Monday, February 08, 2016

Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on religiously-justified violence during his Belfast lecture

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was back in Belfast tonight to deliver the Church of Ireland’s annual theological lecture at Queen’s University, reflecting on the nature of religiously-justified violence and particularly on the nature of the conflict by (or so-called ISIS). He suggested that the elimination of this type of conflict would require building a new “narrative of beauty” based on love, hospitality and human flourishing.

Earlier he had met First Minister Arlene Foster (an Anglican and member of the Church of Ireland) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (definitely not an Anglican). Before the lecture, he’d also spent time meeting students in The Hub, the Church of Ireland and Methodist Chaplaincy on Elmwood Avenue.

You can read the full transcript of the speech on the Archbishop’s website.

In an hour-long address, the Archbishop spoke about just war and the need for underlying objectives to support future military operations. He emphasised the need to be focussed on building peace and stable communities to which people can quickly return.

In Parliament at the beginning of December, the House of Commons voted to extend military operations in the Levant and Mesopotamia into Syria, in addition to the air campaign that was already going on in Iraq. And I spoke in the House of Lords at the same time on that debate and supported the extension.
But I’ve since been reflecting on that and thinking hard about it with my colleagues, and what I want to say this evening is a continuation in that debate that’s going on within myself and within the Church about the legitimacy of armed action and intervention. What I would say is that where an action is developed as a quasi-policing intervention against a group that is committing great crimes under international law, and where the objective is peace building and the resumption of stable communities to which refugees and IDPs can return, then, within the Christian tradition, I would suggest that it is justifiable.

He noted that religion is often used as the hook to describe a [much more complicated] conflict and after a while the pretext of being about religion becomes the reality.

Religion is most often not the principal cause of a conflict. But if you say to a group of young men, “You are ethnically disadvantaged by 19th-century struggles, further set back and marginalised through the colonial period, economically and educationally discriminated against because of the education system, economically part of a globalising, commercial process…” –  you’ve lost them, as much as I’ve lost you, halfway through that sentence. If you say, “You’re this faith and therefore you’re good and they’re that faith and therefore they’re bad," it’s pretty straightforward. And if you use the hook of religion for long enough, as a pretext, sooner or later it begins to become the reality. This is what we’re seeing.

Several times he touched on social media. In an age of 140 character statements it wasn’t possibly to adequately and completely react to an atrocity: condemning violence is not good enough, you must have something positive to contribute.

We need, therefore, to name and develop truth, as part of the theological narrative of reconciliation, not merely to condemn violence. I’m often asked, if there’s some terrible event, to say something in 140 characters on Twitter or a couple of sentences on Facebook that adequately and completely describes a bomb explosion that has killed 200 people. It’s absurd. How do we name truth? Condemning violence by itself is not good enough; there must be something positive that we can say. 

Truth is seen in practise, it’s seen at community level. In England we have something called the Near Neighbours programme – funded largely by government, led largely by the Church of England – in which different faith communities are brought together to encounter and work together for the benefit of their local community. You will be doing very similar things in different contexts here.
In those actions we create community. We integrate people when the demonic nature of Daesh and other groups is seen in the disintegration they seek. As was said recently: “Friendship is a counter-terrorism strategy.” We need to be honest and name truly history and global relationships – naming things well, identifying past failures. In the work that I’ve done overseas, travelling in many parts of the world with Muslim majorities, it’s often pointed out to me that only one Muslim country was not colonised by the Western powers in the 19th century: Saudi Arabia. By 1920, the world’s principal ruler of Muslims was King George V.

Daesh have used social media as a tool to build long term relationships (with a billion dollar budget). He compared this with issuing government press releases and pondered the opportunities for the well off to fund better online communications to counter Daesh.

Calling for a better understanding of theological hospitality, he suggested that when the refugee crisis was viewed through social media it tended to create presence without relationship, a situation where we see all and know no one. Solidarity requires more.

In addition to these questions of identity, we must reassert solidarity theologically, which has been vastly expanded in its potential scope by the development of information networks, and deeply undermined through our response to the refugee crisis in the short term, and through social media in the long term.

