by the minute. As Volf remarks, agreement is not necessarily a necessary ingredient for peace to exist. In the context of the ongoing rumblings in the Balkans, Tito’s approach of suppressing difference under a forced unification of identity served only to produce a pressure cooker from which violence was probably inevitable.
The age old motto Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) should maybe be replaced by Si vis pacem, para pacem (if you want peace, prepare for peace). For when Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, I’m not sure that was restricted to simply a response to conflict. For perhaps peace is most effectively made whilst peace still exists.