Exclusivity & hope: a view from Bethlehem

Exclusivity & hope: a view from Bethlehem

This blog is a long read. You might want to grab a cuppa. It’s written by Greenbelt’s Creative Director, Paul Northup.

I’m writing it from the little town of Bethlehem; the place where, as a Christian, I believe that hope was born. I’ve been out here with our friends from Amos Trust to take part in the fifth Palestine Marathon. We’ve been raising money for Amos Trust partners here practising creative non-violent resistance to The Occupation.

While here, we spent some time in the old city of Jerusalem. There, I walked up the polished stone ramp to the Jaffa Gate, exactly one hundred years after my Grandad walked across the very same stones with General Allenby in 1917. Later that same year the Balfour Declaration was signed, establishing the British Mandate in the region, which lasted until 1947. I got quite emotional, remembering Grandad, and thinking about the vexed 100 years in Israel-Palestine that have unfolded since then and how sad he was about that. And I was reminded that we British are inextricably linked to the seemingly intractable situation here today.

Listening to my Grandad’s stories of that time as I was growing up, it was clear that he genuinely engaged with and had deep respect and affection for the Palestinians he met. And he was always careful to use the word “Palestine” in the stories he told us about the war – way beyond 1948. He was very much part of the colonial history and influence of the UK in the world, yes. But he had been open to being shaped by and learning from those different from him. It seemed to me that he had sought to learn from rather than to dominate those he encountered who were different to him. This attitude, it seemed to me, had enriched his life. And I have always tried to model his approach.

That’s why, while I was away, I was immensely proud and excited by Greenbelt’s announcement about a brand new venue for the festival; one called Amal at Greenbelt, dedicated to showcasing Muslim thought, culture, ideas, artistry and spirituality. But I’m conscious that although we’ve been working on this initiative for months, the announcement came out of the blue and it needs some context. And as I’m in a place right now – Bethlehem – that helps so much with thoughts about context, I thought I’d attempt a blog from here to give some.

Since 9/11, the Greenbelt trustees have wanted the festival to engage with Islam more deeply. We wanted to play our part in dismantling, as far as we could, the extremist stereotyping and narrative the Muslim faith and community laboured under and to introduce Greenbelters to Muslim thinkers, artists, activists and spirituality. Muslims who shared many of our values, if not our faith, and with whom we can make common cause. This we have done, gradually building the presence of Muslim contributors on the programme. Last year, this featured a brilliant series of short talks curated by Abdul-Rehman Malik entitled “The Muslims Are Coming!” and which continued the festival’s commitment to engaging, surprising and celebrating difference.

We’ve been friends with Abdul-Rehman Malik of Radical Middle Way for a long time and he introduced us to the Chicago-based cultural curator Asad Ali Jafri a few years ago. Ever since that meeting, we’ve been looking for ways to work together with Asad. And then, last autumn, we found out about Amal. Amal means hope in Arabic and we began to explore the possibility of applying for funding support to help us grow and develop what we have been doing since 9/11 at the festival. That’s why we are thrilled to be able to take things to the next level with what we’re calling “Amal at Greenbelt”.

The venue and programme that Amal’s funding will enable us to produce will enrich the festival programme this year. And we’re grateful to Amal for believing in us enough to make Greenbelt one of its first few partners in this, its pilot year (one of the others being The South Bank Centre in London, no less!).

Being able to introduce this new venue and dedicated programme also feeds into our commitment to helping to build better religious literacy, alongside organisations like Coexist (who have partnered with us in the past too). In a world that is ever-more fractured along religious fault lines, improving the understanding of those who believe differently to us is part of our role as a progressive Christian organisation.

Amal at Greenbelt also fits perfectly with our theme for this year, The Common Good – and with one of the taglines we’re promoting as part of that: Me. You. Us. In a world that can even entertain the idea of a Muslim travel ban – freedom of movement being curtailed based on religious identity – and where identity politics more generally seem to trump all, it’s important for us to make room to bring people of different faiths and understandings together.

It is because we are Christian that we do this. Not because we want to dilute or deny our faith. It’s because we want to be true to our faith and to continue to live and express it dynamically, creatively and generously. In a world which seems ever-more divided, then we want to build bridges not barriers.

At the same time as introducing Amal at Greenbelt, we will also be looking back to our roots as a festival. This summer will see the inaugural “John Peck Memorial Lecture” delivered at the festival. John died last year in his 90s and we marked his passing with a celebration at the 2016 festival. A Baptist Minister and theologian, John played a seminal role in shaping the way Greenbelt thought of itself theologically and the way it viewed the world. The memorial lecture is designed to revisit and reintroduce John’s founding theological vision to a new festival audience of Greenbelters today. And we’re delighted that Steve Shaw – a former Greenbelt trustee and one of the key figures responsible for taking John’s inspiration and working it out in practice in the festival’s programming – will deliver the inaugural lecture. Steve is author of a the book that best distils John’s theological vision. His No Splits: Developing a Christian Worldview proved pivotal in the festival’s understanding of its Christian distinctive and identity as very particular kind of arts festival.

So, while we have the chance to experience more deeply and richly what artistry, thinking and spirituality flourishes within a a broad and varied Islamic cultural context in the Amal venue this year, we will also have the chance to remember John Peck’s legacy, too. Steve Shaw will remind us of our own Christian heritage and worldview; and Greenbelt’s role as a distinctively Christian festival with a distinctively integrated view of life, faith and culture.

And so to return to the Land some still call Holy in closing …

This is a place where the Palestinian Christian Director of the Holyland Trust (and past Greenbelt speaker) Sami Awad is asking really difficult questions about what has changed in his homeland since 1947. Before 1947, Sami’s grandparents lived in mixed neighbourhoods of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem and all got along. So what, asks Sami, has changed? And the conclusion he has reached is that it is to do with exclusivity. When one people group or one religion claims exclusivity over anything – from the land to the human – we’re in trouble. You can see the damage exclusivity does everywhere you go in Israel-Palestine today. But in fact you don’t have to travel that far to see the divisive effects of exclusivity wherever you live.

Amal at Greenbelt is just another step in our long journey to model inclusivity and engagement. To listen to and to learn from different religions, cultures and philosophies. My Grandad taught me that. John Peck taught me that. For me, it’s this open-mindedness that characterises Greenbelt at its best. It is also what is most distinctively Christian about the festival.

Support the marathon team’s fundraising efforts

You can give to support the work of ‘beautiful resistance’ through Amos Trust’s partner projects in Palestine-Israel by going to the Amos Trust giving link here and giving in response to the team of us who ran the marathon here this March – including me and festival favourite, Harry Baker.


His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

It’s the 100-year anniversary of this short but incredibly far-reaching set of words this year.

  • General Allenby – who was he?
  • Learn more about what the Israeli occupation looks like on the ground.
  • Palestinians are not all Muslim, of course. There is a significant and often forget Palestinian Christian community. I am not linking the Palestinian cause to the Amal venue in this blog, just using the context of living with difference as a backdrop
  • The series of short talks entitled “The Muslims are Coming!” can be viewed here.

Are there dangerous and terrifying (per)versions of Islam? Yes. Are there dangerous and terrifying (per)versions of Christianity? Yes. Are there dangerous and terrifying (per)versions of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism – and so on? Yes. Extremism and exclusivity are bad news in whichever faith they fester.