The refugee crisis and social media bring presence without relationships. We see all and know no-one. Through the smartphone in my hand I can go anywhere in the world. I can see stories that I would never have dreamed of and that my grandfather, or my father, would never have imagined he could every find out about - and if he did, they would have been sterilised through weeks for the news to travel and through it being in print without photographs. But now it’s here, in my hand, and yet I don’t know the person, I have no relationships, and it is rare that I weep. And so when we have all of this coming at us out of a screen, or through the news, of refugees, as we see across Europe today, threatened we retreat, rather than finding the sign of the Spirit of God at work, as with Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.

Solidarity is lived out in the essential human dignity of every individual in creation and in salvation, and its demands increase in inverse proportion to the weakness of the person with whom we show solidarity.

He spoke about the loss of theological nuance, modern fundamentalism and dualism (quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and the wisdom of looking to history to recognise the impact of artificial boundaries, the consequences of previous wars. There is a need to recognise our “collusion” and lack of intellectual challenge [that has contributed to developing conflicts].

Justice is the twin sister of peace – there is a role for religious communities in helping society to be just by naming injustices in foreign policy now and in history, especially, in the Middle East, Palestine, with Christian fundamentalist perceptions of Israel (which must not collude with a monopoly over grievances). We must demonstrate how to use proper, democratic methods of expressing disagreement. We must affirm, as Christians, actions which are just and wise. Often we only criticise.

A fresh and ideological approach to international relations will empower a younger generation with visions and dreams of new identity. We can acknowledge our unintentional collusion and lack of internal challenge, we can be honest about such issues as financing.

On refugees he spoke of the need for generosity along with the incentive and aim of enabling return, and suggested it was a priority to revive local economies with micro finance and macro economic rebuilding (which the UK government is supporting) and to remove the need to hazard crossing the Mediterranean. He reiterated his earlier message that “any extension of bombing needs to be part of establishing safe havens to avoid refugees fleeing the whole region”.

The supply of refugees should further be restricted by a focused and deliberate effort to renew and revive local economies, especially in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. All ground taken should be part of that effort which must involve micro-finance as well as large scale macro-economic rebuilding. The UK Government is already doing this on a vast scale and putting large sums in. The God-given gift of work and an economy brings social dignity in a powerful way and eliminates the need to hazard the Mediterranean.

The hospitality that we offer to refugees should be more generous, but always with a clear strategy, incentive and aim of enabling return. To empty the Middle East of Christians removes diversity and sows trouble for the future.

The Church has responsibilities:
“We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, seeking human flourishing, in leading hope, through religions communities who stabilise and serve.”

An interesting observation challenged western commerce systems that are impossible to engage with without using interest (usury).

We see, economically, a global trade system that was set up so it is impossible to engage in it without using interest, or usury. Since World War Two, American culture and products are pervasive and dominant. People like them. Postmodernity has become the global philosophy, with its abandonment of the concepts of absolute truth.

To be rescued by the ‘good Samaritan’ would have been a scandal and a disgrace. The Archbishop suggested if the UK was to show unconditional love it would involve: praying for each other; for commitments of love across faith; and for common action and shared grief.

And it is easy to call for Government action. The Church has its own responsibilities. We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, in seeking human flourishing, in gracious and courageous action that demonstrates the beauty and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through religious communities that stabilise and serve. In this struggle, our lives must respond to the Spirit’s call and equipping.

Amongst the rich arguments and challenges, a number of soundbites jumped out a number of lines jumped out as soundbites.
“When you see a mosque, a religious community, do you see it through a counter-terrorism lens or as a potential partner for schooling?”

Speaking about radicalisation:
“Young people need role models not manifestos.”

Though the quote of the night had to be his quip that ...
“… one needs to remember that the symbol of a bishop is a crook ... and the symbol of an archbishop is a double cross!"
Having steered clear of commenting on Northern Ireland issues, he was drawn into the debate - though gave tactful answers - during a Q&A session.

Credit: main photo - QUB Church of Ireland & Methodist Chaplaincy

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