By
Howard Grace
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02 September, 2015

IofC's future role - searching for an inclusive narrative

Howard Grace
In Europe and indeed in the wider world there has been a lot of heart searching about the refugee crisis. This highlights the disasterous developments in places such as Syria and Iraq. But there have also been atrocities in Tunisia and Thailand and even Paris. Underlying this, concerns are also being expressed about people or groups who may not be advocating terrorism but proclaim extreme narratives which, perhaps unwittingly, lay a foundation upon which a call to terrorism can more easily flourish. Passionate religious believers or non-religious groups can have philosophies or a demeanour which contribute to this foundation. This often sparks a counter reaction in people who in essence are probably more moderate. What is the way forward?

In the film Beyond Forgiving, the black South African protagonist Letlapa Mphahlele says, 'I used to demonise those I was fighting against.' The film director, my Palestinian colleague Imad Karam, said of the Palestinians and Israelis, 'We are both trapped in our own narratives.' How true that is of many situations on the world scene, but also on the husband and wife level, or (speaking from personal experience) neighbours who fall out over a barking dog or a crying child. How do we move beyond this trap?

The Peace and Integration Forum in Newbury, of which I am one of the founders, has a core group of Muslims, evangelical Christians, Quakers, people of other religions as well as the non-religious. Earlier in the year we hosted an occasion where we explored Social Conditioning and the depth to which all of us are moulded by our experiences and culture. Every group, including those like IofC, has a culture which moulds its adherents. The PI Forum gathering was a very helpful exercise in living into each others narratives. That seems to be an important part of the way forward. A key step in Letlapa and Ginn’s journey also involved living into each other's experience.

But beyond this is the need to seek an inclusive narrative that all can buy into and build from. I have a sense that such a vision needs to recognise that we are all in the same boat with the same human nature. With Letlapa in UK schools 10 years ago we asked 'Who are my people?' To me this is the sort of question to put out there to stimulate people to move beyond our group comfort zones and to think with more open and inclusive hearts. On a recent visit to Kenya Barak Obama reflected this when he said, 'In the end, we are all a part of one tribe, the human tribe.'

There is another dimension which also needs to be considered. The former head teacher of the school in West London where Mohammed Emwazi, who beheaded hostages in Syria, attended has revealed he 'was bullied at school and did not have many friends'. What effect did these experiences have on leading him to become the man he is? The conditioning influence in his life is not just down to distorted religious beliefs. Personal life experiences play a major role.

Charlie Ryder is a friend of ours. He was put in prison for throwing bricks at the police during a demo following the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. He says that that confrontation was the point at which his frustration and anger boiled over. However, there was a deeper source of that anger. His father was an alcoholic and abused him as a child. This laid the foundation of his later behaviour. Social conditioning happens on a deep personal level as well as being the product of the atmosphere of society as a whole. An understanding by each individual of how this sort of psychological impact can affect us personally needs to be part of the inclusive human narrative we should explore.

Related to this, at one of the Sixth Form sessions I was facilitating some years ago a student raised his hand and said, 'Deep down we all long to make a difference.' This may be debatable but many students seemed to identify with that statement. There seems to be a desire, intrinsic in human nature, to make our mark in society, or maybe to become famous (in an egotistic way). As a teacher I know that even at a schools level the only way some children feel they can make their mark is by being naughty. The ego doesn’t necessarily disappear as we grow older either. In his earlier life Frank Buchman ran a hospice for orphan boys. A very noble and worthwhile venture. But a transforming experience in his life happened when he faced the false pride in his own nature that provided a flawed foundation for that initiative to be built on. An inclusive narrative for the present day needs to recognise the need of a balance between a change on a personal level and in addressing deep issues in society.

