Partial transcript: Faiths and Freedoms

Below is a selection of talks from the Faiths and Freedoms session.

Simon Barrow: When you look at issues of faith and freedom, the agenda that most rapidly hits the headlines is constructed around the Government’s concern with two items in particular – cohesion and security. Very quickly you find yourself in a conversation about Muslim communities who are spoken of often in very overarching way. The Government for example has now very graciously stated that it will talk to extremists, and immediately a whole community is branded as extremist! Governments indeed, always tend to talk to people that they have constructed in their own image in some way, and that is not healthy.  

Talk about religion or belief in the abstract is quite popular but usually unenlightening or worse. What we need to do is to engage with real people, real situations, and real traditions of belief and reasoning. That goes for religious and non-religious traditions as well. But the issues that people of faith raise by their very existence as much as by anything they say, are ones about identity, belonging, difference, citizenship and the meaning of human freedom and possibility. The ideas and convictions and living practise that they bring with them cannot simply be assumed to have been settled by one kind of secular discourse that simply discounts religion as a problem. To be sure, secular discourse is not all like that, but some of the voices that you hear most loudly can be like that. On the other hand religious persons cannot start by assuming that their convictions may simply be imposed on other people. That’s vital. 

What we all need is dialogue and persuasion within a framework that seeks space for all, believers and non-believers, Christians and Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and people from a whole range of backgrounds. Privilege for a few will not work, and neither will exclusion. That is the basis of what could be a different kind of conversation about faiths and freedoms. Negotiating what that means in practise isn’t easy, but where a real commonality can emerge, is in the recognition that overbearing state or corporate power is not what makes for a healthy society or for a meaningful exchange amongst people. We need to challenge those trends together which is what the assumption behind a people’s convention, a civil convention like this is all about.  

Then we need to use that possibility of togetherness as the spirit with which to address disagreements, and there are disagreements. We now live in a mixed belief society rather than one that is dominated by institutional Christianity and I say that as a Christian, a member as it happens of the Church of England. That may question assumptions and patterns of ways of doing things that have existed in the past. But my conviction as a Christian is that that isn’t a negative thing. There is a lot of talk at the moment among some Christian circles about persecution and marginalisation. There are victim discourses growing in other belief communities, you’ll find, and indeed in no-religious communities. We need to recognise that there are hurts and wounds that need to be addressed, but that they can’t be addressed by just assuming that the benign dominating Christian context is one that will continue, and indeed its replacement opens up new possibilities, not least radical possibilities for Christians. 

So for people of faith from all backgrounds there is in a sense a choice to be made. Will we turn in upon ourselves, resort perhaps to aggressive forms of populism and shy away from sharing public space with others? Or can we develop global understandings of citizenship and shared responsibility which are rooted not just in some abstract discourse – secular or otherwise – but also in the specifics of our own traditions of reasoning and belief, in ways that open doors and expose abuses of power both within our own communities and elsewhere. It’s of course much easier to address abuses elsewhere, but not within your own midst.

Vaughan Jones: If you come to the civil liberties agenda from a faith perspective you have got an awful lot of baggage hidden there which you might not want to own. But there is an authoritarian tradition somewhere in the background that must be acknowledged. This country has a bizarre set of settlements around church and state and the relationship between them is defined by old battles. I come from the Christian tradition which won the English civil war but then lost the peace! I am quite proud of the contribution of Christian tradition to liberal democracy, to the rights of the individual, the rights of freedom of worship and association and so on. My starting point is that democracy in both church and state is a crucial and fundamental cornerstone value in my beliefs. Freedom of worship, freedom of association have to be somehow enshrined within basic statutes, balanced by an obligation to obey the law, and the right and the responsibility to oppose unjust laws. 

But I don’t think, having said that, that faith communities have any requirement for special privilege and they should not claim special privilege. The fundamental rights that a faith community needs to be a faith community and to be itself are actually no different from the rights that all citizens need.  So, any constitutional reform, it seems to me, must take away the establishment of any one particular faith group. I think that would do an enormous amount of good for the relationships between people of faith, relationships within the Christian church and fundamentally change the nature of the British state for the better. Most people put disestablishment on the shelf as not very important, but it is fundamental. 

I arrive at this position as someone who has worked within the area of social justice for a long time, around the areas of migration, poverty and anti-racism. Over the last years the area of migration particularly has been the front line of the erosion of human rights in this country. Major infringements such as detention without trial have been brought to public attention for the first time through other issues, but they have been longstanding features of the treatment of immigrants. Most mainstream religious traditions have these two parallel themes within them. The one is care for the stranger in your midst; hospitality and openness and seeing the person who is different from yourself as being a person nevertheless who is worthy of respect. The other is the requirement to care for our brothers and sisters of faith, for the community – the umma or the church or however that is defined. I was shown around Colnbrook Detention Centre and Harmondsworth at Heathrow – both maximum security prisons designed to keep these terrible people off our shores and to throw them out of the country. We went into a maximum security cell where there was a young African man, probably 19 or 20 years old. He was sitting in his cell, reading his bible. From the perspective of faith – which tradition then do I have to apply? Is this the stranger in our midst who requires decent treatment, or is this my brother of faith who should expect my solidarity.  

