Speaking before this weekend's Sydney Mardi Gras, the performer Courtney Act went to the heart of today's political and cultural struggles:
People having the opportunity to … picture themselves in someone else’s experience – [It] fosters a sense of empathy. Empathy is what is missing right now in the world. We’re yelling from opposite sides of the room and nothing’s getting done.
(Guardian interview 23 February 2020)
Sadly, but probably accurately, Courtney's view is also that whilst “the world has become more respectful of diversity in general … Australia is still definitely behind the eight ball.”
How do we move beyond this?
Much has been said and written recently, much more so in Western Europe than in Australia, about the 100th anniversary of Armistice after 'the Great War'. What however about the 'ordinary' people who lived through and beyond it and what they might have to say to us today? Surely , their realities call us, above all, to work for a much better world, not simply to hold military-flavoured commemorations? A striking poster (see left), of the brilliant German artist Kathe Kollwitz, was certainly created for that purpose. This, one of Kollwitz' most famous works, was born of her own powerful and maternal pain and love for peace and justice. Indeed she created it in 1924 for the Never Again War movement which, for a brief period on the 10th anniversary of the First World War, brought together socialist, republican and pacifist organisations in Germany in vital commitment to avoid another war. This message however comes to me most directly from my own flesh and blood...
The English have traditionally been some of the least inclined to celebrate their own identity with a national day . This is due to a number of historical features, including the way in which my native land has been buried in the complications of British, imperial, and other identities. At best, and excepting the national game of football, there is also something 'un-English', distasteful and concerning about nationalistic enthusiasms and wrapping oneself in a flag. In addition, it opens up the huge question of what kinds of England and Englishness are to be valued and affirmed. On this St George's Day, I am therefore reminded of Billy Bragg's song 'Between the Wars' and a whole host of English inspirations to seek:
Not the iron fist but the helping hand
Not a land with a wall around it
but a faith in one another
Not a land of hope and glory
but the green field and the factory floor
Not skies all dark with bombers
but the peace and justice for which the best have always striven
With deep thanks and huge pride in/with all others who have come from, sung and celebrated, prayed, written, worked, embodied and partially created 'other' Englands from those which often prevail.
In the midst of handover work for our impending move, it was lovely today to have a visit from my dear friends Mr Haniff and Meiling, updating me on the UNESCO partnerships we have been working on with others in Toowoomba and bringing me a beautiful new year's greeting card from the Venerable Master Chin Kung.
The front of the card has this interesting picture. What do you see in it? An explanation is given below.... It can be misinterpreted by those who see inter-religious dialogue as seeking some kind of mish-mash of philosophies. Yet I do not feel that this is that at all. Rather it is an expression of the deep understanding of the Venerable Chin Kung that all great pathways of wisdom can connect. Indeed that they connect most deeply when we walk together in peace and harmony. May this be a blessing for us all in 2017.
It is baffling and frustrating to hear some politicians, media and other leaders talk about a lack of Muslim response to terrorist and other Islamist-linked outrages. It seems as if sometimes people simply only want to see and hear what they want to see and hear. Earlier last week the following open letter from our Islamic community to our local Toowoomba Catholic bishop was received by myself and other faith and community leaders. It speaks of the continued revulsion of almost all Muslims to acts such as the recent killing of Father Jacques Hamel and the deep shared commitment to peace and humanity...
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
What a beautiful start to 2016 at St Luke's, with a delightful New Years Day 'building bonds of humanity' community friendship tea at the Toowoomba City Labyrinth, organised by the Islamic Interfaith & Multicultural Association of Toowoomba. It was a great joy to offer and share hospitality together, as a symbol of our hope and mutual intent for the coming year. With music and dance, positive but concise speeches, food and drink and wonderful company (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and all sorts), it was another sign of our 'model city of peace and harmony' in action.
It is hard to pick a special moment in the afternoon - a gorgeous Toowoomba summer day - as there were many, including the joy of many of our other faith friends, young and old, exploring St Luke's church building itself. Perhaps my favourite however was the men's dance (the first I think on the labyrinth), recalling the words of the psalmist (Psalm 133.1): 'how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell (and dance!) together in unity'.
After the recent bombings in Paris, our Toowoomba Gooodwill Committee leadership decided to hold a gathering to bring together community leaders to strengthen our social cohesion and resilience. Held at the University of Southern Queensland this was well attended, facilitated by Professor Michael Cuthill and expert in research on social cohesion. Speakers also included the Mayor of Toowoomba Cllr Paul Antonio, Inspector Mike Curtin from Queensland Police Service, Venerable Wu Ping from Pure Land Learning College, Professor Ken Udas from USQ, and university student Sophie Ryan. Bishop Cameron Venables also led an engaging question and answer session with the panel of speakers and contributions from the floor - not least a several positive contributions from members of the Toowoomba Muslim community. Key themes included positivity, whole community engagement, valuing diversity, partnership building, leadership into action, open and truthful education, and acknowledgement of the need to read sacred scriptures and traditions in context and with a deep spirit of love and humanity, acknowledging potential 'texts of terror'. For my own introductory words as Goodwill chairperson click below on read more...
This morning a number of members of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee met at St. Luke's to consider ways to strengthen our city wide work of peace and harmony in the face of violent events overseas. Several of us in Toowoomba have been to Paris in recent years to speak and work with UNESCO on peacemaking in our world. So there is a particular extra poignant sadness among us at the recent events in the French capital. Our hearts and prayers also however go out to those who have suffered similarly in Beirut and other places in recent days. All this reinforces our need to work more closely together for peace at all levels, to educate and address religious bigotry, and to extend a compassionate and informed welcome to refugees who are escaping from just the kind of horrors the media has reported.
We join with the Taize Community in France in the following prayer:
Eternal God, we want our thoughts and acts to be based on your presence which is the source of our hope.
We entrust to you the victims of the attacks in Paris and in Beirut, and in so many other places and their families and friends as they mourn.
With believers of all backgrounds we call upon your name and pray: may your peace come to our world.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.