Faith needs a freedom agenda

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
1 Mar 2009

The discourse on ‘faiths and freedoms’ in post/modern Britain is growing, fluid, exciting, dangerous, sometimes not very well informed, and always unfinished. Like life.

In terms of current media and political debates, ‘faith issues’ tend too readily to be dominated by characterisations of (and responses to) Islam arising from the government’s agendas around security and cohesion. And often not in useful ways.

It is good that community secretary Hazel Blears now says she wants to engage with a broader range of Muslim voices. But to characterise those she has not been talking to in terms of ‘extremism’ may not be the best starting point!

People in power frequently create dialogue in their own image, often without realising it. A larger shift is required. The embodiment and use of state power will have to change, just as those who have been prey to rejectionism, anger and worse are being invited to see and respond differently.

More broadly, talk about ‘religion’ or ‘belief’ in the abstract is usually unenlightening and unhelpful. We need to get specific and hear people’s experiences and perspectives from particular contexts, life-stances and traditions. Christians campaigning alongside asylum seekers for rights and dignity. Muslims confronting discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice, but also seeking to find a place of recognition and security. Hard-pressed Jewish social workers. Busy Hindu accountants. Thoughtful humanist teachers. Active Sikh entrepreneurs. Real people living real lives, on the basis of which their impressions, beliefs and hopes are formed.

The issues people of faith raise – by their existence, as much as by anything they say – are the fundamentally important ones of identity, belonging, difference, citizenship, and the very meaning of human freedom and possibility.

These questions cannot simply be assumed to have been settled by a type of secular discourse that discounts religions as having nothing to contribute. But at the same time, members of religious organisations cannot start by assuming that their convictions may simply be imposed on others. Both religiosity and secularity have to be remade together. Complexity and difficulty have to be embraced through relationship.

What we need, therefore, is dialogue, community engagement and mutual persuasion within a framework which seeks space for all (believers and non-believers, those of all faiths and good faith). Privilege for a few will not work. Nor will exclusion. Both are wrong because they distort our relationships. They also distort our convictions and the reading of our foundational texts, both sacred and secular.

Negotiating what all this means in particular situations and in relation to specific policies is not easy. But where real commonality can emerge is in the recognition that overbearing state or corporate power is not what makes for a healthy society or a meaningful exchange among people. We need to challenge those trends together - which is the assumption behind a people’s Convention like this on Modern Liberty. As Helena Kennedy QC has said: “the state is here at our behest, we are not here at the behest of the state.”

Next we need to employ that possibility of togetherness-in-freedom as the spirit with which to address disagreements – many of them quite deep. On schooling, on equalities, on the law, on the economy and on a number of other issues.

Where, then, are we starting in terms of faith? The reality is that we now live in a mixed belief society, rather than one where the civic Christianity embodied in an Established Church can be assumed as the norm. That may question certain policies, institutions and frameworks inherited from the past. But it need not be a threat to free faith.

Indeed, as a convinced Christian I would regard it as an opportunity to rediscover a more authentic, liberating message and practice within my own community of conviction; a hopeful dynamic that has often been obscured or defaced by the collusion of ‘official religion’ with top-down governing authority.

This UK shift from a core religious settlement to one of diversity is what some of us call post-Christendom. Something is passing away, but what will emerge in its place is still uncertain and open for negotiation. No wonder there are anxieties around!

For people of faith from all backgrounds there is a choice to be made in the face of a changing, plural society. Will we turn in upon ourselves, resort to aggressive populism, and cry ‘persecution’ when others expect of us what we expect of others? Will we shy away from sharing free public space with others and demand exemptions and special measures?

Or can we develop global understandings of citizenship and shared responsibility, rooted in a confidence about our own specific traditions of reasoning and belief? Can we nurture a self-identity which is self-critical, which opens doors and builds bridges? Can we have the courage to expose abuses of power in our own communities, not just in others and in the state?

(This is a legitimate question for secular, humanist and atheist people as well as religious persons of various stripes, incidentally. The critique of religion, external and internal, is vital. But when it becomes obviously self-righteous it moves from useful analysis to aggressive rhetoric.)

This ‘people’s convention’ on active, responsible liberty suggests that (to develop Barack Obama’s famous catchphrase) together we can make change. With all its glories and frailties, a gathering like this embodies a new kind of people-driven, boundary-crossing polity: one that can emerge even as traditional political institutions waver under growing global pressures, and as they are tempted to resort to authoritarian measures and fearful rhetoric.

Likewise, Ekklesia experiences ‘the emerging church’ (the diverse one that is breaking cover as institutional religion declines) as more than capable of facing the demands of an open society, of realising the best of what it has inherited, and of resisting the danger it is tempted to – a kind of neo-Constantinianism.

There is a helpful Christian theological account of all this. It says that unquenchable life meets us in and through the flesh, not in abstract principles. In observing, respecting and listening to each others’ humanity we will find ourselves closer to the voice of the God who is the true mystery of the world than we ever will by retreating into enclaves and throwing rocks at each other.

In this sense, genuine liberty comes through recognising our interconnectedness, through mutual service. It is also essentially non-violent.

Let me put it another way. Genuine faith – in God, in the good, in people and in the giftedness and needs of our planet – grows through freedom, depends upon freedom to keep it honest, and can contribute to the shared openness and strived-for equality that is an essential part of our free flourishing.

This is the larger message that people of religious conviction can bring to the debate on modern liberty, and to campaigns to rightfully resist political forces that would make us subject to arbitrary power. That and a recognition of the possibility that we can be redeemed from corruption through love.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This is an expanded version of his introduction to the session on ‘Faiths and Freedoms’ at the Convention on Modern Liberty (http://www.modernliberty.net/) at the Institute of Education, London, on Saturday 28 February 2009.

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