IIC Newsletter 11: June 1999
FACING THE PAST – FREEING THE FUTURE
by David Craig
What was it the booking form said?
Young people, engaged in work across religious divides, and leaders of faith communities and interfaith organisations, will share their ideas for ways forward and try together to reconcile visions for the future with religious injustices of the past.
There were deeply moving personal histories, equally profound accounts of the past, descriptions of exciting interfaith initiatives and not a few visions either, but no one at the 1999
International Interfaith Centre’s Conference will forget the ways in which each delegate was invited to be practically involved in facing the past and freeing the future.
It was like moving house, said Marcus Braybrooke in the opening session, or moving room at the end of a term: getting rid of the rubbish and taking only what you really needed into the new house, into the new room, into the future.
There was a square box and there was a golden basket, and beside each was a pile of small square cards. The box, said Sister Maureen of the Brahma Kumaris, was for the small plain cards and the golden basket for the decorated cards. On the small cards we were invited to write the one thing we would, at the end of the 20th century, cast away from our religious tradition, the one thing which most offended, which had caused grief. The box, we were told would be burned at the end of the conference – a symbol of freeing ourselves from our past. For the golden basket we were invited to write on the gilded cards one gift we would offer to the future, one thing which we felt would make the world a better place. Throughout the conference the box and
basket stood with each with its diminishing pile of cards, illuminated by the flickering of a candle.
It does not take an auto da fe , a pogrom or a crusade for forcible conversion. Facing the past is uncomfortable for nationals with a colonial past, it is difficult for missionary cultures. It is equally difficult for people who have been subject to colonial rule and to evangelical
persuasion. Each, in the name of progress, has marginalised and destroyed cultures, forced ancient peoples to betray their pasts. The God of the Christian missionaries in Africa was indeed a jealous God as Abena Amoo the Mother of the Pan Afrikan Healing Foundation made plain. Her job is “to show people that they have the courage and strength to look at healing through historical wrongs by facing the past to free the future, or as it is called in her tradition Sankofa, a sacred gift which means to go back and heal the wounds of the past”
To free the future, ancestral gains, illegitimately acquired must be given up, an honest admission of the wrongs of slavery must be acknowledged, and reparation for the rape of the continent and its people must be made. Before the continent can be healed a debt must be paid, and while the
burden of Third World Debt and Jubilee 2000 was on everyone’s mind, we were reminded that healing the past involved looking again at the divide between white and black, it involved looking again at what the white man had destroyed, the culture, the religious inheritance the respect for family and ancestor, the family tree which led from the youngest child through the family and ancestors to God himself. Healing Africa was a call to recognise and restore the traditional elements which made Africa, the names which had meaning, the respect for the ancestors a re-understanding of what African religion really was.
On the Saturday evening, the conference welcomed the Sri Chinmoy Peace Run torch and some 20 runners who were running throughout Europe as a witness to peace, talking to students in schools and various groups on their route. The presentation and singing of the athletes brought Saturday’s memorable evening to its end.
The Conference was graphically reminded of another area where to free the future a past must be faced on the Sunday afternoon. George Diakos, a theological student at Athens University, and an orthodox Christian from Cyprus sat next to Levent Altinay a Muslim Turkish Cypriot reading for a Ph D At Brookes University in Oxford. Both came from the same island but an island separated and divided. History, ideology and political analysis were clear to each and clearly expressed: the two young articulate men were a paradigm of what it really meant to face the past so that the future might be freed. There was a tangible tension in the room but when Deepak Naik asked what each was going to do when he got back to his community, common ground had been found: each would tell the young people in his island group that the other side wanted peace, and co existence and an end to division. The applause was loud and prolonged and one felt that in that Oxford room, some small step had been taken on either side and that indeed there was a sign that the future would be faced.
The wealth of new initiatives in Interfaith understanding and actions was presented in two sessions: Individual Faith Visions and Organisational Visions. The conference heard from four young people about personal commitment to and community involvement in Interfaith action: Ila Shah from a Jain perspective, Megumi Hirota from the Japanese Buddhist Rissho Kosei Kai tradition, Anuradha Devi from ISKCON and Rishi Singh from the Sikh. The conference was moved by personal accounts of ways in which religion had provided support and enrichment in childlessness, in a car accident, in practising the theory of religion and in time of recent religious persecution.
