Today I was startled by something else he wrote - in his final chapter on Being a Christian.
Indispensable marks of the Child of God, he wrote, are "Righteousness of life and practical love to one's neighbours, especially to one's Christian brethren..." (my emphasis).
Surely he cannot have meant that? Does Jesus say anywhere in the gospels that we should favour fellow Christians over other people? Love your neighbour as yourself, but especially so if he is a Christian like you?
I was at a conference not long ago where I heard Geshe Tashi Tsering, resident Geshe at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, speak on The Spirit of Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism.
There are three groups of people in our lives, he told us; those very close to us whom we love, those acquaintances whom we dislike, and the remaining large group whom we ignore or to whom we are indifferent. We need to break down those divisions by abandoning any self -interest in our relationships and actions. He reminded us that even though our personal circumstances, cultures, upbringings may be different, we fundamentally all have the same yearnings, rights, desire to be happy and not suffer. We are all human. And we must feel these things at heart level, he said. Only then can we cultivate compassion towards others, and meditation is vital to this process.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained on his visit to the new Hindu Temple of Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) in Birmingham on 15 November 2008, ‘interfaith dialogue is not a way of obliterating our differences, it's a way of living creatively with them. A way of living gratefully with them, so that our compassion, our love and our fellow feeling do not stop simply with those who are like us.’
In his previous New Year message for 2007 he had spoken of the need for us to put right the injustices of the world, to realize that such issues are an affront to our own dignity. In some way they make each of us less of a person. We will be fed and nourished spiritually only when we really and honestly wake up to the needs of our fellow human beings, learning together to reach out to them, to heal, feed, and befriend those less fortunate than ourselves.And he wasn't saying just reach out to our own kind!
Martin Luther King in his Nobel Lecture reminded us that "All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality."
Three centuries earlier the Renaissance author and Anglican priest John Donne famously wrote in 1624:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Followers of the Baha’i faith see Earth as one country of which we are all citizens. One of their guiding principles is that ‘the oneness of humanity is the fundamental spiritual and social truth shaping our age.’
Now I know that the Apostle Paul, writing in his first epistle to the Corinthians, on human worth, likened the worldwide body of Christians with the human body. All parts of the body are essential for the complete welfare of the whole. In the same way we all need each other and the loss of any part weakens us all: there should be no discord between us. He taught his followers that the members of the church should ‘have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ The ‘body’ in this biblical context is translated from the Greek Soma, related to Sozo meaning ‘to heal, preserve, be made whole.’ We are not whole: we are wounded or spiritually impoverished if we are not a part of the greater body of faith in our community. We all need to feel that connectedness, that relationship. We need to find unity within the wide diversity of all our individual gifts. We all need each other and we all are special in the eyes of God.
But we cannot have some of us more special than others. Can we?
So I think, just for once, John Stott was wrong.