Vendredi 14 septembre
“The scope of this visit is dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment for understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation," (Pope Benedict XVI
at the beginning of his visit to Turkey)
The confrontation between the different traditions of thought and forms of society that are represented by the Christian tradition and the Islamic world is one of the two most important issues of
our age. It has the potential for endless conflict, vast loss of life, immeasurable cruelty, and even nuclear war. More than that, in the secularised North, all religious conflict is seen as
justifying attacks on religion, including Christianity.
In addition, there is a growing tendency in political thought to see confrontation with Islam as inevitable, not as facing a religious system, but as facing a perceived
mediaeval religious ideology. The Church can too easily be drawn into this, as a sort of partner, unwilling or even critical, but not providing an alternative to the tendency to say: “The great
questions of the day will not be settled by resolutions or the votes of majorities in assemblies... but by Blood & Iron.” The costs of that error and sin are borne afresh every
day by another soldier’s family in this country.
The formative influence in this pattern of thought in the last 20 years, and especially since 2001, has been Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations in which he
argues that wars between civilisation groups rather than nation states are inevitable. This approach, which is followed by many other political scientists, has been taken up especially with
regard to Islam, based on the long history of conflict between Christendom and Islam, going back to the 7th century.
Many Christian groups have almost welcomed this analysis, and seen in it the justification required to excuse many of the actions of “Christian” countries towards the world
of Islam. Other have welcomed it as explaining the perceived and experienced threat. Within Protestant circles, revisionist theology has called for a syncretistic approach, in which the common
values of the faiths are emphasised to the point where no distinctions can be recognised. This is also true amongst Anglo Saxon secular thinking, where it is not overtly atheist.
And yet, as I want to suggest, the Church has both the understanding and the means to face this great issue with tools and opportunities that can offer a genuine
The understanding comes first. Christians understand the importance of the spiritual life, and thus should be able to relate to Islam in a way that the secular may find more
difficult. In Nigeria I was challenged as to my own belief in the incarnation and deity of Christ, by a Muslim. His disappointment in my answer that I held to those beliefs was as nothing to what
he feared I would say; that I believed that we all though the same. There was the capacity for dialogue based on mutual respect.
In addition, we know that as it is impossible to talk about “Christians” as a monolithic group, and thus should understand that it is impossible to talk about Islam or
Muslims, who, like Christians, are profoundly influenced by culture, history and circumstances. Social hermeneutics matters. A brief comparison of middle eastern and west African Islam is
adequate evidence of this. Islam has different approaches, and part of the effort of reconciliation is finding commonalities that develop confidence; the social teaching of the Church is, I
suggest, the supreme example.
Finally, Christians have the tools of theology. For example, Islamic theology is based above all on the oneness of God (tawhid). Oneness presupposes the unity of all aspects
of life (hence no secular and sacred divide), of society (hence questions about democracy for many Muslims) and above all the unity of the ummah, the community of God. These are ideas that
we may not entirely agree with, but in our own theology have the tools to analyse and appreciate.
What do we mean by reconciliation? A Nigerian police general once remarked to me, after some very violent riots in which more than 5,000 people died, “our army needs to learn
that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire”. In the same way, reconciliation is not one extreme, at the other end of which is open conflict and between which
there is nothing, but rather it is the means by which we are able to manage conflict into being non violent, without compromising on the truth which has been revealed.
The nature of reconciliation is revealed above all in the New Testament, in Matthew 5:8, and the teaching of St Paul, above all in 2 Corinthians 5. Jesus speaks of the
blessing for peacemakers, and St Paul calls on Christians to be ambassadors of reconciliation with God, in Christ. But the visible evidence of reconciliation with God is only secondarily the
individual’s experience of God. Primarily, the true evidence of reconciliation is the church assembled for the Eucharist, the people of God in the presence of God, “although we are many, we are
one body, because we all share in one bread” . Moreover, the nature of the church is not identity but unity, in diversity . The divine gift of reconciliation, received in grace, far surpasses our
capacity to consume it ourselves, but overflows to the broken and bitter world in which we live. A reconciled people will be a reconciling people.
This is why at Coventry we define reconciliation between people NOT as agreement, but rather as “the transformation of violent conflict into non-violent co-operation or
competition”. Reconciliation becomes, between people, a tool for the management of conflict.
Let us return for to the confrontation with Islam. First, history is disputed. Let me tell you the history of the last 200 years through Islamic eyes, remembering that in
Islam there is no divide between the secular and the sacred. The actions of nations with a Christian culture are the actions of Christians. First, almost every Islamic nation in the world was
colonised by Christian invasion, with the one exception of what is now Saudi Arabia. Secondly, Christian methods of trade, especially usury, were imposed through the Christian global financial
system. Thirdly, the vocabulary of world politics is Christian, in dating, in the universal declaration of human rights, and in agendas of feminism and secularism. Finally, Christians have
imposed the state of Israel on the middle east, and since 2000 twice invaded Muslim countries, both of which they now occupy. And we Muslims are seen as a threat?!
As Christians we may reply with conviction; but without the capacity to persuade. History will not give us the means to effect a dialogue that is transforming of violent
But the social teaching of the church will. Forgive me being critical, and Paul Dembinski has heard me say this before, but the corpus of social teaching, especially that of
John Paul II, is the best kept secret of the Church. In the social teaching there are the bridges to the vast majority of Muslims, that have a common root in the dignity of the human
person, and which bring a sympathetic response. In the common destination of goods there are echoes of the idea of zakah ; in the idea of solidarity links to the doctrine of the ummah; time does
not permit me to expand sufficiently. In the concept of mustad’afun fi’l ard there is the recognition of the call to justice and peace.
In addition there are clear examples of such practical reconciliation. In South Africa Muslims and Christians struggled together against apartheid. The breaking of
barriers was through the common struggle for human dignity, in which social teaching is foundational as the expression of faith.
“The Pope said Christians and Muslims both valued the sacred and ‘the dignity of the person’. This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem, he said. ‘We are called to
work together via authentic dialogue.’ ”
Reconciliation in Christian theology is based on truth. Therefore although Catholic social teaching provides the path for reconciliation, a truthful approach requires
recognition of difference. In Kenya, challenged by national Christian leaders on what to do about the “Islamic agenda to Islamise Africa” a Christian Nigerian replied “have an agenda to
Christianise Africa, peacefully by your example”. Syncretism demeans all faith; an acknowledgement of difference, allied with co-operation in all possible areas, with those who will accept the
basic concept of the dignity of all human beings, provides a path and the means for reconciliation.
More than that, it is politically sensible. The development of common programmes of action based on the Church’s social teaching will always be necessarily with those who are
willing for partnership, and will strengthen them at the expense of the more extreme groups.
Last of all; we have no choice. Called to be those who love our enemies, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, we are not permitted to take the path of secularised violence,
or cult like aggression.