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M. Braybrooke: Religious Cooperation for Peace

Paper presented at the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace Assembly 2003, “Global Governance at a Turning Point: Innovative Approaches to Peace in a Changing World,” Asan, Korea, July 10-14, 2003

In August 2000, one thousand religious and spiritual leaders met in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations. Symbolically, this was of great significance although the substance of the meeting was deeply disappointing. At last, 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.

Even before the United Nations was formed, Bishop Bell of Chichester suggested in the House of Lords in 1943 that an Advisory Committee with representatives of all major faiths should be formed to work with the UN. The World Congress of Faiths gained some support for this 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 dividing the world into two power blocks. It was not until the collapse of Communism that new possibilities opened up, although of course religious bodies through NGOs and at other levels did exert some influence on the UN. Even now, despite various suggestions, there is no spiritual or religious advisory council at the United Nations.

I doubt, however, whether the religions in 1945 were ready to enter into dialogue with the political powers. Certainly, under the leadership of William Temple, there had been significant Christian thinking about political and economic issues, but his concern was to get the divided churches to think together. The interfaith movement was still in its infancy. I see the 1993 Parliament of World Religions as a turning point. Up until then interfaith organizations had to concentrate on removing ignorance and prejudice and challenging theological exclusivism. But set against the conflict in the Balkans, the question now was, what could religions do together for peace and a better world?

The Global Ethic stressed the underlying agreement of all religions on basic moral teaching. Subsequently, the Parliament has tried to engage members of the so-called Guiding Institutions in recognizing the moral and spiritual dimensions of their work. Sadly, despite the efforts of the International Interfaith Centre at Oxford, the work of interfaith organizations is still fragmented and, therefore, their impact is limited.

Yet at the time that the interfaith movement turned its attention to world problems, a growing number of politicians, economists, and others have 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. The World Economic Forum at Davos now invites religious leaders to participate. The same is true of the World Social Forum, and Transparency International has included a religious panel. There is growing discussion of business ethics and the moral dimension of globalization.

But increasingly I have been asking myself: What distinctive contribution do the faiths have to make to the debate? At the UN Summit to which I referred earlier, many of the religious leaders came to tell the UN what it should be doing. It was clear, however, that Kofi Annan’s interest in line with the document “We the People” was to gain help from faith communities in winning popular support for the work of the UN.

This is important especially when the only superpower pays scant attention to the UN or to hard won international agreements. Kofi Annan’s agenda was perfectly legitimate, but I think religious people need to be wary lest politicians try to co-opt their support for a particular agenda. The World Development Dialogue, for example, has brought together representatives of the World Bank and of the world’s religions. But is the World Bank really willing to have its models of development questioned or is it using religions to clean up its image?

Is there, then, a distinctive contribution that the faiths have to make to public debate? Let me try to illustrate this by reference to globalization and to peacebuilding. In a recent paper I suggested that Judaism and Islam usually see wealth production as good, provided that wealth is honestly produced and fairly shared. Some Christians take the same view, but Christianity, like Buddhism and Hinduism, has an ascetic and monastic tradition that questions wealth itself and certainly excessive wealth as dangerous both environmentally and spiritually.

In my view, while faith communities should support campaigns for debt relief, fairer trade, a more just distribution of wealth, and the protection of the environment and work for the strengthening of civil society, their greater responsibility is to hold aloft a vision of the God-given dignity and value of each person, which is totally independent of his or her achievements or possessions. It is this vision that provides the inspiration and energy for seeking a new world order and is the distinctive faith contribution to campaigns that many people of good will who have no faith commitment also support.

In terms of peacebuilding, religions can both help to prevent conflict and to heal its wounds. The poet W. H. Auden said, “All I have is a voice.” Faith communities can use our voices to challenge racism and xenophobia and all forms of prejudice. We can build relationships across barriers that divide people from each other and, even if we cannot meet, we can pray for those from whom we are separated. We should also challenge the political and economic injustices that breed violence. We should demand a reduction in the manufacture of arms and the transfer of resources to poorer countries.

As Wayne Teasdale says in his beautiful book, The Mystic Heart, it is “the spiritual life in its depth and maturity [that] grants us the gift of prophecy by giving us the wisdom or perspective we need, and the courage to act.”

After conflict, besides humanitarian aid, the deepest needs are for new hope and for forgiveness and reconciliation, both of which only the faith traditions have the resources to offer. At one of the darkest moments of the Cold War, there was an interfaith meeting in London and it was clear that, because of our faith in God we had not given in to the widespread despair, but had a firm hope that a peaceful world was still possible. As to forgiveness and reconciliation, the most striking recent example is South Africa. Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, “We here in South Africa are a living example of how forgiveness may unite people.” The example was set by Nelson Mandela. When he was released after twenty-seven years in jail, he declared that his mission was to the victim and the victimizer. “Our miracle” Tutu continued, “almost certainly would not have happened without the willingness of people to forgive, exemplified spectacularly in the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela.” Forgiveness may have been possible in part in South Africa because of the strength of the Christian church in that country.

When I was in South Africa in 1999, I met with some people who had been dispossessed when District Six, a vibrant multiracial community in the heart of Cape Town, was bulldozed under the apartheid regime. I asked two of those colored women what they felt about their oppressors. “We must forgive them” they said, “because Jesus forgives.” There are many dimensions to forgiveness and these are increasingly being studied. Forgiveness is essentially a religious concept, although there are important differences of emphasis between religions. It is often people of faith who take the initiative to seek reconciliation in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.

Religious and spiritual leaders have no monopoly of wisdom and it is people of faith who are economists, politicians, business leaders, educators, or medical or social workers who, for example, by applying their faith to specific situations, effectively change the world. It is good that a growing number of people with the power to shape the world are now willing to hear the voices of faith, but these voices should not merely echo the accepted wisdom of the day.

They should be prophetic and creative, pointing beyond the preoccupations of everyday life to the unitive mystical experience, in which we enter into a peace beyond all understanding and in which we are united in sympathy with all people and all life, so that we are filled with compassion for all who suffer and impelled to oppose, nonviolently, the injustices in our world. We need economists and politicians who are inspired by their faith, but spiritual teachers do not need to be economists or politicians.

They should concentrate their energies on reawakening a sense of the sacred. I believe, as the founder of the World Congress of Faiths, Francis Younghusband, said, that “if interfaith fellowship is to contribute to a happier world order, its roots must strike down deep to the Central Source of all spiritual loveliness,” and, I add, point others to that Source of Blessing.