Here, John reflects on Interfaith Dialogue and the role of Social Media.
It would be perfectly acceptable to ask the question, ‘Why, as a Christian leader, are you so interested in interfaith dialogue?’ Indeed, it’s one that I’m asked in a variety of ways, although the question is often implied in a negative way, with the suggestion that I’m somehow diluting my own faith by association. As a Christian, I firmly believe you can celebrate diversity, whilst at the same time remaining true to your own faith tradition.
So, let me turn the question round and ask you, ‘Why not?’ It takes very little observation of the world to see that there’s way too much misunderstanding, mistrust, hatred and violence between communities and faiths. It’s so easy to see those not like us as ‘other’, to stereotype them, blame them for problems we face, and ultimately hate them. Immigration is an example, the facts tend to be very different from the sensationalism of the tabloid media that fuels public opinion.
Whether you’re a person of faith or not, I’m sure we can agree that one of the noblest things in life is connecting with other people, breaking down barriers, celebrating difference and relating as unique human beings. Simply smiling at other people, acknowledging them, talking to strangers, and making them friends. We are all enriched by diversity, yet diminished by separation and fear. What applies in the ordinary, everyday world, also applies in the world of faith.
There’s so much we can learn from the people we meet in our lives day by day, it simply requires that we listen and have an open mind. The negative approach that takes up the defensive position of I’m right and you are wrong is never helpful, whilst constructive dialogue can only be for the overall good.
Since my daughter (for whom I’m pleased to write this guest post) has embraced Islam, I’ve had some interesting discussions with her, although these have been limited recently as we live in different countries. These have powerfully reminded me that the assumptions we make about Muslims are very different from the reality. This has also been my experience in conversations with Muslim friends in person and through social media, breaking through the dogma that can so easily divide. Of course there are differences, but within the context of friendship these can be accepted, explored, and shared in our common journey of faith.
In recent years the rise of social media has given us the opportunity to reach out to others in an unprecedented way. Facebook is limited in this respect as mutual friendship is a prerequisite of connecting (although occasionally ignored), whereas Twitter has no such limitation. Every user is free to follow whoever they like, unless their account is locked down. It’s a great leveller, everyone is equal on Twitter. It’s neither good nor bad, only in as much as how it’s used by individual users. For me, it’s an opportunity to share my own Christian faith, yet at the same time to listen to and be open to others. Indeed, I describe myself as a Christian with an open heart and mind.
In all my interfaith conversations, I've never felt I've had to dilute my Christian faith or apologise for it, and I would never do so. Similarly, I would not expect my Muslim friends to do so of their faith. I often send Christian love and peace to my Muslim friends, and it’s always well received - even when I remind them that Ramadan is all about the fasting NOT the feasting. Mind you, any invitations to Iftar this month would be gratefully received! Remember, love always wins!
John Ager has been a Salvation Army Officer for over 30 years and is currently stationed in Middlesbrough, UK. He is interested in Formula 1, and has recently taken up running. You can find his eclectic blog here at https://johnager.co.uk/