A Gift of the One God: Religious Diversity, Georgian Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

A Gift of the One God: Religious Diversity

Friday Khutbah delivered by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili at the MECO Mosque in Oxford, England

21 December 2012

Brothers and Sisters in God,

Today I am speaking to you as a member of a spiritual community whose founder was Abraham/Ibrahim, and the name of my Lord and friend is Jesus Christ. The Abrahamic spiritual fellowship brings together all three main monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I am humbled and honored to offer my khutbah in reverence and respect to your faith tradition, your Prophet (Peace be upon him) and all of you.

I would like to make the start by reciting a surah, which is known as ‘Umm  al-Kitab’ (the Essence of the Divine Writ), Surah Al-Fatihah:

Bismil-lahir-Rahmanir-Rahim. ‘Alhamdu lillahi Rabil-‘alamin. Arrahmanir-Rahim. Maliki Yawmid-din. ‘Iyyaka na’budu wa ‘Iyyaka nasta’in. Ihdinas –siratal-mustaqim. Siratal-ladhina’an’amta ‘alayhim ghairil-maghdubi ‘alayhim wa lad-daalling. (Amin).

(In the name of God, the Gracious, the Compassionate.  Praise to God,  Lord of the worlds. The Gracious, the Compassionate, Master of the day of judgment. You alone we worship; you alone we ask for help. Guide us to the straight way; the way of those whom you blessed; not of those who received anger, nor of the strayers)

I am not the first Christian bishop to be involved in Muslim/Christian relationship.  Kenneth Cragg who recently died in Oxford was a pioneer in the domain of bridge building efforts between Christians and Muslims.  He spent best of his life studying the Quran and Muslim theology.  Affirming both Christianity and Islam as missionary faith traditions, he wrote:

‘Mission, from whatever quarter, respects convictions and exists to commend its own. But commendation today has to coexist with that of others. The unresolved question today has to coexist with that of others. The unresolved question is what that does for our convictions. It can be resolved only in mutuality and in humility…A faith, such as Islam or Christianity, that is denied if not commended, cannot be satisfied merely to coexist. Yet only in coexistence can it pursue its commendation. ‘

Key words in this statement are mutuality and humilityHumility is about offering our gifts and our spiritual treasures to each other without faintest notion of coercion. Mutuality is about recognizing values, Holy Scriptures and spiritual practices of each other.

On the way to resolution of this question with mutuality and humility there are monumental misunderstandings on either side that should be somehow removed. This is not easy but not impossible. Determination, patience and good will should be our food if we decide to embark on this road.

Because we do not talk to each other as often as needed or do not talk to each other from equal footing, we do not understand each other and in our imagination have rather caricature views of each other.

I have a favorite  story of misunderstanding  between representatives of religious communities. In the middle ages Christians and Jews were main religious groups in Europe. The Jews were often forced to participate in theological disputations. In cases where the Jews lost a dispute, they were threatened with expulsion from the city in question. Understandably Jews were reluctant to participate in such disputes.  Once a bishop announced that there should be yet another disputation, which unlike other disputes were to hold in silence  and would be conducted only by gestures.  The dispute was to consist of three points. And if the Jew would fail to find three matching gestures, the Jewish community would be pay price for it. In the Jewish community there was only one person who volunteered to participate in the dispute with the Bishop. Everybody was shocked because the Jew was not known for being bright at all. His name was Ioshka.

The bishop started the dispute by raising one finger. Immediately Ioshka raised two fingers. The Bishop then showed his open hand. Ioshka showed his fist. Finally, the Bishop raised  a glass of red wine, Ioshka took a piece of cheese out of his bag.  At this the Bishop, totally shocked declared that Ioshka  had refuted all three points and had thereby won the disputation. The bishop praised Ioshka for being a great theologian.  After Ioshka’s departure the bishop was asked to explain the essence of theological dispute. “ First  I raised one finger to show that the Christians as well as the Jews believed in one God.’  Started Bishop. ‘ At that Ioshka raised two fingers to say that the Christians believe in Father and Son and therefore Christianity is not truly monotheistic religion. Then I showed his my open fingers  to indicate that that the Jews  had been scattered by God all over the world, like the five fingers of my palm.  But then Ioshka raised fist to indicate that God would bring them all together one day and make them one people again. Finally I showed red wine. The red is colour of sin and I hereby I called the Jews sinners whose sins God would never forgive. At that Ioshka took the white cheese indicating, as it is said in the Scriptures, that “even if your sins are of deepest purple I will make them as white as wool.”’

