Vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil and cruel are some of the nastier characteristics of humankind. I was horrified this morning to read that Jews are being required to register with pro-Russian forces in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, or face being deported. The report (in the Daily Mail) states: "A pamphlet handed out in Donetsk orders 'citizens of Jewish nationality' over the age of 16 to pay $50 to register and be issued special passports 'marking the confession of faith'." Inevitably, I am reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I pray that the Ukrainians are not heading in the same direction.
I feel the need to examine why this sort of persecution (of one human being or a group of human beings) happens. I believe that one of the major reasons for religious intolerance and religious strife (or at least for intolerance and strife in the name of religion) is fear of the unknown. The vast majority of people know very little about other religions, and it is part of human nature to fear the unknown (or the different).
I'm now going to embark on a wild generalisation. When a person brought up in the Christian tradition (for example) looks at a Muslim person (for example), they probably won't know any of the beliefs in common that Muslims and Christians have. They may only see that the outside trappings are different - the mosque instead of the church, the taking off of shoes, the Halal meat, the wearing of headscarves by women and so on and so on. Muslims are Different to Us, (capital D, capital U) and therefore cannot be trusted, and are therefore feared. Or to take an example closer to home, until not so long ago, many Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics regarded each other as spawns of the devil.
Ignorance breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds fear and hatred, which can easily turn into all-out strife. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians who sit at particular points on the religious divide, see it as their job in life to foment intolerance and fear, so that they can whip "their" people up to commit acts of aggression and violence in the name of religion or communism or the Russian Way of Life - whatever! The links between states and religions are very strong; the dividing line between tribalism and nationalism is a very thin one.
What really matters is that as many people as possible try to follow the precepts of the Charter for Compassion, both in their private lives and on a larger scale. Which means treating each other as we wish to be treated ourselves, and not treating each other as we would not wish to be treated.
What really matters is that we are all human beings.
At our General Assembly meetings this week, Jane Blackall used a beautiful benediction by Erika A. Hewitt to finish her morning devotions, which I repeat here:
"The hand in yours belongs to a person
whose heart is sometimes tender,
whose skin is sometimes thin,
whose eyes sometimes fill with tears,
whose laughter is a beautiful sound.
The hand that you hold belongs
to a person who is seeking wholeness
and knows that you are doing the same.
As you leave this sanctuary,
may your hearts remain open
may your voices stay strong
and may your hands remain outstretched.
This is what really matters. I pray that it may be so in the days and weeks that follow.