Opportunity, encounter and transformation - Reflections on Inter Faith Week - 21st November 2013

Steve Miller

As we make our society more inclusive we are all enriched, but this can take time.  We may need to be educated and to learn to listen to other voices. After years of campaigning, the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced in 1995.  At the time I was advising a national Jewish organisation on broad social justice issues.  As a generalist rather than specialist I had a lot to learn from my disabled colleagues who were leading the campaign.  Along with some hard political and social realities one of the key lessons I learned was the importance of presenting this issue to organisations and colleagues not in its bare legal form - a series of rights which have to be followed - but as a great opportunity

This was brought home again recently in discussions of discrimination on the basis of religion and belief.  Colleagues from the Human Rights Consortium of the University of London talked about the importance of the social and human dimensions of human rights rather than just the legal aspects.  However much we legislate, combating prejudice, discrimination and hatred we need to be active and engaged with each other across a range of human activity. Arts and culture, political life and neighbourhood action, as well as theological reflection and encounter all play a part.

It happens in our communities. Around the country this week, in private homes, places of worship, museums, parks and civic buildings people have gathered to talk, walk, celebrate, and learn.

Yes, it’s Inter Faith Week. 

For many of us who meet together with colleagues from widely differing backgrounds in varied settings all year round we experience that in the UK in the 21st Century our diversity is our strength.  At the Faiths Forum for London interfaith reception last Monday, Mayor Boris Johnson highlighted the UK’s image as a diverse country – displayed clearly in the images that flew around the world during the Olympics – as one of the key magnets that draws people and investment to us.  Some have coined the phrase ‘superdiversity’ to reflect our complex “nexus of migration, faith, language, ethnicity and culture”. In practice there are several reasons and benefits to our inter-faith encounters.

Opportunity. It seems important that we engineer as many opportunities as possible to combat ignorance, increase awareness of others and reduce conflict.  This kind of work is an easy target for those who might say that only a tiny minority of already-convinced people engage. My reply is that we have to start somewhere and progress will be made.  My colleagues have a wide range of religious and other convictions and this isn’t always easy.  There are difficult and ‘no go’ areas even for those of us who have been doing this for some time.  But, step by step doors open wider and we become more comfortable with difference and ‘the other’.

Encounter. For some people inter-faith encounter is about understanding the world we live in – and maybe understanding our own tradition and identity more clearly.  By engaging with others we may find ourselves searching more deeply into our own beliefs and convictions, and what may have been superficial becomes both deeper and broader.  Engagement with others brings multiple perspectives which help us understand our complex world.  Inter-faith activity is not just an instrument to heal rifts in society but it is a way of being fully human. 

Transformation. Finally, we work together because for many of us working to transform society is exactly why we believe we are on this planet, and we cannot do this alone.  This needs to be an endeavour that includes all people of all beliefs and convictions.  The work is challenging but the satisfaction is in making lasting change. In the Jewish tradition we are taught to help non-Jews alongside Jews, “because of the ways of shalom/peace” – which some have interpreted as a minimalist approach, doing this just to avoid conflict.  But others say this is the very purpose we are on this planet - to create ‘shalom/peace/wholeness’ and whoever does so will hasten a better world. I believe Inter Faith Week helps us along the way.

What are your reasons for engaging with those of other religions, beliefs and convictions?  What have the challenges been and what have the achievements been?  We’d love to hear your stories.


Inter Faith engagement

Thanks for your excellent post about inter-faith encounter and engagement, Steve.
The Bahá’í teachings command us to consort with those of all faiths and not to allow religion to be a cause of discord in the world. This is the principle that motivates my engagement in engaging with people of diverse religions, beliefs & convictions. Years of involvement in the inter-faith world has allowed me to develop deep friendships and has enriched my life and my faith immensely.
Of course there are challenges. Some people find it difficult to associate with people of faiths or beliefs other than those they are familiar with. Others regard my faith as a "johnny-come-lately" or even as heretical. But neither of these are good reasons for giving up on the broad endeavour to engage in conversations with people of a wide range of religions and beliefs.
And this is even more true of working together for the common good. As a document published by one of the international Bahá’í agencies earlier this year says:
"By working shoulder to shoulder, sharing in one another’s joys and struggles, bonds of love and friendship are created that are the foundation for enduring fellowship."
Enduring fellowship amongst people of different faiths, religions, beliefs, is a vital element of 21st century life.