Faith and Activism

This week my colleague Frances and I visited Dundee. Dundee had been one of the longest running local interfaith groups, but in the last years the group has been less active. Since last year engaged people from Dundee are reviving the group. One step for this was the launch of Scottish Interfaith Week. In January Frances and I went to Dundee for a first meeting about the future of the group and Maureen, our Director, gave a talk about Interfaith. In the beginning of march Frances was organising a women’s dialogue event. For the meeting this week people from the group had suggested to have dialogue about poverty and we had an interesting discussion about the roots of poverty in our todays society (in Dundee) and the results of poverty (in Dundee).

This meeting was one of a couple of meetings I had in the last weeks were the social aspect of faith and social activism of believers was important. In February the monthly Faith-to-Faith event in Glasgow was about “Faith and Activism” and people talked about the connection of their faith and social activism, for example by engaging in Glasgow’s Interfaith Food Justice Network. Here people of different are providing food for those who can’t afford it themselves, because they for example are living on the streets. In the work with young people and about the question how to increase interfaith engagement of young people one feedback we often got in the last weeks, was that young people are rather keen to get active together in interfaith contexts, than “just” having a formal dialogue.

For someone like me, who has an academic background and enjoys having (theoretical) theological dialogue it is important to get reminded of this element of the different faith traditions. So why is the activism part of religion (in interfaith contexts) so attractive?

  1. Commonality

The element of practical care for those who need it, is something that is shared in all major and most minor faith traditions. Besides all other theological differences: to care for the poor, the old, the sick, the lonely ones, refugees and asylum seekers … for every one who is vulnerable is something all Holy Scriptures, all prophets and founders of religion and most believers agree is important. The way the different religious groups and individuals practise this care might differ, but in general it’s a shared element of faith. Therefor it is a good starting point for joint interfaith activities.

  1. Everyone can do it

You don’t need a degree in theology to help others. Being active for others in our society can look very different and so everyone is able to do something. Someone can visit people, that are lonely, someone can donate money or food or other essential and bring it to people who need it or to a charity/organisation that cares for others. Someone can set up and sign petitions for the good of minorities and vulnerable people. Someone can change their way of life, so others or the environment benefits from it, for example by doing less flight journeys or volunteering with a charity.

  1. You see practical results

When you give food to someone or clean a park from rubbish in your community together you see immediately results. This can give you better feeling than having just a “dry” discussion about a theme, because you directly see the impact of your doing.

  1. You can choose what to do

There are so many different possibilities to get active, that there is something to do for everyone. No one must do something they don’t like, but everyone can do something that has an impact.

  1. It strengthens religion in society

We live in a more and more secular world. In a lot of Western countries religions is becoming a less natural part of society. But even the strongest anti-religious people usually recognize the social aspect of religious activism, which cares for those no one else cares for. So if religious people are getting active in social matters and because of their faith and believes they show the importance religion has for every state, society and community.

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The value of travelling

“The train now leaving platform four is the 10.45 service to Edinburgh.” This and similar announcements have I heard very often since I came to Glasgow last July. Travelling is a large part of my work with Interfaith Scotland. I travel, when I visit the different local interfaith groups all over Scotland, between Dumfries and Shetland and between Skye and Fife. I travel also when I attend meetings of the youth engagement advisory group in London and I travel when I attend dialogue events or networking meeting with other charities or institutions. I had to travel to come to Scotland in the first place as well. Travelling is nice, because it gives me the opportunity to see a lot of different places and meet interesting people. Today we have very easy travel opportunities and even if a train is delayed or a flight cancelled, we (at least the privileged people with a passport, which opens most countries for us) can be pretty sure, that we can reach nearly every place in the world in relatively short time.

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Most of the people I work with at Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow have been travelling a lot. Frances grew up in Northern Ireland and has spend time in India, Else has a Malaysian-Chinese background, Maureen is from the Highlands, but has lived in Samoa and the USA and is exploring interfaith connections in New Zealand the next weeks. At Interfaith Glasgow Rose is from England, Magdalen from Northern Ireland and Lynnda from South Africa. In a lot of the local interfaith groups there are people who are not born in Scotland or have lived in another country for some time of their life.

On the one hand this mixture of travel experienced people in interfaith context is a result of our modern globalized world, but on the other hand it also shows that travelling has a value in increasing interfaith and intercultural awareness. If I never had met people from other cultural or faith backgrounds than my own I probably would not be that interested in interfaith dialogue. I probably would never have thought about the question what my faith and believe means for the relationship to people of other faith. And I’m sure a lot of people involved in interfaith work and activities share this opinion.