In the meantime there was a great celebration in Ioshka’s community who returned home as a hero and recognized theologian. Let us now listen to Ishka’s version of the disputation. ‘ Initially,’ said Ioshka, ‘ the Bishop provoked me by raising his finger as if to indicate that he would poke out my eye, so I raised two fingers to threaten him with poking out both of his eyes. Then he raised his hand as if to threaten to hit me, so I raised my fist to make it clear that I would hit him back. When he realized that I wasn’t afraid  of him  he wanted to be reconciled with me and offered me a glass of red wine. So I took out a piece of white cheese because cheese and wine go well together!

Similarly, because of various reasons we do not understand what God wants us to do and how He wants us treat each other. Consequences of our misunderstanding of God’s will and His word are often disastrous. Foolishness of our misunderstanding of the will of God has led us to the Crusades, invasions and terror. My own country of Georgia has failed understand God’s will where Orthodox Christians persecute our Muslim brothers and sisters by banning Muslims to offer Friday prayers in Orthodox villages, where Muslims and Orthodox Christians have lived side by side for some years (Villages of Cinckaro and Nigvziani).

Because of the lamentable lack of understanding we as, Muslims and Christians, often hurt each other’s religious feelings.   For instance Christians in my part of the World often call Muslims Mohammedans without ever realizing that terms like Mohammedanism and Mohammedan are completely unacceptable. To Muslims their faith means living in accordance with the will and pleasure of God and thus God, and not the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the center of Muslim religious life and spirituality. Christians never recognize that for Muslims Prophet Abraham/ Ibrahim is regarded as the “First Muslim” (Al-Hajj 22:78) not Muhammad (Peace be upon him).  For Muslims the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is a ‘universal messenger’ (An-Nissa 4:70).

Religious feelings of Christians are also hurt when their believe in Oneness of God is questioned by Muslims.  Trinitarian language of Christian theology should not be interpreted  as our allegiance to three Gods. Muslims should not think that we believe in more than one God. In the words of Prof. Paul S. Fiddes, trinitarian theology is an attempt to understand ‘relationships of love in God and world, since “God is love.” We can know these relations, not by observing them or examining them, but only by participating  in them as God calls us to share his life.’

We should first recognize that the religious diversity is the will of the creator.  And more than that religious diversity is a precious gift. Otherwise we should consider Judaism, Christianity and Islam as mere accidents of human history.

There is divine will and purpose in this diversity.  All these religious communities exist for a purpose. Rabbi Akiba has famously maintained declared ‘every community which is established for the sake of heaven will in the end endure; but one which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure in the end.’

We may not completely understand why is the gift of religious diversity is so valuable or how this gift is to be used in our lives and relations but humility and mutuality inspired by each others love should enable us to see and understand its significance.

The Quran itself offers most beautiful affirmation of religious and cultural diversity:

‘Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth in their entirety would have acknowledged. Would you force the people to make them acknowledge?’ (Yunus 10:99).

This means that had the Lord wanted everybody to be Muslim, then everybody would be Muslim. The Quran goes even further affirming various religious communities of the time of Prophet (peace be upon him):

‘Those who believe [in the Quran] and those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians, and who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.’ (Al-Baqarah 2:62)

Or another fascinating statement:

‘Say: “We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaak, Jacob, and the Tribes, and [in the books] given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to God do we bow our will [in Islam].’  (Al-‘Imran 3:84)

The Quran also affirms wider cultural diversity:

‘O men! Behold We have created you all out of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold God is all-knowing, all aware.’ (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Inspired by these Quranic verses a contemporary Muslim scholar, Riffat Hassan, a native of Pakistan but educated in England, enthusiastically wrote about the diversity:

‘Diversity of belief follows not only from freedom of will but also from the fact that God has created great diversity among the peoples of the world, that one of the basic purposes of diversity is to encourage dialogue among different people, that a person’s ultimate worth is determined not by what group he or she belongs to but how God-conscious he or she is.’ (‘Muslim’s “Dialogue”,’ 1991).

In other words, what matters in any expression of religion is God! Rabi Heshel rightly noticed that ‘religion is a means, not the end. It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end itself. Over and above all being stands the Creator and the Lord of History. He who transcends all. To equate religion and God is idolatry.’ (‘No Religion is an Island,’ 1991).

If we honestly recognize that religious diversity is God’s will, then we should also admit that it is God’s gift.  Arguably we need to find out what shall we do with this gift. Because of our allegiance to God we need find a common ground where we can explore this gift of religious diversity and make good use of it.  Theologians both from Muslim and Christian background should help us in this matter.

