IIC Newsletter 5: July 1996
Interfaith Achievements? Initiatives Around the World
Participants from indigenous American religions gave a distinctive chararacter to the International Interfaith Centre’s third annual gathering of interfaith workers from around the world, held last week at Westminster College, Oxford. Myra Laramie, a native Canadian, – the term Red Indian is now avoided – invited conference members to join her in saluting the people of the East, the South, the North and the West as a sign of reverence to them and to all life. She also showed the significance of ‘smudging’ or smoke as a way of cleaning the mind so that one only has good thoughts of others – which may be why this was such a harmonious occasion.
Our Grandchildren need our interfaith work
Myra Laramie spoke of the oppression of her people. Her father did not get the right to vote until the year in which she was born. She was the first member of her family to receive a master’s degree. Having herself been taught the spiritual traditions of her people, she has made it her life’s work to make those traditions better known. Interfaith co-operation, she insisted, is ‘essential for the sake of our grandchildren’, which is the point also made by the pictures of the children in the IIC appeal brochure.
Mr Cacá Wará Jecupe, a native from Sao Paulo, Brazil spoke of efforts to preserve threatened indigenous religious traditions. He explained how the Churches’ attitude has become more sympathetic. After talking about the importance of dance, he introduced conference members to some indigenous dances. He also called for ‘unarmed warriors’ to combat hatred and prejudice.
Mr André Porto also from Brazil, who helped to arrange the interfaith vigil during the Rio Earth Summit, spoke of subsequent interfaith developments. Another vigil was arranged on ethics and politics. Besides dialogue, religious groups in the country have embarked on joint projects to help the street children.
The overall theme of the conference was “Interfaith Achievments? Initiatives Around the World?” By looking at areas of conflict, of which the Americas was one, it was hoped to have a clearer picture of what interfaith activity can achieve and how it can be effective in the work of reconciliation.
The two other areas considered were Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Mr Sumana Ratnayaka, a former Buddhist monk, told how as a Singhalese monk he lived for some years in the Tamil city of Jaffna. He managed to disarm hostility just by smiling. He stressed the importance of people of different ethnic backgrounds, who live in the same society, learning each other’s languages.
Mr N Ramamurthy, a Tamil Quaker, spoke of his work for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He stressed the need to build up trust if one was to act as a mediator and the importance of confidentiality.
Dr Elizabeth Harris, of Westminster College, spoke of her years’ of work in Sri Lanka and described the work of the Inter-religious Peace Council. She stressed that the conflict was not a religious war nor caused by poverty. It was a political problem, especially how to ensure that a minority feels it has a stake in society.
Two hundred years of dialogue are better than one year of war
The problems between Israel and the Palestinians are also not religious in the view of both speakers, Ali Rafi’, a judge from Haifa, and Julian Resnick, at present at the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in London. Ali Rafi’ explained the teachings of Islam and that its message is of peace. There is no justification in the Holy Qur’an for those who misuse religion to incite hatred. ‘Two hundred years of dialogue’. he said, ‘are better than one year of war’. Julian Resnick agreed that the Holy Books had been abused to fan the flames of hatred. Those engaged in Israel in interfaith activity, he said, were too often on the margin of their faith communities and lacked influence.
The question of how people of faith together influence political and economic decisions underlay the many issues raised by Bishop Swing’s call for a United Religions Organization. Bill Swing, the Episcopalian bishop of San Francisco, helped last year to arrange a special service to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco. From preparation for this came the vision of a permanent gathering place where through daily prayer, dialogue and action, members of the world’s religious communities could use their spiritual and moral resources for the good of all life on this earth. Responses were made by Rev Dr Robert Traer and Dr A Pushparajan.
The discussion raised questions about how interfaith organizations could co-operate and how international bodies could be of most help to those engaged in local interfaith activity.
Members of the conference went away very aware of how much needs to be done at every level to overcome bitterness and hatred between people and to build a more just and peaceful world. But even more, they went away feeling that they were part of an interfaith family and that the world wide network of support would strengthen each of them in his or her own particular work. In the end, the effectiveness of interfaith activity depends on the dedication of those engaged in it.
California United Religions Conference
Fifty persons met in San Francisco in June to consider the creation of “a United Religions, which would, in spiritually appropriate ways, parallel that of the United Nations”.
In his address the Episcopal Bishop of California, the Rt Rev William Swing, described his vision in terms of three concentric circles. The smallest circle has “points on the circumference” for all kinds of local, national and regional interfaith initiatives. The next circle represents the international interfaith organiztions. The third circle has the “interfaith work of the great religions. “Communication lines “run from all the points on the circumference through the centre and make contact with opposite points on the circumference.” And what about the centre? Bishop Swing writes: “I can see the centre as having a life of its own, created by all points on the circumference[s of all the circles]. The centre would be The United Religions.”
In the last session of the conference, Bishop Swing said the Charter writing conference next year should involve about 200 persons, including a significant number of women and grassroots religious and spiritual leaders. Questions which have yet to be answered include the following:
1. What is meant by “United Religions”? At this point, United Religions is a symbol rather than a concept. Some participants in the 1996 conference were firmly opposed to a “UN” of the religions, although this seems to be the original intention. Several conference participants favoured a decentralised network of some sort, with more than one centre.
2. How are “the religions” to be represented? Religious traditions are diverse, and the historic traditions includes thousands of religious communities. New religious movements in this century may also claim to be “religions”. If the United Religions is to involve relationships with local, national, and international religious and interfaith organizations, how is this to be accomplished?
3. Who is to answer these questions? What process of deliberation among religious, spiritual and interfaith leaders would “represent” the religions adequately and therefore have the authority and credibility to decide what “United Religions” might mean and what such an organization should do? What kind of participation id this decision-making process is necessary in order to assess whether a certain concept of a United Religions is both feasible and desirable?
Global Ethic and Global Initiatives
In a world which is more and more interconnected, there have been in recent years an ever increasing number of initiatives, projects and meetings with the aim to improve the well-being of humankind. Very soon in these multifaceted encounters the question of what the participants can agree together becomes a crucial issue. The Global Ethic Project is therefore of high significance and, of course, strongly debated.
The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 at Chicago was an important step toward a document which could be referred to and which could serve as a resource for further dialogue about common ethical ground in the world’s faith communities.
A central figure in the process leading to this declaration was Prof. Hans Kueng from Tuebingen University, Germany. In London on 23 May 1996, at the SCM Press launch of the new book Yes to a Global Ethic, edited by Prof. Hans Kueng, there was a very good attendance of persons involved in local and international interfaith activities. Together with many friends of the International Interfaith Centre, Sandy Martin and Josef Boehle attended the book launch on behalf of the Centre.
The book contains 34 articles, reflecting on the theme of a ‘Global Ethic’ from many cultural and religious perspectives, written by highly respected persons in the fields of politics, religion, science and culture. It is hoped that the variety of backgrounds of the contributors to this book will help to capture the attention of a wide audience.
Lectures given to the IIC by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Professor Paul Knitter are published in the March 1996 edition of World Faiths Encounter . Copies at £6 post free, are available from IIC.