Homily delivered by Bishop Noel Treanor at Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast on Sunday 28 August, in which he addresses the recent destruction of Jewish graves within Belfast City Cemetery, calls for a greater respect for the Jewish community and discusses the broader issue of racial discrimination and xenophobia within an increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious Ireland.
As suggested in the closing line of the first reading from the Old Testament book of Ben Sirach/ Ecclesiasticus, the Word of God invites the listener, and therefore invites us, to reflect on our experience of life and on thoughts offered by others, and primarily on the thoughts and words of Jesus. The Christian mind is not a closed mind. It is a mind that is permanently open to new insights and to the quest for insight and truth.
As suggested by the parable and saying in the gospel text, the follower of Christ, who is a “citizen of heaven”, as it is put in the lines from the letter to the Hebrews, has care for and relates with the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – in other words, those who are in need, those who are not powerful, those who are in a minority in society.
In terms of this gospel text (Lk 14. 1, 7-14), beyond practical and concrete actions of care for the needy, the Christian as individual and the Christian community are called to forge and shape that attitude, insight and outlook which sees and treasures the equal value and dignity of each person before God.
This matter of the shaping of attitude and outlook, and the private and public role of religious faith in this regard, arising from these readings that so evidently show the inter-relationship between the Jewish and Christian faiths, invites the entire Christian community in our city and indeed in Northern Ireland to reflect on the destruction in recent days of headstones marking the graves of Jewish deceased in the City cemetery.
These actions have been condemned by many and rightly so. These shameful acts are a blemish on our society. Condemnation of such actions, necessary as it is, does not suffice. As citizens and as a society we cannot take solace in condemnation alone, nor indeed merely in appropriate penalisation for such crimes.
Our society is no longer a binary society, made up of broadly nationalist and unionist traditions, nor of Christians who are Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, as well as persons of other religious faiths and none. Just as the presence of Copts from Egypt and persons of the Orthodox Churches have enriched our Christian and ecclesial mosaic, so too our city and our society have been enriched by the presence of many peoples of diverse nationalities and cultures who live and work here and contribute greatly to the fabric of our society and to the services that care for all of us.
What a tragedy and blemish then that the long-present, beloved and treasured Jewish families of our community should suffer yet again such actions of disrespect, violence to the memory of their beloved dead and the regrettable outworking of a latent xenophobia that stalks the minds of some.
Indeed and alas, I speak of xenophobia, as we must. For only yesterday a young mother, native of another land, and now an admirable fellow-citizen of this city and land, told me of how a young child of four had muttered racist and xenophobic sentiments to her child of similar age in a public playground. Others who have come to live and work among us have told me of incidents in supermarkets where shoppers speaking a language other than English were treated with disdain and disrespect by fellow-shoppers who are natives here. I do not suggest these attitudes are widespread, but we all need to be vigilant less we succumb to, harbour, or induce hatred of other races, colour or religious belief. Failure to address such attitudes to others is not worthy of a Christian culture and people.
Racism and xenophobia are issues of our times. As Christians and citizens of a society that is inspired by Christian insight and human rights values, a determined commitment by each one of us as citizen, employer, worker, and above all as parent, teacher, preacher, politician, poet, musician, journalist or creative artist is urgently required to scope our deepest attitude to difference and diversity and to ensure that it is positive, appreciative and respectful of diversity.
As a society, as neighbourhoods and communities, we must honestly consider if we harbour attitudes that are negative to those whom we too easily classify as “foreigner”, rather than see them as sisters and brothers in Christ and in humanity. As a society we need to build cooperation between our homes and schools to ensure that our children are educated in heart and attitude, in mind and action to respect every person without exception. As we build here in Northern Ireland a society fit and able to accommodate the contemporary reality of the mobility of peoples, willing to cherish the multi-cultural and multi-faith mosaic that is every contemporary society generally and in its most local communities and neighbourhoods, there can be no compromise on these imperatives to build minds and hearts that are open to, respectful of and treasure diversity.
And for the Christian of whatever confession – as for the person of religious faith, as for the citizen of good will – it is our shared responsibility to question, counter and help to transform all expressions, witting or unwitting, of racial hatred, disrespect and xenophobia. History has taught us its consequences and the Good News of the gospel of Christ prescribes its eradication, as it presents the horizon of “the city of God”, the economy of salvation, for the contemplation and response of all humankind.
Bishop Noel Treanor is Bishop of Down and Connor.