Some time ago a group of Muslim religious leaders and scholars have produced and signed a document which is called A Common Word Between Us and You. In the document one can read:

‘Whilst Islam and Christianity Are obviously different religions – and whilst there is no minimizing some of their formal differences – it is clear the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament.’ (A Common Word Between Us and You)

What Muslim scholars call ‘the Two Greatest Commandments’ can certainly be a common ground for inter-religious partnership with humility and mutuality. These two commandments originate from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus integrated two passages of the Hebrew Bible to answer a question what are the most important commandments:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all yours mind, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  “You shall love your neigbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:7-8).

Jesus puts his seal of approval on these commandments by saying that ‘there is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12;28-31, Luke 10:25-28)

Similar concept of loving God and the neighbour appears is the Quran as well:

‘Worship God; join nothing with Him. Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to neigbours near and far, to travellers in need, and to your slaves.’ (al-Nisa’ 4:36)

I am rather proud that my supervisor here in Oxford, Professor Paul Fiddes was one of those Christian theologians who responded to A Common Word Between Us and You. This document produced here in Oxford is a remarkable answer to the letter of Muslim Scholars and leaders. It could be found on official web site of the Baptist World Alliance.

While making a special emphasis on the importance of theological and educational co-operation that document honesty states that ‘it is too easy to keep a dialogue going at the high level of theological conversation alone. Somehow the theological vision which enlivens is must be received at the grassroots and change attitude and prejudices there. Somehow the members of our communities need to be gripped by the value of respect and honour for all people because of the creation of all by the One God, and because of His love and mercy towards them, however wrong the beliefs of others may seem.’ (From the Baptist World Alliance to the Muslim Religious Leaders and Scholars who have written and signed  A Common Word Between Us and You)

This is exactly what is happening here and now, at the grassroots, in this community. This Mosque is certainly a congregation which has been ‘gripped by the value of respect and honour for all people because of the creation by the One God.’  Courage and prophetic vision of the MECO community cannot be overestimated.  I am fully aware that my presence here as a Christian clergyman delivering Friday  khutba is rare and controversial.

When the news of today’s event was announced a number of people both in Christian and Muslim community welcomed it. A global Christian  leader wrote to me on his way to South Africa:

‘I have to say that this is a wonderful development. Its like sweet music against the dim of airport noise.’( The Revd Neville Callam of the Baptist World Alliance).

Some other friends wrote:

‘This is amazing, almost miraculous.’ (Revs Geoff and Gill Kimber).

There are a lot of people who are delighted about today’s event and quite a few of them wanted to be here with us.

On the other hand, there are  also others who are honestly upset by the fact that I am delivering a Friday Khutba in this mosque. I am sorry to say that some anger was directed to the Imam of the MECO community, Dr. Taj Hargey.

“I’ve never heard from any source that a Christian priest/man should teach us our deen. Give khotba on Jomma prayer!!! Where did you get this???? You are bringing shame to Islam.’ Somebody wrote to Dr. Taj Hargey.

Another angry letter to the Imam say that by letting me to preach in the Mosque, Imam Hargey is ‘destroying Islam and must be destroyed’ himself.

Apparently inter-faith relations can be a risky business even in this country. The hate correspondence shows that the work at the grassroots is not going to be easy.  But this is where we are expected to be as believers in One God. In this fragmented and bleeding world we need to offer signs of hope, reconciliation and peace. The only way to grow spiritually and emotionally is to leave our comfort zones: places where we feel comfortable, secure, unthreatened. We need to leave our comfort zones: our families, faith groups, social milieus, national and racial groups. We need take risks and seek encounter with the stranger.  This is where we can experience a genuine encounter the One God.

Christmas is the time for story telling and I should tell you one story about my going out of my comfort zone and encountering the One God among the strangers.

In late 1999 many Chechen refugees started entering Georgia through the snow-capped mountain passes in the north. News about the refugees’ appalling situation reached Tbilisi in December, during Advent: the death of women and children was reported by the mass media but provoked little response from the Georgian public.  This was not surprising since Chechens, like other North Caucasian Muslim tribes, had been the traditional enemies of Georgia.

Before Chechnya discovered that it had oil it was very poor and often had to struggle to survive.    In the late Middle  Ages,  like  other North  Caucasian  tribes,  it developed  an economic system based on kidnapping: the Chechens would raid Christian villages in Georgia, kidnapping young men and women in order  to  sell  them  in  the  slave  markets  of Istanbul  or  to  get  ransom  money  from  the families  of those  kidnapped. Understandably the Georgians had long hated the Chechens.

Possibly an even stronger reason for this hatred was Chechnya’s support for Abkhazia during the latter’s civil war with Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this war Chechens fought against the territorial integrity of Georgia and were particularly cruel towards Georgian civilians.  Shocking  reports  of Chechen atrocities circulated:  after the capture of a Georgian village in the Gagra district, all the  inhabitants  were  herded  onto  the  village green  and  beheaded  by  the  Chechens,  who then   proceeded   to  play  football   with  their heads.

