The Speech I Never Gave

So now we have war in the Middle-East. Have we learnt anything from during last 20 years since the beginning of the so-called ‘War on Terror’?

As the growing response to the threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists began to impinge on our community following the events we now know collectively as 9/11, I began to receive invitations to speak, mainly in churches, about understanding Islam. 

I guess some may have thought that a university chaplain ought to be able to shed some light. For my part, I thought that at least I may have been closer to understanding how we might begin a process of understanding than some preachers who had decided Islam and terrorism were synonymous, and this was a good opportunity to demonise them and whip up support for a Christianity that viewed itself as the only true religion.

My response to these invitations was usually to invite Muslim students to accompany me to speak on their own behalf and to mediate productive discussion that might promote peaceable understanding and appreciation.

I suppose word was getting around that I had been befriending those of other faiths on the campus. That is a story told in my book ‘An Improbable Feast’.

So I was not surprised that one day I received an invitation from a Christian minister to speak at a forum he was organising to explore Christian responses to Islamic terrorism. 

He had a couple of ‘big names’ to promote it – Tim Costello who was working internationally with World Vision and Jim Wallis, who had set up ‘Sojourners’ in Washington. Wallis had been described as a ‘left-wing evangelical’. He is quoted as saying that “The new evangelical consciousness is most characterized by a return to biblical Christianity and the desire to apply biblical insights to the need for new forms of sociopolitical engagement.” (Wikipedia)

Costello and Wallis were peas in the same pod. I admired them both for their pioneering activism and promoting a new progressive, social justice movement, post Martin Luther King’s civil rights. I was being asked, I think, to contribute to the new edge that was emerging – beyond racial to religious difference, they I suspect they are complementary in principle.

At the time, I did not make the connection that this minister’s daughter was one of three young adult Christian women who had approached my wife Sandy to arrange for them to meet some young adult Muslim women. They too, wanted to find out more about this ‘new’ religion. We arranged a meal in our home and, surprise, surprise, soon deep friendships began to develop and ‘interfaith dinner’ at our place became a regular fixture.

But I felt intimidated to share the stage with these activist giants – to ‘talk about what you are doing at Flinders.’ I felt the weight of their achievements. At that stage, I did not appreciate the significance of what a visionary President of the Uniting Church had confided in me: ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. This is the most important issue facing our future.’

I turned to my strategy of empowerment and began to see if there were students of ‘other faiths’ who might be given the microphone. But all declined. They had young families to look after or they had to go to work (to supplement their meagre scholarship allowances).

Later I discovered that in their cultures an answer of ‘no’ is to be avoided. How to say ‘no’ to my invitation, even though these were articulate young adults with so much to offer? And later still, discovering that not ‘making waves’ publicly was a condition of their scholarships. I was unaware of the risks I was asking them to take. Nor did I really appreciate the inevitable stress involved in interacting with a foreign audience in a formal, foreign setting and the task of winning over inevitable deeply held, hostile prejudices.

I suppose the minster, who thought he was giving me a prestigious opportunity, also did not appreciate the implications of his invitation. On the night, with my plan of students sharing their experiences in tatters, all I could offer was my admiration for the achievements of the other two guest speakers and an appeal to religious humility in our responses to the new global situation.

Today, what I might like to say might be this:

1. That our necessary, now global, paradigm demands a shift of consciousness to do with the ‘golden rule’ espoused by all the major world religions. 

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, is too easily interpreted as ‘I’ll do to you what you did to me’. It has ‘self’ at the centre.

The new Golden Rule must have ‘the other’ at its centre: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do to them’.

2. Christian theology must deeply examine the meaning and dynamics of radical hospitality in every aspect of life and encourage its practice.

Such an examination might begin with Henri Nouwen’s concept of hospitality and Volf’s theology of exclusion and embrace (radical hospitality). These are the central theologies I discovered while O was chap[lain at Flinders University and comprise the theological centre of my book, ‘An Improbable Feast’.


For example, in view of the  emerging situation in the Middle-East, this passage from Volf deserves our contemplation:

In the Palestine of Jesus’ day, “sinners” were primarily social outcasts, people who practiced despised trades, failed to keep the Law as interpreted by the religious establishment, and Gentiles and Samaritans. A pious person had to separate herself from them; their presence defiled because they were defiled. Jesus’ table fellowship with social outcasts, a fellowship that belonged to the central features of his ministry, turned this conception on its head: The real sinner is not the outcast but the one who casts the other out… sin is not so much a defilement but a certain form of purity: the exclusion of the other from one’s heart and one’s world. In the story of the prodigal son, the sinner was the elder brother – the one who withheld an embrace and expected exclusion. Sin is a refusal to embrace the other in her otherness and a desire to purge her from one’s world, by ostracism or oppression, deportation or liquidation. The exclusion of the other is an exclusion of God.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Reflections in the Wake of “Ethnic Cleansing”, in William A. Dyrness (Ed), Emerging Voices in Global Theology. (Zondervan. 1994) p30-32

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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