The name for Initiatives of Change used to be Moral Re-Armament. It got this name in 1938 when countries were arming militarily, before the second world war. Very appropriate for its time. But around the turn of this century many of us felt that a name change was needed, to be more in tune with the present times. One name suggested was Initiatives for Change. Some of us felt that this was the wrong emphasis. Although there was change needed in society, the root of the issue was human attitudes and motives and so we suggested Initiatives from Change: change rooted in transformation in people. A consensus emerged around it being crucial to have the link between the two. Thus Initiatives of Change was adopted as the new name.

This link is an important factor to build on. When going to 60 Sixth Forms, Nigerian Muslim friend Musa Aliyu and I asked, after showing an excerpt from The Imam and The Pastor, 'Does it take more courage to do what James and Ashafa were doing (leading armed militia to defend "their people", and being prepared to die) or what they are doing now (crossing barriers to do peace building)?' They invariably said 'What they are doing now'. When we ask, 'Why?' they said that it takes courage to break away from your own people; also, that it takes great inner strength not to react and respond out of anger to those who have committed atrocities aginst you or your loved ones.

This focuses the inner struggle with the destructive forces in our own natures, referred to in Islam as the ‘jihad al-nufs’or the Greater Jihad. This practical example helped the sixth-formers to understand the deeper aspect of the word 'jihad', and to reflect on their own character and personal challenges.

The Way Forward

What might be the role of IofC in exploring an inclusive narrative? Initiatives like the Caux Forum for Human Security, Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy, Agenda for Reconciliation and others are good models of how those of us committed to IofC can work with kindred spirits to address big challenges. The visit of Ginn and Letlapa to the UK last year was another good example of this. I felt a particular affinity with our joint hosts The Forgiveness Project, for instance. They have such precious experiences to contribute. Marina Cantacuzino’s introductory chapter in her new book The Forgiveness Project; Stories for a Vengeful Age gives profound insight to issues which IofC is concerned with.

Related to this, IofC has been at the forefront of interfaith exploration and common cause. That is a distinctive contribution. But is there within our fellowship a dominant cultural ethos that morality and spiritual growth is only valid if you have an orthodox religious belief in God? If that is part of our narrative does it sometimes divide us from many who are actually kindred spirits?

An interesting observation arose from a number of workshops I conducted on The Vital Link between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. Before the first of these I wrote to Marina Cantacuzino to ask about the 100 or more profound stories related to forgiveness featured on the Forgiveness Project website. I asked how many of the people highlighted in these were motivated by Christian or other religious beliefs in their forgiveness journey. She researched this and replied that it was about half. In another context I’ve seen, whilst facilitating hundreds of sessions in Sixth Forms, that many young people (a generation who will be vitally engaged with developing a narrative for the future) don’t relate to religious concepts, yet greatly resonate with spiritual values such as compassion and integrity.

Certainly, those who have a belief in God are often greatly helped by this in their spiritual struggles and motivation. But it is equally clear that non-religious people experience a profound inner journey that is fostered by other processes. Although there are those from each extreme who regard beliefs of the other as being either deluded or inadequate, we all need more humility. All of our perceptions are very limited and every description of the Divine is in fact a metaphor. We are all in the same boat in the search to access a dimension beyond the present ability of human beings to grasp.

This is a big subject, but one that needs to be seriously addressed. Our quest should include all groups and kindred spirits, ‘believers’ or otherwise, who long for a transformation in society based on compassion and personal integrity.

There is a story that when St Paul’s Cathedral was being built somebody was walking around asking workmen what they were doing. A carpenter said he was sawing wood. A bricklayer said he was laying bricks. When asked what he was doing a sweeper replied, 'I’m helping Christopher Wren to build his cathedral.' More than anything else I think the inclusive narrative needs to give many like-hearted people and groups the sense that they are moving together in common cause, each with a distinctive insight to bring to the table in building our global cathedral.

Howard Grace is one of the founders of the West Berkshire Peace and Integration Forum. Howard works with IofC and has conducted workshops in hundreds of Sixth Forms around the UK. He is also executive producer of the film Beyond Forgiving.

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