What is the central message of your book?
The central message is to tell that we are all members of one family, God’s family, the human family, and to live out the full implications of that truth. It is also to assert that wrong and injustice will not have the last word, for we are made ultimately for goodness, for love, for compassion.
In your book, you discuss the redemptive power of suffering. How do you reconcile the presence of human suffering with the existence of a merciful God?
We need to have a proper agnosticism, for we do not know all there is to know. Ultimately, innocent suffering is especially a mystery and we should not be too facile in our responses. It certainly is blasphemous to suggest that it is God’s will. The God I worship is all-sufficient and yet created us to be persons with freedom to choose to love or not to love, to obey or not to obey God and God’s laws. God has a deep reverence for our autonomy and does not intervene to stop us from making wrong decisions. We inhabit a universe subject to laws that make it a cosmos and not a chaos. So when a baby falls out of a second-floor window, gravity will mean she falls to the hard ground, which does not turn soft for her. If God had to be always intervening to save us from bad consequences, then ours would be an unpredictable and chaotic world. A great deal of the suffering in our world is caused by our choices: the holocaust, war, bombing innocent civilians, substance abuse, violence against vulnerable ones, etc. In a real sense, the existence of evil and suffering could be said to be evidence of the profound respect God has for us and our proper autonomy as persons. And yet God does not look on with indifference at our plight. We Christians claim that God took on our human nature and suffered to redeem the entire creation. This God is Immanuel, God with us, there in our anguish, our desolation, our distress. And suffering frequently ennobles people, making them more compassionate, more magnanimous than they might otherwise have been. Of course, suffering can also embitter.
In recent years, there has been heightened tension between Western–majority Judeo-Christian–society and Eastern–majority Muslim–society. What type of reconciliation do you envision between these two groups?
Religion is morally neutral like, say, a knife. When you use it to cut sandwiches, then a knife is a good thing; but if you use it to stick in someone’s guts, then it is a bad thing. Religion can make people caring, compassionate, and concerned about justice and peace. Religion can also make people bigoted and intolerant of others with different views. So Christians can turn on fellow Christians as in Northern Ireland, or they can use it to justify injustice and oppression, as some Christians did to justify slavery in the United States or apartheid in South Africa. In our antiapartheid struggle, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, et al, marched together and were united in their opposition to that evil. It is possible, therefore, for people of different faiths to work harmoniously together. There are bad Muslims, as there are bad Christians. We should avoid generalizing and stereotyping as when we say: “All (whatever) are…” No faith that I know believes injustice, oppression, poverty, war, etc., are good. Adherents of different faiths can and do live together harmoniously and can and do coexist in so many countries and so can be reconciled when they fall out. They are not inherently and in principle irreconcilable. It is not Islam that wages war against Christianity. It is certain Muslims fighting against certain Christians and vice versa. No faith has a monopoly on God or on goodness–and not on badness either! God has no enemies. Certainly, my enemies are not God’s enemies.
What message would you like to send to the leaders of these peoples?
I would say, please exhibit the best attributes of your particular faith and do encourage your followers to take off their shoes, metaphorically, as they tread on what others believe is their holy ground.
When you were struggling to end apartheid in South Africa, how did you maintain your own hope, and encourage those fighting against apartheid with you?
Central to the Christian message is triumph over seeming ignominious defeat, life comes from death paradoxically, resurrection after crucifixion, Christians would be prisoners of hope. People prayed for us all over the world and we knew that those who were for us were many times more than those against us. And we believed that this is a moral universe. The perpetrators of evil had already lost even whilst they wielded enormous military might. We knew that evil and injustice could, ultimately, not prevail.
What do you think God most wants of his people?
God wants so very passionately that we will realize our high destiny as members of God’s family and that we should behave as those who are sisters and brothers where all belong with none being an outsider.
Why did you decide to write this book now?
We may sometimes be overwhelmed by the depressing news of wars and conflict, of famine and natural disaster, of oppression, and injustice. We need to be reminded about all the good that is happening all this time too: people caring for AIDS sufferers, pouring themselves out prodigally in compassionate service for others; and that we are made for goodness, for love; that it is these that will have the last word, and not their ghastly counterparts, much prevailing evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Julian of Norwich, a great English contemplative, was assured by God that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
What role does faith play in your vision of hope?
Without faith I certainly would not have survived in the struggle against apartheid’s injustice. It was believing that this is God’s world and that God is in charge that sustained us. When we believe, for instance, that each person is of infinite worth because she is created in God’s image, then we could hardly be indifferent to a system that treated her as less than this. It was our faith, not any political ideology, that spurred us on.
Is conflict necessary for peace?
War/conflict is not a prerequisite to peace. True peace and harmony have existed between and within nations before being shattered by war. True peace requires justice and equity. God longs for the time when we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when the lion will again lie down with the lamb, for God dreams that we will come to realize we are family.