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One-on-one with Clive Lawton OBE

Clive Lawton OBE is a British educator, inter-faith advocate, and author of My Belief: I am A Jew and The Jewish People: Some Questions Answered. In his recent visit to Australia, Lawton gave a series of talks and warned Australian audiences that racism, intolerance and extremism will continue to fester unless we can find a better way to talk openly about conflict and difference. The Point Magazine spoke to Lawton during his visit about the power of inter-faith dialogue.

What is the importance of inter-faith work? 

Religion remains a potent force, for both good and ill, and if we do not take it seriously, even if we ourselves are not religious, we will be guilty of failing to understand how half the world works and what motivates billions of people across the globe.

Religion is, at its best, a total way of seeing the world but that then carries the danger of thinking that either everyone should agree with you or that everyone who doesn’t is ‘wrong’. ‘Interfaith’ work results at least in a giving people a bit of room to be themselves, better still enriching one’s understanding of one’s own position to the common humanity, all the while in no way relinquishing one’s own convictions and commitment to one’s own religion. That’s actually a pretty tricky demand and only the biggest hearted people can do it thoroughly.

"Conflict exists. If we don’t talk about it, not only does it continue to exist, it festers and it sours everything else around it."

– Clive Lawton

Many critics of inter-faith work argue it is ‘fluffy’ with no tangible outcomes for conflict resolution, what is your response to such critics?

My first answer is to say that wanting tangible outcomes to conflict is a pretty tall order. Interfaith work is long term and demanding. Expecting instant results or outcomes is foolish.

Let’s be frank, no one else has found a guaranteed way to resolve conflict either! But the opposite of ‘utterly and always successful’ is not ‘fluffy and useless’. When exploring conflict, people’s passions make the scene messy and difficult. Anything that leads people to listen to the other, stop demonising or stereotyping the other for just long enough to realise that it might be worth both listening and trying to speak one’s own truth in a manner that might be heard not hurtful, has got to be a good thing. And religion always has the danger of leading people to be so utterly certain of their own right view of the world that all other views become invalid, wrong and potentially then deserving of suppression or worse.

Clive Lawton

You recently spoke in Sydney about the importance of talking about conflict. Can you elaborate on this point and why is it important to talk about conflict?

Conflict exists. If we don’t talk about it, not only does it continue to exist, it festers and it sours everything else around it.

I know, as a Jew, for example, that unless we actually name and discuss anti-Semitic stereotypes and beliefs – and of course it might take ages to get to such a point of trust that we can – then the people I meet might feel very warmly towards me personally but still might hold their misplaced beliefs about Jews in parallel to their growing understanding that I’m somehow different to the run of Jews they haven’t met!

Similarly, any Muslim meeting me will wonder what I think about Israel and the Middle East – and I’ll wonder what they’re thinking about me on those fronts and until we explore them we’ll stay with our first assumptions.

How can discussions of war and conflict bring communities together?

Some Muslim-Jewish encounter groups get over this by deciding not to talk about the Middle East situation and instead concentrate on the many issues they have in common where they live, and that’s not a bad start. I’m certainly not suggesting that interfaith dialogue should start with exploring difficult conflict. But in the long run, until they actually talk about it, they’ll carry assumptions about the other in their hearts that sour the encounter on a very deep level.

So if they can find a way to explore these issues – it won’t be for them to resolve them since usually the conflict is actually happening somewhere else or is about another time in the past – they will feel each other’s pain or understand each other’s position more deeply. Sometimes, groups outside a conflict can be the first conduit to resolving that conflict since they are actually less directly invested.

Are there irreconcilable differences in religion and how can one deal with these differences?

Yes of course there are irreconcilable differences. But it is precisely the skill of accepting those differences and not allowing them to tip one into conflict that keeps the world sane and right.

A Christian believes that Christ came to save the world, and I don’t. A Muslim believes that Mohammad is the last and best of the prophets, and I don’t. A Hindu believes that the essential ‘Godhead’, Brahma, can be best approached through many images and sub-forms, and I don’t. A Sikh believes that the Guru Granth Sahib is a holy book and I don’t. And so on. Though it is obviously not the main aspect of being a Jew, my convictions that those things aren’t true are part of what makes me a Jew – and part of what makes those other people what they are.

The beautiful trick in the best ‘interfaith’ work is to accept the importance of those things for others and not to want to bend them to your own way of feeling. Indeed, better still, by a sensitive listening, to grow from those insights which are not yours. As a Jew then, but not a Christian, I have to think about what I believe about how the world is saved. As a Jew then, but not a Muslim, I have to think about how far I live up to my own teachings as a Muslim does so dedicatedly to his/hers. As a Jew but not a Hindu, I have to think about how I recognise the multifarious way in which God is manifest in the world and not just in my own little ‘religious’ bit of it. As a Jew and not a Sikh, I have to live up to the challenge they give me of being a committed player in the world at large.    

Can face-to-face discussions persuade individuals’ beliefs? Can a conversation with a violent extremist have the potential to change their views or actions?

I’m not sure that I, or anyone else, can persuade a fanatic to change their mind. But there are definitely reformed fanatics. So how did that happen? In some cases of course, they just grew up. Ultimately they change their own minds but they do so as a result of their encounter with others. The discovery of common humanity when they thought there was none, the kindness and openness of others, all this turns minds away from hate and towards goodwill or at least the recognition that their own previous view was narrow and destructive, not least to themselves.

Often young people are encouraged by older generations to not speak of politics and issues of contention. Should young people be more involved in public debates and discussions on issues relating to conflict resolution?

Of course young people should talk of this stuff and get involved. It’s their world too, isn’t it? But young people don’t know everything and, in the same spirit of inter-generational dialogue this time, they have to listen to the insights of those who’ve been around the block a few times too.

But young people’s strength is also their weakness. Many, even most, young people are rightly idealistic. They believe, rightly in my view, that most people are good and it’s not unrealistic to hope for a better world. But that also makes them vulnerable to people with simple solutions. Fanaticism is to be found more amongst the young than the old because apparently straightforward ‘us and them’ stuff seems to make more sense when you’re looking for solutions to the complicated business of life and the world we live in. Notice, it’s always young people who blow themselves up, whatever the cause. It’s older people who send them to do so.

For this reason too, we should do everything we can to equip young people not to be exploited for their beautiful idealism.

The Point

We need to talk about religion and politics or we risk more damage.

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