Of course there are different kind of travelling and journeys where people of different backgrounds directly meet each other might be more fruitful for raising interfaith awareness than holidays where people spend there whole time at the beach and the only “strangers” they meet are those, who clean the dishes at the hotel buffet. But the first step is anyway to start moving being open to meeting others.

For some people it is easier to travel than for others. Therefore Interfaith Scotland offers schools the opportunity to bring volunteers from different faith backgrounds to them, so that students, especially outside the large and diverse cities can meet people of different faith backgrounds. Two weeks ago I joined a group of volunteers and delivered a day of school workshops in Oban, where it is not that easy for the students to meet Muslims, Hindus or Baha’i. It was really interesting to hear the interested questions the young people asked and I wish more schools would organise days like this (even if it were difficult for Interfaith Scotland, because of the small staff team we have…).

One idea, which has been discussed in the last years, that I really liked was to provide every young person in the European Union with a free Interrail ticket. It’s really a pity that in case this project comes into reality the young people in Scotland and the other parts of the UK can’t benefit of this! I think this would be a great opportunity especially for young people to meet people from different backgrounds and raise their awareness of the value of diversity. Maybe the Scottish government or the UK government should think about supporting/founding similar projects or at least organise/support more projects where people can travel in Scotland to meet people of different backgrounds (be it from the Southside of Glasgow to the East End of Glasgow, or from the rural areas of the country to the more diverse ones), like Interfaith Scotland does with it’s school workshops. Hopefully more people can have similar interesting travel experiences, as I do at the moment!

“The beast from the East” – Some religious reflections

Today large parts of Scotland are shut down because of snow. There have fallen about 3cm of snow and there are -4° – even if it feels colder due to the wind. To experience temperatures and weather like this should not be a large surprise in a country that is at about the same geographical latitude as Denmark or the south of Sweden. But the results of the weather are closed schools in large part of the country and heavy travel disruptions. Interfaith Scotland’s office stays closed today, because of the weather, too.

But this blog should not mainly be about the question if it was justified or not to cancel and shut down all the schools and offices, but rather about what this events tell us how people deal with the weather. From my point of view there are some very religious elements in it.

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From the very beginning of human history weather was a very important part of human live, because humans were heavy relying on the weather conditions. To less rain (usually not a problem in the UK) can be as livethreatening as to much, the same is to say about sunshine and temperatures. Because of that were weather gods and goddesses an important part of early religions. Even JHWH the god who became later the god of Judaism and Christianity was in very early stages of religious history probably a god responsible for rain and thunderstorms.

Even today some thousand years later the weather is something we humans can’t control. In earlier times people asked their priest, prophets and seers about the future, today we check the weather and several times a day with forecasts in TV, Radio, Internet and our weather apps and the weather is probably the most popular small talk theme (Will there be a white Christmas? Are we having a “real” summer? Isn’t it to hot/cold/wet/dry?). Of course it is good to have all those possibilities to get informed, because in the end it really can save lives!

That our obsession with the weather even today is somehow religious shows the name that was giving to the actual weather system “The beast from the east”. A name that could as well come from the book of Apocalypse in the bible or some kind of ancient mythology. It shows that the weather is something we still can’t control and that we at least partly experience as threatening.

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But how deal we with weather like this “snowstorm” religiously? From a monotheistic point of view is obvious that god must at least tolerate such events to happen and be in the end responsible for them by having created the world in a way that snow storms exist. From a nontheistic point of view the storm might be a challenge but not be caused of a higher power and from a polytheistic point of view there would be at least the possibility that some (evil?) god has caused the storm. Nevertheless an adequate reaction to the snow, independent of one particular background, would be to care for everyone who is especially suffering in those conditions. I’m mainly thinking about people living on the streets, who are not as lucky as I am to have a warm place to live in. I’m also thinking about everyone who has a flat, but maybe not enough money to heat it or to have a hot meal and hot drinks. I’m hoping that everyone of them has at least one person who cares for them during this harsh weather and that humanity doesn’t get defeated by “The Beast from the East”.

Religion and Gender Justice – why we must criticise our Holy Scriptures

On Wednesday last week Interfaith Scotland had it’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). Besides the change in a constitution and some changes in the Trustees Board the main part at the evening was a speech by Rev. Kathy Galloway about “Faith in Gender Justice”. As a Christian theologian she mainly reflected on her own tradition but in a way that was transparent to the other religions. In my opinion this was a very clever solution, because so she didn’t get into the trap to teach the other religions from a “superior” point of view, what they were doing “wrong”. By heavily criticizing  her own tradition members of other religions could see parallels in their own tradition.

In her talk Kathy Galloway followed some Christian Feminist Theologians from the 20th century, especially Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and her hermeneutic thoughts.

