Men in dresses and conversations about peace

At the first interfaith meeting I attended a decade ago, I could not stop looking at the dresses the men wore. The living panaroma presented a palette of gorgeous colors, spectacular hats, wondrous robes, and magnificent beards. The faces of many religious leaders were etched with lines and their deep pools of eyes hinted at long lives wrestling with human challenges and bridging the earthly and the divine.

Every person had a story and behind every person, book and robe were thousands of years of history. Together they presented a picture that contrasted sharply with the international development meetings that had been my fare over a long career.

But what do such gatherings accomplish, beyond their powerful demonstration of the depth of history of religious traditions and their living presence? What, many from both secular and faith worlds alike ask, do world gatherings of faith leaders truly achieve?

To be honest there's at least as much cynicism as hope and confidence around what many term 'Kumbaya' happenings. And the male domination at official interfaith gatherings, not that different from official government meetings until very recently, seems particularly visible and turns many off.

The goals for interfaith meetings, however, are ambitious and right at the heart of today's global agendas.

The first goal of bringing faith leaders together has traditionally been peace. No peace among peoples without peace among religions, and no peace among religions without dialogue, theologian Hans Kung asserts whenever he has the chance. The assumption that many wars and conflicts have religious roots runs deep, so the desire to highlight, accentuate, enhance the peacemaking traditions of religions has great significance.

And with more and more people living in close proximity to people who hold strongly to different faiths, the need for understanding and respect goes deep. Tolerance has been a long-standing theme, though the term sits uneasily today because it smacks of simple acceptance, not the respect, understanding, and friendship that should surely be our common aspiration.

And the tasks of preventing conflict by anticipating it and addressing root causes, negotiating peace, and helping to build peaceful societies in the aftermath of conflict all fall squarely in the ambit of traditional religious interfaith traditions.

But the impulse to address violent conflict is only part of the story of interfaith gatherings today. Today's theme and ambition is no less than to work together for a better and more just world.

Interfaith meetings aim to build on the deep religious traditions and history of education and health care, serving as a safety net in troubled times, protecting the environment, and putting the sharp glare of shame and demand for action to change the picture for those who are excluded from the mainstreams of society.

Partnership and participation are watchwords today across many sectors of activity. They are central themes that a Parliament of the World's Religions needs to address. We know well that no single institution, no government, no business, and no faith tradition can alone address the enormous and cross-cutting issues of our times. A first step, which an interfaith event like the Parliament seeks to address, is to bring the positive common traditions but also the different wisdom and experience of faith traditions together so all can learn and trace better paths.

But the challenges to partnership go beyond religious bodies. Regrettably, many institutions, including diplomatic services, NGOs, international institutions, and private companies, have limited understanding of the worlds of religion. They are missing powerful partners in advocacy, action, and understanding.

Take for example the case of malaria, a scourge that even today kills millions of people, mostly children. New global efforts to combat and hopefully eradicate malaria recognise that the vast array of faith institutions can make major contributions, by advocating for action, communicating why people should care, gearing health programs to focus more sharply on malaria, and working with communities to care for each person who is sick.

The World Faiths Development Dialogue, the institution I head, bridges the worlds of development and faith. We start with two convictions. The first is that that working to end poverty and assure real opportunities for all people is both a moral imperative and a feasible goal in our times.

The second is that every development issue, whether it is water, sanitation, malaria, HIV/AIDS, gender justice, or education, engaged faith communities in many ways and at many levels.

Our common goal, and our ardent hope for the Parliament, is to find better ways to work together to these ends, so that peace and poverty are truly seen as the priorities for all leaders as we move forward.

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Katherine MarshallKatherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Professor in the Government Department and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. She leads the Berkley Centre's work on faith-inspired institutions working in development. Katherine is in Melbourne for the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Topic tags: Katherine Marshall, Parliament of the World's Religions, Berkley, Religion, Peace, World Affairs, Kumbaya



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