A group of students stood behind the two banners bearing these slogans: “We refuse to be enemies, Spread Hummus not Hate.”
They were from all faiths, nations and cultures and had come together to express their unity and commitment to live together in peace.
Roughly 40 students in Manchester, United Kingdom, “spread hummus” on their pita bread lunch as they listened to representatives from different student faith societies speak of their commitment to unity and peace.
It would be easy to conclude, “It was nice, but it won’t change the world.” And yet, such an event felt like a radical alternative to the fracturing world reported daily in the news.
Violent extremism is arguably the greatest global threat. It includes terrorism and violent acts, which could seemingly be committed anywhere and anytime.
What does it mean to follow Jesus in this context?
Seeking to achieve religious and/or political ambitions through violence is nothing new.
The Zealot movement was active in the time of Jesus. They wanted to liberate Israel from Roman occupation. We’re told that Simon was a Zealot (Mark 3:18-19), though some modern translations use other terms.
What was the relationship of Jesus to this movement?
One of the motives of Judas for betraying Jesus was perhaps his disappointment and anger that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God in word and deed did not embrace violent extremism as a means for establishing the rule and way of God, or more particularly overthrowing the Roman occupation.
Jesus rejected the option of violent extremism and faced violence with self-sacrifice.
So what might it mean to dare greatly and have the courage to follow Jesus in the context of violent extremism today?
Here are seven ways to respond:
1. Being incarnational in our discipleship by resisting the temptation to withdraw from the world and actively engaging with the complexity of it.
2. Rejecting and challenging violent extremism from any quarter.
3. Asserting the equality of all human life as “made in the image of God” and emphasizing that destroying human life is always wrong. This may lead us not only to challenge violent extremism, but also government-sanctioned bombing campaigns.
4. Advocating the centrality of the love of God for all expressed in Christ.
5. Building relationships with people of all faiths and none, loving our neighbors, especially people in communities from which violent extremists have been recruited.
6. Using language and promoting the use of language that clearly distinguishes between faith/religion and violent extremism.
In Manchester, our faith network, along with many others has adopted the term “Daesh” in preference to ISIS/IS/ISIL/Islamic State.
As I understand it, Daesh is a pun on a pejorative Arabic term meaning “one who sows disunity.”
It is widely used by those opposed to the aims and agenda of this group. It has the benefit of distinguishing the group from Islam.
7. Opting for relating positively to the young by creating and supporting opportunities for interfaith encounters and relationships in recognition of the vulnerability of the young to being groomed for violent extremism.
These positive encounters and relationships hold out the opportunity to realize and develop a valuing of the other, breaking down stereotypes.
I recognize there have to be ways to spot and respond to those who are groomed for violent extremism, but surely most of its prevention is about building a sense of belonging and valuing the richness of a diverse community.
For several years, I chaired a project called “Faith Friends,” which placed pairs of Christian and Muslim workers in secondary schools.
They were a bit like chaplains, available to and working with the young people, but usually together as a pair.
I was involved in recruiting both Christians and Muslims to serve, and as chair of the project I expected that one day I would have to respond to a dispute between a pair of Faith Friends. However, that day never came.
Whatever tensions there may have been about a Christian and a Muslim working together, each pair was able to work them out.
They all learned much about one another and their faith, became firm friends and colleagues and enjoyed working together – as they still do.
So how about it? In a world that seems to be more complex and dangerous, will we resist retreating into our churches and follow Jesus in the complexity and messiness of the world?
Courage is needed to follow Jesus by working to transform violent extremism through interfaith relating.
Andy Williams is minister of Sion Baptist Church in Burnley, United Kingdom, and community development worker of Faith Network in Manchester. He is a founding member of the interfaith project Building Bridges in Burnley and moderator of the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s Inter Faith Working Group. A longer version of this article first appeared on BUGB’s “Daring Greatly” blog and is used with permission.