Bethlehem Diary 5: Uncovering false narratives in an interconnected world

Day 3 part 3: False narratives

One of the interfaces addressed at the conference is that between Christians and Muslims. The reflections have been thoughtful and mature. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to to Islam we have been challenged to face up to the false narratives that persist both within and outside the Christian community. For example, the false narrative that all Islamic States are the same. They are not. There has been persecution of Christians in Islamic States yes, in others it has moved between tolerance and intolerance, and in others Christians, along with others, have been protected.

The Al-Azhar Bill of Fundamental Freedoms, for example, upholds Freedom of Religious Belief. The world may not have noticed the significance of this document drawn up by a coalition of Sunni leaders and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood but the Egyptian press did. We are the best guarantors of one another’s freedoms in a world of diversity and difference. Thanks to Joseph Cumming* for bringing this to our attention.

The general challenge to misinformation reveals something to us about our own human story. The painful stories of our lives are such that, at times, we tell ourselves something about others in order to keep ourselves together. In the longer term this becomes a false narrative which dehumanises others and restricts their freedom. Cherishing freedom ourselves, we inflict limits on others and rather than being guarantors of one another’s human dignity we become anti-human.

Colin Chapman* presented what he called a realistic, as opposed to a pessimistic, view of relationships between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. He emphasised the need to ask the right questions, to drill down into who others are and where they are coming from. With a simplicity that concealed the complexity of the issues Chapman skilfully challenged us to think about dialogue with Muslims and about the role of Christianity in the politics of the Middle East. He challenges those of us from Western Europe and North America to look homeward and examine foreign policy there and to look to the United Nations too. Our Christian responses in the place where we are and in light of the world in which we live influence relationships in the Middle East.

What happens in the East is not separate from what happens in the West. We are all interconnected.

These two themes, addressing false narratives and the interconnectedness of the world, challenge me. How aware am I of the interconnectedness of the world or of events in other places? Foreign policy matters, how our government or the Irish government plan to engage with the world matters. It is the task of the church to challenge and expose false narratives whether they be at home or abroad and not because we want to win something but because we believe that we belong together, all of humanity, all of God’s creation. The false narrative for the church is that in doing this we will be the better for it. We may not be. That is simply the truth. We have to do what is right in a world which is often willing to sacrifice the human dignity of others in the hope of dignifying themselves. From the perspective of the church, we are dignified by the grace of God and not by anything we do for ourselves. But it remains our calling to speak to and uphold the human dignity of all others. That too is an act of grace.

Joseph Cumming is Pastor of the International Church at Yale University, He works with Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars around the world to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among the Abrahamic faith communities.
Colin Chapman has lived in the Middle East for 18 years, ministering and teaching, including teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon.

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