What follows in printed form is the address I gave at the Arrahman Mosque, Kingsgrove, on September 27th. It was a great night and was captured beautifully in the video tribute put together by the guys from the mosque. Sheikh Jehad Ismail is a beautiful man. I hope to work closely with him in the future in building bridges of community and understanding.
Salaam Aleykum, Peace.
In the name of God, merciful and compassionate (bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm), and with respect to the traditional custodians of this land (elders past and present), let me thank all of you, my brothers and sisters, for the gracious hospitality you have shown me this evening and for your warm welcome.
I bring you greetings too from my Archbishop – his grace, Rev. Dr Glen Davies. The Archbishop asked me specifically to pass on his salaams to you, as he asked me to share with you his hope that our common belief in a God of peace might lead to greater peace and understanding between our communities.
I read a book recently entitled “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” It’s a book by American Christian social activist Brian McLaren about Christian identity in a multi-faith world, and I thought it was a very good book. Indeed, I it is one that I think almost everyone here would enjoy so long as they could get beyond the apparently irreverent title.
The title, which most readers would appreciate is a play on a very ancient joke about chickens crossing roads, doesn’t really have a lot to do with the book as a whole. Even so, the author does begin by asking us to imagine what it would be like if these four characters did cross a road together.
I appreciate that it is an entirely fanciful image. Even so, can we imagine what it would be like if Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed found themselves on one side of a road together, each preparing to cross? I think it impossible to imagine exactly what would happen but I think we can be very sure as to what would NOT happen. A fight would NOT break out!
We cannot imagine Jesus saying to Mohammed ‘you must cross behind me’ any more than we can imagine the three monotheists shouldering out the Buddha and telling him that he’d better find a road of his own to cross!
It is a fanciful scenario, but I imagine that if such a crossing were to take place these men might not only cross the road together but might then sit down and break bread together! They might discuss God and life at length and perhaps they would disagree with each other on some matters (indeed, I suspect that the Buddha might find himself constantly on the defensive) but I think we all know with complete confidence that any such discussion would take place in an environment of mutual respect and openness.
The obvious question then that this scenario brings to mind is, ‘if we all know full well that Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed would show respect to each other if they met, why do their followers have so much difficulty doing the same thing?’ ‘Tribalism’ is the answer to that question, I believe.
Tribalism is the great enemy of inter-faith dialogue. Indeed, I would suggest that tribalism is the greatest enemy that religion itself faces – not just Islam or Christianity or any particular religion but all religion.
Throughout history, religion of every brand has shown a tendency to degenerate into tribalism, and every time religion degenerates into tribalism we find that instead of the signs of the presence of God we find intolerance, violence and war!
Tribalism is allowing your faith to divide the world into us and them. It is supporting your faith in the same way you support a football team. You go to the games, you put on the colours, you cheer for your team, and you come to a very self-conscious awareness of your identity as a supporter of your team in contrast to them – the supporters of the others teams whom you might be tempted to despise!
I am a supporter of the Newtown Jets Rugby League team. Some Sydney-siders might not have even heard of the Jets as we are not now in the first grade Rugby League competition. We were in the first grade though when I was a teenager, and that’s when I started supporting the Jets.
For those who don’t know, the Jets are still playing in the New South Wales Cup competition, and I’m happy to say that we still have a strong following, especially amongst old die-hards like myself – the over 50’s brigade who have been following the Jets since we were boys!
And one of the most fascinating things about being involved in Jets-supporters gatherings is that you find the old rivalries never die! Us old die-hard supporters still think of our team as a group of battlers – a working-class team from a working class suburb, and this despite the fact that Newtown is now anything but a working class suburb and our team is made up almost entirely of imported Pacific Islanders (like most of the other teams)!
What this demonstrates very well, I think, is that you can be a tribal supporter of your team without knowing anything about your team. Indeed, you can be a die-hard tribal supporter of your football team without knowing anything about football! All that is required is that you turn up to the games, wear the colours, and cheer loudly for your team, boo the other team, and curse the referee whenever a decision goes against you (even when the decision was entirely legitimate).
This is the essence of tribalism, I think, and it’s not a serious problem when football is the focus, and yet it becomes very serious when people treat their religion with the same level of superficiality. I can proudly assert myself as a Christian without knowing anything about Christianity and without displaying any of the signs of a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ. I thus define my identity with reference to my tribe and equally with reference to the tribes I am not a part of!
Being a Christian means that I am NOT a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or an Atheist. If you ask me what I know about Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or Atheism I probably know even less about these other religions than I do about my own religion, and I probably won’t feel very comfortable talking about any of that unless, of course, it is with ‘one of us’ – another like-minded person from my tribe who will reinforce me in my identity and remind me that whatever it is that these other tribes might believe, we know that it is inferior to what we believe (whatever that is)!
