This article appeared some time ago in Christian Century. It offers a suggestion as to how Christians and Muslims and Jews can get together in positive ways to reflect on each other’s sacred texts and the lives that are shaped by them. Such projects are sorely needed in the current political climate in the West.
by Jeffrey W. Bailey
Jeffrey W Bailey is a Ph.D. candidate in political theology at the University of Cambridge. This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 5, 2006 pp. 36-42. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
On a blustery Wednesday evening in central London, about a dozen people from different parts of the city made their way to St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. They included an attorney from a large London law firm, a political lobbyist, a corporate consultant, a Muslim college chaplain, a university professor, a female rabbi and a research scientist. After pouring cups of coffee, the group began a two-hour discussion marked by moments of intense debate as well as laughter. Conversation veered from economics to the nature of citizenship to London politics.
One might think this was a meeting of a neighborhood council or Chamber of Commerce, except for one thing: in front of each participant were selections from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an.
After finishing its discussion of a passage from the Hebrew Bible, the group began focusing on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus instructs his questioners to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
“I thought most Christians read this as justification for supporting their government’s policies,” said a Muslim participant, looking up from his text. “I was taught that in my church growing up, actually,” said one woman, a bit sheepishly.
“I wonder if Jesus isn’t saying something a bit more subversive than ‘be a good citizen,”’ suggested a Jewish participant. “Perhaps Jesus is actually making a larger point about an alternative economic system.”
This looks like a Bible study. But St. Ethelburga’s is a public space, not a church or temple, and the participants are Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Profound religious differences emerge over the course of conversation.
But the participants share one important conviction: they believe that the resolution of religiously rooted political tensions will be attained not by avoiding religion in public, but by initiating more and better religious conversations in public.
Participants in this practice, known as scriptural reasoning, are part of a movement that wants to protect religiously plural societies while simultaneously encouraging religious people to enter more deeply into public discourse. Such aims might appear paradoxical to those who were taught that the emergence in the 17th century of secular liberalism, with its privatization of faith, rescued the West from “wars of religion.” Voices on all sides of the religious and political spectrum have begun to recognize — not least because of the increased presence of Islam in Western societies — that a purely secular, liberal approach to public discourse is not sustainable in a world increasingly shaped by religions.