The Session on Organisational Visions introduced the Conference to the International Association for Religious Freedom with a concern for spiritual support for people in education (Ramola Sundram), The Interfaith Global Youth Corps established in 1998 with its commitment to practical service(Eboo Patel), the Interfaith Network and its increasing involvement with young people’s groups (Bhupinder Singh) and the International Council for Christians and Jews, a post holocaust initiative representing three generations of Christians and Jews who have to live with the past, and not only come to terms with its horrors but to move on to address new and relevant issues (George Wilkes).
Later in the day the Conference had the opportunity of hearing reports on the work of the newly established Three Faiths Forum concerned with developing relationships between the three Abrahamic religions in the UK, with a series of conferences and by establishing local groups throughout the country, World Faiths Development Dialogue, The Peace Council, the
Government Initiative of the Inner Cities Religious Council, the University of Derby website, MultiFaithWeb, North American Interfaith Network, United Religions Initiative, World Conference of Religions for Peace, The Unifications Church’s Religious Youth Movement and Women for Prayer. While the two-hour session as a whole was rather indigestible, the work represented by the organisations represented an impressive range of concerns and achievements and the accompanying literature supplemented any tendency to afternoon somnolence!
A final session from the “elders” responded to some of the new initiatives and reflected how the hopes for the future as expressed were based on pragmatism and action, a real ability to face the realities of future engagement. The previous generation of interfaith “pioneers” felt that while personal experience was what had brought each into dialogue, the first century of Interfaith work had been based on the desire to understand and study texts and theologies of religions. The group also remarked on the positive influence the newer religious movements had had on the interfaith movement.
During the reflection that started the Sunday programme, one of the elders, Stan Mckay, an indigenous Canadian, had moved many of the participants with his Cree wisdom and its awareness of our relationship with nature. Each person was given a fresh strawberry, first to smell and to reflect on while Stan told stories of how the fruits were gathered by his people and what they represented, and then to eat. The sight, smell and taste of a strawberry will, for me at least, never be taken again for granted and will always remind me of “the collection of the first fruits” of Stan’s childhood. For a while we were transported to a simpler, more beautiful world attuned to all the four directions and the strengths and insights each offered.
It was the fire alarms which made it necessary for the conference to find an alternative way of disposing of the box with the cards bearing those things which we did not want to take into the next century. A conflagration would have been dramatic, but college authorities would have been cross and so the fire was replaced by the college shredder as the means of destroying the past. The golden basket on the other hand contained the cards of things people wanted to take into the future. It was handed around and each delegate took a small card as a memento and a reminder for freeing the future. Mine summed up the feeling of the conference; it reads “Hope for all and Peace and Love” Now that is something for the future.
From Fundamentalism to Interfaith Dialogue?
At the end of January, I attended the above seminar organised by the International Interfaith Centre at Somerville College. Before I attended, the word “fundamentalist” had a number of conflicting meanings for me. I knew the media used it in association with “extremism” and “intolerance” for a wide variety of unpleasant groups from terrorist bombers in the Middle East to bible-thumping orators in the American Mid-West. On the other hand I was attracted by the word in its etymological meaning of “going to the roots” of ones faith. I considered Quakers to be “fundamentalist”, with George Fox’s insights into the relationship between mankind and God being the fundamentals.
The seminar brought six faiths together, Sikh, Tibetan Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, each to shed a different light on the subject.
One of the central tenets of the Sikh faith is to acknowledge the rights of others to practise their religion. Buddhists seek balance between “praxis”, – the social and spiritual values and principles, (different faiths have much in common here), and “view”, – the beliefs and dogma, (here they mostly disagree!).
