Martin Wroe - Greenbelt
· Waiters Union
Rachael Kohn: For Muslims around the world those are the most familiar words from the Qur'an. Called the Bismillah, it says: In the name of God the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Hello, welcome to My Spiritual Diary, our monthly series on The Spirit of Things. I'm Rachael Kohn, and my guest today has kept a Ramadan diary in which he reflects on the Bismillah. But just a minute, Dave Andrews is Christian.
You're tuned to RN on air and online at abc.net.au/radionational.
On Sunday nights at St Andrew's Church in Brisbane's West End, Dave holds a prayer meeting for the homeless that ends in a sing-along.
Dave Andrews is no sit-down Christian, he's an activist, driven by a belief in a radical compassion that can change the world from a mean and hungry place to a loving community, amongst people of all religions. With his wife Angie, Dave founded The Waiters Union, a community-based initiative in Brisbane working with the homeless and marginalised. He's an educator for TEAR Australia, an international Christian development agency, but in recent years he's also developed a dialogue with Muslim friends. So, for the Ramadan period just passed, he kept a Ramadan diary over four weeks. Here's Dave Andrews reading from his diary:
Dave Andrews: Bismillah: My Ramadan reflections.
Week 1, Day 1
I will be observing Ramadan and meditating on the Bismillah this month. The Bismillah stands for the Arabic phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, a beautiful poetic phrase my Muslim friends say contains the true essence of the Qur'an, indeed the true essence of all religions. Every chapter of the Qur'an (except the ninth chapter) begins with this phrase, which is most commonly translated, 'In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate'. It is my prayer that this Ramadan all of us may come to know the compassion of God more deeply and reflect the compassion of God more faithfully in our lives.
'Bismillah' or 'bismi Allah' means 'in the name of Allah'. 'Allah' is not the Muslim name for God, still less the name of a Muslim God, but the Arabic name of the One True God. The Semitic roots of the word 'Allah' extend back thousands of years to the Canaanite 'Elat', Hebrew 'El' and 'Elohim' and Aramaic 'Alaha'. To recite the Bismillah is to recall there are not many gods but One God and that One God is not Muslim, Jewish or Christian but the One whom we belong to and who belongs to us all.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan says there are two ways we can relate to God. One way is to 'take pride in our religion' and 'the perspective of God' our religion has given to us, which the Maulana says makes us partisan, protective of our tradition and reactive against others who may call our doctrine into question. Another way is to 'be true to the spirit of our religion' and 'the compassion of God' that our religion has given us, which the Maulana says can make us sensitive, appreciative and respectful of not only our traditions, but also the notions of those who call our doctrines into question.
We all know the commandment: 'You shall not take name of the Lord your God in vain'. A better translation of this commandment is: 'You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God'. What does it mean to 'misuse the name of the Lord your God'? A Jewish settler misuses the name of God when she builds a house on land taken from her Palestinian neighbour citing God's promise of the land to all the descendants of Abraham. A Muslim martyr misuses the name of God when he explodes a bomb killing innocent people crying 'Allahu Akbar'. And a Christian leader misuses the name of God when he goes to war declaring, 'God told me to strike, and I struck.'
Some of the agnostic anarcho-syndicalists in my neighbourhood call me 'Dave the Godist', because they know I believe in God, which means, in their minds, as far as they are concerned, my name and the name of God are inextricably linked together. So it's easy to see how, from their perspective, my behaviour would reflect, for better or worse, on the reputation of God. During times such as these, when I'm fasting and praying more reflectively, I'm reminded of how all too often my own behaviour has not brought honour but dishonour to the name of God in my neighbourhood.
When Moses met God for the first time in the burning bush, Moses asked God who he was. God answered, 'I am the God of Abraham.' God knew Moses didn't know who He was, but knew who Abraham was. So God used the name of Abraham to introduce himself, fully confident that Moses would respond by saying to himself, 'I don't know who this God is, but if He is Abraham's God, He must be a good God, a God who is committed to generosity, integrity and fidelity like Abraham.' How wonderful it would be if we lived lives of such quality that God could use us and our name to introduce Himself to others. This is the hope for all true spiritual descendants of Abraham.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the first request he said they should make was 'hallowed be your name'. To 'be hallowed' means to 'be made holy'. For many, God's name is not holy and we, as God's people, are encouraged to make God's name holy. Jesus suggested God's reputation could be only restored when God's will was 'done on Earth as it is in heaven'. And the only way we can guarantee God's will is done on Earth as it is in heaven is if we do God's will on Earth as it in heaven ourselves! Jesus says, 'Let your light so shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and have a good reason to praise your Father in heaven.'
