Based on my recent travels through Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I have made the following observations about the role of religion in peace, security and co-existence.
1: The pessimist seemingly has all the facts. It’s not hard to produce evidence that our world is in a terrible, worsening state. Global headlines frequently testify to the worst of what humans can do in the name of religion. Such times beg these simple questions: Can we live with our deepest differences? Can we co-exist with peace and security for all?
2: If we are to be optimists, we must practise wisdom. Wisdom begins with naming things accurately, and getting the questions right.
We should acknowledge that we are all minorities somewhere. I happen to be a Christian from a Christian-majority country, the United States. As someone commanded by my faith to love God, neighbour, and enemy, I must treat well the minorities in my own cultural context, understanding that Christians are a minority elsewhere. It is the right thing to do, and in my own self-interest.
We must not sugar-coat this simple fact: religion has been a part of the problem. It has been used to validate violence. But what if religion could be a part of the solution? Can the best of faith defeat the worst of religion? Can we recover and live the best of our respective holy scriptures and what they teach about “the other”?
No change is sustainable unless the top-down of governments works with the bottom-up of the grassroots. Why? Because none of us can take on these global challenges alone. Whether the challenge is the environment, health, terrorism, or sex-trafficking, no single state or organisation has the solution. Governments must work with each other, peoples must work with each other, and state and non-state organisations must also work together.
3: The possibility of partnership begins with a “safe space” for people to meet who otherwise would not. This would be a place where, no matter our theological, philosophical, or political differences, our common values can contribute to a common moral framework to serve the common good. Faith leaders have a responsibility to help build this spiritual architecture, by inspiring participants to live out the “Golden Rule” found in every tradition. It is in such a space that individual and collective dignity is given and received. With this spiritual architecture established, state institutions and NGOs can – and must – participate.
The safe space must include women; to ignore women is to be irrelevant, given that women are half the world’s population, yet women of faith are so often overlooked. Young people, too, must have a role. While they have much to teach adults about co-existence and today’s world, they are also vulnerable to learning how to hate. We must ensure that mutual respect takes root among the next generation.
4: Co-existence is, ultimately, a conversation about citizenship and constitution, and both are sensitive terms. My country’s constitution began by valuing the lives of slaves as three-fifths of a human being; this sin is partly why Americans are so passionate today about mutual respect. The word “citizenship” embodies a conversation—or a lack of one —between the policies of the state and the peoples of society.
Citizenship exists at several levels, beginning with “spiritual citizenship”, given that 84% of people globally believe in something greater than themselves. Faith cannot simply be allocated to a box or sector; it is present in them all, with great potential to serve the common good. Citizenship is also global, and is present at the levels of state and ethnicity. It takes great maturity to steward these combined citizenships—identities, really—in the context of a safe space that both state and society should, together, ensure.
This boils down to a simple choice for individuals: will we tolerate – or celebrate – those who do not look, act, or pray, as we do? Tolerance is not enough. We must celebrate “the other”, inviting them to bring the essence of their beliefs and identities to the public square, and to the public policy table.
A choice must also be made by state institutions. Will the state assimilate or integrate minorities of any kind? Assimilation suggests that minorities should look and act like the majority culture; integration expects that the whole is better when differences are celebrated.
Our common security needs policies that integrate, and people who celebrate. The social ownership and legal protection of all – as equal citizens under the rule of law – must be our aspiration.
5: The safe and sacred space can generates tangible results. Whether it’s altruism or self-interest that initially brings people together, the process of building a space for loving, honest, and wise conversations will eventually transcend the original purpose. The process is the product.
When people get to know one another, people understand each other as individuals with real concerns and common values. Trust emerges. Sustainable partnerships are built, and these can effect sustainable change. Scholarship emerges to form and inform good policy decisions. Global challenges require comparative perspectives that inform decisions serving the common good. Finally, over time, based on new relationships and new scholarship, consensus forms on the best action for the most good. When such consensus exists among multiple stakeholders, it is more likely to lead to sustainable change.
Author: Chris Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.
Image: A Lebanese Christian woman prays during a religious ceremony. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl