Half a century ago, the Catholic Church released a ground-breaking document. It was entitled: Nostra Aetate, Latin for “In Our Day”.
The rest of the title was, “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. The body to implement this radical new teaching was called, The Secretariate for Non-Christian Religions. At the time, no one questioned the name “non-Christian”.
However, slowly the awareness dawned that it is inappropriate to call people by what they are not. Muslims are Muslims; they are not “non-Christians”. Buddhists are Buddhists; they are not “non-Christians”. Hindus are Hindus; they are not “non-Christians”. And so on. In this light, the negative descriptor became unacceptable.
Because it is important to call people by what they are, not by what they are not, in 1988 Pope John Paul II changed the name of the Secretariate for Non-Christians to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The new name better reflects a positive engagement with people from other faiths, reaching out to them in dialogue as they are.
In recent weeks we have seen polarizing attitudes being expressed on the AFL field, with accusations of racism. While we must stand up against such negative discrimination, the odd thing is that by using the very word “racism”, we may in fact be aiding and abetting the very thing that we oppose. We inadvertently give the impression that we are two races, a black race and a white race, not the one human race.
I have noted in recent years that as Muslims grow in numbers and self-confidence they sometimes assert “the Muslim community”. I hear Muslims talk proudly of “the community”. This is fine. It is great. It is wonderful to be proud of one’s own community. It is right and proper, especially in an atmosphere of Islamophobia when some are fearful of and hostile to Islam and Muslims (or more accurately, to their false perception of Islam and Muslims). So this positive Muslim self-esteem is indeed a good thing. But there is a problem if this positive affirmation hides a shadow side, that “the (Muslim) community” is set over against “them”, the “other”, the “non-Muslim community”.
In Australia, there should be no “us” and “them”, no “black” and “white”, no “Christian” and “non-Christian”, no “Muslim” and “non-Muslim”. We are a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious society. Yes, we follow diverse religions – but at the heart of each of them is the teaching that the “other” is my “brother” and “sister” and “mother”; and the Golden Rule, “treat others as you want to be treated” (Mat 7:12, Lk 6:31), or in modern language, “tweet others as you want to be tweeted!”.
By getting to know one another, we give birth to new possibilities, to wider horizons, to bigger minds, to expanded hearts. We are all citizens together, equal under the law, with the same rights and responsibilities. As such, we should “…. do right to all manner of people …. without fear or favour, affection, or ill-will.”
I congratulate the organizers of MEFF for their 31 years of serving the whole community. Yes, MEFF is a Muslim Eid festival, but people of all cultures, all religions and all citizens are invited. This is the generous, open, welcoming, hospitable type of society we need to promote, to protect and to celebrate.
I hope and pray that MEFF may continue to provide this example of hospitality and openness for generations to come.
Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, based Sydney is Director of the Columban Mission Institute and Coordinator of of its Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations. This is a slightly edited version of his speech given at the Multicultural Eid Festival & Fair (MEFF) held on Sunday 2 August 2015 at Fairfield Showground.