Week 2, Day 1
I am meditating on the Bismillah, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. This week I want to reflect on the phrase ir-Rahman. Both Rahman and Rahim are derived from the Semitic root rhm which 'indicates something of the utmost tenderness and kindness which provides protection and nourishment' from which the creation is brought into being. The root rhm has meanings of 'womb, nourishing-tenderness, loving-kindness'.According to Ibn Qayyum, Rahman describes the quality of limitless grace with which God embraces the whole of the world and all of those who dwell in it.?
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that the God of the Qur'an is 'ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, or God-with-us.' But basing their understanding of ir-Rahman being derived from rhm, some Muslim theologians have referred to the whole of nature (that is, the universe in its entirety) as the divine womb. Thus they would suggest the Qur'an affirms what it says in Acts, that 'in him we live and breathe and have our being'. No wonder many verses say He is with you wherever you are.
Jesus talks of God as Abba or Papa. Speaking of God as Abba is Jesus' unique contribution to revelation. To paraphrase Jesus, 'no-one comes to God-as-Abba except through me'. Some of us may have been abused by an earthly Papa and may find it easier to relate to God as our heavenly Mama rather than our heavenly Papa. But whatever our term of endearment might be, Jesus invites us to relate to God, not as an apathetic deity but as a sympathetic parent, passionately committed to the welfare of the human family, protective, supportive and compassionate.
Maulana Whiduddin Khan says, 'God has the same compassionate relationship with every man as a father has with all his children. Therefore it is alien to the divine scheme of creation that this earthly plane should be marred by hatred and violence. It is God's most cherished desire that love should be returned, for hatred and violence should be met with peace. According to the Qur'an, paradise is God's neighbourhood and in this neighbourhood only those who have compassionliving in a way that (their) actions are of benefit to otherswill find acceptance.'
Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, 'God's dream is that all of us will realise we are family, we are made for togetherness. In God's family, there are no outsiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhistall belong.' Now more than ever we need to remember that God's love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion. People are shocked when I say that George Bush and Saddam Hussein are brothers, but God says All are my children. It is shocking. But it is true.'
'While human love can never bear the weight of our need for divine love, it can teach us about divine love. Human love can communicate divine love. Experiences of human love make the idea of God's love believable. The relative constancy of the love of family and friends makes the absolute faithfulness of divine love at least conceivable.' But David Benner says there is 'no substitute for learning what love really is than by coming back to the source. God's love is the original that shows up the limitations of all copies. Only God's love is capable of making us great lovers.'
Psychotherapist Wayne Muller says, 'It is not the fact of being loved that is life changing, it is the experience of allowing ourselves to be loved.' This experiential knowing of ourselves through prayer as deeply loved by God, deepens our thoughts with new data about our world, and deepens our feelings with new attitudes towards the world. In the light of our knowledge of God's love we can trust God, take risks and embrace the world that we live in more courageously and compassionately.
Rachael Kohn: Dave Andrews has been described as 'a weirdy, beardy, proverbially wise-old, kind-old, be-slippered, fire-sided, snoozy, fearless, story-telling, grand-fatherly, rugged, tribal-leader'. That's on his website, so he approves! Christian community worker, author and teacher, Dave Andrews is reading from his Ramadan diary for our monthly series called My Spiritual Diary on The Spirit of Things. Find us on the RN website at abc.net.au/radionational. While you're there you can download the audio.
Before we got much further it was time to talk to Dave about keeping his Spiritual Diary:
Dave Andrews, it's great to be talking to you again.
Dave Andrews: It's good to be with you.
Rachael Kohn: Entering into another tradition and its language as well as its beliefs is pretty difficult for a lot of people, but doing so with Islam is even more challenging these days, given all the suspicions that swirl around it. Why did you want to do it, and how did it begin?
