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M. Braybrooke: The Need for Integrating a Religious Perspective

Essay published in the journal Dialogue & Alliance, Winter 2010 issue

The need for a religious or spiritual presence at global forums has long been recognized by the World Congress of Faiths. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, Sir Francis Younghusband, the founder of the World Congress of Faiths, said, “No reconstituted League of Nations will be of the slightest avail unless it is inspired by an irresistible spiritual impulse.”

In 1943, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester and a leading member of the World Congress of Faiths, said in the British Parliament that an association between the “international authority and representatives of the living religions of the world” was of vital importance. He proposed that an Advisory Committee with representatives of all major faiths be formed to work with the UN.

Because the first assembly took place in London, the World Congress of Faiths arranged a meeting to try to push that proposal forward, but by the time the first meeting of the UN was held in London, the Communist Iron Curtain had shut out all things religious as well as divided the world into two power blocs. Efforts to establish such a body were thwarted by the Soviet bloc. It was not until the collapse of Communism that new possibilities opened up.

Promoting a ‘Global Ethic’

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. Hans Küng made clear that the intention was that it should be convincing and practical for all women and men of good will, religious and non-religious. The underlying principle, therefore, was that

. . . every human being must be treated humanely . . . This means that every human being without distinction of age, sex, race, skin color, physical or mental ability, language, religion, political view, or national or social origin possesses an inalienable and untouchable dignity . . . Humans . . . must be ends, never mere means, never objects of commercialization and industrialization in economic, politics and media.[i]

The great religions agree that healthy societies—national or international—require a moral framework. And as the Global Ethic shows, there is much agreement on what this should be. Laws are important—and it is right to pay tribute to those who are lawmakers—but society depends on trust and mutual care and concern.

I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., saying when he spoke in London that “The law can stop men lynching me, but it cannot make them love me.”[ii] Laws against stirring up religious hatred are important, but even more so is long-term educational work to remove ignorance and prejudice.

Developments since 2000

In August 2000 there was a millennium religious leaders’ 'summit.'[iii] One thousand religious and spiritual leaders met in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Symbolically, this was of great significance although the substance of the meeting was deeply disappointing. At least, however, the supreme international political authority was willing to recognize that religions and spiritual traditions have a contribution to make to the major issues that confront humanity today.

As one of the outcomes of the summit, the World Economic Forum at Davos set up a senior council of 100 leaders, which included religious leaders.[iv] The same is true of the World Social Forum. Transparency International has included a religious panel. There is growing discussion of business ethics and the moral dimension of globalization.

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.

Religion at last is being taken seriously. Much health care/relief work and education is delivered by faith-based organizations. The partnership between UN agencies and NGOs and civil society needs to be strengthened, because religions often reach down into local communities more effectively than many governmental or international bodies.

Religion and statecraft

At a time when religion is abused by some to justify violence and religious differences are used to enflame economic and political disputes, politicians need the support of mainline religious leaders to persuade the faithful to repudiate extremism. The moral authority of religious leaders may also add weight to UN calls for a ceasefire.

Until the last ten years or so, most politicians ignored religion. Douglas Johnston’s groundbreaking book Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft shocked many people.[v] A growing number of politicians, economists, and others have since become ready to hear the voices of faith, recognizing, for example, with the rise of religious extremism, that religion is the missing dimension of statecraft.

Maybe politicians can stop wars, but ending a war doesn’t end the seeds of conflict. I think that perhaps the religious community can help the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. I think, for example, of Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness.[vi]

Examples from Britain

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.

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 high officials of all faiths.

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 that concern us all because we share this planet together.

I’m not against chanting prayers, but people are 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.

Multidisciplinary dialogue

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 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. 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 was at a meeting recently 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 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 years ago, Business Week printed an article about the need for a moral basis in economics.[vii] 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.

Procedural issues

What I think is now needed are detailed suggestions of how such an interfaith advisory body to the UN might work. I think a lot of thought has to be given to how an interreligious body is composed. Perhaps a working party should try to produce models for an interfaith advisory body. Among the issues to be addressed are the following:

How do you identify religious leaders—by office or by charisma? Would you ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to represent the Anglican Communion or Archbishop Desmond Tutu? My concern is that over time, religious leaders tend to become institutional leaders; 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.

How do you ensure the participation of women, young people, and religious minorities? It would be sad if it was just a collection of elderly gentlemen. 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? It would be nice to have one or two women, even if we haven’t got women bishops in the Church of England. 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 that are represented.

How do you ensure that faith communities have the necessary expertise to translate lofty ideas into practical policies? There will also be a need to ensure that religious leaders do not try to usurp the role of heads of state and that nations do not use religion to give a cloak of respectability to questionable policies.

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, the heads of the religious communities would come on occasion to the UN. 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.

It seems to me that besides an annual meeting of leaders, there would be a need for each religion to have permanent representatives working together at the UN. I think we need to press for adequate staffing and adequate funding, so that it’s not just a token body. Careful thought is needed about the scope and nature of an interfaith advisory body, but the need for such a body is more urgent than ever.

[i] A Global Ethic, ed. Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, SCM Press, 1993, p. 21.

[ii] In a similar vein at Dartmouth College on May 23, 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to the role of religion and education: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; religion and education will have to do that. But if it keeps him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also.”

[iii] See reports of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at

[iv] At the 2001 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Millennium World Peace Summit and the World Economic Forum announced the launching of a religious initiative to engage the world's religious leadership more directly in the work of the Forum.

[v] Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, ed., Religion: The Missing Element of Statecraft. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[vi] Tutu, Desmond: No Future Without Forgiveness. (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

[vii] Business Week’s chief economist has said that “A New Economy needs a new morality ... there’s a moral vacuum at the heart of the New Economy that needs to be filled.” Michael Mandel in Business Week, February 25, 2002, p. 115.