Preventing or Promoting? Let’s get positive!

In the last 24 hours I have spent a large proportion of my time thinking and talking about extremism and radicalisation – fortunately these activities have been interspersed with good food, some laughter and the company of trusted friends and colleagues so I am still in good heart.

This is a detailed and specialised area and I am not an expert in the policy or legislation nor even in they psychology and philosophy which all needs to be brought to bear. But there is a mood at the two meetings which came out most clearly in the ‘meetings after the meetings’ that something must be done.

Everyone acknowleged that risks of all kind must be minimised but at both gatherings I heard people talk about the need to focus on ‘promoting’ rather than ‘preventing’. There are lots of well-used words to describe what it is that we want to prevent – and many of these words are contested, problematic or unhelpful – but there are very few words to describe what it is we want to promote. Cohesive doesn’t depict a city in which different faiths and cultures collaborate creatively, integrated does not carry the richness of distinctiveness being enjoyed and diversity doesn’t describe the trusting relationships between people who have differences in their identities.

Each morning I read the newsletter from Richard Rohr’s centre for Contemplation and Action. On Tuesday he was writing about the Brazilian archbishop and liberation theologian Dom Helda Camera. One paragraph in particular has stayed with me over the last few days and I have wanted to read these few lines to anyone who will listen.

Dom Helder is a saintly example of not wasting time fighting something directly, or you will become just like it. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Just go ahead and live positively; go to the side and do it differently. Don’t waste time with oppositional energy. In the short run, you will have to hold unresolvable tensions, symbolized by the crossbeams on which Jesus was crucified. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing.

“Fighting extremism”, “combatting terrorism”; we are already using the language of war to talk about building peace. I am aware that I do not carry the responsibilities of Government and for that I am very grateful. However I believe we do all carry some responsibility for the well-being of our cities and nations.

Our shared responsibility is to go and live positively and hold tensions. Our responsibility is to develop language to articulate our vision and to shape our imagination so we can see what heaven on earth might really look like.

I am so grateful for the people I meet and work with that embody this vision already. I am especially grateful that those people come from many different faith traditions (or no faith tradition); cultures, ethnicities and walks of life. Some of you bake bread, some of you make music, some of you create art, some of you grow things, some of you run religious organisations, some of you are community builders, some of you work in the public sector and some of you are parents. Some of you do none of these things. You are my heroes and together you (or I hope we) can offer a viable alternative to suspicion, mistrust and fear.

Rohr describes  Camera visiting the Centre for Contemplation and Action in 1991, just as the war in Iraq was beginning. This is how he describes that encounter with the Archbishop:

Dom Helder was described as being heartsick, and in fact had to see a doctor for physical distress resulting from the outbreak of war. The questions and concerns expressed by individuals [present that night] were fairly predictable and seemed to carry a plea for solutions that would alleviate our worry, anger and despair over seemingly insolvable global problems. For each of these, Camara essentially had one response, stated and restated: We need to use the intelligence God has given each of us to see one another as brothers and sisters. We must take the time to understand other people and not let the barriers of race and language prevent us from seeing each other as members of the same family. God embraces all human beings. The heart of faith is the call to love one another. . . .

Toward the end of the evening, the Archbishop said, “If you will live your religion, you will become different.” He gave a gleeful little laugh, as though that idea thoroughly delighted him.

Laughter, food, friendship and ultimately the love of God are our tools (not weapons) of peacebuilding. Let’s use them to live our religion and become different together.

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