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The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 17th August 2008

One of the complex issues that faces this nation, and no doubt many other nations as well, is that known as multiculturalism. I am not simply talking about the relationship with the other cultures of Western Europe, we easily incorporated that with pleasure through those who kindly read our lessons this morning. But we have in this country significant communities of people who come originally from very different parts of the world who retain, quite understandably, their own traditions, in many cases this own religion, and their own values, and there is an interesting question of how we can find a way of living peacefully and harmoniously with one another in this land.

Now I happen to be someone who thinks the mix of people in this country is a good thing as it makes our society in many ways more interesting. I think it was Chesterton who once said that one of the virtues of overseas travel is that it enables you to see you own country in a new light. Well, now we do not need to travel abroad to find that, comments on this country can come from those from outside who have now lived here for a long time, and no doubt we the host community need to listen to them to learn more of ourselves.

But it does create problems. One is simply the fear of the unknown, a different people, with different customs and maybe even different values can make us uncomfortable and we are then not quite sure where we are or where we stand. Even the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, although sharing an Anglican inheritance, clearly struggled with that recently. But in many other places, without that shared inheritance, and where the clash of values might be even greater, it is even more acute and more potentially difficult.

And if the foreigner makes his or her home with us and becomes part of our society, even sharing some of our values, and particularly if they are part of a coherent and easily identifiable racial group living in the same area, then the problems can be two-fold. Either it may be that they turn out to be very successful, and prosper to a greater extent than the host community, in which case their very success can breed resentment, as seems to have been the fate of Jewish Communities in various parts of the world at different times. Or they can become a sort of underclass, suffering in comparison to the rest, and they can then sometimes become the object of a different sort of resentment as they get made the scapegoat for all sorts of ills. Multiculturalism has undoubted virtues, it can be more interesting to live in such a society, the challenge can be thought-provoking, the variety genuinely the spice of life, but it is foolish not to recognise that it can bring its problems as well; it is a complex issue.

Now the lesson from Isaiah this morning reminds us that incorporating the foreigner into an existing society is scarcely a new matter. Isaiah in this passage takes a generous and welcoming view: ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ But it is guarded generosity, those who are welcomed are those who ‘join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord’. I doubt whether it is practicable today to say to people of other religious traditions that they are welcome here only as long as they share the Christian inheritance of this land. Our multiculturalism today must go wider than Isaiah’s picture. And that is presumably why the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a widely misreported speech earlier this year, considered the prospect of incorporating Sharia courts into this country as one of the ways of finding alternative conflict resolution,. The extraordinary reaction to that speech showed that incorporating the stranger still has its difficulties for many in the host society, even though the Archbishop clearly said it should be done only within the wider framework of English law that respects such matters as the role of women. It is interesting that the subsequent support of much that the Archbishop said by no less a person that the Lord Chief Justice of England received nothing like as much attention.

The question for us this morning about living with the stranger in our midst is not made any easier by the Gospel passage, which is also about an encounter between people of different races. Matthew here is telling a story that he got from St Mark’s Gospel, for although some details are different, Mark describes the woman as being a Greek Syrophoenician, while Matthew describes her as a Canaanite; the point of the story is that she was not a Jew and in both gospels there is that rather harsh saying from Jesus ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ And Matthew has included in the story that statement by Jesus ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, which was a characteristic Matthean addition, not there in Mark’s account. I suppose we just have to accept that Jesus here is simply reflecting his Jewish background and showing to the woman what would have been a standard reaction of a Jew of his time, but his statement about throwing food to the dogs sounds to our ears pretty harsh, and it is a harshness that is only partially lessened by the cure that he then offers to her daughter. Jesus’ words do not read as ones from a twenty-first century liberal minded multiculturalist, but perhaps we should not be surprised at that, whatever else Jesus was he was, after all, a first century Jew.

It is, though, when we turn to the epistle that we may begin to find a way through all of this. Paul too had to struggle with the matter of relations between different races as he saw himself as being the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet he also wanted to be true to his Jewish background. ‘Has God rejected his people?’ he asks at the beginning of the reading, meaning of course the people of Israel, and he answers his own question immediately ‘By no means!’ To understand Paul’s argument here it is necessary to read the verses that are omitted in our reading, verses 3 – 28 of chapter 11, but even having read them you might find the argument difficult to understand. He seems to be saying that Israel’s disobedience was necessary so that the Gentiles could receive the Christian message of mercy, but that eventually, when what he describes as ‘the full number of the Gentiles’ have come in, then Israel would receive the same message of God’s mercy as well. If he meant by that the Jewish people would all become Christians it seems he was wrong.

But maybe the critical text for us is the last sentence of the epistle: ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, that he may be merciful to all.’

The notion of mercy is the fundamental one in this passage; that we get not what we deserve, but we receive from the generous, forgiving and loving acceptance of God. Mercy from God is offered to us all, whatever our race, whatever our nation, whatever our religious faith, whatever our differences.

It is interesting, and I think highly relevant, that all three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, recognise God as being above all things merciful: Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. And if we all think God is like that, then on the basis of having received mercy, mercy can then be offered to, and received from the other, to and from the stranger, to and from the person who is different, to and from the foreigner.

Perhaps if we all deeply reflected on what it is to believe in a God of mercy, we shall find in that a way of living together that can respect difference, or to use the Chief Rabbi’s wonderful phrase ‘the Dignity of Difference’. And living consciously under a merciful God maybe we can then find our varied communities not a threat, but a positive virtue.

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