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A hermeneutic approach to this theme make absolutely sense because traditionalist in the different traditions often use their Holy Scriptures to suppress women. That is possible is logical, because the Holy Scriptures of the major traditions usually were written/revealed in patriarchal societies. And even if the positions in the Holy Scriptures were progressive in their time and place, as eg. in the Quran, they are still patriarchal, old fashioned and discriminating today. And to stress it again this is also (or especially) to say about my own Holy Scriptures – the Christian Bible.

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In this case the question of Gender equality in the different religions can be a symptom for a problem that all the different tradition have to deal with and that might become one of the big questions for upcoming interfaith dialogue: the possibility to criticise the Holy Scriptures because of their historical dependence on their time and place of revelation.  Some of the traditions, such as the Western Christianity, has been dealing with this question since the 17th or 18th century – for some this question is relatively new. Of course in the Christian tradition this didn’t mean that people were dealing with the question of Gender equality – this is rather a development of the 20th century – but they have developed a tradition of a historical-critical dealing with Scripture since the age of enlightenment. This theological approach is of course not without problems, it has lead to division in the world wide Christian community and to a higher degree of religious uncertainty and probably also to the huge degree of secularisation in the Western World. Anyway I don’t believe there is a alternative to a critical approach towards the Holy Scriptures if a religious community wants to stay a part of the “modern”, “enlightened” world – and the members of the different tradition I meet at interfaith dialogue events seem to want to have an impact on our society. That doesn’t mean that all the traditions must follow the methods the Christian churches in Western Europe and some other countries have chosen. I’m sure every tradition must find their own way to criticise their Holy Scriptures. I’m for example a bit jealous of the (at least theoretical) possibilities to criticise the Holy Scriptures in the Baha’i tradition. With the idea of gods continues revelation through divine messengers at different places in different times, when humankind can’t understand the former revelation anymore they have an interesting tool to deal with the belonging of their Holy Scriptures to a specific time and place of revelation. Of course the idea that their revelation is the actual one for the next 800 years (1000 years from the point when they were revealed) makes this tool a bit less useful…

From my point of view to able to criticise the own tradition and their Holy Scriptures actual doesn’t mean to have a weaker faith than the ones who follow a somehow literalistic understanding. It actually rather means a huge amount of trust into the guidance through god, who is also trusting us. Many traditions (as so far as they believe in a personal deity) idealize the relationship between god and humankind as a loving relationship. If I follow this idea I must admit that a relationship were it is not allowed to criticise a partner is not very healthy, but repressing and definitely not loving. So if we really believe that god loves us and we have the feeling that we love god, than we must be able to criticise god in the same way partner in a relationship, be it between lovers, friends, family or colleagues, are able to criticise each other.

And I’m completely convinced that god accepts it, when we criticise him and the Scriptures he has revealed himself and his will in, because they are not in all cases helpful to support gender equality and justice in our society, but often rather dangerous.

I hope that this thoughts are understandable for you, to whatever faith tradition you belong, and that they maybe encourage you to find your personal way to fight for gender justice and equality in your faith tradition.

“Hine mah tov…”

When you are studying protestant theology in Germany you have to learn Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Fortunately for me I had learned Latin and Ancient Greek in school, so I had to learn “only” Hebrew when I started my studies. It was definitely not very easy to learn the language of the Hebrew Bible but in the second attempt I managed to pass the exam. When we learned the language, we not only learned how to read the alphabet and from the right to the left and not only vocabulary and grammar, but we also learned some traditional Hebrew songs. One of those songs has the text

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“ and it quotes the beginning of Psalm 133. The verse means “Behold how good and how pleasing if brothers (people) could sit together in unity“. The song was also sung at the National Holocaust Memorial Day event, which I reflected about last week.

But it came much more to my mind after I visited a Shabbat service at Glasgow Reform Synagogue last Saturday. To be guest in this service was a very special experience for me. Not only because it was a remembrance service for Holocaust Memorial Day and not only because of the difficult history between Christians and Jews – especially in Germany. The experience was special because I felt welcomed and in a way “at home” that is unusual for visits in places of worship of other faith tradition than my own. Of course it helped a lot, that I was able to follow the Hebrew texts of the liturgy but also the texts itself and the setting of the service felt very familiar. That was of course because Christians and Jews share not only a lot of history, but also a large part of their Holy Scriptures. Probably because of that I had the feeling, that I could truly participate in the prayers say “Amen” to what was said in the service. The differences to my own tradition, which I definitely experienced as well, did not feel larger than when visiting a service in a different Christian denomination. Of course that does not mean that Jews should be seen as just another Christian denomination – that would be wrong and dangerous, but it shows the brother- and sisterhood between Christians and Jews.