The Christian speaker clarified for me my initial confusion with definitions of the word “fundamentalist”, differentiating it from “traditional” and “conservative”. He reminded us that the term was used for a particular development in the history of American Protestantism towards the end of the 19th Century, when a number of conferences were held to voice opposition to critical study of the bible and to the theory of evolution. He referred to a recent study that describes fundamentalism as “a position held in conscious opposition to other views, whereas a traditional or conservative position may be held because it has not been challenged”.
One aspect of seeing the essentials or the fundamentals of a faith is in the case of the Mediaeval Jews who wanted to make clear the difference between Judaism and Christianity. The Jewish speaker introduced us to the thirteen principles of Maimonides (1138-1204). The enunciation of fundamental principles helps us to see what is really significant in each faith. However, modern usage of the word as an insult directed at groups who have firm beliefs, for example against homosexuality or in support of West Bank settlers, encourages us to abandon the word as irredeemably distorted.
Muslim Fundamentalism is another use of the word altogether. It is a political force to fight, by means of struggle (Jihad) oppression and injustice, (and there is a lot of it about, both home-grown in Middle East dictatorships and that imposed by Western militarism and commercialism!).
A Muslim Fundamentalist is not interested in discussing the nature of the Trinity. “Christians are pretty good at talking of interfaith dialogue but even better at selling guns!” was one response. Some at the conference may have been offended as they couldn’t remember selling a single gun, but I think the point was taken! Fundamentalism was now about land tenure, exploitation and saving (or destroying) people’s lives.
Part of the Hindu input was a salutary reminder to us about the limitation of words and concepts. We were delighted to be told a parable of an “Inter-Number Conference”. The 5 numbers present were far too polite to argue but each of them nonetheless considered themselves as superior to the others. Each was closer to Infinity than the others. No.1 thought he was naturally first. No.2 felt that a lot of the others were decidedly odd. He was the top of the evens! Everyone knows that 3 is the most mystical of numbers. Zero maintained that none of the other numbers could reach infinity without him.
The parable does not warn us away from reaching out to the Infinite, but reminds us not to be judgmental. Most of us approach the Infinite through our own context anyway and that is fine.
Lively discussion followed each contribution. One member, when confronting the huge issues of injustice and the apparent impossibility of real dialogue, wondered whether Interfaith organisations should be disbanded and we should engage in political action instead. The wise response was that we needed both. We mused over how personal agendas often took over because of our lack of emotional self-knowledge.
One cry from the heart was a plea for dialogue within the Christian Church. It was felt that there is “a huge wall of intransigence” amongst different positions. The Church leadership should foster intrafaith dialogue. Argument might be interesting but it is ineffective in changing deeply entrenched attitudes. There had to be genuine meeting. Only a positive experience could change attitudes. Sometimes interfaith dialogue could be a vehicle for intrafaith understanding.
The increasing use of the Internet was seen as an important growing point in mutual understanding. At any moment, as you read this article, for instance, there are people sharing insights and understanding in cyberspace. We left the conference, knowing that we had confronted some important issues and felt encouraged that both light and heat had been generated.
The Year 2000 has been declared the ‘International Year of Thanksgiving’ by the United Nations General Assembly. To prepare for this, World Thanksgiving held a Thanksgiving World Assembly in Dallas,Texas, in March. Speakers included Cardinal Francis Arinze, Archbishop George Carey, Professor Seshagiri Rao and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. I was glad to meet many friends and supporters of the IIC at this event.
On the way, I stopped over in New York to visit the impressive Interfaith Center of New York and I also had a chance to greet members of the Board of the Temple of Understanding. I also visited the Brahma Kumaris Center in New York
A month before, I was in Chicago for one of the preparatory meetings for the Parliament of the World Religions, which is to be held in Cape Town in December. ‘The Call to the Guiding Institutions’ which seeks to engage government, business, education and the media and other ‘guiding institutions’ in dialogue with religious and spiritual communities, is now nearly complete. I also attended an International Peace Council Trustees Meeting, which concentrated on the situation in North and South Korea. I also spoke to the long established interfaith ‘Common Ground’ group, of which Jim Kenney is a director.
There have been a variety of events to mark the 300th Anniversary of the founding of the Sikh Khalsa. It is an encouraging sign of the new spirit of inter-religious friendship that it is becoming natural to invite friends of other faiths to share in the major celebrations of a faith community.
