No need to fear talking to neighbours of different faiths

Published January 1, 2000

RELIGION WAS THE motivating factor in everything we did ? without religious institutions and churches, I would not be here today.”

For anyone who forgets or ignores the impact of religion on governments and people’s lives, Nelson Mandela’s passionate words serve as a powerful reminder of the vital role religion can play in the world.

As the Nobel laureate did last year at the World Council of Churches meeting in Harare, Mr. Mandela broke a long-standing engagement (this time a visit to the U.S.) to address the Parliament of Worlds Religions in Cape Town. Mr. Mandela clearly feels strongly about the place of religion and religious institutions in world politics. His message about the crucial role of religion in ending one of the most repressive regimes in the latter half of the 20th century is passionate and clear.

The setting in Cape Town was also a reminder to Anglicans of the leadership assumed by another Nobel winner, former archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the overthrow of apartheid.

So how does religion influence the world?

As an example of a positive influence, most Anglicans are probably aware of the campaign to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries. Perhaps less well known is that, as a speaker at a parliament presentation on international debt and the World Bank noted, last year’s Lambeth Conference was “seminal” in introducing faith into discussions on how to relieve that crippling debt hindering human development.

It was the second time the Anglican Church’s role in debt-reduction was mentioned at a major international interfaith conference. The previous week in Amman, Jordan, delegates and observers at the World Conference on Peace and Religion were reminded of the personal influence of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey in opening space at the table with the World Bank. These talks have the backing of the bank’s president, James Wolfensohn, who described himself to bishops at Lambeth as a man of faith.

The Amman conference outlined several other positive ways religious leaders and institutions have helped restore peace and justice to people’s lives.

No less than the president of Sierra Leone himself, Dr. Ahmad Kabbah, came to the meeting to tell participants about the role of an interfaith council in bringing peace ? albeit still fragile ? to his war-torn country.

That same conference also drew several other world leaders. They included the host King of Jordan, Abdullah II; the king’s uncle and conference chairman, Prince Hassan; Indonesia’s President Abdurrahman Wahid ? a former international president of the conference ? and the former president of Costa Rica, Dr. Rodrigo Carazo. He spoke about how religion influenced Costa Rica’s decision not to have any defence forces.

But there is another side to religion. As one commentator has said, “religious belief has been, and continues to be, a scandalously frequent ingredient of violent conflict.” Sudan, the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan spring too easily to mind as places where religion plays a key role in hostilities.

Canadians, while acknowledging the role of religion in these matters, might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and ignore these issues which seem so far from their own lives. That would be a mistake.

Our country is one of the most multicultural in the world and has two particularly culturally diverse cities in Toronto and Vancouver.

Learning about other religions is not only enriching, it helps create friendlier communities. It also acts as a preventive medicine for racial conflict by removing the main reason for prejudice (fear based on ignorance) and helping to keep lines of communication open in times of trouble.

There are excuses people raise not to engage in interfaith dialogue. One stems from a view that Christians should either try to convert people of other faiths or risk that those faiths will convert others. Such a view is often accompanied by contempt for other religions.

But arrogance accomplishes nothing.

Members of established faiths shouldn’t fear anything by talking to their neighbours of other faiths or of the existence of international faith meetings. People confident in their faith are not afraid to talk to people of other faiths.

As for the meetings and the organizations behind them, they did not involve trying to convert people from one faith to another.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said about the possibility of African Muslim and Christian leaders getting together to discuss hot spots like Sudan, it’s “not about competition for souls.” It’s about trying to find common ground where there is conflict and identifying common issues of mutual concerns to religious communities in times of peace.

All this gives Anglicans in Canada plenty of reason to begin learning about and talking to their neighbours of other faiths. Churches looking for millennium projects might consider what they can do to get to know and work with their neighbours.

The Good Samaritan in the parable is so esteemed that it’s easy to forget that Jesus’ point rests on the fact that it was really an act of interfaith mercy.

So who is your neighbour?


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