Up till now I had the feeling that people stressing the “Christian-Jewish heritage of the Western World” do this mainly to support Anti-Muslim tunes in society, and I think very often this is the case. But during this service, listening together the story how god saved the Israelites on their way through the dessert, singing psalms, praying and remembering the Holocaust I really had the feeling: “Yes we are brothers and sisters. And there is a deep understanding between us. And besides all the differences that should not be denied, we share much more than we ourselves might think.”

If I could have a wish, I would wish that this deep understanding I experienced in this Shabbat Service is possible between believers of all the different religions. I would wish that Jews can pray with Muslims and Muslims with Christians and Buddhists with Hindus and Hindus with Sikhs and Skihs with Baha’I and Baha’I with Jews and so on. That would really be “good and pleasing”!

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“

How political should interfaith engagement be?

This week I witnessed two short (very uncontroversial) discussions about the political element in interfaith dialogue. One was about Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be next week, and one about the engagement of faith communities and interfaith organisations against climate change. Having this in mind I want to reflect today about how political interfaith engagement can/should be. I thereby reflect only about the situation in Western democracies. The situation in other kind of states might differ in several points and is to complex to reflect it here.

Interfaith Engagement is always political

The word “political” comes from a time when there existed a lot of different City States (polis) in Ancient Greece. “Political” in its basic meaning is therefore something, that regards the “affairs of the cities” or of the community/society in a specific area.

Interfaith engagement how I experience it here in Scotland has always the aspect of serving the community: It is always about building peace and and a deeper understanding between different religious groups and that is in the end a way of serving the whole community. The Scottish government has realized this and is therefore funding the work of Interfaith Scotland, what I consider as a great example, that other governments in the world (Hello Germany!) should follow!

Furthermore have all the different faith traditions a tradition of political engagement. Be it in the way of building religious dominated states in history or presence or important contacts between representatives of religion and state. That’s completely logical, because the religions claim to be important for the whole live of their believers – and the social/political life is a part of this.

When is political engagement dangerous for interfaith dialogue?

Not every political engagement of partners in interfaith dialogue is good. Should a particular religious group have to close political connections to a political party it might damage their credibility. If religions want to be political in the above meaning – and from my point of view they have to – they should fight (peacefully in a democratical system) for their goals in society, whether they rather fit with the agenda of the government or the opposition.

Of course for an interfaith organisation like Interfaith Scotland that is even more difficult. What if two or more members or dialogue partners follow different political agendas? Well in this cases it is not possible that Interfaith Scotland supports one of the two agendas. It could only make a statement that shows the differences between its members. In general it would be dangerous, if political statements could be made with a simple majority in a vote, for example between the members of Interfaith Scotland or its board. It would be recognized if for example the faith communities in Scotland would all together criticise the government and therefore such statements need a large majority or better a unity behind them. How can you find such a majority or unity? Well I would say dialogue is the answer!

It would also be dangerous for Interfaith Scotland, if it depended to much on one political party. If for example the Scottish government tries to influence the religious groups too much via Interfaith Scotland and would threaten to cut the funding, when they are not successful in that, it would not be possible to provide a neutral platform for interfaith dialogue.

Why and when is it good, that Interfaith dialogue is political?

Interfaith dialogue is political in a good way, when it brings people together for improving the society – and is successful. One example is Interfaith Glasgow’s Weekend Club where an interfaith group of volunteers organizes activities around cultural and religious themes for refugees and asylum seekers. The engagement for refugees and asylum seekers is definitely political in the meaning I mentioned above. It has definitely an impact on the society when refugees and asylum seekers feel welcomed in Scotland and if they have the chance to learn about Scottish culture. It has also an impact on the volunteers, who have the opportunity to learn from each other and the participants at the events. Through projects like the “New Scots strategy” or media coverage around One Big Picnic or the Family Fun Day Interfaith Glasgow raises the voice for refugees, asylum seekers and more justice in our society and that is definitely a good result of interfaith engagement.

Other examples where interfaith engagement has an impact on the society is Scottish Interfaith Week. Not every theme in every year is in the same way political, but for example “Care for the environment” in 2015 or “Religion and the Media” in 2016 or “Connecting Generations”, which might become the theme for 2018 have been and are political in a good way.

2018: Year of young people

Hello and happy New Year everyone! After the Christmas break my weekly blogging here continues.

