Today a state memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne to remember those who died in the MH17 catastrophe and those who grieve for them. The purpose of the service was to provide a public opportunity for the expression of grief and memory, a civic and religious response to the bewildering circumstances of the MH17 disaster.
In its form the service also responded to another challenge at the heart of so much of the death and destruction that is taking place around the globe. For the leaders of the service included (amongst others) Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims, using their own languages and faith traditions to remember the dead and the grieving.
The interfaith nature of this corporate act of memory now seems natural in Australia, reflecting the cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity of our society. Nonetheless it is a rare and very recent phenomenon in both global and local terms. 19th-century Melbourne went into meltdown when Anglican and Presbyterian ministers swapped pulpits. Catholic and Protestant cooperation has only emerged in the last 50 years, overcoming a divisive and deathly sectarian history.
To hear the Mourners’ Kaddish, the In Paradisum from the Requiem Mass, the Du'a of Janazah, chanted in a single service as occurred today would astonish our grandparents whether they were born in this land or around the world.
Acts of interfaith solidarity are desperately needed in our world as an important step in building societies that can honour diversity in peace. Religion can rightly be blamed for many of the world’s conflicts.
This has occurred where religious beliefs and behaviours have been seen as definitive for a society and its members, and as enforceable in relation to those who are not members or are not obeying its dictates.
Religions are not, of course, alone in bearing this guilt. Movements such as aggressive nationalism, and desires such as greed, can also be blamed for many other conflicts.
At stake in all such conflicts is that most difficult political issue for civil society: how do humans live with disagreement? But behind that lies the deeper assumption that humans should even try to live with their differences. When ultimate matters are at stake, such as the hatred of others, the nature of justice, obedience to divine will, or the very understanding of what it is to be human, time and again adherents of one or other school of belief lay claim to authority over how and where other humans live, and how and when they will die.
The persistent failure of humanity to live with profound difference is only magnified in a global village, where the destruction of societies, beliefs, and lives seems only to proliferate. To grieve together for the loss of so many lives on MH17 is also to grieve for the hate and conflict that has gripped the Ukraine, Russia, Gaza, Israel, Syria, Iraq and countless other places.
It is for this reason that interfaith acts are of symbolic importance. The theologies and anthropologies of most major world religions are indeed irreconcilable. For religious leaders to stand together is therefore at once an act of hope and an act of humility. This solidarity does not solve any of the problems, nor does it imply glib statements about universal human values underlying all religions. But it is a necessary first step, as a witness to the possibility that we could live with our differences without murdering ourselves and our children.
It is a sign that love might just have a chance of conquering hate.