Dave Andrews: I think in the early days living in India was profoundly significant for me because I went there as a Christian, very certain of my own religious tradition, and living there for many years together with people from other traditions and religions introduced me to multiple perspectives about a life that I'd never even considered, and left me with the strong sense that as a follower of Jesus I needed to be humble, to learn from all people of all traditions and religions, and I think that lesson that I have learnt in India has been something that has been a guiding lesson for my life.
I think for me the occasion for particularly developing dialogue with my Muslim friends was when war was declared. I just sensed the growing hostility between Christians and Muslims and the way the war was being framed, it was like another crusade. And I believed that as a follower of Jesus who was committed to peace and to respect for all people of all traditions and religions I needed to go out of my way to build some bridges that I saw being blown up between our various communities.
Rachael Kohn: And did you then start a dialogue with Muslims in Brisbane where you live?
Dave Andrews: Yes, as war was breaking out I went down to the local mosque and I said, 'I can see war looming on the horizon, there's going to be a lot of propaganda being played out in the media, and I believe that we both believe in the God of Abraham, we may not necessarily agree completely in archaeology but that is a tradition that we share, and I wondered whether I could join you in prayer today as a sign of solidarity with you, so that we can begin to find a way to support each other in the face of a coming storm.
Rachael Kohn: About seven years ago I actually spoke to you in Brisbane about your work in the West End where you had established an informal network called The Waiters Union, where you cultivate a real neighbourhood culture that is open to the stranger and the homeless. Is your dialogue with Muslims very much an outgrowth of that?
Dave Andrews: I think we have always been concerned, because of our spirituality, to include people who are excluded. And in our neighbourhood that includes Indigenous people who still face terrible discrimination, and it includes refugees who have come to this country seeking asylum who are then treated as criminals. A lot of the refugees that were involved were actually Muslims, and that was not a presenting issue to begin with, but in the face of war, religious identity became quite significant. So we began to come out as Christians and Muslims with our refugee friends and explore the distinctives that were significant in the face of conflict, and the need to develop a common spirituality that enabled us to deal with the increasing conflict between our communities.
Rachael Kohn: When you wrote this Ramadan diary and were doing the fast, how did you feel about the fast? Did it help you focus on your spiritual exploration or did it compete with it?
Dave Andrews: One of the reasons I embraced the fast is because I said to my Muslim friends, I just really thank you for restoring a spiritual discipline to our culture, that is really an important corrective to our consumer society. And I felt it was good as an Australian citizen who has great reservations about the capitalist political economy that dominates our life and the whole consumer ideology that actually is becoming increasingly a driver in people's lives, I felt that the fasting is one way of resisting that consumer ideology. And I felt that it would then create time and space for me to reflect more deeply on spiritual things rather than just material things.
And particularly as a Christian I wanted to reflect on the Bismillah because I wanted to be genuinely open to mutual learning, not to share what my faith meant to me with my Muslim friends, but to be open to learning from my Muslim friends about what their faith meant to them. And because they framed their faith in terms of the Bismillah, I took the Bismillah, something I really wanted to meditate on during Ramadan. So it was using the fasting as a way of resisting a consumer ideology, and then in that space that it created being open to these words of the Bismillah so that they could touch me deeply and be transformative in my life.
Rachael Kohn: Today there is a lot of debate about whether God exists, but you talk about the nature of God as a loving parent. But you also point out that bad parents can poison that notion of God. So what were your parents like?
Dave Andrews: That's a wonderful question that gives me an opportunity to say something very beautiful. I came to know the reality of God's love in the embrace of my parents who were the God-figures in my life. And my father was a strong but gentle man, and it was in his arms, strong, gentle embrace, that I came to believe in the reality of God's love. There are so many people in the world that can't say that, who'd experienced their parents as abusive, and particularly their fathers as abusive. But I was privileged to be born into a household where my mother and father were people of great faith. My father was pastor in a church, and my father actually embodied that spirituality in a way that embraced me and communicated to me the reality of God's love in a way that has deeply shaped me as a person.
Rachael Kohn: You are fortunate indeed. So many people have abusive parents, and so for them it's impossible to, as you said in your diary, allow themselves to be loved, because they don't know what it's like, they haven't had that experience.