Now … I don’t mean to be simplistic. A degree of tribalism – a degree of us and them – is unavoidable in religion, and indeed it may even be desirable!
Tribalism is a part of the horizontal dimension of religion – that aspect of religion that binds us to each other – in contrast with the vertical dimension that binds us to God, and I think we all want to affirm the importance of the communal dimension of faith.
Religious faith, properly conceived, is never simply a private affair. It always has a communal dimension. Our fellowship with like-minded worshippers and our common identity as a community of faith is as essential a part of Islam as it is of Christianity and of Judaism. Even so, I think we all recognise that our communal identity as a people of faith (the horizontal dimension) can only properly be built upon a genuine vertical axis where there is a real relationship with the Almighty.
It is when we lose the relationship with Almighty God altogether but maintain our tribal identity that our faith degenerates into the kind of tribalism we see unfolding so tragically across our world.
What we see with the so-called ‘Islamic State’, for instance, is an example of tribalism at its worst, and it bears the two common characteristics of what I might call ‘extreme tribalism’:
- Firstly, the tribe is defined with extreme rigidity. You don’t simply have to be a Muslim but a Sunni Muslim with the right sort of Sunni Muslim doctrine.
- Secondly, extreme and disciplined religious piety are substituted for a genuine relationship with God.
This second point is a personal observation and is a reflection, I think, of the way that people with political power always operate in our world.
They say that there is always a direct relationship between the number of times words like ‘democratic’ appear in your country’s name and the lack of actual democracy in that country. In other words, if you call your country ‘the true and democratic people’s republic of …’ you can be sure that you’re dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship.
Similarly, when any government wants to conquer and destroy another country and steal their resources they will always talk in terms of ‘liberating’ the people and acting out of a ‘humanitarian concern’.
Similarly, when a tyrant wants to commit godless atrocities and establish a merciless and tyrannical state we can be we can be sure that he will embed his actions in obsequious religious rhetoric about the mercy of God and do his best to appear as the most pious of men!
In the New Testament it says that the signs of the presence of the Spirit of God are ‘love, joy, health and peace’ (Galatians 5:22), and I think we would recognise that these signs of the presence of the Spirit of God are as absent from the ‘Islamic State’ of Al Baghdadi as they were from the ‘Christian state’ established in the same land by the Christian ‘Crusaders’ many centuries earlier.
When tribalism is all you’ve got, religion degenerates into savagery. For those of us though who wish to build our tribal identity around a genuine relationship with God, the question that needs to be answered is ‘how should we relate to persons of other religious tribes?’ and this is the question that I want to devote the rest of my time to this evening – at least with regards to how Christians should behave.
As to how Muslims should treat persons of other tribes and faiths, I will not presume to answer. I will leave that to my dear brother, Sheikh Jehad, and to other Sheikhs and experts in Islam. My focus will be on how followers of Jesus should treat persons from other religious traditions, as I believe the Lord Jesus spelt this out for his followers very clearly.
In the Gospel according to Saint Luke, chapter 10, it is recorded that a teacher of religious law came to Jesus with what is perhaps the most fundamental of all religious questions – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To this the answer was given,
These were words quoted by Jesus from the Torah – the law of God (from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to be exact).
The lawyer though, we are told, was looking for a loophole (as one might expect for a man in his profession) and so he asked Jesus “but who is my neighbour?”
The religion of the Jews, then as now, was very tribal. There was a very strong sense of us and them, and if you look at the verse from the Torah that Jesus was quoting, it is clear there that the ‘neighbours’ being referred to were other Jews.
This helps us understand why this man of religion asked for clarification from Jesus as to who his neighbour was. When the commandment was originally given, it was given to a relatively isolated and homogeneous Jewish society. Times had changed and the Jews were now living under occupation in a relatively cosmopolitan society. They were constantly interacting not only with fellow Jewish believers but with Greeks and Romans as well as with persons from various other countries from across the region. The lawyer therefore wanted Jesus to confirm for him that the love that God commanded him to show to others need only be extended to members of his own tribe.
And Jesus told him a story:
“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead” (Luke 10:30)
Perhaps you have heard this story before. Perhaps you have not. It is known amongst Christians as the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’ and I’ve been hearing this story read and reflected upon since my youth.
What comes next in the story is that various good religious people – persons like the man questioning Jesus – came upon the scene and they ‘pass by on the other side’ without helping the injured man.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw [the injured man], he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31-32)
As I say, I’ve been hearing this story read and reflected upon since my youth, and I can tell you that it is a popular pastime amongst Christian preachers at this point to speculate upon why these religious figures did not help the suffering man.
