By Tony Blair
Former British Prime Minister
In all my time in public life, one fact has struck me with increasing force: that failure to understand the power of religion means failure to understand the modern world. People of different faiths are being brought closer and closer together. In the Middle East, Christians, Muslims and Jews have in many places lived side by side for centuries. But in many other parts of the world now, this intermingling of faiths is increasingly part of the demographic reality. In my country, the UK, a walk down many of our high streets will show you a microcosm of the world’s faiths in a few yards.
In this increasingly globalized world, we are more than ever inter-connected, but we are also more uncertain. What were firm boundaries of race, culture and identity are becoming more fluid. Electronic communication, physical migration, flows of world trade, all expose us to ideas which are different from those we inherited and to traditions which we may not have encountered before. And in such a world the role of religion becomes ever more crucial. It can either play a positive role, helping to deepen understanding for the common good, or it can be exploited to become destructive, emphasizing difference, excluding and mistrusting the ‘other’.
So religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century – indeed more so. And that is why I have set up my Faith Foundation, to work with others in the great faiths to help harness their full power to transform our shared world for the better. It is also why it was an honor and privilege to take part last week in the dedication ceremony of the new Baptism Centre at the official Jordan Baptism Site.
Both Site and Centre are a tribute to the generosity of HM King Abdullah and the Jordanian Royal family. And, magnificent though Site and Centre both are, they are only one manifestation of the Royal family’s consistent commitment to building better relations between the world’s faiths. The Centre will provide for all Evangelical Christian groups whose custom is baptism by immersion.
The ceremony was an auspicious event at a deeply historic place, close to the area where , tradition tells us, Jesus was baptized by John. And what was it that John in his ministry, and Jesus Christ in his, represented to the world?
First, that doctrine, whilst a support, can never be a substitute for the essence of faith which is: the demonstration of God’s love; of its power; of its mercy; of its plea to us to break free of our narrow confines and to discover the meaning of life.
Second, the honesty of it, the witness to truth even though truth meant death; John because he refused to countenance the behavior of Herod; Jesus because he refused to deny his nature or his mission, preferring to lose his life when so easily he could have yielded to Pilate and kept it.
Thirdly, what was this baptism that John gave to those masses by the River Jordan? It was a baptism of renewal, and renewal open to all who would submit to God. And as for Jesus, his Ministry was not bounded by race or tribe but was boundless. His love reached out. It was not hoarded. It was freely given.
Now, at this place which marked Jesus’ baptism, Jordan’s vision for the Baptism Site, to make it an international place of pilgrimage, is one of great imagination and profound significance. Significant because it honors the place of Christianity in the history of the Middle East. Significant because it recognizes that this region has for centuries been a home to the three Abrahamic faiths.
Indeed for much of that history, it has been a place in which interfaith relations have been, not just talked about, but lived out day by day — in the market place, on the street, in the daily interchange of neighborly relations.
Of course, there have been and still are times of tension and turbulence. At such moments, there is a tendency to see the world exclusively through the eyes of our own faith, race or culture. Recently I have been reading Amin Maalouf’s “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”, a brilliant corrective to some of the history I was taught as a child.
But history shows that for much of the time members of the three faiths have worked out ways in which to live together to their mutual benefit and flourishing.
We need to recapture and build on that record for the good of the Middle East. And, because of its powerful symbolism, for the good of the whole world. That is one of the reasons why my Faith Foundation and I are working with the Coexist Foundation and Cambridge University to establish Abraham House, a place of encounter for the Abrahamic faiths, in which their common roots and values can be explored and enriched.
And I believe that we need to capture too that sense of renewal which I feel the Baptism Centre symbolizes. A sense of renewal that true love is not measured in the receiving but the giving. The giving not limited by human prejudice but enlarged by the infinite possibility of the love of God.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.