The how and the why of our moral and religious duty to defend the rights of others has reached an interesting stage. One of the shameful episodes, the bits of baggage, I am reminded of in church history was when the Spanish conquistadores went to Latin America and this huge debate took place within Catholic church circles: did the indigenous people of the Americas have a soul? And once you had agreed that they had a soul, you had a different set of relationships and a different set of moral obligations. Admittedly, evangelisation was a part of that. But we are almost back in the same debate. Does the migrant workers who has slipped into the country through unofficial channels have a human right? And if they don’t have a human right, which is what it seems to me our country is saying, so that you can put a child in a detention centre for more than 42 days, and you can round people up in their workplaces with police raids, and you can enter into someone’s front room at 4am in the morning and hold children down while you pull their parents away -  we are surely in the same debate. If they haven’t got a human right, then they won’t be treated as human beings. And it is equally wrong. 

All faith communities have something to hold onto here. Any community that at any point in its history has experienced persecution or genocide – and all faith communities have in some way or another – has an institutional memory that ought to alert you to the dangers of pursuing this kind of path. It may not be that we have got to that terrible place of being a police state. It may not be. But there are sufficient signs of that process going on to alert people whose community memory is one of persecution, and all of us have that somewhere in our history. 

Last week-end in our project we had an event of Christian groups – mostly Christian groups although it isn’t only them who are doing this – who are offering accommodation in their own homes and so on to failed asylum seekers, because people with no recourse to public funds for whatever reason, not only failed asylum seekers but other undocumented workers also, are very vulnerable. We were bringing those groups together to look at how we could develop strategies. One of the Christian groups said we had to think very carefully was this legal or not. Having decided that it probably was legal, they had decided to go ahead. But, they said, if they had found out that it wasn’t legal, they would still have had to go ahead with it. That obligation is at a sort of cutting point. At this point in time, we are still on the right side of the law. But if we are effective in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable migrants in this country, then I suspect that it will very quickly become against the law.  

Asylum seekers are not given cash, but supermarket vouchers. We buy them from them and sell them off to good people. I’ll sell you one later. If that became illegal we would still have to do that and if it was being truly effective, then you can be sure that the government would make it illegal. The water is boiling in the pot, slowly but surely, and it seems to me that unlike the frog, you have to keep an eye on it.    

There is another issue that is really important for communities of faith in the area of freedom of movement and freedom of association. Faith communities are by definition international communities. Our solidarity, our relationship, crosses national boundaries and the idea of the nation state has always been a problem for a faith community whose loyalties cross national boundaries. This is why all sorts of strange settlements take place. But it seems to me that it is increasingly impossible for faith communities to function as international organisations because of the restrictions of freedom movement. Our churches’ national assembly invited several people to come and speak on climate change, development and so on from sister churches in other parts of the world. They were not given visas. They were told that their sponsor didn’t have sufficient assets: we own a thousand church buildings across the country and I think have 15 million pounds in our reserves, but apparently that wasn’t sufficient. We have disbanded our missionary societies. We don’t have that legacy of colonialism any more. But we do have church exchanges of personnel. The head of that organisation had to go personally to Jamaica to be interrogated in order for a Jamaican minister to come here. That is bad enou8gh for Christians, but Muslims must be finding the situation a hundred times worse. The UK Borders Agency – this dreadful dreadful organisation – is imposing its restrictions and its own paranoia on the every day life of faith communities. Make Poverty History, the environmental movement, all of these initiatives have grown from faith communities because we have that direct, immediate contact with people who are in other parts of the world.  

Some of the discussion around the public space is tiresome. Keep Sunday Special was a big Christian thing, but I am happy to experience Sunday in the same way that Jewish people experience Saturday and a Muslim, Friday. We all have to find our ways of being. If a funky opera uses Christian imagery in a way that might make me wince a little – well that is part and parcel of being in a liberal and an open society. But if my brother is deported to his death in Zimbabwe, then that is a completely different order of relationship between my community and the state. We are in that sort of relationship now: it has begun to get serious. Remember that under apartheid and in Nazi Germany, the church could hold itself up as being very strong and of course it wasn’t persecuted. It was individuals on the margins of faith who from their faith motivation then joined in the wider struggle. They were the people who suffered. That may be where we are heading at the moment.

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