Second Sunday before Advent

Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 15th November 2015

Running past speakers corner a few weeks ago after church, I found myself hearing a group of speakers – an environmentalist, a politically motivated speaker, a Muslim or two, but most of them were fundamentalist Christian preachers. One of them had a Bible so big it must have weighed several kilograms. The speakers were shouting at the crowd and a brave few would shout back criticisms. Whilst the principle of allowing anyone to speak is a very important democratic ethos, I found the scene rather depressing – mostly because there was no real listening going on. There was no attempt to hear what other people was saying. No real dialogue, no mutual respect for passionately held but different views. It was, essentially, a shouting match. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ ‘I have the light of truth, you are in the darkness of unbelief and error.’

How is it possible to hold together a diversity of perspectives and lifestyles in a pluralist society? This is a vitally important question because some people make the transition from having passionate views to demonizing those who believe or behave differently. And it’s a short step from there to violence. This happened in Nazi Germany – with Jews viewed as subhuman – and it’s happening today. Reflecting upon the unbelievable events in Paris on Friday night, as well as the Russian airline disaster in Egypt two weeks ago – almost certainly caused by a bomb – I feel both anger as well as a sense of hopelessness. We hold those who have died in our prayers as well as their family and friends who grieve, as well as for those injured.

How do we make sense of such random killing? I was drawn to a comment by a theologian who said that ‘the core problem of the terrorist group calling itself Islamic State was one of undifferentiated as opposed to differentiated monotheism’ – undifferentiated as opposed to differentiated monotheism. It sounds rather baffling initially. But it’s essentially fairly obvious.

Differentiated monotheism holds specific core beliefs. Christianity’s core belief being that ‘Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life’.
However, Christians hold this belief in the knowledge and acceptance that we live in a pluralist world. We live in a world in which we have to negotiate our own narrative alongside others whose narrative is different, or those who hold no religious belief at all.
We have a set of beliefs, beliefs to which we hold with varying degrees of passion. But, and this is crucial, we don’t seek to impose that set of beliefs on others. By taking this stance, our witness is emptied both of brute power (we will make you accept what we believe) and also of judgment (if you don’t convert to our view, you will go to hell, or we’ll torture or execute you). In sum, we hold to our convictions and yet we do so from a position of humility and grace.
Undifferentiated monotheism cannot conceive of such an existence. It cannot live in a world in which plurality can exist. That is what lies behind the stated objective of ISIS – to create a world-wide Caliphate. They have to create a theocracy: a world in which their core beliefs can be imposed. And those who don’t convert to their particular brand of Islam are view as infidels to be exterminated. They cannot exist within a framework necessary to pluralist societies in which one’s passionately held core beliefs are held alongside different narratives.
In a recent article in The Independent, Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad (St George’s Church), described how friends were being killed or fleeing for their lives. So he did what he always does when faced with an enemy. He said, “I invited the leaders of Isis for dinner. I am a great believer in that. I have asked some of the worst people ever to eat with me.”
He made his offer last year as the terrorist forces threatened to take the city. He received a reply from Isis. They said, ‘You can invite us to dinner, but we’ll chop your head off.’ So I didn’t invite them again!” 
Andrew White, an Anglian priest, has a bounty of £100 million. Here is someone who has helped build a school, a clinic and food bank. The sheer brutality of this Isis group simply unbelievable.
Of course, living with difference, embracing diversity, isn’t easy to do. And surely part of the dynamic of living peacefully together is to communicate to discuss.
Perhaps the Dominican tradition can guide us. Last week Dominicans began a year of celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the confirmation of their order. The most famous Dominican is Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century catholic priest, theologian and philosopher. He had a particular approach in drawing people into theological discussion – and that was structuring his teaching around questions and answers. Just as we have been doing in our United Tuesday course, the heart of his method is dialogue. We discuss, we dialogue, we respectively hear different views.
Aquinas, in his exploration of sacred teaching, would state a question and offers arguments for and against. He would pay his opponents the compliment of listening and trying to understand their case. Often he would argue for their case better than they. In the best Dominican tradition, disputation and argument is not based on winner take all. And this is the key point: truth is served by careful listening and sympathetic understanding. There is the sense that it is together that we come to catch a glimpse of divine truth. It is when people feel silenced, misunderstood or humiliated in argument that resentment builds. This turns any relationship sour, battle lines are drawn and real constructive communication ends.
That’s all very well when there are people willing to communicate, but given Andrew White’s experience with ISIS that doesn’t seem possible. So what is to be done? “We must try and continue to keep the door open. We have to show that there is a willingness to engage. There are good Sunni leaders; they are not all evil like Isis.” “If you want to make peace, you can’t just do it with the nice people. Nice people don’t cause the wars.”

What we can do today is pray that God by his Spirit will change the hearts of minds of those so consumed by violence.

And there is a challenge for ourselves. Rather than simply point the finger at religious fanatics, its only fair to ask ourselves what parts of my own narrative may be undifferentiated? With whom am I not content to share public space? Upon whom do I wish to impose my views, rather than meet them in humility and grace? An uncomfortable theme for our own meditation.
I shall end with words from the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘We are invited to choose life and hope, to overcome hate with the power of God's love. We are called, like Jesus, to stand with the suffering and broken and to oppose evil and fear with all their strength.’

Joe Hawes
Fr Allan White OP, The Tablet, 6.11.15
Andrew White, The Independent, 2.11.15

Holland Park Benefice