Must religion be bad news? So much of the news agenda for 2014 was dominated by acts of terrorism and aggression which were linked with religious extremism, the advancement of Islamic State being the most obvious. Closer to home, there has been continued controversy about the place of faith in education, especially after the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham schools. There can be no doubt that a toxic combination of religious and political beliefs, often combined with local instability and the weakness of legitimate governance, lies behind many of the conflicts in today’s world.
But how to defeat such extremism? The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the House of Lord’s debate on Syria and the possibility of British intervention, made the telling point that what we are witnessing in the Middle East and elsewhere is not simply a military conflict, but an ideological one. The radical views of groups like Islamic State cannot be stopped by forces of arms alone. There is a need to engage in the battle of ideas and for people of faith and goodwill to present a different vision for how religion can be good news and not a cover for inhuman aggression.
At the start of the New Year the church celebrates Epiphany – the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. In the story Herod, and his plot to murder Jesus, plays out the bloody combination of politics and religion that leads to the death of the innocent. It is an ancient story whose contemporary resonance is all too real. By contrast, Jesus and his family are shown receiving the gifts that the strangers from the east have to offer as they in turn welcome the magi into their Bethlehem home.
In this giving and receiving of the spiritual and material gifts, people of faith have to offer each other we can begin to see another way for different religious communities to relate to each other. It is a better vision to live by, and it might just help us see that religion can also be good news when it inspires generosity and hospitality rather than suspicion and fear.
The Revd Canon Dr Andrew Braddock, Director of the Department of Mission and Ministry and Canon Residentiary, Gloucester Cathedral