It is right, therefore, that people of all faiths are joining in the preparations to mark the Millennium, which celebrates the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Holy Land 2000 Conference in February, hosted by The Israeli Government together with the Palestinian Authority, showed how Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, are preparing for the many visitors whom they expect to welcome next year to the Holy land. A Call to participate in 72 hours of interfaith peace-building has been issued by The United Religions Initiative. It was good to hear more about this when Charles Gibbs, the Executive Director of URI, visited Oxford in the Spring. Good Morning Millennium is arranging for representatives of different faiths to take to the air in ballons and offer greetings of peace on the first day of the new millennium.
Hopes for the new millennium will feature at the major interfaith conferences later this year, at which IIC plans to be represented. IIC is helping to arrange a Symposium at the Cape Town Parliament on ‘Interfaith in Action in A Global Context’. This will be an opportunity to give some picture to a wider audience of the variety of interfaith action across the world and may encourage us all to see how we can more effectively co-operate to ensure that our work produces the longed for benefit for humanity.
Introduction to IIC / CPWR Symposium
An important feature of the forthcoming Parliament of the World’s Religions will be a Symposium on Interfaith in Action in a Global Context.
The Symposium will meet on the three afternoons of Thursday, Friday and Saturday December 2nd to 4th, from 2.00pm to 5.30pm and focus on certain areas of interfaith action. Interfaith organisations will be invited to participate and the organisations together will reflect a balance of religious and cultural diversity and gender equality.
Presentations will be project based and will highlight examples of interfaith activities and issues in an interactive form to stimulate discussion on how our organisations might more effectively network and cooperate in future. We also hope that those who are new to interfaith work or who are engaged in one particular activity may gain a global picture of what is happening and also of the variety of interfaith activity.
To complete the Symposium, on the afternoon of Saturday 4th December, from 4.00pm to 5.30pm, there will be a response to the presentations and the questions raised by them, followed by an open discussion on ways to strengthen co-operation.
The Symposium is offered as a contribution to the CPWR’s Call to Our Guiding Institutions, a document addressed to government, business, education, media and religious communities and organisations, asking them to re-examine and alter their roles and responsibilities in the 21st century. During the Parliament, the Assembly will discuss strategies for implementing the aims of the Call. All Parliament participants will be invited to carry home the messages of the Call and to find new modes of creative engagement there. We hope that the Symposium, with all our combined attentions, will help in the unfolding of new ways of meeting and cooperating in the spirit of the Call.
INTERFAITH IN ACTION IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
Parliament of the World’s Religions
Cape Town, South Africa
2-4 December 1999
PROPOSED PROGRAMME SCHEDULE
Thursday 2nd December 2.00-3.30pm Healing the Wounds: What can religions do together to help a ‘peace process’?
WCRP, South Africa
Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum
Middle East Abrahamic Forum
United Religions Initiative
Chair: Rio Interfaith Network
Thursday 2nd December 4.00-5.30 Sharing Spiritual Space: Can religious people pray together?
World Congress of Faiths.
Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
World Federation of Inter-Religious Councils
Chair: International Council for Christians and Jews
Friday 3rd December 2.00-3.30pm The Voice of the Voiceless: A Call for Justice
International Association for Religion Freedom
World Conference on Religions and Peace
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
Chair: Jordanian Interfaith Institute
Friday 3 December 4.00-5.30pm Engaging Governments and the United Nations
Temple of Understanding / Interfaith Center of New York
World Faiths Development Dialogue
Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions
Global Ethic Foundation
Chair: Japan Emergency NGO’s Organization
Saturday 5th December 2.00-3.30pm New Hopes and Visions: the contributions of young people
European Youth Initiative
Interfaith Youth Corps
Minorities of Europe
Global Youth Institute
Chair: International Interfaith Centre
Saturday 5th December 4.00-5.30 pm Future Cooperation and Networking
4.00-4.30 Response to presentations from WCRP, South Africa
4.30-5.30 Open Discussion
Chairs: Marcus Braybrooke and Chung Ok Lee