Dave Andrews: Yes, that's right, and that is one of the reasons that my wife and I have been committed to working with people who's been victims of abuse because we ourselves have been so nurtured in that compassion that we talk about, that we feel that it's our then responsibility to share some of the love that we've received with others. Jesus, after all, said 'freely you have received, freely give', and we feel we are duty-bound to do so.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, you quote Desmond Tutu who says, 'God's dream is that all of us will realise we are family.' But in most cases human love isn't up to the task. Is it ever as big as we imagine God's love to be?
Dave Andrews: I think the advantage God has is that God is infinite, and most of us are finite. Some of us don't want to believe that, we think we're bigger than we really are, but most of us are just little beings, little human beings, and therefore our capacity to love, even if it is profoundly shaped by the love of God, is always frail and finite. The challenge for my wife and I is to find a way of living out the love of God within the littleness of our lives, so that we can do little things with great love over the long haul.
Rachael Kohn: Well, you and your wife Angie are very active in The Waiters Union in developing that network in the neighbourhood of the West End of Brisbane. But you also say that some people call you a Godist. I wonder if they call you a God-botherer?
Dave Andrews: I've had some wonderful conversations with some of my friends who are atheists. I really believe that we need to learn from everyone, theist and atheist alike. There are many beliefs about God that I think are the opiate of the people and need to be challenged as such. And recently I've got together with some of my friends in West End who are anarcho-syndicalists and are either atheist or agnostic, and some of our conversations have been a rather remarkable because they've got me aside and said, look Dave, I really want to talk to you because our concern is that atheists are becoming as fundamentalist as theists.
And we're often blinded by ideology to the reality that we could be comrades in the struggle for peace and justice. We mustn't lose an openness to the possibility of working together just because people are being driven by either theistic or atheistic ideology that is fundamentalist. And so we've actually got together to look at how we can rediscover a spirit of radical compassion for both theist and atheist together that is not blinded by the fundamentalism of the traditions that we come from.
Rachael Kohn: Are you hoping that people who observe you in action are going to say, 'hmm, Dave's God is a good God, it might even be a real God'?
Dave Andrews: I'd like to think so. I'm haunted by a moment when I was younger, Rachael, when I was talking to somebody in the streets in Brisbane, and it became clear that as I talked to them that this was somebody I should have known. They had been in class with me but I hadn't recognised them. And I was talking to them about God and the meaning of life, and they interrupted me and they said, 'Look, you're the reason I don't believe any of this.' And I was shocked and I said, 'Why is that?' And they said, 'You tried to convert me but you never cared for me.'
And from that moment on I realised that the preoccupation with converting others, using others to a means to an end was totally anti-Christ, totally un Christ-like. And I, as a follower of Jesus, needed to acknowledge that the way I'd been relating to people was totally contrary to the good news of Jesus that would make them feel loved and valued. And from that moment on I've committed myself to try to find a way to not only experience the love of God myself but to embody it in ways that actually mean something to the people around about it, so that I don't make it harder for them to believe in the reality of the God of love but make it easier for them to believe in the reality of the love of God. And that's what I've been trying to do ever since.
Rachael Kohn: Dave, your friend Nora Amath is one of the younger women who has come forward as a teacher of Islam today. Have Muslim women had a distinctive contribution to your understanding of Islam?
Dave Andrews: Yes, I've got a number of Muslim friends who are women who see themselves as Islamic feminists, who both my wife and I have this real sense that it's a privilege to be with these people whose spirituality is so vital and alive that it really nurtures our own soul.
Rachael Kohn: You focus on ir-Rahim as most merciful, which leads to a wonderful image of a floating on the sea of mercy that will support you. That sort of reminds me of the Alcoholics Anonymous saying of 'letting go, letting God'.
Dave Andrews: It's interesting that you should say that because my latest book actually looks at the 12-step program as a way of embodying radical spirituality in ordinary, everyday life. I would like to liberate spirituality from religious traditions that just close it in a religious language that alienate ordinary everyday people, and try to help people find a spirituality that is something that they can relate to in the context of their struggle. And I think you're right, that's what I think the 12-step program seeks to do, it tries to take spirituality and apply it to the people who struggle, to enable them to feel that they are embraced by reality of a power greater than themselves that can sustain them in that struggle.
Rachael Kohn: Can you tell me what the name of the book is?
Dave Andrews: That book is called Out and Out.
