This nation needs to have a public discourse that allows us to learn from the arguments of those we disagree with says Sally Foster-Fulton
SCOTLAND’S citizens have a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity, regardless of the outcome of the vote on September 18, 2014, to imagine Scotland’s future. My earnest question is: “Can we come together and cultivate some common ground?”
Is it possible in the extraordinary, diverse, and pluralistic society that is modern Scotland, for us to be co-creators of and outspoken advocates for safe spaces? For us to question, to reflect, to learn from others who may not see things the way we do but who dream the same things for themselves.
I recently attended a conference where representatives from traditions of faith and no religious faith gathered to consider ways to engage together, to foster safe spaces and come together to “do some good.” It is a different model, an alternate to the dangerously divisive rhetoric that seems to frame the faith-secular debate. I am a firm believer in freedom of expression and the intrinsic dignity of every human being.
That belief comes from my Christian faith, and that belief leads to voice and action. I have fought against any one group’s attempt to impose its view on the rest of society.
Fundamentalism, and by that I mean any group who thinks it has the only answer and seeks to force that view by silencing everyone else, is one of the most dangerous lenses we can view the world with. Alas, over the last year or so, I have met this stifling view in a surprising place: a secularist society.Recently, when colleagues and I, at our instigation, met with the Secular Society to search for common ground on issues around education, we were told only they understood our agenda and whatever motivation we said we had could not be our only reason and there must be a hidden agenda.
Our integrity was questioned when we said that in our faith, there is a deep and long tradition of service to others that is an end in itself, and is not anything to with proselytization. It is an expression of our faith that churches partner with their local schools, helping to explore commonly held values such as fairness, forgiveness and love; but the purpose is education, not for young people to be converted to the faith.
It is an expression of our faith that hundreds of churches across the nation are supporting food banks, involved in credit unions, engaging in issues of homelessness, of climate change, poverty and exclusion; but the purpose is for people, wherever they are to be supported and served, not for people to be converted. And it is from those experiences we then speak to those in power, asking: why does 21st century Scotland need more food banks than ever before, why have payday loans firms got such a grip of people in poverty, why are the numbers on our streets with no homes increasing, why is our economic policy ignoring climate change consequences?
We speak because our faith leads us to service, not to convert, but to stand by, walk with and speak up for those whose life is full of struggle.
Others do the same things without faith but it is our faith which takes us to those places and so it is our faith that means we have something to say in the public square. Our place in civic and political discourse is not by right, but is our experience borne from our response in faith to the lives of our neighbours and ourselves.
To remove that voice, a voice shaped by faith, something over half the nation is shaped by according to the 2011 census, is to harm the nation. For us as a nation to take the risks required to solve the challenges that bring such suffering, the nation needs to embrace faith as the starting point to change for more than half its citizens.
We need a conversation that looks for common ground in diversity and not the lowest common denominator as a pale imitation of equality. We need a discourse that weaves strands of human understanding into a rich tapestry of human community, not a binary: “I’m right, you’re wrong, so will you be quiet,” conflict-ridden frame that helps no-one.
We need an attitude to each other that respects and learns from those with whom we disagree, not rejects and imposes ideology in the name of freedom but actually restricts it. We need to grapple with the idea that truth has many faces and the journey of life will always become lost when the signpost we follow points to a place called intolerance.
• Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton is Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland