(February 10, 2009)
It is an honour to be here. A particular honour to be with you Mr. President. The world participated in the celebration of your election. Now the hard work begins. And now, also we should be as steadfast for you in the hard work as in the celebration. You don’t need cheerleaders but partners; not spectators but supporters. The truest friends are those still around when the going is toughest. We offer you our friendship today. We will work with you to make your Presidency one that shapes our destiny to the credit of America and of the world. Mr President, we salute you and wish you well.
After 10 years as British Prime Minister, I decided to choose something easy. I became involved in the Middle East Peace Process.
There are many frustrations – that is evident. There is also one blessing. I spend much of my time in the Holy Land and in the Holy City. The other evening I climbed to the top of Notre Dame in Jerusalem. You look left and see the Garden of Gethsemane. You look right and see where the Last Supper was held. Straight ahead lies Golgotha. In the distance is where King David was crowned and still further where Abraham was laid to rest. And of course in the centre of Jerusalem is the Al Aqsa Mosque, where according to the Qur’an, the Prophet was transported to commune with the prophets of the past.
Rich in conflict, it is also sublime in history. The other month in Jericho, I visited the Mount of Temptation. I think they bring all the political leaders there. My guide – a Palestinian – was bemoaning the travails of his nation. Suddenly he stopped, looked heaven wards and said "Moses, Jesus, Mohammed: why did they all have to come here?"
It is a good place to reflect on religion: a source of so much inspiration; an excuse for so much evil.
Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being.
From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.
And yet, faith will not be so easily cast. For billions of people, faith motivates, galvanises, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is faith in action. You can see it in countless local communities where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, tend the sick, care for the afflicted, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing and salvation to the lost. You can see it in the arousing of the world’s conscience to the plight of Africa.
There are a million good deeds done every day by people of faith. These are those for whom, in the parable of the sower, the seed fell on good soil and yielded sixty or a hundredfold.
What inspires such people?
Ritual or doctrine or the finer points of theology? No.
I remember my first spiritual awakening. I was ten years old. That day my father – at the young age of 40 – had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance. My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me. Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. "I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God". I said. "That doesn’t matter" my teacher replied "God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return."
That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken.
And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love.
Rabbi Hillel was once challenged by a pagan, who said: if you can recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg, I will convert to being a Jew. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said "That which is hateful to you, do it not unto your neighbour. That is the Torah. Everything else is commentary. Go and study it."
As the Qur’an states: "if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity".
Faith is not discovered in acting according to ritual but acting according to God’s will and God’s will is love.
We might also talk of the Hindu "Living beyond the reach of I and mine" or the words of the Buddha "after practising enlightenment you must go back to practise compassion" or the Sikh scripture: "God’s bounties are common to all. It is we who have created divisions."
Each faith has its beliefs. Each is different. Yet at a certain point each is in communion with the other.
Examine the impact of globalisation. Forget for a moment its rights and wrongs. Just look at its effects. Its characteristic is that it pushes the world together. It is not only an economic force. The consequence is social, even cultural.
The global community – "it takes a village" as someone once coined it – is upon us. Into it steps religious faith. If faith becomes the property of extremists, it will originate discord. But if, by contrast, different faiths can reach out to and have knowledge of one another, then instead of being reactionary, religious faith can be a force for progress.