Repairing the Fence:
How Can People of Different Faiths Get Along?
By Nicholas Rundle
It’s been a long and wet winter in the Adelaide Hills as the drought has broken and water has filled the reservoirs and has soaked deep into the soil. During heavy rains earlier in the year part of an old nineteenth century farm building that stands on my neighbour’s land collapsed into our back yard scattering rocks and flattening a section of fence. The SES came in the middle of the night with their flashlights to inspect the damage. Later came the engineers from the local council who have instructed my neighbour to strengthen what is left of the building. It’s not been an easy business to negotiate a conclusion with my neighbour and an almost new section of fence remains buckled and bent and the wall remains unrepaired. Should I go to law with my neighbour and how should I relate to the local Council since I want to get along with my neighbours but yet ensure family safety and a repaired fence?
There is a local television advertisement for fencing that shows people moving into a new suburb with houses crammed closely together. Since it depicts an aspirational middle class kind of neighbourhood there are no obvious people of colour or women in hijabs or friendly bearded men with piercings lovingly polishing their Harley Davidson’s on the driveways or women in Ugg boots and exotic looking tats. In this advert people are out in their back yards, leaning across the new fence to yarn to their new friends or good humouredly tossing back a footie ball that has inadvertently strayed across the new fence from a clean looking blond child. The message of the advertisement is that with good quality fencing we can get along well with our neighbours.
The Faith Friendly Charter for Australia could be seen as a set of metaphorical fences that could assist our diverse neighbourhoods to get along well. I was the principal author of the section subtitled ‘The Australian Context’ with the four values of democracy, diversity, equality and education and the great Australian theologian and pioneer of all kinds of progressive thinking, Professor Norm Habel was the principal author of the four principles, Respect, Understanding, Concern and Responsibility. There was much rigorous argument, amendment and discussion among the committee before the text was agreed. Now our group is keen to promote the Charter and we have given the copyright to an incorporated body, the Multi Faith Association of SA in order to protect the text from unauthorised amendment but also so that all those who want to make use of the text can report in to a central point as to the progress of ‘Faith Friendliness’ in Australia as a kind of ongoing feedback loop. There is already lots of local interest in the Charter and our group can see it becoming part of Local Government and the corporate world. As the Chair of the Local Government Association of South Australia Felicity Ann Lewis observed in her speech at the launch of the Charter at the Hawke Centre of the University of South Australia, her City of Marion situated in the inner south of the metropolitan area of Adelaide is becoming an ever more diverse community. Marion has a thriving Hindu Temple and a new Mosque alongside Churches of various flavours and with ethnically diverse congregations including families from Africa together with new other migrants and students from many countries studying at University or with Registered Training Organisations. The Oasis Centre at Flinders University in the Marion Council area sets a new benchmark in best practice with Chaplains from various faiths cooperating and working together in the care of students and faculty including having a representative from the Humanist Society at a recent event.
I can’t write on behalf of my Charter ‘co-conspirators’ but I can write about the ideas and experiences that motivated my thinking. The experience of our Sea of Faith network meetings in South Australia and of reading and contributing to the ‘Bulletin’ have been influential in setting the question, ‘how can people of very differing beliefs and experiences come together and find common ground without going down the road of relativism, ‘let all the flowers bloom’ or trying to crunch together irreconcilable beliefs to come to a definitive conclusion?’ I have been shaped by my reading of Richard Rorty and the American pragmatist tradition of philosophy which offers the principle of what might work. The late British historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin’s incommensurability thesis offers a creative humanist and value humanist perspective. As one committed to pluralism Isaiah Berlin supports diversity but yet wants to identify and affirm universal human values. If the Faith Friendly Charter were to become embedded in the collective imagination and in the way we live together, it could help engender a form of communitarianism, that is, a sense of common purpose and goodwill to a diverse yet inclusive society that finds its stability in shared values (for a useful discussion see ‘Isaiah Berlin’ by Connie Aarsbergen-Ligtvoet, Rodopi Press New York 2006). In short the new Charter might create a new set of fences and boundaries through which a new spirit of community might emerge. The late philosopher Richard Rorty in promoting a utilitarian philosophy of religion states: ‘…its principal concern must be the extent to which the habits of religious believers frustrate the needs of other human beings, rather than the extent to which religion gets something right.’ (Philosophy and Social Hope Penguin London 1999 page 148)
Faith-friendly is a term that was created by the Princeton academic and Presbyterian minister David Miller in his book God at Work which has charted the history of the faith and work movement in Christianity and which examines from an American context the growing connections between faith communities and workplaces. In 2008 while I was on a research visit to the USA I was privileged to meet David and also visit faith leaders in New York, the Pluralism Center at Harvard and to meet diversity officers and faith leaders at the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company at Detroit, (google Ford Interfaith Network), as well as Interfaith Works which brings together faith communities in upstate New York to build social capital in an area where unemployment, poverty and social disintegration are prevalent. In visiting the USA and experiencing so much gracious hospitality I was also reminded of a line in a Leonard Cohen song, ‘Democracy is coming’ which says that the US is about the best and the worst. The Ford Company I think represents an excellent approach to a pragmatic inclusion of religious groups, (including the atheist group of workers), to build a harmonious workplace and also to protect workers from religious harassment and bullying. One is also very aware in the USA of the power of fundamentalism, entrenched prejudice and fear in a very divided society.
Of what concern is this to those who read the ‘Bulletin’ and have a lively interest in the intersection of beliefs and life, especially in the public arena in Australia? I suggest the Charter might provide the means for us to live well together. The British philosopher AC Graying in his book ‘The Form of Things’ (Phoenix London 2006 p 211), articulates a set of concerns that many of us in SoFiA and the wider humanist community both religious and non-religious in the western world might share about restrictions on free speech. Where religion is given a privileged voice and given special protection in law through legislation against incitement to religious hatred then the secular and liberal democratic traditions of nations like Australia can become eroded. The Faith Friendly Charter seeks to ensure that ideas can be debated openly and to differ peaceably.
As I walk around my neighbourhood I notice an increasing tendency to erect very tall fences with locked gates. There can be no friendly interchange from the veranda to passers-by or between neighbours. While everyone enjoys and appreciates privacy how can a friendly street with neighbours who can cooperate at times of difficulty or crisis emerge when we are fenced off from each other and live in our own cocoon? Might I suggest we are in a position where a re-examination of our metaphorical fences might be in order so that boundaries can be respected and an hospitable and inclusive community might emerge where people are able to engage in conversations and settle their differences peaceably without recourse to legal sanction or worst still, violence on the streets or vitriolic arguments. The Charter I hope might go some way towards making a difference for good in our society and engendering a spirit of cooperative action.
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