Rachael Kohn: Dave Andrews, prolific author, Christian community worker, and keeper of a Ramadan diary. In it he explores the points of contact and enrichment which he finds in considering the Bismillah, the praise found at the beginning of each chapter or sura of the Qur'an: 'In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful'.
Dave is also a bit of muso and he suggested this track as one of his favourites, 'Don't Be Afraid' from his album Songs of Grace and Struggle.
[Music: 'Don't Be Afraid', Dave Andrews, Songs of Grace and Struggle]
Dave Andrews isn't just a singer and talker, one of his books is called Plan Be, that's B-E, for 'being the change you want to see', which is what he does among the marginalised people in Brisbane's West End. He's driven by an incarnational theology, God in the world and in people. One of the ways he demonstrates it is by entering into a dialogue with Muslim friends, exploring beliefs and practices. For the month of Ramadan, Dave kept a Spiritual Diary, and here he is reading from it:
Week 3, Day 1
I am meditating on the Bismillah, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. This week I want to reflect on the phrase ir-Rahim. According to Ibn Qayyum, Rahman describes the quality of limitless grace with which God embraces the whole of the world and all of those who dwell in it, while Rahim describes the general embracing grace of God as it interacts with us in the particular circumstances of our lives, always proactive, prevenient and responsive.
Nora Amath, from AMARAH, says that 'God opens almost every chapter of the Qur'an with those very words: Ar-Rahmaan, Ar-Rahiim, most commonly translated as 'The Most Compassionate, The Most Merciful'. She says as Muslims we need to deeply reflect on the significance of this, because out of His 99 Most Glorious Attributes, these are the two that God refers to Himself the most in His Revelation. He is the Lord of mercy, the Giver of mercy. There are many verses in the Qur'an where Allah emphasises this: My mercy encompasses all.
Once you realise that you are immersed in the 'ocean' of God's endless providential compassion and that His 'mercy encompasses all', you can learn to 'float in it'. To float you don't have to do anything but let go. Floating is putting your full weight on the water, trusting you will always be supported. The sea of mercy will support you. The confidence you need to have in order to let go and float in the ocean of God's mercy comes from letting God's mercy wash over you, soaking in the scriptural assurances of His mercy, and living them, living in them, not simply trying to believe them.
My friend Nora says 'in one of the traditions, the Prophet Muhammad states, 'Those who have no mercy on other human beings will not receive the mercy of God.' She says it is important to note that in this hadith the word used is nas, that is 'people', not just Muslims or believers of Islam. She says Abdullah bin Umro bin Aas reports that the Prophet said, 'Have mercy on those who are on Earth, the One in heavens will have mercy on you.' She says that the mercy needs to extend to all those who are on Earth, including animals and all living things.
Let's remember the Mercy Rule in all religions. Jainism: 'One who neglects existence disregards their own existence.' Taoism: 'Regard your neighbour's loss or gain as your own.' Hinduism: 'Never do to others what would pain you.' Buddhism: 'Hurt not others with that which hurts you.' Zoroastrianism: 'Do not to others what is not well for oneself.' 'Confucianism: 'Do not impose on others what you do not yourself desire.' Judaism: 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.' Bahai: 'Desire not for anyone the things you do not desire for yourself.' Christianity: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Islam: 'Do unto all people as you would they should do to you.' And Sikhism: 'Treat others as you would be treated yourself.'
Jesus said, 'Learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. If you had known what these words mean, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.'
One day the teachers of the law brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus. They said to Jesus, 'Teacher, the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' He said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' One at a time they all went away. Jesus asked her, 'Is there no one to condemn you?' 'No one, sir,' she said. 'Neither do I,' Jesus said. 'Go and do not do it again.' Thus the prophet Jesus prohibited stoning, and we must abolish stoning too.
Week 4, Day 1
As we fast and pray we cannot help but come to the realisation that our world is in trouble, and religion, which was meant to make things better, has often made things worse. We do not suffer from the lack of religion, but from the lack of love. So if we are to have any hope of survival, we need to find a way to be able to care for ourselves, and for our world, once again. It is my view that the radical spirituality of compassion that we remember when we recite the Bismillah is not merely our best hope for the world, it is our only hope for the world. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.
