In the third instalment of our series written by members of the Faith & Flourishing Neighbourhoods Network, Heather Buckingham explores what it means to build community across differences in the face of tragedy and division.
Grief, peace and hope. A great depth of darkness – so deep it could almost swallow you – followed by flickering lights of hope.
The shoppers had mostly disappeared from Birmingham’s streets by 6 o’clock on Sunday evening as strangers and friends, of different faiths and none, came together outside the cathedral of the UK’s second city to share some sadness, to remember, to light candles, and to pray, in the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as the bombings in Beirut, and ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other parts of the world.
It was not a display of bravado, but of vulnerability, of mutual trust, of common humanity and of grace. A space in which, briefly, the pain of having such atrocities committed in the name of a faith one holds dear could be spoken of. A space in which you could almost feel bridges of understanding stretching out from one heart to another: bridges that will need to be much trodden in future months.
I found myself grieving not only for Paris, and for the other places in the world where people are hurting because of terrorism and warfare, but also for the Muslims of our city who seemed underrepresented in the crowd. For me, it felt like a small act of courage and love to be there: how much more courage would it have taken for many of them? Fear of being the target of misplaced retribution – through subtle discrimination or more aggressive means – must be very great.
It was a gathering in which peace became palpable. In which one could almost begin to believe that an answer other than conflict really could be possible.
Part way through, the quietness was punctuated by a passer-by, angered perhaps by the apparent weakness of our stillness as a response to so much bloodshed: ‘What the f*** are any of you actually going to do about it?’. Later on, someone else shouted from the other side of the square: ‘You’re wasting your time’.
I don’t think we were.
Many will argue that religion is the cause of these problems, so the solutions must be secular. I’m confident this is not the case.
What made this gathering special was that it created a space where it was safe to be a person of faith, with pain. It was safe to be different: we do not all believe the same things. Some of the things we believe are so different that they cannot all be true at the same time. But there are things that we share. Such as our humanity. Our desire for our city to be safe. Our desire for a world where people live in peace and security and not in fear. Many of us shared too a belief in the power of prayer, and in the power of God to bring comfort and hope, and to bring light into darkness.
Perhaps other people at vigils around the country and around the world felt similar things to me. I hope so. The question I am left with is how spaces of safety and light like this grow? How do we continue the conversations across difference? How do we expand our ability to love across difference? Because we need it desperately, both in the UK and in the world.
In the West it has become commonplace to presume that people who have a religious faith can leave it at home on occasions where it is not welcome: perhaps in the workplace, or in the political sphere, or at school. For myself, as a Christian, and for many people of other faiths, this is simply not how life works: my faith is an integral part of who I am. If I am not welcome as a whole person, I am simply not welcome.
It takes practice and patience to learn how to ‘live’ this well in different contexts: to learn to disagree graciously; to exercise humility as well as faithfulness; to take an interest in someone when our differences mean that that involves extra effort; and to know when and how to stand up against injustice and evil where we see it. And we need so much practice at this if we are to be able to live and work together for the common good.
I am glad to be part of a city where many faith, political, educational and academic leaders recognize the importance of this, and seem keen to help make it happen. My hope is that their voices will be added to, and amplified above, the clamour of those seeking to add further hatred and violence to that which has already been perpetrated.
Heather Buckingham is a Research Fellow of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham. She also researches and writes on a freelance basis about churches and their engagement with local communities and social issues.
The Stigmatisation of Young Muslims Plays into the Hands of Terrorists by Charlotte Dando
The Rituals that Bind us, Or Blind Us? by Greg Smith