Being converted (but not as you might think . . .)
Last September a sermon by The Reverend Dr. Yazid Said, Lecturer in Islam, appeared in The Pelican, drawing on his experience of living in Jerusalem and being a student of Islam. He spoke about the importance of listening to and learning from ‘the other,’ particularly those of other faiths. We now reproduce an amended version of another sermon with a similar theme, given on 18th November by The Reverend Michael Redman, Inter-faith advisor in the Two Cities Area of the Diocese. He too has been listening to the voice of the ‘other’ and has been changed by it.
On the night of 9th November 1938, 80 years ago, synagogues in Germany were torched and Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed unleashing a pogrom against Jewish people. We call it Kristallnacht, because the streets were littered from the shattered glass which was strewn across the streets. At a recent commemoration in Westminster Abbey, a speaker told of how as a boy of 16, he saw “the sky burning red with flames from our synagogue.’ Another, a Rabbi, described his grandfather, being summoned to the blaze at his synagogue in Frankfurt, noticing how, ‘amid the destruction, the Ner Tamid – the eternal light – kept burning.’ Two lights, then: the fire from the eternal light and the fire from the burning synagogue; fire which destroys and fire which lights up the heart.
I’ve been to Kristallnacht services before in the Abbey and said to myself that it could never happen here. But this year, hearing the voices of the survivors, I had an uncomfortable feeling that those shrill voices we hear in our public discourse are no longer so far away from the voices heard in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Rabble rousing speeches from presidents and leaders against migrants make me uncomfortable. The killer of eleven Jewish people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh shouted that all Jews must die. In the same way, our Muslim neighbours often live in fear and apprehension, especially when organisations like the English Defence League demonstrate.
Suspicion about minorities is nothing new. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (from Daniel, chapter 3) were reported to the authorities because their Jewish faith would not allow them to bow down before the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. They were the outsiders of their day who attracted rage simply because they were different. People said, ‘They aren’t one of us’’ and so they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Fire again, reviving echoes for us of Kristallnacht and the gas chambers of the last century.
How should the Christian react? People will and do go on living with their prejudices; people will and do refuse to engage with ‘the other;’ people still will not let light into their hearts.
But there are also those who are living out interfaith engagement in their lives, for in our work and leisure do we not rub shoulders with people of other faith and no faith all of the time? We discuss the religious practices of others; we may discuss the keeping of Ramadan or the Day of Atonement; we do enter into discussion and dialogue with ‘the other.’
But in the process do we not discover that ‘the other’ ceases to be just ‘the other’ to us but becomes a part of ourselves? We stop looking at our partner as other and start looking at them and us together as one. As other traditions become familiar so we share those traditions with each other. I know of a couple who go to Synagogue on Saturday and to Church together on Sunday. In making an act of faith towards each other, they make an act of faith towards each other’s tradition.
This is what I wish to commend to you – making an act of faith towards the other, learning about the other, getting alongside the other. Indeed, I suspect you may already be doing this, perhaps through attending an iftar supper when the fast is broken during Ramadan, or being invited by Jewish friends to a Passover supper, or by Hindu acquaintances to celebrate Diwali, the festival of light. As communities, too, we engage in common action: resisting school closures or running food banks. In all these ways we are entering into dialogue.
We need to lay aside any Anglican superiority we may once have had and show our vulnerability, rather like the Vicar in the TV series Rev with his small congregation and the large Mosque nearby. We have to lay aside our prejudices and suspicions and open up to the other. Some have likened this to the Paul’s injunction to have the same mind in Christ, where Christ emptied himself to assume the position of a slave.
So, rather than seek to change the other, we become changed by the encounter with the other. Rather than seeking to convert the other we become converted ourselves, but not to the other’s religion, but to a conversion of suppositions and thoughts. The encounter with the other gives us a new perspective on how to be a faithful Christian. The faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was so powerful that the King was converted, but not to Judaism itself but to empathy with Judaism and to abandon his previous animosity, and this led him to make a decree protecting the Jewish religion. Hearing recently the stories of those who survived Kristallnacht has in some way converted me. Hearing the faithfulness of those at the Tree of Life Synagogue has converted me. Seeing the joy of Muslims at Iftar celebrations has converted me. Our fidelity as Christians makes us reach out to the other, not to convert but to be converted ourselves and so to become better followers of Christ.