#distinctivedeacon Jess Foster specialises in inter-faith work, both through her parish and wider ministry and by teaching at the Queens Foundation College in Birmingham. Recently she went to Bosnia, and reflected on the visit in this sermon.
Shell-shocked. A war without weapons. Pock-marked. Scarred. Raw open wounds. Brokenness. Injustice. My clearest memories of three days in Bosnia are abstract but vivid.
There is no doubt, Bosnia remains shattered by the war. Its politics, economy, the social fabric, cities and towns and individual lives remain in tatters nearly 23 years after the war ended. Perpetrators and victims meet in shops and libraries but justice has not been done and acts of denial continue the cycle of violation. Three presidents, representing different religious and ethnic identities take it in turns to lead the country but without real power or collaboration the economy is stagnant – only in the Democratic Republic of Congo are more people unemployed than in Bosnia. Many who can, leave. Sarajevo, the capital city, is broken. The city bears physical scars of shooting and siege. The river running through the centre of the city is a reminder of the fierce front line and schools, neighbourhoods and lives are divided by the legacy of the war. A city of co-existence and tolerance is now living with an uneasy truce.
But this beautiful country has another dimension. Survivors who have witnessed horrors and grieved and mourned seek to live without hatred and revenge. In Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people were massacred, I saw the tenderness of a younger man, translating for an older woman – his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he kisses the top of her head with affection and respect like the son she has lost. The Mufti of Sarajevo, a senior Iman, brings young faith leaders together to train for peace, inspired by his Muslim faith he reaches out to those belonging to the same faiths as those who have killed and persecuted his family to offer a new way forward. The city is permeated with time honoured traditions, coffee that can never be rushed, hospitality offered generously, good wine, great food, beautiful scenery, history and the fascinating mix of cultures – a line on the main road where east meets west – the Ottoman empire and the Austro-hungarian empire colliding.
Reading a travel book on the flight out – these words leap out – the passage from coercion to co-operation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia bought home how different countries are in different places on that journey – asserts the author.
But am I different? Are we different? What choices do we make about education, housing, socialising, worship, work and leisure? Christians in Bosnia were perpetrators of horrific identity based violence. They waited to commit the Srebrenica genocide until July 11th so it could be an offering to St Benedict. They prayed the same prayers us as, read the same scriptures and worshipped the same God yet in a harrowing piece of film we watch them stop a brutal execution because the batteries on the video camera ran out and they wanted to go back to base for some more before finishing off the massacre.
How do we as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, make peace-making, reconciliation, love-building and boundary breaking central to our faith and practice? How are we formed and how are we forming others so that fear, greed and identity politics cannot turn friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour in an ‘intimate’ war like the one in Bosnia. Are we happy with an uneasy truce when we meet someone who threatens our beliefs, challenges our privilege or competes with us for resources we perceive as scarce?
I pray that the church will be seen and known as a community of people who live out the call to love our enemies, to embrace the other, to recognise that we are intimately connected and that every single human being carries the spark of the divine and is loved by the one we seek to worship. We remember today the terrible dangers of division, the carnage of hatred unleashed and the futility of violence but we listen too for the call of Christ, who embodied the way of peace, who gives us peace, who died for peace and we pray today for the grace to follow where Christ leads us. Amen.