The big theme for Interfaith Scotland in 2018 is going to be the “year of young people”. Already in my last blog I mentioned that the Scottish government made 2018 the official year of young people and that Interfaith Scotland as well as the UK Interfaith Network are thinking about how to more engage young people for interfaith work this year. When I visit local interfaith groups the question I am asked most often is “how can we get more people involved? Especially young people?”.

Here are some personal thoughts about this theme:

Who is a “young” person?

This question is not as easy to answer, as it seems to be. Here two examples from my praxis as a minister (in training). When I visit people in carehomes for elderly people the “young” persons are the under 80s or maybe even under 90s. When I give confirmation lesson for the about 14 year old confirmands, I as a nearly 30 year old, am an “old” person for them.

For the work in the UK Interfaith project I’m involved in we decided to draw the line at the age of 25. People younger than 25 are considered as “young” for us.

Is it a specific interfaith problem that there are “not enough young people involved”?

No, it’s definitely not. Nearly all faith communities, but also other institutions like sport clubs etc. in Western countries have this problem. One cause is that today less children are born, than for example in the 1950s. Furthermore “old” people stay longer, because of better health conditions. This gives people the feeling that there are a lot of old people everywhere and very little young people. And if there are less (in percentage) young people involved in the activities of faith communities, how can they come to interfaith work?

I don’t believe young people are less interested in religious themes in general. And my experience when I meet young people here in Scotland is, that they consider interfaith work as important, as soon as they know about it.

Why should young people join local interfaith groups?

Local interfaith groups work well for certain groups of people. From my point of view and the experiences I made when visiting some of them they are a good thing for people, who are settled at one place. Their members are often (not always!) in average older than 50 years. I think the youngest persons I met there, who might have been in their 30s (?), where there in an official position, representing either a certain faith community or a local council. Most of the members of the groups, who are not representing a faith community or a council are retired. I think it’s great that people in this age are putting time and effort in interfaith work! But I can understand, if young people don’t have a feeling that such a group is the “place to be” for them. Honestly I don’t know, if I myself would join such a group on a regular basis in my spare time… I think the “younger group” that maybe local interfaith groups should try to reach as new members are people from maybe their mid-30s, early 40s onwards. In this age, after building a family people often orientate themselves back to faith communities they belonged to in younger years or start looking for new orientation in life. In this age people often get also more interested in a more continuous stable voluntary work in one place, which seems to fit with the concept of a continuous group.

Do we need special interfaith-activities/groups/projects for young people, if we want to reach them?

Yes, definitely! And from my experience this should be rather project-based than very long-term orientated. It’s always hard to generalize, but as far as I can see young people should not have the feeling, that they have to be committed in a project for the rest of their life, if they join a activity. That just doesn’t fit their life situation. It doesn’t mean that young people don’t like to be committed with certain work, but the time frame for the commitment should be clear for the beginning. For example the young people who joined the Rwanada exchange programme last summer committed themselves to join certain activities afterwards, for example telling people about their experience at certain occasions. But this commitment was clear and if some of them don’t want to be involved in interfaith work anymore, they have an easy exist from this. Hopefully they will continue promoting interfaith, but it’s only fair if they are free to choose and don’t feel any pressure. The Rwanda exchange is a good example for successful interfaith engagement of young people, not only because of the clear time frame, but also because it was an “unusual” event. The participants could make experiences they couldn’t easily have had in another way and that makes the project very attractive. So interfaith projects must give young people attractive opportunities – and probably meeting retired persons to talk about the constitution of a group or about religious themes might not be the most attractive thing.

Attractive activities involve spending time with people from about the same age group, but maybe a different religious or national or cultural background. The activities should be fun! The activities should be interesting, that means the questions, which are important for the participants should be discussed/present. The activities should be somehow “special”, not like everyday life. The young people must have the feeling, that the activity is really for and about them.

How can (young) people be reached?

It is important to reach potentially interested people where they are, to make them excited for interfaith. From my point of view the solution should not be to set up a lot new groups for young people but rather providing a platform where young people, who already belong to a certain faith tradition meet young people from another faith tradition. This could be at specially organised interfaith trips or just two youth groups visiting each other for an evening or a special activity where two or more youth groups come together for.

The point for bringing together people, who are already involved in their faith community is important for elder people too. And for this it is important that the bringing-people-together project give the participants an additional benefit, so the project must be “more” than what is already happening in the different faith communities.

Conclusion

Young people can become interested in interfaith and the best way seems to be special projects like journeys, where they can meet other young people. It is rather important to provide a platform for the young people, than setting up special youth interfaith groups.

 

Of course all this thoughts are my personal and are not representative for Interfaith Scotland or the UK Interfaith Network. If someone has other opinions I would be very interested to hear them, especially if they are from “young people” themselves, so it’s not only talking about them, but also to them!