How can we interpret our sacred texts in a way that reflects a radical spirituality of compassion? We invited our Muslim friends to share with us the way they go about it. They said every sura in the Qur'an except one begins with Bismillahi ir Rahman ir Rahim, 'In the name of God the most Gracious and most Compassionate'. And we have come to believe we should use that invocation as a hermeneutic to interpret the text in the light of the Spirit. Thus to interpret the text in the light of the Spirit of God, all our interpretations must be consistent with the grace and compassion of God.
When my Muslim friends told me they believe they need to interpret the Qur'an according to the Bismillah, in the light of the amazing Grace and Compassion of God, even if it contradicts a human interpretation of sharia law, I jumped for joy. 'That's wonderful!' I said. 'I think what you are doing is great. I think Jesus would think what you are doing is great too, because he did exactly the same as what you are doing with the Qur'an with the Torah, including being willing to challenge human interpretations of the law in the light of God's amazing Grace and Compassion.'
Jesus said the greatest commandment in the Bible was to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'. And the next was to 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. As far as Jesus was concerned, everything in the Bible needed to be interpreted in the light of these two commandments. Jesus seemed to have no qualms about quoting only the bits of scripture he thought were consonant with these, and contradicting those bits of scripture he thought were not.
On Eid al-Fitr al-Mubarak, October 13th 2007 CE, a gathering of Muslim leaders wrote an open letter to Christian leaders. In this letter they said, 'Muslims and Christians together make up well over half the world's population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The basis for this peace already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: the love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found in the sacred texts of both Islam and Christianity.'
We may be family, but it doesn't mean we are not going to fight. However, Abdul Ghaffar Khan reminds us, if we do fight, the 'weapon of the Prophet' is sabr or 'patience'. He says, 'If you exercise patience, victory will be yours. No power on Earth can stand against it.' He quotes the Qur'an, saying, 'There is no compulsion in religion'; 'forgive and be indulgent'; 'render not vain your almsgiving by injury', for 'whosoever kills onefor other than manslaughterit shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.'
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan says 'God is Peace or As-Salam'. He says the very word 'Islam' comes from the Arabic word silm which means 'peace'. So, 'according to the Prophet, peace is a prerequisite of Islam'. He said 'a Muslim is one from whose hands people are safe'. Oh, that this were true, for all Muslims, Christians and Jews. And it can be true if we allow ourselves to be born again in the spirit of the Bismillah, inhaling the Bismillah with every breath and embodying the Bismillah with every beat of our heart, through every vein in our head, and our hands, and our feet. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim!
Rachael Kohn: Reciting the Bismillah, the praise to God that Muslims around the world know from the Qur'an. Dave Andrews began and ended his Ramadan diary as an exploration of God's mercy and grace. He's a Christian community worker based in Brisbane's West End, but he travels the world as an educator for TEAR Australia, a Christian development, relief and advocacy organisation.
This is The Spirit of Things on RN, find us at abc.net.au/radionational. Check out our website and leave a comment. What phrase would you choose to meditate on for a spiritual diary? Back to my conversation with Dave Andrews:
Well, it was the Biblical Hebrew prophet, Hosea, who taught: 'for I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings'. But Ramadan is about sacrifice, of food and other pleasures. Have you come to a new appreciation of the power of a ritualised sacrifice?
Dave Andrews: My Muslim friends would say it's not only about going without but remembering those who go without. So it's not just about a ritualised observance but about a ritual that takes you into a solidarity with others, and that's where the very practice itself of going without food is in itself helpful for remembering those who go without food without any choice of their own. And so I think the hunger involved in fasting helped me remember those who hunger, for the billion brothers and sisters around the world who don't get enough to eat. For me, I think that discipline is helpful in terms of helping me remember the reality of all those who struggle.
Rachael Kohn: Did you find it difficult?
Dave Andrews: Not particularly, but I've fasted other times in my life and have fasted quite consistently. So it wasn't particularly difficult for me.
Rachael Kohn: I know you grew up in the Baptist Church, your parents are both Baptist, but you were very involved in St Andrews Anglican church in the West End.
Dave Andrews: That's right, yes.
Rachael Kohn: But in the Protestant tradition, fasting is certainly not important, in fact it was even condemned in the time of the Reformation. Do you think it could be brought in usefully as a way of remembering these things?
