Moving from Interfaith Dialogue to Multifaith Action

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Next week, the international community will be marking World Interfaith Harmony Week   designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February where there will be a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation.  This week comes on the back of a conference held at the UN in November 2008 organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Appropriately called ‘Culture of Peace’, it looked at the concept of creating a new environment by the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The Saudi sponsored conference examined the need to build tolerant societies and durable peace by restoring values of compassion and solidarity and encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures. The conference noted that achieving a culture of peace required effort from ‘‘the forces that hold our societies together’’, which also included religious beliefs, among other worldviews and focusing on the shared values of these religions and not on the differences. The final declaration of the Saudi conference emphasized the ‘importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance as well as respect for all religions, cultures, beliefs’, whilst expressing concern over ‘serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths’.

Much can be said about the motives for the conference and the week  (and it is not without its critics) but I think that the spirit that the  two UN initiatives are  trying to achieve cannot be criticized because it provides a space for conversations to take place that transcends beyond the local to the global, realizing that this is not only just a faith perspective but has political implications. This culture of peace requires real work from all stakeholders.

However it needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misconceptions that exist about the ‘other’ within all of us that is the starting point for any initiative.  Too often, mention the word ‘Interfaith’ and people roll their eyes.  The common perception (in itself a misconception) is that ‘interfaith’ conjures up a bunch of mature / retired ladies and gentlemen sitting around having tea (no disrespect intended!!).  Pastor Bob Roberts in his latest book Bold as Love  sees “interfaith as loosey-goosey, let’s all just hug one another and ignore core truth” (2012, 19).  I could not agree with him more!!.  We have to move away from just polite conversation about each other’s faiths to really seeking to understand our differences yet finding commonality to move on.  Hence I subscribe to Bob Roberts’ term of ‘multifaith’ which says “we have fundamental differences, but the best of our faiths teach us we should get along.” (2012, 19).

So the interfaith harmony week is just a first step on this journey.  We have to realize that not only dialogue is needed but in fact multifaith action has to follow if we want to see results. Whilst dialogues are a beginning it is important that engagement goes beyond this, engaging practically with faith leaders and communities, to help resolve and avoid conflict and achieve gains that make a difference to people’s lives. Unless interfaith dialogue can produce something tangible for communities in the front line then peace, tolerance and harmony will not come from the grassroots.   A statement that I have come across time and again whilst working in places like Sri Lanka has been “if you can’t feed your hungry children or afford to buy medicines for them, statements that we should all live together mean nothing.  I will be looking for someone to blame”

We are now living at a time where increasingly across the world, political violence flavored by faith, culture and identity is being used to justify the preservation of the ‘values of freedom’.  Whether it is in the Israel / Palestine issue or the Rohingya problem in Myanmar, it is obvious that faith becomes the arena for the conflict to be played out.  As a consequence, faith is seen as the problem.  We as people of faith and spirituality have to retake the reins and change the paradigm and perceptions of faith and spirituality.  To decry the role of faith or to define it as the root cause of the world’s problems is to do so at one’s peril. The role of faith and spirituality in particular in the search for new solutions is very important as it offers a simple and easy access to communities (strong in their spiritual and faith teachings) and a simple language to express the commonalities of existence and create the prerequisites for forgiveness, respect, understanding and acceptance.

Faith provides a narrative and a space in which one can start to explore some of these discussions of ethics and morals.  In many of the smaller communities, faith and faith organizations play a pivotal role in responding to the demands and pressures of the local community, where they operate with local knowledge to address specific community problems.  They are highly active in many fields of social service, healthcare, education, human rights, youth development etc. They are self reliant, capable of harnessing the communities’ manpower, skills and resources. They serve very often as role models; variously taking a stand against corruption, developing infrastructure, delivering “sharp end” programs and offering relief, healthcare and educational resources- where they would not otherwise be found. They are invariably unswerving in their zeal and commitment and many organizations work entirely voluntarily in a spirit of service.

Though there is a character to the religious playing field, that complicates matters with an undeniably, as strong a history of internecine strife and struggle, discrimination as they do of cooperation and collaboration and a problem of religiosity, we cannot ignore their voices and their role.  Thus it is against this framework of potential disagreement and division, which efforts are required at all levels within society to develop a new workable and principled political paradigm which can bridge the gaps of mistrust and suspicion between  and of faiths, beliefs, cultures and communities.

Firstly, we will need to confront our own relativism by rethinking concepts of human nature (especially as regards the age-old search for spiritual values and religious truths) and competing, confusing, or ill-defined concepts of tolerance, diversity, and freedom.

