Peace by Piece

Here is one I wrote earlier – about a month earlier – when we were just back from Israel-Palestine and the Women, Equality and Faith conference was still being planned. But it has just been published this week on the Heartedge newsletter. Hope it is worth an airing….

I’m writing this a week after flying back from Israel where I had been part of a group of 24 people from Birmingham. Drawn from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions, together we were exploring holiness, conflict and peace in one of the most contested places in the world.

As we returned I was plunged into preparations for a conference on Gender, Equality and Faith to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th. These two pieces of work may seem at first glance to have nothing in common but for me they are both about peace.

I believe the Bible is a narrative of peace and reconciliation, Jesus’s death was a cosmic peace-building moment and all Christians are called to be peace-makers. Policy makers call one part of peace ‘cohesion’ and for this reason I have got involved in various cohesion initiatives across the city.

But at a recent event we were presented with a report of findings drawn from a series of ‘Honest Conversations’ that challenged the idea that faith communities have a serious part to play in cohesion. The report concluded that peace-builders needed to offer spaces and places in which all were free to participate and contribute but faith communities often excluded groups of people from full participation for doctrinal reasons or cultural reasons and not only were non-believers marginalised, women’s voices were not often heard, minority ethnic Christians have struggled to find a place in established churches and LGBTI+ people were not welcome. These are some of the issues we’ll be exploring at our conference.

The importance of shared space and place was highlighted on our recent visit to the Holy Land. Peace-builders struggled to find spaces and places that all could access because of the way land was divided and controlled. Organising events for faith leaders generally meant no women were at the table and so we met activists who had switched their focus and terminology  from faith ‘leaders’ to faith ‘actors’ to make sure that women could be present and represented. I would like to see that happen here too. Another issue for peacemakers in Israel-Palestine is language – how can peace be built when people don’t share a common language?

Sometimes as Christians in the UK we speak a completely different language from our neighbours. I remember joining a mission organisation aged 18 and not speaking for two weeks as I had no idea what anyone was talking about because I came from a different church tradition from other participants. Our Christian culture can be baffling. Our confident pronouncements can leave people feeling judged.

Our neighbourhoods are crying out for places where all people are welcome, for activities that include all people, for encounters that turn the stranger into a friend. Our world is crying out for models of community that straddle difference, for people who love one another across perceived divides.

Ringing in my ears is the challenge from a Palestinian peacemaker, Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust: be a model for us of how to live well together. If you can do it in Birmingham the ripples will reach us here.

Every day, we pray the oldest Christian prayer – ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ I am sure that all in the kingdom of heaven are included, are free to participate and are valued. Let’s have a go – in Birmingham, in Bradford, in Bristol and beyond and we can be sure the ripples will be felt across the world.

PS The Gender conference has now happened and we had a great time as women and men together exploring what it means to flourish, to share leadership and to be fully engaged with our faith communities. Before the conference we commissioned our friends at BRAP to hold some focus groups exploring how women engage with their faith communities. You can read the report here.

Here is the graphic report produced during the conference

NN - IWD2018(S)

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The Subjectiveness of Seeing

Walking along the canal today I passed a man who was intent on taking a photo. He stood for quite some time focussing and refocussing a professional looking camera, gazing at a spot over the water. After passing him I glanced back to try and understand what had caught his eye – but I could see nothing – just a bleak tree backed by a sixties tower.

This moment reminded me of the reflections we had yesterday, one month after our visit to Israel-Palestine as a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish friends. The Israeli organisation which led the group is called ADAShA which means lens in Hebrew and Arabic.  They accompanied us with great expertise, giving us multi-faceted perspectives, helping us to understand nuance and complexity, stretching our understanding and challenging our preconceptions.

As we met yesterday one of our local group leaders commented that to some extent we had seen what we wished to see. I wanted to disagree and say what we saw are the facts on the ground, they are indisputable. But the conversation continued reminding me that on our first day in Jerusalem I had said I was unnerved by the predominance of guns because they spoke to me of violence and oppression. Other people saw guns and felt grateful for safety and security. For others who had lived abroad they were simply normal. The diversity of the group and leading and guiding of Adasha worked to move us on from our preconceptions and give us new understandings and new insights.

When I was a teenager, one of the few convincing things I heard about repentance – that was much more palatable than the no drinking, no smoking, no dating interpretation – was the idea that repentance means having new eyes, new lenses – it is a whole new way seeing.

I have been to Israel-Palestine four times and looked with four different perspectives at the situation there but I still carry fixed ideas, prejudices and judgements.

If there is anything I am learning over the last few months it seems to be one simple thing. It is probably something some people don’t need to learn or others learnt ages ago – that simple thing is that it is not important to be right.

In Scriptural Reasoning this evening we looked at King Hezekiah and his healing. He is described as man ‘who has walked before you (God) in truth and with a perfect heart and have done that which is good in your sight.’  Not a bad epitaph. To me a truthful character seems quite different from being right.

Right is about facts, truth is about virtue; right is about competition, truth is about an honest humility; right makes demands and will not necessarily bring peace, truth seeks to look beyond one’s own experience and limited knowlege; right is often knee-jerk, truth is the long slow gaze that focuses and refocuses the lens.

I know there is far more truth to learn in Israel-Palestine than can be learnt in four short visits and some of that truth will conflict. I know repentance is ongoing and my lenses need constant changing, cleaning and refining. So thank you to all of you who have broadened my vision, helped to challenge my prejudices and thanks to the man with a camera who has reminded me that truth needs a slow, thoughtful gaze, accurate focussing and the ability to see beauty where others see nothing.