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Interfaith and social justice
Vaughan Jones
I am grateful for the opportunity to explore some thoughts about inter-faith and social justice.
It could not be a more important topic and one which requires a lot of thought and openness
to new ideas, some very challenging. I want to look at the interaction between faith and the
three major causes of our global tragedies – Climate change, Inequality and War
When I was young, I attended a Student Christian Movement conference held in Manchester
in 1968 – the age of Aquarius. During the conference, someone jumped onto the platform
and said “why are we sitting here talking about all of this – there is a South African Airways
office across the road – let’s occupy it.” I confess that I didn’t know what on earth South
African airways had done. But I learnt. Social or more specifically racial justice entered my
Also at that conference, a speaker was announced. He came onto the platform. He was a
small man, dressed in a black cassock and with the most infectious smile imaginable.
Everyone stood up and applauded. I thought that they were applauding the smile. In fact
they were applauding the man. Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in
Brazil. During his talk he said “if I am fighting with my back against the wall, then I do not turn
and ask the man fighting with me if he is a communist or not.” Ideas, belief systems other
than Christianity started to exist in my brain.
That conference was life changing for me. My journey of faith took a new path. Faith was a
struggle against injustice and apartheid (in all its manifestations) and a struggle in which we
were only one player among many. Others came to the same struggle from very different
starting points and those people’s experience and belief systems can also contribute to a
liberative theological quest.
When I left college, I went to teach RE. I was equipped with the new RE approaches of the
Congregationalist Minister/Christian educator Ronald Goldman. His book Readiness for
Religion told us how we could get children to grasp religion and faith. It was all very modern
and sure to work. My first school was in Blackburn Lancashire. The demography of the town
was changing radically with the immigration of Pakistani Muslims. Tension was acute in the
town and in the school, with racism as common in the staff room as in the playground. I
realised that all my training needed a rapid rethink and I had to tackle religious education
from a completely different perspective. Fortunately, Ninian Smart whose work on the
phenomenology of religion became so influential was then based at nearby Lancaster
University and I was able to hear him speak on a few occasions and that was a great help in
seeing religion as a means of creating understanding of difference and of acceptance. Interfaith work was about building tolerance and understanding.
Another piece in this jigsaw for me was getting to know Cedric Mayson who sadly died earlier
this year. Cedric was a Methodist Minister, who was exiled from South Africa and until the
ending of Apartheid lived in a URC Manse in Stepney Way. He returned to South Africa to
become head of religious affairs in the ANC. At a meeting at Praxis, he once told how,
following the Soweto uprising, the regime had rounded up many activists including himself.
He said that he had found himself in prison with Jews, Communists, Muslims, Hindus,
Buddhists and that they were all in jail because they believed in the same thing. Inter-faith is
informed by a common praxis. All this was reinforced for me in our work in Praxis, where
staff, volunteers and beneficiaries came from many different faith backgrounds to work
together for migrant rights.
I also in the apartheid solidarity movement, remember hearing a South African Imam say,
“the Christians have Christianised Apartheid and we will not let them Christianise the
struggle”. That did not sound unreasonable in the circumstances. Inter-faith is about equality
and correcting past wrongs, establishing right relations. It is about righteousness.
I have always had a particular paradigm in mind when I try to understand culture. Forgive me
for not remembering where I located this (it isn’t original) and I may be misquoting it. But the
theory is simply that culture is like an onion. The outer layers are fluid and the closer you get
to the centre the more fundamental and resistant to change the culture will be.
Core values
Ritual and
Food and
The argument I guess is that our differences as people of faith lie in the outer ring but the
closer we get to the core the more alike we are. If we are to connect as people of faith we go
to the things that unite. And there is no doubt that a lot of inter-faith engagement has been
at the level of orthopraxis. Many of us have not felt the need to assert a purist orthodoxy
because engaging with Muslims or Hindus in order to oppose racism, exploitation and
oppression has been important and it has worked.
So I could have spell out this personal narrative in a simple way.
Injustice exists in the world and is counter to the instinct of people of faith
Faith is experienced as a phenomenon in contemporary Britain and can be an entry
point into the sharing of experience, new insights and community building
At their heart, all faiths share a common commitment to a just future for humanity
and therefore we should work together to achieve this
I wonder though whether there isn’t a more complex analysis. I see a dialectic between
conversation and action, dialogue and orthopraxis, systematic theology and pastoral
theology, morality and justice.
Common action
We can talk about the minutia of doctrine and ethics or we can just get on learning to be cohabitants of God’s creation.
So far so good.
Shortly after the last election, Thames North Synod had an event called “Cause for
Celebration”. That did seem somewhat inappropriate. I was asked to run a workshop on the
consequences of the election. I asked the participants to introduce themselves by saying if
they had been elected to parliament which government department they would like to run.