Secondly we need to re-look at the concept of harmonious pluralism which will include the interaction of religious actors with one another, with society and the state around concrete cultural, social, economic and political agendas.  It denotes a politics that encourages diverse communities with overlapping but distinctive ethics and interests.  Whilst such interaction can involve sharp conflict, the politics should provide a space for people to struggle openly with religious and cultural differences.  Provision of this space should consider

  • Common Values – Major faith traditions are united in the values which espouse the notion of a shared humanity. These fundamentals help to define a framework for dialogue, constructive debate and joint action, first to confront that which is an affront to civilization, such as poverty, and the malaise of bigotry, intolerance and inequity, whether based on religion, nationality, race, culture or gender.
  • Social Responsibility – Diversity, like creation itself, is purposeful. The reality of its prevalence is reason enough for people, whatever their origin or background, to come together in an effort to know one another. This coming together develops a dialogue,  which can only be sustained if merit or virtue is associated with the quality of one’s conduct, irrespective of one’s creed, race, colour, gender or material status in society. Abstractions of good, just as protestations of righteousness, are of no avail unless translated into practical, good deeds. Without active social responsibility, religiosity is a show of conceit. Helping the weak and marginalized, being just, even at the expense of one’s own or one’s family’s apparent welfare, repelling evil and inequity with that which is good and equitable, become the true marks of piety.
  • Articulating Social Justice, Ethics and Values – Justice, compassion, and ethics generally, endure only when they are part of a lived spirituality, mirroring a soul at peace. Injustice, corruption, pride, tyranny, un-trustworthiness, immoral conduct generally, by contrast, are an outward reflection of a spiritual malaise. Justice, thus defined, is the bonding principle of a common or universal ethic that is the only way to ensure a human dimension to policies and strategies pertaining to globalization.

In essence, we will have to rediscover a spirituality of commonality which will allow us to recognize the common space and substance amongst all doctrines that will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities possible. These values and ideals will have to be living, which cannot find expression on paper or monuments or in the annals of history books, but which remain alive in the hearts and minds of people inspiring us to pride, duty and sacrifice. These living values will have to help us to build on shared understandings and should be the glue that binds every healthy society.

The concept of spirituality of commonality that we need to develop as a global society has to be an awareness of the interconnection of all things to provide the fuel for social change.  It has to recognize that diverse doctrines have a common space and substance as we all belong to this world and we need to live in peace with everything and everyone and protect it for those who come after us. It has to be about a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of those who are voiceless.  It has to allow us to value behavior that express mutual regard for one another, honesty, fairness, humility, kindness courtesy and compassion.

People might scoff at the naivety of this statement but the point is that we have no choice.  We have got to a position where something new needs to happen. For too long, narrow interests have vied for advantage with ideological minorities seeking to impose their own versions of absolute truth. It is time we reassembled the pieces of the broken mirror.

In order for this to happen, as many people have already been talking about, we need to engage: with each other, at different levels and ultimately with the authorities. The Bishop of London talked about nourishing relationships  in order to develop an understanding of right and wrong. I would go even further to say that an extension of nourishing relationships and engagement is the concept of linking and partnership for mutual learning to harness more cross-community collaboration, in the interests of peace, tolerance and well-being.

Linking, partnerships, engagement all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding which should be encouraged and supported.  The notion of partnership though is that in reality no organization can operate in isolation in today’s complex world.  The partnerships are about encouraging institutions to work across traditional boundaries to enhance their core competencies. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance and harmonious living.  Existing initiatives need to be strengthened and new ones started that have sustainable footprints in the community whilst providing a space for all stakeholders of society to play a role.   There should be linking and partnerships, between and within faith communities-and certainly faith hub, to faith hub,  that relies on action not just dialogue, rather than focusing on inter-faith networks, who to some degree are already converted.

Genuine cross cultural, multifaith partnerships, give back to both donors and recipients, who realize that cultural contacts alter fundamentally the way in which they interact, giving them the power and strength to work cooperatively and helping them to realize the practical implications of their cooperation on the ground.

Tan Sen, the master musician at the court of the Moghul Emperor, Akbar, had some fifteen musical instruments in the Emperor’s chamber, which he had tuned to one frequency. Upon playing just one instrument’s musical note, the other fourteen started to resonate, to the astonishment and delight of the audience.  Ideally this story can serve well as a metaphor for how communities can work in harmony to achieve an enlightened result. Not everyone sees it that way. Certainly not every faith community is tuned to the same frequency, indeed, not every faith community has achieved harmony within itself but an opportunity exists through the promotion of linking to faith communities, to harness more cross-community collaboration, in the interests of peace, tolerance and well being.

Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture, and faith-based organizations will continue to thrive as part of civil society. Virtually all faiths, however different they may be theologically have a common purpose which is to serve humanity and aid the disadvantaged. Thus faith represents a significant pillar of grassroots relief and development.

Addressing these challenges offers an antidote to sectarianism and the polarization of different faiths in multi-cultural societies. This will never be easy, but remains vitally important.

(Photo, “Arizona Interfaith Movement,” by The Pluralism Project ; attribution via Flickr Commons.)