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01 November 2007

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In an increasingly frightened and fractured society, what's needed is tolerance and understanding, says the Chief Rabbi. He talked to Hazel Southam in the run-up to the Temple Address...

Britain's long tradition as a tolerant nation stems from its Christian heritage. This is the view not of the Archbishop of Canterbury or another senior Church leader. Instead, it's the opinion of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, we need to draw on that history of tolerance to overcome today's current racial and religious tensions.

"Tolerance was pioneered in Britain on a religious basis"
Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks

"Britain did not become a tolerant nation by accident," he says. "We had a civil war in the 17th century, and some of the very, very great people like John Milton and John Locke did the hard thinking about what it means to live in a society where people have strong, conflicting beliefs and have to live together.

"They were deeply in dialogue with the Bible. That was their inspiration. Tolerance was pioneered in Britain in the 17th century on a religious basis. We like to think that religion automatically tends towards intolerance, but it turned out to be a critical force for tolerance. Where we are now is where we were in the 17th century."

The Chief Rabbi will be speaking on tolerance at the Alliance's Temple Address in London on 13 November. Tolerance follows on from the Alliance's previous keynote Values subjects of forgiveness, hope, trust and respect.

It comes at a time when tolerance is constantly under scrutiny in the public sphere. Not only did 9/11 raise questions of tolerance in society, but the ever-changing mix of British society also makes it a pressing issue.

Cultural diversity

In January, a report by Sir Keith Ajegbo said that pupils in the UK should be taught "core British values" alongside cultural diversity, as part of their normal studies.

In June, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, called for tighter controls on immigration and appealed to Gordon Brown not to forget "the importance of Christian identity" to the UK.

"If we were all completely different we couldn't communicate, and if we were all the same we would have nothing to say"
Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks

Racist attacks in the west of Scotland rose after the alleged terror bombing of Glasgow Airport on 30 June this year, according to Strathclyde Police. Figures for race crimes in July showed a rise of over 25 per cent on previous months. And in August, researchers from Manchester University reported that white people living in Birmingham (the UK's second city) are likely to find themselves in a minority in 20 years' time.

The research showed that 35 towns and cities in the UK have at least one ward which is "minority white". Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the speaker at last year's Temple Address, responded to these figures saying that society will have to make "tough decisions about 'plural cities' where no race is in a majority. Events across Europe have shown how segregation breeds mistrust and fracture. The benefits of plural cities can be great, but we need to look at the future and act responsibly."

It's against that background that Sir Jonathan Sacks will speak about the need for tolerance in today's society. And, he says, Britain's faith communities have a key role to play in keeping the UK a tolerant place.

"We all have to accept responsibility. We all have to work at it," he says. "The events of 9/11 brought to this earth tensions that have been simmering for a long while. But to deal with these tensions, what we need are people with a strong sense of values."

Fear has become a driving force. "So many people were afraid after 9/11," he says. "Politicians were afraid, not just ordinary people. They were afraid that the country would go up in flames as a result. But when 7/7 happened, nothing else did. All of us - the leaders of various faiths - were convened the day after 7/7 by the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. He had never realised that most of us knew each other rather well and were friends.

"That was part of the underlying strength of British society, which could well not have been there. Look what happened during the riots in France. Unlike France, Britain didn't go up in flames, and part of that was because of the stronger traditional relationships and friendships between the faiths."

But, he says, tolerance cannot begin and end with faith leaders. It has to be something that is practised "at street level" by all of us. "It's no good if the leaders go up the mountain and come down again saying, 'We are all in favour of world peace,'" he laughs. "It needs street parties to get people together - food, music and celebrating."

A Christian byword

So what is tolerance and why is it important? And as Christians in possession of biblical truths, really how tolerant do we have to be? According to Dr R David Muir, the Alliance's Director of Public Policy, tolerance should be a Christian byword.

"Primarily, we need to be tolerant of other faiths because we are commanded to love our neighbour, and you can't do that unless you first understand them, and you can't do that unless you accept their difference," he says. "Tolerance is more than just putting up with things that you don't necessarily like. We need to find a moral and pragmatic way to live in a democratic environment where we can be good citizens on the one hand and also good neighbours."

He adds that as citizens, "people have a moral responsibility to behave in ways that are respectful and tolerant, even though there is a great deal of difference."

General Director Rev Joel Edwards agrees. "We need to keep remembering that when we pick up these huge issues of trust, respect and tolerance we don't do it because we want a nice cosy inhouse dialogue. It's not about preaching to the converted," he says, "it's about our own attitudes and about contributing to the wider debate in society. If Christians, and particularly evangelicals, raise the theme of tolerance they then have to justify their right to do so. People don't think that Christians are tolerant. So Christians need to express and debate the issue."

Being tolerant is not about agreeing with something or someone who's different from you. It's about understanding difference, maybe not necessarily liking it, but seeing the person behind the culture, race or religion - a person created in God's image. It means spending time with people who are not like you while still holding onto your own values. It means, ultimately, not wanting the whole world to be exactly like you are, while still having the heart of an evangelist.

"If we were all completely different we couldn't communicate, and if we were all the same we would have nothing to say," says the Chief Rabbi. "Tolerance is a subtle thing, balancing between seeing difference but recognising that because we are different, we all have something unique to say. We would never meet anyone else if we were all the same. So every single community brings something different to bear in all sorts of ways. Difference is fabulous and wonderful."

A tolerant future?

Last year marked the 350th anniversary of the re-entry of Jews into Britain. At the start of 2006, Sir Jonathan Sacks told BBC Radio 4 that he believed Britain was facing "uncomfortable levels" of anti-Semitism sparked by international situations. Despite this, he now says that he feels "100 per cent positive" about a tolerant future for the UK that avoids current tensions.

"The centres of moral strength in Britain are religious communities"
Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks

"The centres of moral strength in Britain are religious communities," he says. "We are supposed to be an extremely secular society, yet everyone wants their child to go to a faith school. And it's to faith groups that we should be looking for the future."

He adds a personal note: "I too went to a Christian school - which is a bit of an unusual CV for a rabbi - but I learned that because the people in the school valued their faith, they could understand how I valued my Jewish faith. The fact that they were really committed Christians made them more tolerant not less. I have carried that with me. I never forgot it. It made me admire and respect Christians and feel comfortable in their presence. It's a privilege to be friendly with the leaders of various Church groups in Britain."

Rev Edwards returns the compliment, "There are few people who have contributed to the wider debate about tolerance in society as much as the Chief Rabbi. Just by his presence, the aim of the Temple Address will confirm to society that there is such a thing as a tolerant Christian community, and that evangelicals can demonstrate tolerance in terms of being spoken to by someone of a different religious perspective. I'm hoping that the Christians present will be better informed."

If we are, as the Chief Rabbi believes, at a critical turning point in history where Christians need to call on their faith to help shape our future society, then his Temple Address could form a stepping stone to some of the thinking that we need to do to help keep Britain a tolerant nation.

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