On March 27, 2015, the Department of History, Forman Christian College, hosted the Rt. Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, lately Lord Bishop of Rochester, on a lecture entitled: ‘Dialogue: A Christian Perspective’. In his wide ranging talk Bishop Michael, who is an expert on inter-religious dialogue and led the dialogue of Christian leader with scholars at Al Azhar University in Cairo for a long time, charted how dialogue has always been a part of the Christian tradition.
Beginning from the importance of religion and spirituality, Bishop Michael noted that spirituality is present in every one of us. He said that spirituality is present in children innately, as well as people who do not even profess any organised religion. The social dimension of this spirituality, he noted, was organised religion.
Despite being a religious leader, Bishop Michael accepted that religion has caused violence in the past, that it has led to conflict and unrest, but emphasised that it must also be recognised that secularism is also a ‘vision’ of a kind and causes violence. He noted the examples of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, among others, where non-religious — secular — ideologies have led to mass destruction, sometimes more than religiously inspired violence even. This social dimension must be understood.
Delving deep into Christian theology then, Bishop Michael articulated how in the Jewish scriptures, there has been a constant dialogue between the Israelites and others. He picked the example of Melchizedek, the Priest-King who is mentioned not only in the Old Testament and the Psalms, but also in the Christian New Testament, as primarily being a non-Jewish, yet central, figure in the salvific mission. Even the Prophet Job — revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — was not Jewish, he noted. The Prophets Elijah and Elisha were both sent by God repeatedly to non-Jewish people, even though it was assumed that they were primarily for the Jewish people.
Quoting a passage from the book of Isaiah, Bishop Michael exclaimed that even here God said: ‘Blessed be Egypt, my People, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance (19:25), clearly placing the non-Jewish people in the same capacity as the people/children of God. Hence, he maintained that from the Jewish scriptures it is clear that God is for everyone and that there is a constant dialogue happening between the ‘people of God’ and others, but who also in turn are essentially ‘people of God.’
Moving on to the Christian era, Bishop Michael recounted how Jesus was always well received in the non-Jewish areas of Palestine and that his interactions with the Samaritans, the non-Jewish people usually hated by the Jews of the that time, being the most powerful. Further with the spread of Christianity to non-Jews and the critical role of the Apostle Paul in taking the Good News to the Gentiles, Christianity automatically came in conversation with non-Christians. Referring to Paul, he noted that Paul used to often use Greek terminology to explain his view point to the gentiles, with his speech at Athens being the most clear example.
Dialogue therefore, argued the former Bishop of Raiwind in Pakistan and Rochester in England, is at the very core of Christianity — just as it is present from the outset in most other religions. From the Christian perspective, he noted that dialogue was important because of the egalitarian nature of society the Christian faith professed. If, everyone is in the image of God, then no matter how depraved we are, we are all equal and connected through our common denominator — God.
He also underscored the importance of dialogue in establishing the Truth. All religions teach their followers to seek the Truth, and true dialogue can easily be a part of that journey and endeavour. He also noted that religions were now answerable not only to world opinion, but also to each other. Therefore, there is no longer any room for ‘this is my religious issue,’ forms of exclamations. All religions — but especially Christianity and Islam — relate to each other every single day in a multitude of ways, and there cannot be any artificial separation in their points of contact.
Bishop Michael also emphasised that an important aspect of dialogue is to promote human rights through the medium of religious discourse. Rights, he noted, are inherent in every religion, and therefore their protection and promotion is both in the self and mutual interest of religious groups. This could be an important common starting point for academic and practical dialogue and cooperation among religions, he said.
In the end of his erudite talk, Bishop Michael stressed something which I think — above all — makes dialogue an urgent necessity in Pakistan. The Bishop ended by noting the role of dialogue — all kinds of it — for the development of any society. And this is where the message struck home for me!
Pakistan’s real crisis is that we have never been able to fully create a ‘Pakistani’ community and identity. Since its inception, either we have tried to import an identity, be it Arab or Western, or tried to super-impose an identity on the people — the Urdu. Bengali issue was its starkest, yet not sole, example.
In our attempts at creating a singular ‘Pakistani’ identity, we have bulldozed the pre-existing ones, mutilated the developing ones and stifled the ones which could have been produced. To a large extent this reality has happened because of our steadfast refusal to ‘dialogue’ — not just between religions, but also between people of different ethnicities, classes, genders, age groups etc.
We are a society where a discussion is usually an argument — our television shows are an example of it — and where speaking ‘at’ each other is usually considered dialogue. The high levels of anxiety, tensions, and impatience in our society is in part related to this phenomenon. The sad events of Youhanabad a couple of weeks ago are a testament that such a dialogue — where one speaks, listens, understands and then acts, is really important.
The reaction of the mob — here Christian, but elsewhere Muslim also — shows clear and deep cleavages in our society which are ripping it apart. No amount of financial aid is going to stymie this, and just as the Bishop noted, while the welfare state was good development in Europe, yet the welfare state could not give you a friend, given you meaning, or hold your hand in times of distress and loneliness — for these you need other people; for this, you need dialogue.
We have largely become a country where we think that everything is the job of the government. Since the government embezzles the money we give them, (I am always amused that the non-tax payer makes most fuss about this!), nothing happens and this means that we should not do anything. This complacency, which has terminally entered the national psyche, will lead to further disorder and collapse. So we need to personally respond to these challenges and take initiatives.
Therefore, as a professor, I need to create a space for dialogue is my class, in my department and in my university — something I hope to do proactively now. This might be a small drop in a large ocean, but this is where I can easily start and go on from. It might not yield immediate results, or any tangible results ever, but it still needs to be done. Please start the dialogue in your own way now, before it is too late for us and for our country.