The threshold between hope and fear

After watching a debate about religious fundamentalism on BBC1’s The Big Question this morning, just before heading out to enjoy the sights and sounds of London, I was reminded of this commentary I wrote just over a year ago…

Late at night in the A&E reception, my tired eyes kept tripping back to the three children playing.

One white and two black, all aged around five, they fooled around and squealed as if nobody was sick and the whole world was a playground. As one mother went to help the nurses move her husband, the other mother kept watch.

“You know, I think we can get beyond race,” a Jewish friend whispered to me while watching the children. “It’s religious differences people have a hard time getting over.”

Religious differences, he reasoned, lead to all kinds of wars; the military conflicts that are all over the globe at any given time as well as the “culture wars” that infuse domestic politics. Religious differences stir up anger, he said, because one person’s rejection of another’s beliefs is perceived as an insult.

When you don’t subscribe to someone else’s religion, they perceive that you’re declaring their beliefs to be wrong or stupid. Faith, by its very definition, involves things that can’t be proven. But people are always trying to prove their faith is the right one. They “prove” it, one might suppose, by shunning and, in some cases, eliminating those with different beliefs.

That might be true. I don’t know. The problems of race and religion both are complicated — complicated by class, economics and opportunity. Complicated by culture. Complicated by history. In sociological circles there’s a theory that race is a “social construct.” The idea, as I understand it, is that racial differences are based not on biological distinctions but cultural ones, differences of language and socialisation, experience and expectation.

Considering the migrations and interminglings that have made up human history, I can see the logic. Each of us learn what it means to be black or white, Vietnamese or Japanese, and we relate to the rest of the world accordingly. That’s why it’s possible for people with barely a trace of African ancestry to identify as “Black” and for the world to relate to them as such. It’s why, in places such as Africa, the Middle East and Bosnia, tribal and religious divisions transcend biological similarity.

In hospital waiting rooms, these differences tend to be suspended. There, love is vulnerable and raw. Worry settles like fog, and death lurks in the hallways. Families look across a room at one another and what do they see? They see themselves.

The only way we can live together is if we say the celebration of our differences requires us to say that our common humanity matters more.   – Bill Clinton