Dave Andrews: There's a whole renewal within various church traditions, including the church tradition I'm a part of, of spiritual disciplines of silence, spiritual disciplines of contemplation, and spiritual traditions of prayer and fasting. And those traditions are being renewed and being revived. So the coming of more Muslims to our country and the Muslim diaspora I think coincides with a rediscovery of spiritual disciplines within my own tradition. So I think that's a wonderful convergence.
Rachael Kohn: Speaking of that, I wonder whether any of your Muslim friends would be willing or interested to take up the spiritual exercises and disciplines in the Christian tradition, as you have done in the Muslim tradition.
Dave Andrews: Well, when I wrote my last book about the Beatitudes actually invited my friend Nora Amath who is a director for AMARAH, Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity. I asked her to read them and to review them. So she read these books on the Beatitudes and found the Beatitudes a really helpful framework for her reflecting on the way that she engages a world of poverty and violence. So it's actually a very mutual process. So I'm taking the Bismillah from my Muslim friends and I'm sharing the Beatitudes with my Muslim friends. And we're actually trying to sincerely and seriously enrich one another's spirituality.
Rachael Kohn: Well, your Muslim friends who interpret the Qur'an according to grace and compassion rather than according to the letter of the law made you jump for joy because there's a lot in the way you have approached Christianity that is consistent with that essentialism and a kind of avoidance of piety and formalism. How much do you think that approach to Islam is influencing Muslim communities in Australia, or is it a fringe Indian Sufi element?
Dave Andrews: The good news is I don't think it's just a fringe element. There is a whole reform movement within Islam at the moment called makassed where people are trying to rediscover how to interpret the text in the light of the overall purpose of Islam. And I think that we are privileged in Australia to have so many Muslims that are settling here that are reflecting on an alternative way of understanding that tradition. But it is not just in Australia, it's there in places like Malaysia and Indonesia as well.
I've just come back from doing some training in Malaysia for a group called Malaysian Care, and there I came into contact with some Muslim friends in the Islamic Renaissance Front, and they are a renewal movement within Islam that are committed to developing an Islamic society that is characterised by democracy and compassion. And they are very similar to AMARAH. This movement is not a single unitary fringe movement that is being run by a few reformist-minded individuals, it's actually a renewal movement that is erupting in various countries and various places.
Rachael Kohn: But Dave, they are pushing against a fairly entrenched authority in Malaysia which doesn't share their views.
Dave Andrews: That is true, and I believe all of us are called to critically engage people within our own traditions. But what my Muslim friends and I are doing is making a commitment to support each other in doing that within our traditions, so that I as a Christian don't attack Muslim extremists, they as Muslims don't attack Christian extremists. But I as a Christian challenge the extremists within my tradition, and they as Muslims challenge the extremists within their traditions. And in that way we are entering into solidarity in trying to live out the Bismillah in a way that is really meaningful within our own religious traditions and challenging people within our traditions who forget the spirit and only take the letter of the law when, as it says in the Christian Scriptures, the letter by itself actually kills, it is the spirit that brings life. And in order to resist those people who bring death by just interpreting the text in terms of the letter and not the spirit, we believe we need to engage our brothers and sisters within that tradition and challenge them themselves.
Rachael Kohn: In week four you state the view that the radical spirituality of compassion found in the Bismillah is the best hope of the world. But you would know that according to most of the surveys of religious violence and wars and conflict in the world today, a great deal of it is among Muslim groups. So that message would be pretty hard to hear for a lot of Westerners who look askance at the violence erupting in Muslim communities around the world.
Dave Andrews: Let's be fair here, Rachael. Over the last 100 years, more Christians have killed more Muslims than Muslims have killed Christians, and more so-called Christian countries have killed more people in Muslim countries than the other way around. I mean, how many people were killed in the World Trade Centre compared to the numbers of people that have been killed by invading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Let's put things into perspective. Is there violence on the Islamic side? Yes. Is there violence on the Christian side? Yes. We are both guilty and we both need to deal with our proclivity to violence and we both need to deal with our tendency to rationalise our violence in the name of our religion. To use a good Baptist word, we both need to repent.
I think both of us need to come to terms with the way that we have inflicted violence on one another and to deal with that. And I as a Christian am challenging Christians to deal with their violence, and my Muslim friends are challenging their Muslim colleagues to deal with their violence, and I believe we need to confront the violence that is there. And I think the spirituality of the Bismillah is one way to do that. I don't think we can blow anybody up invoking the mercy and compassion of God. Maybe we can kill people crying 'Allahu Akbar', but we can't kill anybody if we say Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. If our hearts are filled with mercy then it's just not possible to slaughter people.