Georgian Baptists also had a particular reason for hating the Chechens.  The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia kept in touch with the situation of its fellow Baptists in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and heard about the kidnapping of two young Baptist women from the Grozny church, neither of who was ever found. Just as shocking was the discovery of the deputy Baptist minister’s head in Grozny’s market place.

On   the   second   Sunday   of   Advent   Naira Gelashvili,  a famous  Georgian  woman  writer, came  to  the  Baptist  Cathedral  in  Tbilisi  and asked  to speak  to the  congregation  about  the Chechen   refugees.   She   was   well-informed about the  situation  in  the  mountains  and  the refugee camps and said: ‘I have visited all the churches  in  this  city  asking  for  help  for  the refugees  but  none  of  them  were  willing  to help.’   After her appeal to the congregation  I asked  them  for a response:  what  should  they do about  these  refugees  who  happened  to be their traditional  enemies?  There was a silence. I could guess what they were thinking:  that the Chechens     had  inflicted suffering and death on Georgians and now were getting   their just deserts. But at the same time everybody felt that such an attitude was somehow wrong.   Suddenly   the silence was broken by an elderly lady who stood up and   said: ‘Bishop, why don’t we cancel Christmas and give the money we have raised to the Chechens!’

Clearly we could not cancel Christmas, but nevertheless that Sunday something extraordinary began to happen in the life becoming the Church for Georgia through its involvement in the political, cultural, religious and social life of the country. From that day onwards the entire community became involved in Chechen relief work, collecting warm clothing, various vegetables, onions, potatoes, sweets… all for their enemies!  The country was experiencing huge economic hardship and the contribution poor people had made to help the Chechen refugees was really valuable. After delivering our first cargo of goods we realized that the refugees needed more than material help.  We started to get emotionally  involved with the lives and suffering of the Chechen people; the homes of Baptist clergy became places  of  refuge  for  Chechen  refugees; Christians and Muslims would pray in separate rooms,  and  then  in  the  evening  they  would come together for dinner and celebrate their common humanity.

At first the Chechens were suspicious:  why were Christians helping them when even local Muslims in Georgia were reluctant to have any contact with them? Soon our initial formal relations with the Chechens developed  into genuine friendship and partnership.   With the help of Muslim clerics from the refugee camp, we set up a  school   for   Chechen   refugee children,  and  over  a  period  of  a  year,  well before  any  international   aid  agencies stepped  in,  about  1,100  children  were fed every day in the school dining-hall. The Church also supplied all educational materials required and provided continuous care.

Once we delivered exercise books, pens and pencils to the school we had established for the refugee children.  Some of the children were able to read and write, some of them had never been schooled. We asked children to write what were their dreams for future. As a result of our request we received almost 300 little pieces of writing. They were absolutely amazing. They told us about their pain, their suffering and tragedy they had experienced. One young boy wrote:

‘This is my dream: when I grow I would like to die in the fight against Christians!’

Than, apparently, the boy realized that it was Christians who had brought these exercise books, who cared of  them and he vigorously crossed the word ‘Christians’ and wrote on top of the word ‘Russians’.

A girl from Grozny, the Chechnian capital wrote:  ‘We left the city during the bombardment in a great haste, we left my kitten back home. I pray to Allah that he protects my kitten and lets us to be reunited with him.’

These stories are going to stay  in my mind for the rest of my life. The children made us think that we are all humans, not friends and enemies.  We all belong to God and therefore we should care for each other even if we do not agree with each other’s religious, political or ideological convictions.

My encounter with Chechen Muslims was a deep spiritual experience. Sometime I say that my Muslim brothers and sisters converted me to Christianity because friendship with them taught me more on my faith than all the studies in Christianity I had taken before.  I can say from my own experience that we as Muslims and Christians need each other to build the world of peace, tolerance and justice.  Our co-operation will make an impact not only on our inter-faith relationships but our intra-faith reconciliation. Today, by letting me to deliver the Khutbah  in your liturgical setting and to pray along with you, I think we make  another modest step into the direction of peaceful future — the future where Muslims and Christians will fully rediscover the meaning and significance of God’s gift of relligious diversity.

As-salamu ‘aleikum wa-rahmatul-lah.

Peace be on you and God’s blessings.

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4 Responses to A Gift of the One God: Religious Diversity, Georgian Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

  1. Mary Beth Mankin says:

    Malkhaz’s courage and forthrightness brings me to tears and inspires me! Thank you for sharing, Maren. I will share it further. Peace, Mary Beth

  2. What a wonderful challenge to people of both faiths!

  3. Pingback: Interfaith dialogue | Rev. Felicity O'Brien speaking as a deacon

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