JCMA conference Victoria

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by Mark Pedersen

This was my second Jews, Christians, Muslims in Australia conference. I'd been quite inspired by last year's conference and so arrived at Palotti College in Millgrove with a sense of expectation for what the next four days would hold. What had impressed me most last year was the way in which people were able to dig into the serious issues of difference between the three faiths, while still building significant relationships across the faiths - for example, last year we looked at texts from each faith's scriptures that were challenging and/or critical of outsiders. Difficult issues like Israel and Palestine were also discussed, and while there remained differences of opinion, the spirit of dialogue prevailed and the conference concluded with expressions of hope for the future from many participants.

This year's theme on Reconciliation - Healing of Memories - took the depth of discussion at last year's conference and put it at the heart of this year's agenda. The over-arching theme looked at how the three faiths relate to Abraham, and each community shared their stories and perspectives on Abraham, his family and their example of faith and trust in God. Within this framework, the conference developed through four theme sessions covering:

  • the concept of the "Clash of Civilisations",
  • medieval stories, including Islamic Spain and the Crusades, and contemporary repercussions,
  • the place of Jerusalem in the three faiths,
  • and reconciliation.

I was involved in presenting material on the history of Islamic Spain, and along the way I learnt a lot that I hadn't known before. The example of the creative and refined society of Cordoba one thousand years ago challenges the current debates about multi-culturalism today. And yet the peaceful interaction of Jews, Christians and Muslims of that time and place was not able to prevail against the forces of isolationism, nationalism and so-called 'purity' that arose in Spain. This eventually lead to fall of the tolerant Ummayad Caliphate and the rise of the oppressive Almoravid empire, which in turn succumbed to the expanding Frankish kingdom from the Christian north and the eventual establishment of the Spanish Inquisition. The story of this time stands as a stark warning as to how easily tolerance and peaceful, creative relationships across faith communities can be driven out from a society under the banner of fear and cultural/national pride. [presentation attached]

Working with my co-presenters was also a great learning experience - gaining a sense of perspectives on issues like the way that the concept of "crusade" (a noble struggle against a perceived evil) continues to permeate our culture, and how important it is to recognise the difference between the ideals espoused by the Crusaders and the reality of the indiscriminating slaughter that took place during the Crusades. "Collateral damage" has been with us for a long time. These stories continue to resonate through the ages, passed down from parents, grandparents and great grandparents, and continue to cause fear (and hope!) among people whose ancestors were impacted by the upheavals of this time.

JCMA is a chance to hear each other's stories. Some are personal, some are traditional, some have just been stumbled upon. One of the amazing stories shared during the conference was that of an US Jewish chaplain's experience in Mosul during the current conflict in Iraq. I was moved to tears by his story - you can find the full text of it here.

Another highlight was watching the Imam and the Pastor - hearing the story of how two men changed from being bitter enemies on either side of the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria to becoming partners in spreading reconciliation across their divided communities. In their words, they are "like a married couple" - deeply committed to working out any issues that come up between them personally so that they can continue to help "their children" - the people of Nigeria. The Imam's story of being inspired by the example of the Prophet, who declined the opportunity to call for the destruction of the city of Taifa after their rejection of his message, is a clear challenge to us when we're tempted by feelings of revenge or bitterness. This is a must see film and well worth sharing with friends and colleagues. DVD copies of the Imam and the Pastor are available from Initiatives of Change.

For me, the spirit of JCMA was best captured in the final theme session on reconciliation. Each presenter shared honestly and very openly their struggles and hopes for reconciliation between the three faith communities. It is impossible for me to capture the significance of this session here Suffice to say that there was genuine power in hearing a commitment to ongoing dialogue and a call to joint action to heal the world in concrete ways from those for whom there was also much pain over conflicts between the faiths both past and present.

The conference concluded with the opportunity to sign up for action groups on various topics including Green Faith, Aboriginal Reconciliation, and Making Poverty History. Last year I left with questions about "what to do next?" This year, I'm looking forward to meeting up with other JCMA'ers and working together to deepen our understanding of each other's faiths and actively build a better world.

[see also the audiovisual reflection on Hagar's Story]

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