July 2020
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M. Braybrooke: Need for Multidisciplinary Dialogue

Address to an International Leadership Conference

I think my real hope is that the dialogue now will not only be interfaith but multidisciplinary. I’ve been very concerned that we don’t just have religious leaders talking about peace, which I guess most of them are in favor of, but that we actually engage with people who have to make practical decisions.

I remember some time ago I was asked to speak to the group Generals for Peace and found that very impressive because they were grappling with what the issues are and how we can actually build a better world.

I was at a meeting about responsible capitalism. I wasn’t quite sure the two things went together. There were people with great responsibility in business who were not aware that their decisions affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. So we need to have this conversation.

What I’m glad about is that the interfaith movement has gone beyond just trying to get a Hindu and a Muslim to sit down with each other. We don’t necessarily want to spend our time talking about the next life but rather focus on the urgent issues which concern us all because we share this planet together.

I would like to hear one or two of the political leaders be a little more personal about their struggle with making the moral decision in times when total honesty is difficult in political life. How do you struggle with the issue of when force is necessary? Sometimes we talk in generalities; the real problem is when we have to make those sorts of decisions.

Another issue is how to communicate ideals to the public. You really can’t do much until you win office. I would like to hear a little more of some of the internal struggles.

Some of the quieter conversations over mealtimes will be some of the most valuable aspects of this conference. And already that’s happening.

What I think is the encouraging thing at the moment is that people from many walks of life are now aware that there is a moral dimension. Some six years ago, Business Week printed an article about the need for a moral basis in economics. Of course, Adam Smith, who is quoted as favoring capitalism, wrote earlier about the moral basis of society. David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, says that capitalism has to have a social basis, within the structures of a strong society, that controls the purpose of economics.

Also, in the whole area of peacebuilding, I think we are realizing that maybe politicians can stop wars. I think that perhaps the religious community can help the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. I think of Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, because ending a war doesn’t end the seeds of conflict.

The World Congress of Faiths has long been committed to the idea of an interreligious council at the UN. When the charter of the United Nations was being discussed in 1943, the English Bishop George Bell said that there must be a spiritual council. He recognized then that it must represent all religions. In fact, because the first assembly took place in London, the World Congress of Faiths arranged a meeting to try to push that proposal forward. But the communist bloc opposed it for a long time and, indeed, until the last 10 years or so, most politicians ignored religion. The book Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (edited by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson; Oxford University Press, 1995) shocked many people.

I think all the key issues have a spiritual dimension. With the breakdown of families, drug issues, and certainly the environmental dilemmas, it seems to me that we need an entirely new relationship to nature. We’ve got the resources to solve poverty, but we’re not prepared to use them.

I think a lot of thought has to be given to how an interreligious body is composed. It would be sad if it was just a collection of elderly gentlemen. How do we bring in the voices of minority religious groups? Perhaps I can take an example from Islam, which is not my religion. In the World Congress of Faiths we have some members of the Ahmadiyyah movement, which most Muslims reject. We’ve got to make sure it’s not just the big bodies of a religion. It would be nice to have one or two women, even if we haven’t got women bishops in the Church of England.

I was impressed by the deep moral commitment of many of the United Nations’ Secretaries-General. I’m not against chanting prayers, but they were actually engaged in work in the poorest areas and areas of conflict, and struggling there. Because that’s really where I think faith needs to be owned. After the Pol Pot era, a Cambodian Buddhist monk said that the refugee camps now must be our temples. That’s where we serve God.

I think religious leaders could be really significant. My concern is that often religious leaders over time tend to become institutional leaders and, in this context, how you can make room for what I call the charismatic leader versus a person who is a leader because of office? Sometimes the prophetic voice is important.

In Great Britain we have bishops in the House of Lords, and there’s been a suggestion that there shouldn’t just be Church of England bishops, but bishops of all faiths. However, the government still hasn’t reformed the House of Lords.

I was asked to write a paper on this issue, and it made me think quite carefully about how we can ensure that it’s not just a body of elders but also represents prophetic voices. How does it ensure that young people are listened to? One of the good things about the United Nations is the great significance of nongovernmental organizations, or civil society. I think that voice is now being listened to, particularly the interfaith field, because there was a special assembly on interfaith dialogue (High-Level Conference on Interreligious Cooperation for Peace, September 21, 2008, at the UN) and there’s some pressure for a Decade on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace, 2011-2020. Such things are happening at the UN, and religion at last is being taken seriously. Perhaps the next step toward is this council.

In many people’s minds, religion is a cause of conflict. In some areas it is. But, of course, an enormous work has been done by a whole range of organizations, including projects such as the promotion of a Global Ethic and the Parliament of the World’s Religions. What I think perhaps we need more is for the various major religious bodies to assign a few specialists who have a spiritual dimension and can invest the time to actually understand the issues in more detail.

If I take one example, in our village, although it’s very small, we are setting up an environmental action group. But our first discussion was about recycling, i.e., if we had to drive several miles to put something in a recycling center, whether it would it be better to just throw it away. We got into many of these sorts of issues.

It seems to me that we need to be able to say, from the religious, spiritual side, a little more than just that we want to preserve the planet. We really need to look at the hard choices. What is the issue of preserving the planet if it means perpetuating poverty in certain parts of the world? I think you can have sustainable development. It seems to me that the faith leaders can challenge the public in the West to accept change in their style of life so that other people can live more fully.

I think we’ve got to do the hard work so that we can battle, not just with political leaders, but with their civil servants.

I wonder whether we need a permanent, ongoing body in the United Nations or whether — just as from time to time heads of state come to special events once or twice a year — the heads of the religious communities would come. But enough real work should be done so that any sort of declaration could address issues in a significant way.

I think that if that body of 40 or 50 people were working together on a regular basis, they would build up a new community of fellowship and, if there were some sort of trouble brewing between faiths in some part of the world, this community would serve as another resource network.

There is quite a wide variety of interfaith organizations in Britain. When there has been trouble in India — Muslims being attacked or a temple being burned down — there are sufficiently strong and positive relationships here to ensure that the conflict there doesn’t escalate. I know we’ve got terrorist activity in Britain but, on the whole, that hasn’t translated into similar things happening in some of the multiracial areas in Britain because there is an interfaith network that is strong enough. I’m very active in a body called the Three Faiths Forum, and we are able to bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims and talk about what’s going on in Israel and Palestine. I think we could always communicate with our communities in the Middle East, communities who cannot yet communicate with each other.

We need to press for this council of leadership. I think equally we need to press for adequate staffing and adequate funding, so that it’s not just a token body.

I’ll mention just one other area we haven’t talked about at all — the enormously important issues related to medical research. There are many critical, deep questions regarding stem cells, the point at which life begins, death, and the very complicated issues about abortion. There are a whole range of issues, any one of which needs continuing discussion.