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Meet face to face to take action

24 July 2015

Religiously motivated violence can be countered by relationships, argues Justin Welby


Encounter: the Archbishop of Canterbury meeting Muslims on a visit to Jerusalem

Encounter: the Archbishop of Canterbury meeting Muslims on a visit to Jerusalem

IN COMMON with other Christian denominations, with other faith traditions, and with those of no faith, the Anglican Communion has bitter experience of religiously motivated violence (RMV).

In the last 18 months, Anglican dead have been certainly in the hundreds, even into the low thousands. Around the world, we face the reality and deal with it. Our Bishops are in dialogue with those who attack, risking their own lives in the dialogue. This is not academic.

In this country, as well, the churches are acting, not just speaking. The Church of England has invested huge resources of people and time, with welcome Government support on the remarkably successful Near Neighbours programme.

We are neither naïve about the evil of those involved in RMV, nor despairing of dealing with it. On the contrary, it is clear that with this is a challenge that can and will be met. It requires a careful approach, an understanding of each other’s traditions, a clear approach to reconciliation in which we seek to transform destructive violence into good disagreement.

Let me be clear. People recently, including the French Prime Minister a few weeks ago, used that phrase, which is a dangerous myth, a "war of civilisations".

Christians and Muslims disagree passionately, in other parts of the world, Christians disagree with Buddhists, with Hindus, Muslims with Buddhists, and so on — on numerous and fundamental understandings of the very basis of our identity which is given by our understanding of who God is. Nothing matters more.

So Islam is not our enemy, but a faith with whose theology, as a Christian, I disagree profoundly. The experience of 180 years of European religious war is that theological difference, or ideological difference, however, is not dealt with by force, but by dialogue.


THE advent of electronic and social media has shifted boundaries. What was once something happening to some stranger on the other side of the world is now happening to a friend of a friend on Facebook. And I comment on it through an image I have seen on my hand. Perhaps not just the world in one city, but the world in one phone.

Electronic media gives us diversity in front of us without facing each other. Is it a good thing that we are brought so close to the global community? Or is there something crucial about face-to-face encounters that we are missing in this new type of diversity?

The power and the challenge of face-to-face encounters are described by Professor David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, as being of salvific value, of something that brings salvation. The self, he argues, is symbolised by the dynamics of human facing. "We live before the faces of others," he says (Self and Salvation, CUP, 1999).

And this facing confronts us with the many facets of what it means to be a self, to be a person: biology, the five senses, history, ethics, gender, communication, politics, institutions, the arts; sin, evil, salvation, God. Are all brought to us by facing each other.

Most importantly, facing each other enables us to perceive selfhood in others. To see that the person we’re looking at is a human being of infinite dignity.

In the Church of England we’re going through what are called shared conversations around the issues of human sexuality. The point of shared conversations is to get people of radically different views, not communicating through email, website, Facebook, statement, newspaper column. But to sit in the same room, in a chair across from somebody with whom you disagree profoundly, and to listen to them and to talk to them. The effect is remarkable.

Facing each other is complex and subtle, but it is also deeply simple. David Ford notes: "It is in such face-to-face meetings, deeply resistant to adequate description, that many of the most significant things in our lives happen." Not many of us propose to our life partner on Facebook or by Twitter.


FACED with such challenges, how then can we learn, at every level, to live together well? First, wherever possible and at all levels, but especially as religious and political leaders, we need to face each other.

It has got to be possible to use both traditional and electronic media constructively to find new ways to approach our new global neighbours — to help rather than hinder our encounters.

In partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Coventry Cathedral’s Community of the Cross of Nails, we have brought together two groups of Christians and Muslims from Nigeria: first, a group of influential imams and pastors; and second, a group from universities where radicalisation is strongly suspected to occur. Some of them had never met face to face with someone of the other faith before, but they had met them electronically, and hated.

One Muslim lawyer, whose name I cannot mention because of threats that have since been made to him, admitted that he now realised that his speeches at the Muslim Students Society had encouraged antagonistic attitudes to Christians.

As a direct result of his encounter with Christians, he now uses speaking engagements as opportunities to appeal to thousands of Muslim students to embrace Christians as their fellow Nigerians. Those two groups between them, 30 in each year, have so far communicated personally with 60,000 Nigerians.


ONCE we have faced each other and begun to break down the barriers of self-preservation, we can start to look outwards, side by side, and take action together. It is not good enough to make decisions to suit our own local context. This challenge we face at the moment is global.

The deprivation and inequality that remains unchanged elsewhere will come rushing in to fill the space. Look at the consequences in the Mediterranean of the combination of high visibility of the global in the local.

There are practical actions that can be pursued through our country’s foreign, defence, and development agendas. For example, different religious communities, or different states separated by religions who may disagree on doctrinal matters, could seek out areas of common ground on public policy, through face-to-face conversations.

I may not see eye to eye with my Muslim friends — and I have many Muslim friends — on the divinity of Christ, but there is plenty of scope for us to work together to combat climate change and poverty.

When we look outward, to issues of mutual concern, rather than inward to our differences, we can change the narrative on issues of development and power, which hold us back as a world. These are not zero-sum games. Nobody has to lose when it comes to our efforts to mitigate climate change or end extreme poverty.

We must also prioritise development, and always work in favour of the poor, domestically and internationally. The imminent arrival of the Sustainable Development Goals, the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, and the forthcoming negotiations on a global agreement on climate change, are watershed moments for the global community, in ways that many cannot imagine.


FINALLY, we need to recognise that this all requires a shift in the narrative — from a transactional language to a relational one. This shift in the narrative is underpinned by a commitment to human flourishing. Not Christian flourishing; or Muslim flourishing; or even humanist flourishing: but a flourishing that is open to all, offered to all and available to all.

The transactional approach to life and language can only be overcome with gratuity, generosity, and a relational approach. We must give, and not expect anything in return.

In our face-to-face interactions, we give of ourselves, and in doing so, open up the possibility of a new dialogue and new relationships based on common humanity, rather than on power.

This shift in language requires a shift in literacy. At the middle, governmental level, we need to ensure that we are equipping our decision-makers with faith literacy that has the power to improve our global situation. We must find a common language that can be understood and used by political and religious leaders to talk about religious belief in their own contexts.

Effective faith literacy requires not only knowledge, but an emotional intelligence that enables us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives.


THESE actions need to be taken through genuine face-to-face encounter. Echoing our metaphor of facing, we read in 2 Corinthians 3.18: "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." But for that to happen, we must face each other.

As Christians, we believe in the transformational power of coming face to face with Jesus Christ. When we turn to face him in faith, we are changed by this encounter. The challenge — Christian, atheist, any other faith tradition — is to strive for genuine encounter, with the difference that we now find surrounding us in our hands. In this way, we will be better able to recognise the diversity and value of each and every human face. And I will say, as a Christian, to recognise the face of God.


This is an edited extract from a lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday at Liverpool John Moores University. The full text is at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org

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