my address to the Vesak Conference at UNESCO, Paris, 28 May 2015 as part of the Toowoomba 'Model City of Peace and Harmony' presentation
Let me begin with some words from a great poet and priest in my Anglican tradition:
No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This wisdom is still powerful today, even though John Donne himself lived through the violent crises of his own age 400 years ago. For they are words for us all. Whilst they embody Christian understanding about human-divine solidarity, they are also reflected in other wisdom traditions, not least Buddhism. For no one can be an island today: no person, no religion, no country. What happens, for example, here in Paris, affects the rest of the world. In response to their own trials, many French people have said Je suis Charlie Hebdo. At it its best, that is another way of saying what John Donne said long ago. For whatever bell tolls - in Sri Lanka, USA, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Congo, Toowoomba, or wherever – it tolls for us all...
This last year has certainly been a telling one for Toowoomba, as we have been painfully reminded of how much we are all bound together. For, like the British among whom I was born and grew up, we Australians live on an island, and, like the British, we can sometimes forget we are bound to the rest of the world. In our case, we live on a very, very, big island and it is a long way from others. Yet we are made up of peoples from every part of the Earth. So each day reminds us that every bell that tolls, tolls for us too. Let me give three brief instances of what I mean…
Firstly, as Father Franco has said, Toowoomba shared directly in the grief of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last September. Two leading and deeply loved Toowoomba doctors were on that plane and several others who died from other nationalities were also mourned by relatives and friends in Toowoomba. For, nationality, like religious persuasion, is no protection from our international waves of evil. We are not islands. Together we must form a new continent of compassion, a new world and web of wisdom. In Toowoomba last year we therefore came together in prayer and mourning, in thanksgiving for all that had been given and taken away, and in commitment to strengthening the bonds of international compassion. In a similar way, we are seeking to respond to other international crises, most recently in fundraising to assist those devastated by the Nepal earthquake. We have renewed our pledge to play our part and to ask others to join us.
Secondly, Toowoomba faced the shock of international terror at home. Last December’s murderous siege in the major Australian city of Sydney was, statistically, a small event among the catalogue of our worldwide horrors. Yet, as Donne said, every death diminishes us: every wounding word of inhuman ideology, every killing bullet, every brutality. The Sydney perpetrator was sadly a man with long-running mental health problems as well as a criminal bent. He was not representative of Australian Muslims. Yet his abuse of Islam also connected with the abuses of religion by others in our world. So, for Australia as a whole, the Sydney siege was a wake-up call. We cannot be an island. As a worldwide community, we sink, or thrive, as one. In Toowoomba this has certainly been true as we have rallied together after the Sydney siege. Three major community events were held: in our main Anglican Church; in the mosque; and in the Pure Land Buddhist monastery. Others have followed. We have used tragedy to strengthen our common bonds, and, in doing so, have given a powerful witness to others to do likewise. Indeed, a delightful, and delicious, sign of Muslim integration in Toowoomba is in our main street. Whereas the horror of the Sydney siege was inflicted by a deranged Muslim in a chocolate café, in Toowoomba our main chocolate café is run by Muslims, offering sweet and beautiful hospitality to all. So, let us feed one another.
Thirdly, and even more challengingly, in Toowoomba, as in other places, we are exploring ways to help those who are easily infected by the kinds of fear and suspicion which flow so freely across our world today. For when Islamic State or other extremists use social media to convey hateful messages so slickly and instantly, we are in a new era. We need to respond more attentively and courageously to the deeper realities of love and solidarity among us. In Toowoomba we are still fortunate that the incessant call to divide and destroy our common humanity is little heeded. Yet in this last year, our new mosque has suffered two attempted arson attacks from one or more crazed individuals. As anywhere in our world, some people are still vulnerable to the waves of fear which rise and fall across the world. Such waves can seem powerful, yet we know they are do not have to be. For if each wave is met imaginatively and purposefully, in love, then the sea of our troubles can be transformed. What does not kill you, they say, makes you stronger. That definitely happened this year for us. We have certainly learned, in the words of one of our major community events this year, that we must ‘Walk As One’: bringing together people of all kinds into every public space, looking to a more positive future, grounded in ancient wisdom and contemporary imagination. A powerful symbol of this is the Toowoomba City Labyrinth which we have been creating in the centre of our city. Like other creative soul works we are developing in Toowoomba, and of which Kim has spoken, the labyrinth represents a tangible reminder of our common humanity. A symbol found in many cultures, it invites us to walk together. For we may come from different places but we are all one in this shared journey.
An increasingly important task is broadening our network’s base to meet new challenges and to engage more people. This involves developing our Goodwill Committee into a body which more fully brings together the key sectors of our city. We have been given wonderful foundations in our faith representatives. Without our faith communities we would have neither the underlying vision nor the strength to be sustainable. Yet, especially in what is a politically secular city, we are now beginning to work on closer partnerships with other key elements of our community. This will also help to release some of our faith representatives to develop the inner depth and spiritual foundations of our work. The extension of inter-religious relationships in Toowoomba has been heart-warming this year, both through the development of new media initiatives and in addressing the worldwide challenges we face together. We now seek to develop fresh inter-religious partnerships with existing and new friends internationally.
The journey to peace and harmony is a bumpy one, whoever and wherever we are. The temptation is always to cut corners and to seek peace and harmony by false ideas of unity which do not fully include. It is so much easier to stay with those who are like us, whether these are people of our particular race, religion, class, economic status, gender, or sexuality. Yet unless we realise that we are all connected, and that no one is an island, we cannot find lasting peace and harmony. As we affirmed together in our celebration of International Peace Day last September ‘Everyone has a right to peace’. Unless we ensure this wherever we are, and across the world together, we will not flourish. To be here at UNESCO this year is therefore particularly helpful as we seek to strengthen all our bonds of compassion and cooperation. Indeed, we hope this may lead to new international partnerships, not least through the UNESCO Creative Cities initiative. May what we have to share therefore empower us all and ring out the bells of hope and joy. Let us therefore walk on more closely together. Thankyou.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.