Inclusion, Interfaith and Human Rights

Talk written for 21st March 2021, Human Rights Day, Athlone, Cape Town

I have been asked to speak on this Human Rights Day 2021, and in the context of Cape Town Interfaith community, on the topic of Inclusion. It is a topic close to my heart, and while I have never spoken of it in public before, I have wrestled with its meaning for several decades.

Inclusion has many dimensions. It can be explored theologically, socially, philosophically, politically, artistically, and psychologically. But ultimately it has to do with our lived realities, not just a theory or idea, but how we chose to live and act.

We’re all recovering from colonialism and apartheid. We’re sorting through the wreckage and trying to notice and appreciate signs of growth, despite constant disappointments. With leadership, with crime, violence, addiction, with dislocation. Growth in all areas, growth spiritually, growth in our underlying Ubuntu, which is in my mind the ground for our very meaning.

It’s easy to be pessimistic and so we have to work hard at remaining hopeful. I hope to bring hope, and I am just going to report what I see. I see tremendous potential especially here in the Western Cape, with our centuries old traditions of interfaith respect and interaction.

Where others might see adversity, I see diversity. Diversity at work in our history, despite apartheids attempts to divide, and colonialisms attempts to rule. We are standing on holy ground, not just by virtue of this place of worship, or the many other places of worship around here, but because you the people who are here today as a motley band of interfaith pilgrims, bear in your blood not only the great pain of the past, but the great promise of a future, a future that celebrates the “195 tributaries of Camissa Africa”, to paraphrase Patric Tariq Mellet’s terms.

One blessing of the interfaith identity is that we assume that we belong to something bigger than our own religious or cultural tradition. That is a good starting point, and worth celebrating. We co-operate and do not compete. We adventure into one another’s spaces and allow our encounters to transform us. We notice our own ignorance, fear and prejudice, and this becomes the grist for the mill of our inner development, and a means to critique and therefore strengthen or evolve our own traditions.

As a nation, we have come a long way but at the same time find ourselves falling tragically short of making the rights now enshrined in South African law a reality.

Now, the motto of the South African Coat of Arms is:

ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke.

It is written in the tragically extinct language of the ǀXam people (Cape San), and means “people who are different come together”, or “diverse peoples unite”.

For those familiar with South African Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa) and Afrikaans pronunciations, “!” is Xhosa “Q”, “|” is Afrikaans “G”, AND “||” is Xhosa “X”. Or listen to this short video.

MC Pastor Gertjie De Vries Bock

In the light of our theme, it can be said that each of us has the right to be included. Inclusion does not regard race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth, as being any basis for excluding anyone.

It is one thing to enshrine these rights in law. But another to live in full embodiment of them. This is where all our faith communities need to take the lead, out beyond mere legislation, into what is lived in everyday life.

From a spiritual point of view, life is much more than a right. We do not have final power over birth, death or life’s essence. We are Life’s beneficiary, and have been included in both its pain, and its wonder. Life is at least a right, but more than that, it is a privilege.

The deeper and therefore more radical response to this this privilege, then, is not merely to demand, but to serve. It is not merely to assert, but to assent. It is to freely say yes and to freely submit (the meaning of the word “Islam”). 

And Meister Eckhart, the 13th Century German mystic, said

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

For me, gratitude is the most radical response to life, far more radical than anger, denial, or despair.

There is a model of behaviour in this country that assumes that the goal of life is self-enrichment, which has created a culture of entitlement, power mongering, lawlessness, and even looting. The resistance culture of 30 years ago calling for the overthrow of government has morphed into service demand culture. But is this self-serving model of citizenry enough?

Do we expect service delivery, or do we deliver service? Do we live to be served, or to serve? Do we look to leaders above to gratify our demands, or do we lead from below? Is our good the common good?

To quote from the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration pioneered by the sorely missed Wilfred Alcock and Danny Swartz:

“We will experience, practice and pursue community with one another, across our religious divide, around the common goals and objectives in the fight against gangsterism, crime and violence. We give of ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another and our people.”

Embodying Inclusion, then, is our task. My friend Laurie Gaum told me recently, “Diversity is being given a ticket to the Dance, but Inclusion is being asked to Dance.” You can legislate for diversity, but inclusion is an intimate spiritual virtue.

This embodying involves action and engagement, but as I suggested, it must include our whole selves. Inclusion is a total lived reality. And how we think, how our monkey minds categorise the world, how we create what is acceptable or not, how we “other”, is all part of the process.

And given our history, we need to address and continue to address, the idea of “purity”, embedded as it is in the South African psyche. As a motley band, we ask: Who deems something to be pure, clean or acceptable? Be it a belief or a bloodline, who dares now to proclaim what is pure or impure, what is heretical or orthodox, who is in and who is out?

21st Century biology is teaching us more than ever that diversity of species is fundamental to Life. As we lose species, we are dying. What, I ask, is the role of the ‘pure’ in this evolving universe?

It is my firm conviction that as we do our inner work, and deepen in our inclusion of one another, we will find a place that is owned by no-one, therefore cannot be used to exclude. It cannot be bought or sold. This is a place so diverse, so mixed with all we are, so impure, that it can be only paradoxically described in Buddhist terms: “The Pure Land”.

In this Pure Land, we are all leaders. We are all responsible. We share in our joys, and our sorrows. Our diversity is not adversity, but strength. We become our best selves but form a mystically united community. We learn the deep arts of hospitality.

The key task facing us today, is that of our ability to welcome one another. Jalal ad-Din Rumi the 13C Persian poet famously said

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.”

Relationship is our human right, and the only way forward. Never settle for less. Include yourself.

Do not outsource. Don’t wait for service.

Deliver it.

Published by Nic Paton

Composer of music for film, television and commercials.

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