I came across the word in association with Pope Francis who seems to have the single-mindedness of a prophet. This week he visited the island of Lesbos giving hope to the thousands of refugees there. He challenged all of us to think of our response to the situation in the Middle East which has produced such misery. He told Europe that it would be judged on its response to this crisis. And being one who knows that actions speak louder than words he brought threee refugee families back to Rome with him to be looked after by the Community of San Egidio. The families are Muslim but the Pope's concern was only for their humnanity. Pope Francis seems to have an ability to ignore past tensions, the pomp and ceremony within which he lives, the wealth and artistic treasures with which he is surrounded to see only his fellow sisters and brothers. This is an approach which can transform relationships.
This certainly was the case in his relations with Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. For the first time in centuries the Orthodox Patriarch attended the Pope's inauguration in Rome. What allowed him to do this was the simple fact that Francis declared hinself to be the Bishop of Rome when he was presented to the world after his election. This overcame disputes about universal sovereigncy and, though it's quite likely that theologians and administrators have to engage in dialogue before there would be any formal unity, the two men have become friends. Patriarch Bartholomew was by the Pope's side when he invited Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to the Vatican to pray for peace in Israel/Palestine and accompanied him to Lesbos last week. In a lot of what he does Francis appears to live by the ideal that it's better to do things together than alone so when he went to Israel/Palestine he was accompanied by his Rabbi and Imam friends from Buenos Aires.
There was a sense of parrhesia in a recent conference organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi. It was on the the theme of just war theory and the outcome was a call to Pope Francis to write an encyclical on non-violent protest. All religions have grown up in societies that have been characterised by war and violence. Often they have been caught up in these and in colonial occupations of other lands. In spite of the fact that peace is at the heart of religions, chaplains have prayed for the success of 'their' side, blessed weapons and religious scriptures have been used to rationalise violent conflict. In Hinduism, for example, the Bhagavad Gita encourages Arjuna to engage in battle because it's his duty as a warrior - though he has to do it detached from the outcome, Sikhs are described as warrior disciples and the khalsa was organised to defend Sikhs at a time of great persecution. But war was not be the first resort. As it says in the Guru Granth Sahib "When all efforts to restore peace proves useless and no words avail, Lawful is the flash of steel, it is right to draw the sword". Within Judaism revenge and unprovoked violence is condemned but self-defence is justified though Deuteronomy allows for attacking towns if the inhabitants don't accept the terms of peace first offered to them. The idea of jihad is well known in Islam but not understood. The greater jihad is the internal struggle to live a good life and the lesser jihad is aggression against those who oppress or persecute believers. Christianity has its own limits in its just war theory which evaluates when war can be morally justifiable.
The participants at the Vatican conference recognised that many of these teachings arose in another age and were now outdated. They spoke out strongly that just wars are not possible today with the proliferation of sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. Rather than just wars there was a call for a just peace. As one participant said,
"We should not give now, at this moment, reasons for war. Let us block them and promote relationships of harmony, of brother and sisterhood, rather than going for war." What better agenda could there be for interfaith relations? Perhaps if we engaged in this together religions would have the courage to be witnesses to peace rather than the conflict that so many people thinks characterises them today.