Rachael Kohn: Dave, do you think that in our peaceful Australia, which has a lot of interfaith dialogue and activism and goodwill, where Christians and Muslims come together in all sorts of venues, in interfaith events, schools and shops, do you think then that we could benefit much more from actually exploring each other's texts, and is that what you're trying to do here?
Dave Andrews: Rachael, I think we are very fortunate to live in a democratic society that is not controlled by any one religion. I believe secularism is not about being committed to no religion but to be equally distant to all religions, and I believe we need a secularism in our society that is respectful of all religious traditions and creates the space then for everybody of all religions to critically reflect on their own religion and enter into genuine, meaningful and robust discussion and debate with one another, to deal with the interreligious conflicts.
I think that is not possible in countries where there is a convergence of religion and the state, but I think in our country where there is a degree of distance, we have a God-given opportunity to reflect on these things deeply and work out a way forward that could be quite significant and quite meaningful for our brothers and sisters around the world.
Rachael Kohn: Tell me, what has been the Christian response to your Ramadan diary?
Dave Andrews: Generally the responses from Christians, Muslims and Jews has all been very positive. But there are some people within my own Christian religion who would get very angry and hostile towards me, feeling like I'm a traitor, because every religion tends to believe it's got a monopoly on the truth. To suggest that the truth may also exist outside our religion is something that some people find very hard to accept. I have a belief that the spirit of God is active in every situation in every culture and in every tradition and every religion in the world. Some Christians find that very difficult to believe, even though when you search the Scriptures and you read the Gospels you find that Jesus was very open to the spirit of work in other traditions and religions.
Unfortunately not all Christians are Christ-like and not all Christians who say they follow in the way of Jesus take the way of Jesus seriously. But it is clear in the Scripture that his greatest affirmations of faith he reserved for people of other traditions and religions. The Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, he said to them, 'Greater faith have I found in you than in the whole of Israel. I found more faith in you than anyone in my own religion and tradition.' Now, it is that spirit of generosity, that spirit of grace, that spirit of recognition of truth and reality in other people's traditions and religions that I think is close to the heart of Jesus, and I long for the day when all Christians would recognise that.
Rachael Kohn: I wonder, how much has your journey in Ramadan affected the way you see Christianity? I note that you refer to Jesus as a Prophet, not as the Messiah or Son of God or God.
Dave Andrews: That was one of the things that one of the Christians got very upset about, that I referred to Jesus as a prophet. What I find very interesting is that if we look at the disciples of Jesus, it's very clear that he welcomed them to be with him as their rabbi, and welcomed them to enter into an ongoing conversation with him, without asking of them a creedal affirmation of faith that most Christians would ask today.
In fact, for most of the time on the journey with Jesus through the Gospels there is an ongoing debate about who Jesus is, as to whether he is Elijah or whether he's John the Baptist or another prophet who has come. And it seems to me that Jesus was far more comfortable with having an open, ongoing conversation about who he was than most Christians are. I believe that we need to follow the way of Jesus, which is to open up all those questions, to invite people into the conversation and explore the way forward together.
Rachael Kohn: Well, I think your Ramadan diary has done just that. Dave Andrews, I want to thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things, and particularly contributing to the series My Spiritual Diary.
Dave Andrews: You're welcome Rachael.
[Music: 'Kindness is My Religion', Dave Andrews]
Rachael Kohn: The man also strums a guitar and writes songs like that one, 'Kindness is My Religion'. Dave Andrews has released a lot of albums and is the author of many books, and you'll find a link from our website to further details about him. That's at abc.net.au/radionational, and while you're there, download the audio, and leave us a comment on what you would say if you kept a Ramadan diary and meditated on the Bismillah.
That's the seventh episode of our monthly series My Spiritual Diary. Each one has been so different, all of them explorations into the boundless possibilities of reflecting on the spiritual meaning of our lives.
Next week we find out why September 11 is so important to Coptic Christians. And it's not what you think. Copts are next week on The Spirit of Things with me, Rachael Kohn, right here on RN.