It’s easy to find the gaps, those contested spaces between ourselves and others. In many ways this is good and healthy: we’re wired this way and our differences are often profoundly important.

Many times, though, we fail to see any common ground between ourselves and our neighbours, let alone our enemies. When we do, we’re conditioned to believe it can only be entered by way of compromise. So, the idea of hosting on a shared space, or even setting foot there, requires the willingness to take a risk and build a relationship.

All this frames a public conversation I hosted recently with the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Mr Les Allamby. Our relationship began in 2016 when the Evangelical Alliance organised a prayer walk as part of the Belfast Human Rights Festival. We planned to stop at key places throughout the city to pray for Christian, civic, legal and political leaders as they work for the marginalised and vulnerable.

Pro-choice activists turned up at our first location to protest the decision to include the Evangelical Alliance in the festival. This group deemed us to be anti-women’ and anti- human rights’ because of our belief that both lives have value and dignity when it comes to the abortion debate. We invited the protestors to join us in our prayer walk but they declined. The gap was clear.

Our next stop was the Human Rights Commission. We were invited inside for tea and coffee and graciously allowed to pray for and with some of the commissioners. Following the protest and calls for our exclusion, this act of generosity and hospitality humbled us. It wasn’t long after this that we partnered to develop an educational animation on the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

To hear Mr Allamby retell this incident in our conversation from his perspective, as a common point in our story, was fascinating. He went on to share candidly about how he felt about the absence of a personal faith in his own life. This was despite reading the Bible daily as a teenager and retaining a deep respect for the teachings of Jesus around seeking justice for people.

As we talked, we did not avoid the gaps or tip-toe around them. We talked openly and honestly about our deep differences when it comes to abortion. The commission’s perspective saddens me, frustrates me, angers me in so many ways. I’m sure my views are considered morally wrong and offensive by some within the commission. We fundamentally see life through very different lenses.

I appreciated that the commissioner went out of his way to say that he disagreed with people being labeled as homophobic or a misogamist because of their genuinely held convictions around issues like marriage or human life. Mr Allamby articulated how he saw faith as an important part of public life. We both agree that tone and language are vital in these sensitive debates and that spaces for conversation and understanding difference should not be shut down through insult but maintained through relationship.

We went on to discuss shared concerns for the most vulnerable in light of COVID-19. We talked about a piece of advocacy the commission had engaged with on care homes which is very relevant right now. We shared an interest in the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, restrictions on civil liberties, and concerns around data, surveillance and freedom of movement in the future. For me our shared heart for justice and the protection of the vulnerable is evidence that despite the scars of the fall (Genesis 3), there remains a deep desire across humanity to see wrongs put right.

We are divided by the idea that human beings are not the ultimate arbiters of human rights. We believe that humanity is endowed with value and purpose beyond ourselves, and that this purpose and justice we pursue is God-shaped and will be delivered through the merciful judgement and good reign of the Judge and King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Christians we are to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world. This requires us not to hide away or abdicate the public square, but to go out as ambassadors with the message of redemption and reconciliation with God through Christ.

So the gap between us remains clear, but common ground rose to meet us when we each stepped out in risk and relationship. We hope to explore these gaps and shared spaces further as we continue our Reimagining the public conversation’ series. We’ll be hosting a range of civic leaders and asking how we can renew and rebuild our society in the months and years ahead. This conversation is available at
www​.reimag​in​ing​faith​.com

As we talked, we did not avoid the gaps or tip-toe around them.