Negotiating a Most Difficult Relationship: Christianity and Islam

Shepparton Interfaith Network in collaboration with Ethnic Council of Shepparton and District have conducted several observances of United Nations International Day of Tolerance. The same observance was conducted with an interfaith meeting on 17 November 2016 at Senior Citizens Centre, Welsford St, Shepparton. Noted religious commentator Paul Collins is well known to the Australian public via his work as a broadcaster, for a time as presenter of the Religion Report on Radio National as well as being a general commentator on religious affairs for radio and television and print media. Here, Paul Collins shares some reflections on Tolerance.


Negotiating a Most Difficult Relationship: Christianity and Islam

Paul Collins
Historian and Author
2007 Lecture sponsored by the Freilich Foundation, Australian National University

“Tolerance” originally meant ‘the action of bearing pain or hardship; the power or ability to endure something’. It is the first stage of a process that leads through dialogue and understanding toward reconciliation.

Some Historical Perspectives

We need to remember the historical context in which the dialogue between Christianity and Islam is occurring:

  • Almost all of Islam’s early conquests were of regions that were originally part of the Christian late-Roman world – the Middle East, North Africa, Spain — and that for more than 1000 years Christianity and Islam were often enemies.
  • Then, as the Islamic powers weakened in the 17th and 18th centuries and Europe was in a major expansionary stage, much of the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the Muslim world became subject to colonial occupation.
  • Now, with the revival of Islam and Islamic migration to the UK, continental Western Europe and to places like Canada, the US and Australia, we are faced with a set of complex issues centring on cultural and religious reconciliation.
  • Yet we have little or no experience in confronting such a complex issue before in Western culture.

Focusing specifically on the Australian situation and looking at previous immigration to Australia from countries with a strong Mediterranean culture….

  • with its emphasis on belonging to the clan rather than individualism,
  • with its authoritarian patriarchy, strict codes of honour and shame,
  • public male, private female domains,
  • distrust of strangers….

Despite this background the history is that the…

  • Lebanese (Maronites, Melchites, Orthodox, Copts) — from late 19th century onward
  • Greeks — from 1930s onward
  • southern Italians — from early 20th century onward

from rural, peasant backgrounds had difficulty, but eventually made it through to play a real role in Australian society. And even when the first generation didn’t make it, the second did.

The key elements in assisting this process were:

  • they came to an at least recognisably Christian culture which provided them with a bridge… and
  • the Catholic and Orthodox churches provided them with a community context.

In contrast Islamic immigration from a similar Mediterranean background has found very different circumstances to those of their country of origin, with no common religious and/or church foundation to build upon and develop, and — I would have to say – up until now a lack of thoughtful leadership.

  • For example, in the mid—1970s predominantly Muslim Lebanese immigration to Australia following the civil war,
  • Contrasted to earlier [Christian] Lebanese migration

We’ve tried to fit these people within the context of a secular multiculturalism that constantly underestimates the importance of religion as a marker of identity. As a result, the Muslim migrant encounters a culture and social pattern that is very different:

  • religiously
  • socially
  • legally
  • politically/structurally
  • educationally

to the country of origin — and all of it has to be worked out within the hostile context generated by 9/11, the Bali bombings, and various European terrorist acts and, on the other hand, the so-called global war on terror, the failure to address the Palestinian question and the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war. All this sets up an antagonistic situation between the [Muslim] migrant and the receiving country.

So what does Christianity bring to the dialogue?

There are two elements within Christian teaching which, I think are major components to any dialogue:

  • the primary emphasis on forgiveness
  • the emphasis on the importance of reconciling faith and reason

One of the reasons why I am a Catholic Christian is the emphasis that Jesus places on FORGIVENESS. His words are unequivocal:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those that curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27).

Matthew spells that out in even more detail:

“But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one-mile, go with him two miles… For if you love those who love you what reward have you? … And if you salute only your brethren, what more you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:39 — 47)

These words contain an extraordinary challenge that takes us far beyond mere tolerance. Jesus is one of those rare people who stands outside his own culture teaches that the vendetta and the desire for revenge are totally inappropriate responses for those who claim to be his followers.

His words utterly transcend the lex talionis — the duty of revenge — which characterises tribal social structures and almost all ancient cultures. See Exodus 21:23 – 5:

“You shall give (take) life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Now I can already hear you saying that Christians have not lived up to Jesus’ call. I can hear the secularist knives being sharpened over:

  • the crusaders
  • the Inquisition
  • Wars of religion
  • persecution of the Jews
  • etc., etc.,

Christian failure is to some extent balanced by the fact that literally hundreds of millions of Christians for the last 2000 years have tried to live up to Jesus’ challenge of forgiveness which is there at the heart of his teaching. For him, it is the ultimate expression of love, and it must be the core of any dialogue.

One of the problems with forgiveness is…

It can seem like weakness, especially within the an extreme terrorist context where the lex talionis is seen as justified and exalted as part of jihad. So we are confronted with the question of how we respond to terrorist outrages. Do we turn the other cheek? What would that achieve?

I think that it would achieve much more than the so-called ‘War on Terror’, or the mistaken invasion of Iraq. Only a superior states-person could have shamed the terrorists by saying ‘We forgive you’. This could have been achieved by intelligent political and diplomatic work and by astute isolation of the terrorists by working to support the vast majority of sensible, civilised and peaceful Muslims.

In my view our response of launching a so-called War on Terror stands outside the Christian tradition. There are absolutely no grounds whatsoever to justify this war in terms of the theory of just war, which was developed over centuries, not to justify war, but to limit and contain it.

Finally, I want to refer to the tradition of faith and reason. Pope Benedict XVI got into enormous trouble in the Muslim world following his rather erudite reference to the scholarly Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus (1391 — 1425) in 2006. His lecture at the University of Regensburg was entitled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”. But were his comments as disastrous as many Muslims and the media maintains?

Frankly, I don’t believe they were. They signalled two realities

  • One, that dialogue is a reciprocal, a two-way street. If Muslims are given freedom in Europe, then Christians must receive reciprocal arrangements in Islamic countries e.g. if there are mosques in Rome, how about churches in Saudi Arabia?
  • Two—on a broader note — the lecture was about faith and reason – faith must be critiqued by intellect and reason and the two must be held in a creative tension for the sake of humanity and peace.

Once reason is abandoned religion degenerates into fundamentalism, and this is intimately linked with violence. Sure there are some peaceful fundamentalists – for example the Amish who recently forgave the killer of their children—but mostly fundamentalism quickly degenerates into a conviction of “Absolute Truth”!

It is the mature integration of religion, faith, spirituality, forgiveness, love and peace that is most at risk in the contemporary world where even the great spiritual traditions are reduced to fundamentalist parodies of themselves.



Source: Paul Collins, 2007 Lecture sponsored by the Freilich Foundation, Australian National University

Reproduced with permission; © Paul Collins.




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