Can religious differences help unite?
Rev. William L. Sachs, Ph.D
“In a world of hatred and mistrust only the world’s religions can help.”
So declared the United Nations General Assembly last fall when it passed an unusual resolution. Although it has not received adequate notice, the resolution declared that the first week of February each year will be World Interfaith Harmony Week.
Introduced by Jordan and co-sponsored by 29 other nations, the resolution calls on all faith groups to unite in mutual understanding and cooperation to create a culture of peace.
Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, one of the world’s great idealists, created and presented the resolution. He has gained notice from various initiatives designed to promote interfaith reconciliation.
The most extensive, “A Common Word,” is an open letter to Christian leaders from the Muslim world. Hundreds from both faiths have endorsed the letter, and a series of conferences and publications encouraging mutual respect have followed.
The U.N. resolution and Ghazi’s other efforts are compelling. Muslims and Christians alone account for more than half of the world’s population. If major religions found the common ground Ghazi encourages, think what could be done to address the world’s problems. Judging by the extent of both popular hopes and unrest, such unity could have welcome impact.
But will this call for understanding fall on deaf ears? Despite the warm response in some religious and academic circles, next steps are uncertain. The effort to overcome such issues as war, poverty and disease easily falters. Translating ideals into daily realities may be too stiff a challenge.
There may be too much cynicism. Too many people may prefer faith to be an oasis, not the place for innovative cooperation. It becomes easier to be silent and to suspect the motives of people whose faith is different. Too few accept the risks faith demands.
Ironically, the word “religion” comes from an ancient reference to being bound together. Words like “ligament” have similar origin. Like a ligament, religions bind people together with a certain amount of tension. The tension permits not only connection but also coordinated movement.
Similarly, people of different faiths will never be entirely alike, and they will deal with one another amid a certain level of tension. But they can be linked and can move in ways that awaken shared possibility
Rather than cynicism and suspicion, faith can unite people to build a better world. By founding the Faith Forum, a group of Richmond’s religious leaders is moving in that direction. The Faith Forum will sponsor periodic events to build understanding and practical forms of cooperation across lines that can easily divide.
Religion may yet be able to help.
The Rev. William L. Sachs, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation based at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Contact him at (804) 288-2867 or