Some said Health, other Education etc. One women, an elderly, gentle, quietly spoken black
women said she would like to be the Minister of Religion. I asked why and she responded
that Christians were being persecuted in this country. She had been a nurse and had
sometimes asked her patients if she could pray with them. Now she was no longer allowed
to do that because, she said, it would offend the Muslims. She talked of people not being
allowed to wear a cross at work and so on. If she had the tone of a bigot I would have probably
dismissed her as Gordon Brown did Mrs Duffy. But I was left unhappy that I had not dealt
with her contribution very well, precisely because she sounded genuine and sincere.
I realised that my schema does not entirely stack up. It isn’t wrong but it is not enough. Many
people do not have an open disposition and intuitively see common values in the other. For
most people, faith is identity and it is the outer circles which matter more. How you dress or
which holidays you celebrate, or when your family come together and which ethical rules you
follow matter so much more. So those of us who have been working at the level of
orthopraxis, may have some considerable success to notch up – the ending of apartheid, equal
opportunities legislation, inter-faith dialogues and forums – may also have a huge blind spot.
Core values
Ritual and
Food and
What matters to many people of faith is not theology but identity. And sometimes that
identity brings with it considerable baggage of historical wrong. The geopolitical map has
been redefined as a “clash of civilisations”. Those of us who have worked side by side with
Muslims or Marxists or Buddhists may feel that we have not betrayed our commitment to
following Jesus one iota. Indeed our readings last Sunday reinforce this. “Whoever is not
against us is for us.” But many will just not get it. For them core values are not to be shared
and they are certainly not an entry point to discovering a common humanity with people from
differing belief systems.
It seems to me that we need to look at what could be described as the cognitive dissonance
of contemporary religion. We need to remember that religion is essentially myth (and I don’t
mean that in a pejorative sense). Each of our faiths has a story, a narrative of its own origins
and of the origins of time and space. It has a narrative of intervention or non-intervention by
divine or non-divine. The fundamental difference between our faiths is the sacred narrative
which we believe in and they are exclusive to those faiths. We have the simple problem that
believers believe those narratives implicitly. For them legitimising other faiths is contrary to
faith itself.
Metanarrative – overarching story
Sacred history
Sacred text
Custom and
Those who look at faith, through believers’ eyes but also enlightenment and postenlightenment curiosities are comfortable with being bi-literate in our understanding. For
example, the divine origin of the universe is not in conflict with Darwinian evolution. It is a
cognitive dissonance but not as intellectually disingenuous as Richard Dawkins might imagine.
The sacred narratives of our different faith systems clash and contradict each other. Faith
language is metaphorical. All faith seeks to describe the indescribable, the unknowable in
anthropomorphic “as ifs”.
To the believer the “as ifs” are hard truths set in stone
(metaphorically speaking!) rather than as good a telling as is possible given human linguistic,
scientific capacity and the narrow horizon of our perceptivity.
I want to say now that I believe that for the purposes of this argument it is not possible to
separate religion and ideology. I include in the basket of faiths for consideration both science
and capitalism. Scientific and technological advance and the prevailing economic models
have a huge impact on social justice. But they are also built on their own metaphors and have
the characteristics of belief systems.
We have to remember that most people believe the myth in its absolute form. A recent
edition of the Forced Migration Review, a journal of refugee studies, 1focused on a core issue
of social justice – climate change and how we respond to the disasters and emergencies which
arise as a consequence. One article argues that too many development and humanitarian
agencies ignore how local populations are making sense of climate change. The example
given is of the Q’eros indigenous people of Peru, who live on the eastern slopes of the Andes.
Over the past ten years large numbers have migrated to the city for work. Climate change
has reduced crop productivity and quality as a result of reduced precipitation. This has
created fertile breeding ground for parasites which are causing hunger and death among the
flocks of alpaca and llamas.
We can easily assign an explanation through economic, social and environmental factors.
There is, the article maintains, a standard Western approach built on the dichotomy between
people and their culture on the one hand and nature and the environment on the other. The
Q’eros, however, have a different world view. They operate within a contrasting metaphor.
They say that it is the migration away from their traditional areas, away from their rituals, and
the practice of those rituals that displeases the gods and brings about climate change. We
might want to smile but actually that not far from the Bible’s world view. There needs to be
a serious dialogue between the rationality of the scientific myth of cause and effect and the
faith myth of inter-relationships between the human and the divine.
Let’s turn to look at the interface of faith and capitalism or to be more specific the neo-liberal
version of Capitalism, whose origins lie with people like Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and the
Chicago school of economics, Alan Greenspan and General Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher and
Ronald Reagan. The so-called free market has depended upon the free flow of capital and the
protection of capital from national tax jurisdiction, foreclosure of worker’s rights,
nationalising of debt whilst privatising profit. It has created enormous inequalities and is a
major contribution to the social injustices which we oppose.
What is neo-liberalism’s sacred narrative? Unlike Communism, it does not have the myth of
a founding father. It seems to me that neo-liberalism has appropriated the Christian myth. It
is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Having successfully defined socialism and communism as antiChrist, neo-liberals have discovered a new enemy - Islam. America as the New Israel is not a
new idea but it is very useful at a time when capitalism is triumphant, but precarious as its
near collapse only seven years ago demonstrated. Whilst being non-interventionist in the
economic sphere, neo-liberalism is morally authoritarian, disciplinarian and illiberal in the
political and social sphere.
