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01 September 2007

Making Space for Difference

Making Space for Difference

General Director Rev Joel Edwards looks forward to the launch of the Alliance's next Values campaign...

I am really excited about November and it has nothing to do with fireworks. The 13th sees our seventh annual Temple Address, where it will be our enormous privilege to have the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, speak to us.

I'm also really excited about the subject we have asked Sir Jonathan to speak on because it is one that will be critical for us both as evangelicals and as a nation over the next few years. That theme is tolerance.

It was Voltaire who said, "Of all religions, the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now Christians have been the most intolerant of men."

Notwithstanding the sweeping generalisations, Voltaire has a point. From the Crusades and the Inquisition through the Thirty Years War and modern day aggressive fundamentalism, some pretty intolerant acts have been done in the name of our faith. Exactly what version of Jesus the perpetrators of these acts have read is beyond me. Nevertheless, Christianity's reputation is tainted and these shameful incidents are trailed out as evidence against us in the growing "all religion is dangerous" campaign.

And yet Christianity should be, as Voltaire pointed out, the most tolerant of religions. Because at the heart of our faith is the idea of free will. We simply have to tolerate people deciding for themselves, and run the risk that they will disagree with us or even hate us. It is a risk God takes on a daily basis.

Too often as evangelicals we are nervous of tolerance because of its associations with secularism or relativism. We worry that to tolerate is to condone. But this is to misunderstand true tolerance. In order to tolerate another opinion, by definition I have to disagree with it. If I share or accept it there is no need to tolerate it.

Despite its noble sentiments, relativism is in fact a less respectful philosophy because it attributes no real value to the opinions it tolerates. It says you can believe what you believe, and I will do the same as long as your belief has no real impact on anybody else. Which is to totally belittle my belief - because what real value can it have if it has no real impact beyond myself?

Christian tolerance does not deny difference but lovingly makes space for it. As part of our ongoing Values campaign, tolerance follows on naturally from our work on respect and my recent series on grace and truth.

Yes, we believe in Jesus as the one ultimate truth. We always will. But part of the essence of His truth is His nature: gentle and humble, full of grace, respect and, yes, tolerance. Jesus embraced difference over and over again. He ate with "sinners", a model of table fellowship that should be an inspiration to us all. To tolerate another's right to their opinion is to show them ultimate respect.

As Christians in Western Europe there is an urgent need for us to be the ones leading the way with tolerance, to be associated with peacemaking and community cohesion. We must get hold of tolerance, not as a passive, live-andlet- live value, but as an active expression - Tolerance Plus, an outworking of love.

Christianity should be, as Voltaire pointed out, the most tolerant of religions

How we live together as different faiths and cultures is one of the challenges of the 21st century. As I have written before, Europe, which was once the sending continent of the world, has now become the great cultural repository. The empire has struck back.

At the present rate of growth the non-white population in Britain could be the majority by 2100. Two years ago, Trevor Philips, chairman of the then-Commission for Racial Equality, warned that Britain was "sleepwalking" into racial tensions. Across Europe there have been worrying rises in anti-Semitism and far-right sympathies. In the UK, the British National Party has adopted the policy of appealing to our nation's Christian heritage as a recruiting tactic in its racist campaigns against Muslims.

As terrorist acts inspired by a grossly distorted view of Islam are predicted by security agencies, the challenges for community cohesion will increase. As Christian citizens, we are called to a peacemaking role in the midst of these tensions. To be those who reject the urge to scapegoat but instead include the excluded, eat with the marginalised, welcome the outsiders and attempt to dialogue with the intolerant.

None of this will be easy; we will really have to wrestle with the tolerance issue. Some opinions and actions are plain wrong, and we have a duty to say so. But we also have a duty not to demonise those who hold those opinions.

The unique Christian contribution is that we never lose faith in human beings and their possibility for redemption, no matter how misguided their beliefs may sometimes be. And so, following Jesus' model of table fellowship, perhaps I should be inviting the leaders of organisations whose views I fundamentally disagree with over to dinner at my place. Even if I run the risk that some of them may turn up not with a nice Rioja, but with a pair of one-way tickets to Jamaica for my wife and me.

Over the next few months we want to start a conversation among Christians about what tolerance really means and how we make it an active value in our culture. As evangelicals, let us confound our critics by being the ones who are modelling it in our communities.

Let us be the ones leading the way in social cohesion. Let us be the ones campaigning for those who are victimised or vulnerable, even when their religion is different from our own. And let us do it all with no agenda other than the love of Christ.

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