- Perhaps they were running late for a synagogue service?
- Perhaps it was because they feared that the man might be dead and hence ritually unclean if they touched him?
- Perhaps they feared that the criminals who had attacked this man were still lying in wait and would pounce on them if they hung around?
- Perhaps indeed the whole thing was a setup and the apparently half-dead man was really in good health and only acting as bait?
These and various other scenarios are ones that are often suggested. It was my friend Stephen Sizer though, whom I met up with earlier this year in Tehran, who pointed out to me that Jesus has already told us exactly why these clerical figures did not stop to help – it was because the man had been left ‘stripped’ and ‘half dead’.
The assailed man was naked and unconscious, and because he was naked and unconscious these good religious Jews had no way of telling whether the poor man was a member of their tribe – whether he was one of us or one of them!
These are the ways you distinguish between us and them. We distinguish people by their clothes and by their accents. That’s as true in today’s context as it was then!
Whenever, as a Christian, I see a woman in a hijab – she is one of them! Conversely, of course, many of you may think ‘ah, she is one of us!’ Conversely, whenever I hear that lovely Aussie ‘how ya goin’ mate’ I know he’s ‘one of us’, whereas for many here your immediate reaction may be ‘Ah! He’s one of them!’
In 2004 I made my one and only trip to Israel. I went to see my dear friend Mordechai Vanunu when he was released from prison. For those who don’t know Morde, he was the man who told the world about the secret Israel nuclear stockpile and indeed published a series of photographs from inside the Dimona nuclear reactor in the London Sunday Times in 1986.
Morde served 18 years in Ashkelon prison for his ‘crimes’ and I almost got killed by going to see him when he was released. My visit though was covered by Australian TV’s “Foreign Correspondent”, and the team there were good enough to allow me the services of their driver who drove me around and ferried through various checkpoints in his taxi without every once being stopped by the soldiers at those checkpoints.
I asked the driver (whose name was also David) why the soldiers never stopped him. He told me it was because they knew he was Jewish and not Palestinian. “But how can they tell?” I naively asked him, as I didn’t think his complexion make it obvious? He told me that Palestinian taxis always had more bling in them (hanging from the rear-view mirror, etc.) and that if the soldiers had any doubts they only had to casually greet him, as once they heard his accent it would remove any doubts.
This is how we tell if someone is one of us or one of them – we listen to the way they talk and we look at the way they dress (and the way they deck out their taxis). Jesus makes clear though that the man in the parable not only has no taxi but no clothes and he cannot speak, and hence he has no way of communicating to those who might be in a position to help him whether he is a neighbour, a brother, a sister, a friend, one of us or one of them – in other words, whether he is worthy of their time or whether he is somebody else’s problem.
The man in Jesus’ story is naked and unconscious, and so the good religious Jews can’t tell whether he’s a Jew or a Palestinian. He could even be a Roman for all they know! He could have been an Australian!
Well … he probably couldn’t have been an Australian as a 1st Century Australian would have had a distinctive complexion, and he definitely would have been ‘one of them’ (as he generally still is in white Australian society today).
The hero in Jesus’ story is a Samaritan – a Palestinian of sorts and most definitely ‘one of them’!
“But a Samaritan traveller who came upon [the beaten man] was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’”” (Luke 10:33-35)
This ‘outsider’ is really too good to be true, and this is the sting in the tail of the story. He is one of them and yet he knows how one of us should behave better than we do ourselves. Just when we thought that we knew where to draw the line between light and dark and good and bad and us and them we find one of them clearly displaying the presence of the Spirit of God better than any of us. And we had been so sure up to that point that God was one of us!
I will leave Jesus’ story there but I hope you have caught the sting in the tail of this story. It is a story that blurs the lines between us and them. The hero is one of them. The characters who are a part of our tribe fail miserably to do what is right and have to learn from the godliness of the man from the other tribe, and indeed that man’s godliness is seen in the very fact that he does not seem to care whose tribe you are a member of! He acts in love regardless of tribe, and Jesus concludes the story by saying to the man who questioned him “Go and do likewise!”
As I say, I think it is entirely clear for followers of Jesus as to how we should behave towards persons from other faiths and tribes and religious traditions. What Jesus teaches us is that love does not recognise tribal boundaries!
Sisters and brothers, moving beyond tribalism is not easy, and if we look around our world we will find no shortage of reasons to view members of other tribes with suspicion and fear. Even so, as the Apostle John said “perfect love casts our all fear” (1 John 4:18) and we can move beyond fear and beyond tribalism to follow a God of love – moving beyond us and them and recognising that in the end it’s just us!
For we are all in this together. We are all God’s children – all of us! Salaam Aleykum.