There are political and economic forces that use religions and religious identity to divide people and conquer. That is the world we are living in and the enemy of good real religion, of real religion; and of humanity in general.
Address to World Summit 2014, Seoul, Korea, August 9-13, 2014
I have tried to deconstruct the title as given to me and I have noted that it contains three statements and asks two questions. I propose to examine each of these elements in turn.
1. There is a resurgence of religion.
Is this true? I am not sure: I think the world has always been a religious place, and what has happened in recent years is a resurgence of religious identity as a political force. This has been greatly increased and exploited by the different forms of fundamentalism which we find in many religious traditions. This has become a major phenomenon since the end of the Cold War. Problems such as that in Northern Ireland are not really religious conflicts but rather situations which bring into conflict groups where religious terms form part of group identity, in this case “Catholic” and “Protestant.” Since the beginning of this particular situation in the late 1960s, more and more conflicts can be seen to have a “religious” component; there are and have been well over 50, including Central Africa, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam, Myanmar ex-Yugoslavia, Mali, Sudan, Afghanistan, China, Palestine and, of course, Northern Ireland.
These conflicts, civil or military, are matters of great urgency and seriousness. People are dying in many countries today in wars that appear to have a religious component. Millions have died. People are suffering in Syria and Iraq this very day. There are people who are losing their homes and loved ones in Central Africa. This is the world we are living in, and the conflicts are one enemy of real religion and of humanity in general.
It is clear that fanatics and demagogues have learned how to exploit fears which have a religious element. Economic and political forces are capable of using religious identity to divide and conquer (as did the Romans, divide et impera). One current and horrifying example is that of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
2. Increasingly, the governments of the world, and the United Nations, are aware of the importance of interfaith dialogue to promote better interfaith and intrafaith relations.
Responsible governments are certainly aware of the problems caused by conflicts that have a religious component, as is the United Nations. The problem is immediate and action is urgently needed. Interfaith dialogue is necessary on three levels: to preserve good relations in countries such as Senegal where these exist, to prevent the degeneration of situations of potential conflict by denying demagogues the support of religious leaders, and to try to calm spirits by pointing out the incompatibility of hatred and violence with the core values of all religions worthy of the name. Means must be found to open contacts publicly to form an interfaith reaction to immediate and specific problems. Means must be found to support religious leaders to enable them to find the moral courage to oppose violence and hatred. Real interfaith discussions concerning the nature of revelation and religious truth is not going to help here; such discussions are vital in the long term but will probably be academic, abstruse and interminable. Nor should it be forgotten that all religions are divided internally and do not say the same things, nor do they have the same priorities.
In Geneva, Switzerland, we have formed an association based on the text of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal. This association includes Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, Jews and people from civil society. It is this association which I chair. We have separated discussions on doctrine, which we avoid, in order to link up with what is universal in each faith. In our group, the Muslim remains completely Muslim, the Protestant completely Protestant, but we are able to pray together since we believe that God listens to all prayer, and we have discovered that we are enriched by the religious experiences of the others. Our text is practical and short:
Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a respect for the integrity of humankind
Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a rejection of hatred and violence
Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common the hope for a better and more just world
Representing religious communities and civil society, we appeal to the leaders of this world, whatever their field of influence, to strictly adhere to the following three principles:
- A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual power to justify violence of any kind
- A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual source to justify discrimination and exclusion
- A refusal to exploit or dominate others by means of strength, intellectual capacity or spiritual persuasion, wealth or social status
Grounded in the Genevan tradition of welcome, refuge and compassion, our Appeal is open to all whose convictions are in accordance with these three demands.
The Appeal was signed in St Pierre Cathedral 1999 by members of many religions as well as the head of the International Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights and Refugees. With the events of the 11th September in New York and much else, our Appeal has become more and more important with the passing of the years. It is practical and requires urgent response.
Under this heading I should also like to discuss the visionary suggestion of the Rev Moon, made about 40 years ago, that the United Nations should create an interreligious council. I think this is an excellent suggestion, but we must be realistic. To set up such a council is going to be very difficult indeed.
The first difficulty I see is that the United Nations is an organization of nation states. But many problems concerning religion are contained within national boundaries. For instance, the Northern Ireland problem is wholly internal and does not create problems beyond international frontiers, so that the UN has no obvious reason to intervene. The UN High Commission for Refugees has a similar problem in that millions of refugees are refugees within their own countries and can only come within proper HCR protection if they have crossed international borders. There is also the problem of representation. There are not hundreds of religious groups, there are thousands. There are far too many to all be represented in a UN interreligious council.
