Let’s be friends

Addressing a group of laypeople and religious leaders, the Pope avoided controversy and emphasised h

Around midday on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict XVI addressed approximately 100 laypeople and religious leaders, representing Britain's non-Christian faith communities, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

It was a colourful affair, with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals in full dress sitting alongside white-robed swamis and yellow-cloaked Zen masters who mingled happily among the darker suits of rabbis, imams and turbaned Sikhs. Among this wonderful mosaic of religious dress there was not a secularist in sight.

And, in the absence of secularists, the Pope clearly felt among friends. Introduced by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the Pope listened as the Vatican was commended for its contribution to interfaith understanding. According to the Chief Rabbi, "today is a celebration of difference". The Pope listened carefully and nodded.

A Muslim leader, Dr Khalid Assam, followed and talked about how faith binds creation together. Again, the Pope looked pleased.

So far, so good! It was his turn. He walked to the lectern, appearing tired, like an elderly shepherd, and spoke in a low voice. We all strained to listen.

His words were familiar to people of faith. He was in his comfort zone. No need to condemn secularism here.

Beginning with a discussion on the meaning of life, he depicted God in search of humanity, as much as human beings are in search of God. Our duty as men and women of faith is to live peaceably together and jointly steward God's creation, he said.

In his only mention of Vatican II, he said that the Catholic Church placed a high value on dialogue with other faiths. In turn, the Church expected reciprocity, notably freedom of worship and practice in all countries. The remark was directed at Muslim countries that deny Christians the right to worship or to build churches, and other citizens the right to convert to Christianity.

This was the only point of potential controversy, though in my conversation with Muslims present it was not mentioned.

The Pope completed his short address by calling for face-to-face dialogue, where faiths face one another, creating a shared, but inward-looking bond. He also called for side-by-side dialogue, where faiths stand together but face outwards, unified in a common task.

In these words, he echoed the writings of the Chief Rabbi, focusing not on condemning secularism, but on respect and the need for all faiths to work together.

How he envisaged this happening, he left to another day and probably, I suspect, to another pope.

Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is contributing a series of posts on interfaith issues raised by the papal visit.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.