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Breaking Down the Walls of Our Hearts

Religion and Peace

Breaking Down the Walls of Our Hearts 

by Marcus Braybrooke

This speech was given on November 25, 2017 at the World Religions for Peace conference in London.

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I want to break down walls, Lord
I want to break down walls,
Between rich and poor, Lord,
Between young and old, Lord
Between East and West, Lord
Between the great religions, Lord
O help me break down walls.
Crowd at the peace rally – Photo: MB

Crowd at the peace rally – Photo: MB

These words are from a poem by Fr. Roger Lesser, a priest who has spent most of his life in India. I have been thinking a lot about breaking down walls, as I have just returned from an interreligious peace conference in South Korea.

The highlight was a peace rally in the World Cup Stadium that included speaker after speaker who affirmed the longing for peace and reunification of Korea. There were some 80,000 people – many of them young. It was as near as I will ever get to playing in a cup final!

The first time I was in South Korea was some 30 years ago when I attended a Peace Conference that had very much the same hopes as this one. I was also there ten years ago with members of the Peace Council to attend the dedication of a Peace Park in a small town called Hwaechon. It is very near the DMK, a sterile wasteland where soldiers from each side eye each other. One local said that only otters can cross the river there from one side to another. The mayor of Hwaechon asked us to bring spent ammunition to be used to make a Peace Bell that will be rung when Korea is reunited.

So now another great Peace Rally – the day after Trump left Korea. What did we achieve?

From left, Swami Hari Chaitanya Puri, Marcus Braybrook, Hon. Manjinder Singh, and Ven. Dr Phramah Nopadol Saisuta. All spoke at the peace rally in Korea. – Photo: MB

From left, Swami Hari Chaitanya Puri, Marcus Braybrook, Hon. Manjinder Singh, and Ven. Dr Phramah Nopadol Saisuta. All spoke at the peace rally in Korea. – Photo: MB

Certainly the South Koreans felt supported in seeing that religious leaders from around the world had come to be with them, and we should never underestimate the importance of such support. The event was widely reported in the Korean press. It is the duty of all of us to make sure that similar suffering, such as that in Yemen or of the Yasidi or Rohingya people and so many others, is not forgotten by the press and politicians.

Will those in the North see there is a genuine desire in the South for reconciliation? Were their hearts softened by the medical supplies we sent with the Peace Council as a goodwill gesture? Is generosity more effective than sanctions?

The Long Journey to Peace

I first went to the Holy Land in the 1950s and have prayed regularly ever since for the ‘Peace of Jerusalem.’ I remember watching Anwar Sadat’s – then president of Egypt – historic address to the Knesset forty years ago and receiving a letter of thanks from the Israeli Prime Minister for my message of support. Yet every time I have been back the situation is worse. So how, I have been asking myself, do we ensure our efforts for peace are as effective as possible?

The physical wall that surrounds Bethlehem or the barriers that divide South and North Korea represent the walls in our hearts, the walls between nations, the walls between religions, and the walls between people. So too do the barriers and barbed fences that keep out refugees and economic migrants.

During the time of Jesus, there was a wall in the Jerusalem temple beyond which Gentiles were not allowed to go. St. Paul said that Christ came to break down this wall that divided Jews and Gentiles and kept them enemies. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, … His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15)

The calling, surely, for all people of faith is to do the same – to break down the walls that divide and bring us all nearer to each other. There are simple ways to do so. For example, at the height of the troubles in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist monk decided to go and live in the north among the Hindu Tamils. He then just walked around the town smiling at everyone he saw. After about three months, someone smiled back!

Perhaps most importantly, we need to challenge what is exclusive in our religions – all that obscures our shared humanity – and no longer claim that any one of us is God’s favourite. God, I believe, is like a good parent who loves us all equally but not necessarily in the same way. Saying this may elicit hostility from members of our own faith. When I first got involved in interfaith I received some vitriolic letters, and I knew they were vitriolic by looking at the bottom and seeing they were signed ‘Your beloved in Christ.’ By now, I am considered a ‘lost soul’ by many in my religious community. This is why we need to support each other. I still remember being cheered up while I worked for the Council of Christians and Jews and was trying tensions when Rabbi Lionel Blue asked me, with an ironic smile, “Which religion do you dislike the most today?”

Writing in the 1930s, the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said that in a world that is becoming one, religions together need to “give a world soul to this growing world consciousness.” This is even more imperative today with the world-wide web and multinational companies. Radhakrishnan said that as religions adapt to this new world so they are “approximating” to one another. We get on the same ‘wavelength.’ For example, religions today are competing to be the most environmentally aware.

We hesitate to say there is One Divine Reality, but maybe saying this is unnecessary. As one rabbi said, “Religions don’t all have to be the same, as God doesn’t have to keep repeating Herself.” And a Buddhist, when asked about God, replied, “The Buddha and God send emails to each other all the time.”

The deepest meeting point is in the presence of the Holy One – a meeting that takes place in the cave of our heart. This is why I believe in the power of shared prayer, which many interfaith activists still find too challenging to do. It affirms both the Oneness of God and the oneness of humanity.

The Interfaith Observer regularly encourages us by reminding us just how many people share this vision. All our varied activity in the search for peace affirms that vision, Therefore, even when we experience disappointments in our work, nothing we do is ever wasted.

To quote again from Fr. Lesser:

I want to break down walls, Lord
Between Muhammad’s sons, Lord

And worshippers of Shiva,
Between low caste and high, Lord
O help me break down walls.