The Soul of Europe have identified five strands for the possibilities for inter-religious dialogue in the movement towards justice and a more peaceful world.
One of the great difficulties we in Europe experience about inter-religious activities is that secular governments do not take us seriously. The reason for this is a legacy of the European Enlightenment at the time of scientific discoveries, industrial development and colonial expansion world wide. Religious belief could only be tolerated in this new political and social revolution if it remained a private matter. Everyone in this room knows that this is as reductionist a view of religion as is possible to be. The Archbishop of Canterbury is insistent that religious minorities play their full part in British society. He is determined to see that the rights and customs of Jews, Muslims and Hindus are respected and protected.
It is therefore difficult for those of us who are committed to inter-religious dialogue to have the resources to do our work. That most secular of institutions, the European Commission, is not interested.
Culture of Solidarity
Where dialogue happens, trust between religious leaders is given a chance to grow. In regions of the world where there is latent or endemic conflict then solidarity between religions becomes essential. Gaining that trust is difficult and not without danger. How much would it take for the Muslim and Jewish communities in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon to stand in solidarity with the rapidly diminishing Christian communities? Not to mention Iraq.
For example in Bosnia there is little trust between the religious and ethnic groups. But a successful outcome of prolonged dialogue would result in Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics standing together in the face of many and different threats. So when mosques are vandalized, then Orthodox and Catholics will continually and vigorously affirm their support for the Islamic community. When Orthodox priests and their families are harassed as has happened in Sarajevo, then Muslims and Catholics join the protest. When the Catholic Church in Bosnia is denied rights about the return of their properties, then Muslim and Orthodox will stand with them.
Politicians try to establish dialogue leading to agreement through ‘road maps’ and peace processes. These agreements often collapse and violence breaks out yet again. Why is it that so many countries emerging from war fall back into war? A short answer is that peace has to be established at the grass roots level; peace building requires patience and tenacity at the grass roots. The cycle of violence (through fear, grief, anger, bitterness, revenge and retaliation leading to resumption of hostilities) has to be dismantled at the level of the human heart and mind.
Religions proclaim teachings about peace (the reverence for life etc and the dignity of every human being); therefore in this process of dismantling the bitterness and anger emanating from grief – a task for generations – religious leaders in particular need to draw on the rich tradition of peace and peace making. They have a unique opportunity to assist in this dismantling of the cycle of violence.
It is sometimes necessary to bring people from outside the situation to act as catalysts in the healing process.
When a United Nations Peace Commission is formed then there needs to be also a core of people experienced in mediation and familiar with the principles of the Abrahamic faiths (and where necessary also Eastern religions) ready to be invited to establish inter-religious councils, or whatever initiatives are appropriate; provided long term resources are available to sustain them.
There is much knowledge, much experience of mediation and conflict transformation on the one hand and inter-religious dialogue on the other that this reservoir of wisdom can be drawn on in the way I am advocating.
There are two areas where scholars can contribute to the movement away from religious nationalism and violence towards a more civilizing future.
1. Historians can point to those times in our history when the Abrahamic faiths have lived together more or less satisfactorily. The tradition of Convivencia is one to be celebrated. History in the West is told mainly from the perspective of the Crusades, a conflict between faiths. The well chronicled tradition of co-existence and co-operation is neglected.
2. What I look for in the scholars of our sacred scriptures is help in reading the texts for our own time and to be taken down to the depths and ground of my faith and to be nourished in those depths, as a continual act of the imagination. I do not want to be part of some intellectual effort which strives after what we have in common – such effort does not engage the imagination. But where there is resolve to look eye to eye at our differences with respect, always with respect, then oddly and paradoxically our differences can energize our imagination to work collectively together. (Here the practice of scriptural reasoning is a most useful beacon.)
And I also look for scholars to engage in the practice of peace building between religions, so they share their wisdom and also learn from what is happening. Is there a place for practitioners and scholars to work together? We must create such a place.
The Soul of Europe has been actively engaged in securing interest and funding for the Ferhadija Mosque, because we believe that mosques, churches, and synagogues do not always have to be signs of division and partition. They can also be signs of meeting and reconciliation and as these projects happen, so the relationship between those of different ethnic groups and religions associated with the reconstruction or rebuilding is itself a sign, a promise of something new and good. There should be many such projects in the world today.
These are five proposals to contribute to the dismantling of the ‘chosen trauma’. They are modest and difficult and essential. Essential because as we all know, we can see on the not so distant horizon storms approaching. I am referring to the political, economic and social effects of climate change. It has been estimated that within thirty years, maybe even less, the agricultural yield of parts of Africa will have decreased by up to 12%. This means thousands will experience famine and starvation. This means inevitable migration on a scale we cannot imagine.
I say this not to scare myself, but to remind us that we will, from all our religious traditions, need all the wisdom we can draw on to diminish the inevitable violence. So the sooner we can realize the fruits of our dialogue the better for our children and future generations.
I believe the time has come for those committed to inter-religious dialogue to be more assertive. To those who say ‘We have the truth, we will not compromise’ we have to reply: ‘Yes but there is always more to see and learn about God.’ To those who say: ‘We do not want religious minorities or other ethnic groups in our land’, we should reply: ‘Do not be afraid. We are all of us interdependent, we have to live together. And we can live together.’ To those who say: ‘We will take revenge on those who have murdered our families, the old and the weak,’ we must say: ‘We bear witness to God’s justice, because our safety and security lie ultimately with God.’
So let us be more assertive, more demanding of one another and ourselves, more passionate about our calling to the work of dialogue among our religions. For we undertake this work not for ourselves but for God alone in whom we trust.