Much of this arises from fear. The rhetoric of the new Right is the rhetoric of disease and
infection. Remember Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches. Rooted in moral, political
and sexual anxiety, there is an induced fear of apocalyptic proportions. At times like this
religion because a useful and dangerous tool. Homosexuality, abortion and sexual license are
evidence of moral collapse. They represent a cancer within the society and are therefore the
root cause of environmental disasters and the failure of the United States to conquer its
enemies. Robocop doesn’t work in real life. The insurmountable and unshakeable twin
towers collapsed. The once proclaimed victory over Saddam Hussein was no victory at all and
the war on terror has developed a momentum of its own as has the war on drugs and as will
the war on trafficking. Like the Q’eros in Peru, the New Right has an alternative explanation
for environmental disasters, AIDs, and America’s military and diplomatic impotency. It is
God’s punishment. And the Black, non-American, secretly Muslim and Gay President Obama
is the anti-Christ. The apocalypse is imminent. And this hybrid Christianity is increasingly
prevalent among grassroots Christian groups here in the UK. The Christian Soldiers of UKIP
are launching a campaign amongst churches.
And right on cue for radicalised Christians, the ancient enemy is at the gate. Rejoice and Sing
number records Luther’s marching song against the Ottoman forces. “A safe stronghold our
God is still.” It includes the lines: “The enemy of old in wickedness is bold; he fears no earthly
power and arms himself with cunning.”
Isis, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram are militant expression of religious and political identity. They
are dangerous, excessively violent. But they are not alone. Their violence is mirrored in a
growing Christian violence. Christian militia in the United States and growing Christian militia
in the Middle East stoke up the possibility of something even more dangerous. Whether we
like it or not drones dropping bombs from the planes of the US air force or the RAF are seen
as Christian bombs.
Here in Europe, we are hearing siren voices which define our identity as Europeans as
Christian over and above the other. We hear this in the rhetoric which comes from populist
politicians like Farage and the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban. Let the Christians be
rescued and let the Muslim drown. We are rapidly being co-opted in ideologies and wars not
of our making and which totally contradict the teaching of Jesus.
This is the ultimate cognitive dissonance. In the name of religions of peace founded by
prophets of peace, with exhortations to make peace, we are at war. Even if most of us have
to say “not in my name”. We are at war and our protestations don’t really make a great deal
of difference. Just to say we are victims of a hijacking is not enough.
It is all pretty depressing and very challenging. I believe we lack a popular, accessible
hermeneutic of our faith which I might have applied at our workshop during Cause for
Celebration for in its absence we will be absorbed by hermeneutics of hatred. The narratives
of faith are not being heard properly and they are creating distortions. And Western liberal
post-enlightenment explanations are proving inadequate against this onslaught. Just as in
the parable of the sower, most of us are stuck chucking seeds of hope at thorns and rocks.
The question is how to tend the fertile soil.
My conclusion is probably not too clear but I make no apology for not really seeing our way
through all of this. I want to move beyond my own inter-faith understanding that focuses on
harmony of orthopraxis – working together against common injustices – toward an
engagement with those dissonances which are causing violent and dangerous clashes. This
effectively means bringing the narratives of faith to bear on climate change, inequality and
war, the three fundamental social justice challenges of our age.
I think we need also to move beyond humanitarian gestures, whether they be foodbanks or
convoys to Calais or Fairtrade bananas and coffee, and engage with our faith itself. Let me
return to last Sunday’s readings.
Jesus said - Whoever is not against us is for us. That one is ok. But he also said –
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to
have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to
stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown
into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the
kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their
worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Heavy stuff maybe but I would suggest that the metaphor being used here is the metaphor of
the church as the body of Christ. In other words, there needs to be a ruthlessness within the
church to maintain its faithfulness to the teaching of Jesus. I would suggest that that
ruthlessness has not been applied in modern times. We once again need to search for
integrity in the Gospel and an integrity which connects rather than disconnects us to others.
Maybe we need to search for cognitive dissonance in the bible itself as Jesus consistently saw
good in the other and faithlessness among his followers.
An Argentinian Pope helps but we need to go much further in presenting faith as a
countervailing force for good rather than a player in a global dynamic which is heading
humanity to self-destruction.
And what if the Q’eros are right? What if ultimately the tragedies of our contemporary world
are not entirely explicable through science’s mechanical link of cause and effect? What if we
also need an explanation which includes the shallowness of our rituals, the neglect of the
search for Wisdom, the distortion and abuse of the sacred narrative, the projection of our
personal greed, ambition and aspiration onto the trappings of faith? What if Luther’s
reformation was wrong and religious communities can be defined by their friends and not
their enemies? And how do we view the cognitive dissonance between Jesus and the faith
that deploys his cross as its symbol.