Then there is the problem of compatibility. Today, the fault lines are not only between religious groups, but within. Even in broad-minded Geneva there are groups that will not work with one another. An Orthodox Jew recently told me that for him, the rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Community was, and I quote, “not a Jew.” I myself have been described as “apostate” by fundamental American Baptists – and I must admit that I do not have a very high opinion of their version of Christianity. What can be done about movements that are fundamentalist or fanatic? Even if they wish to have anything to do with an international council, will everyone wish to cooperate with Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Cao Dai? Groups cannot be obliged to participate, but would all wish to do so? Can dialogue be set up, or might the interreligious council itself become a cause for tension? One final consideration would be the role of an interfaith council in the UN system. What power would it have? Would it be an advisory body, required to report to the General Assembly or the Security Council, or would it be free to act on its own?
Setting up an interreligious council at the UN is of enormous importance today – much more so than it was 40 years ago. We must not underestimate the difficulties, but that does not mean that we should not try, and start at once. What can we do in the meantime? The situation is urgent. There are people being persecuted, displaced and getting killed. Women are often a target, being victims of rape and sexual mutilation, violence and being deprived of rights and education. This will continue and may well get worse. I think it is important that there would be peace committees that bring together religious leaders in all countries, and not only in those that appear to have obvious problems. Situations may degenerate rapidly, and it is important that religious leaders know, trust and support each other.
My ideal of a UN interreligious council would be that of a relatively small organization with an advisory council of “Wise Men” drawn from people of various faith families who would support religious leaders who are experiencing pressure, advise the civil powers, and restore dialogue. Their role would be that of prevention as well as healing. It would be a primary aim to set up task forces for specific situations. This group could also coordinate interfaith groups working for peace, the UPF, the Vatican, the Geneva Spiritual Appeal Association , the Royal Institute for InterFaith Studies in Amman and the many other groups that have been set up throughout the world, some of which are represented in this conference.
3. Interreligious conflict is a destabilizing force in global affairs.
This is obviously true. There are no conflicts that are simply religious; even Boko Haram or ISIS have a racial, social or economic base.
But we are not in a world where government policy is the only factor. There are rich and powerful groups that are active in destabilization, especially, but by no means exclusively, in the Muslim world at the present time. Who funds Boko Haram? El Shebab? ISIS? Al Quaida? Who supplies the weapons? Who funded and trained the terrorists of September 11?
Actually, I think we know, but do not want to look at the reality.
1. What best practices may be initiated?
I think that the best practice is prayer! In Geneva we have learned with the Spiritual Appeal Association that it is a wonderful and enriching experience to pray together. We are liberated by the spirituality of others.
I believe that in this world we are in a new and very dangerous situation and that we must have the courage to try out new practices, new forms of structure. I am not going to try to describe what these might be, but I believe that that there are some previous attempts that reveal experiences that should be avoided, like that of the International Muslim Council, where the members often represent very conservative governments. In the Christian world, the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance (now Communion) of Reformed Churches achieved their present form in the wake of the Second World War as parallels to the United Nations. Since that time, both of these organizations have lost their luster, becoming very much staff-led and losing the support of the membership of their member churches. They became very much politically oriented in a way that alienated them from their member churches. Marginalization and financial problems have resulted. As a former General Treasurer of World Alliance of Reformed Churches, I saw the self-destruction of what should have been an influential force for good but which became in some measure a mouthpiece for Latin American anti-capitalists.
2. How can religions’ capacities for peace be better utilized and encouraged?
As a Christian, I believe that God is not finished with us and that God wants us to live together. I believe that in our period of the history of the world it is important to see intercommunal strife and violence where there is a religious element as evils that have to be eradicated. Tolerance must be promoted, not simply as a passive force but by recognizing the richness of other people.
“Peace” is not an object; it has many facets. It is not possible without justice, it is applicable to the rights of women and children, it is not only political but economic and social, it implicates the sharing of the earth’s resources, and it necessitates education, civil rights, free speech and real freedom of the press.
The aim is to set up an interfaith council at the United Nations, but as I have tried to say, this is a delicate task that requires imagination. It will have to face up to the hypocrisy of the permanent members of the Security Council who are far from innocent in fomenting interreligious strife.
In the immediate situation, we need action urgently, and this can be enabled by the setting up of peace committees everywhere in the world.
As a Protestant, I ask myself if God will forgive us if we do nothing.
I should like to end by quoting my fellow countryman, the 18th-century Irishman Edmund Burke, like myself an alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Let us do what we can with courage and determination.