A compass to guide our way
Exploring the contribution of religions in our secular society today
By Susanne Janssen
Religion is one of the most powerful positive social and cultural forces in human history.
Religion causes troubles and wars.
Both those statements are true. Humanity dealt with these problems for thousands of years, being on a journey to a deeper understanding of the meaning and the core of faith. Only in recent decades, however, is the role of religion being questioned. Would we be better off without religion? Does being faithful and belonging to a certain religion make you biased?
Though atheist convictions seem on the rise, according to Pew Research, three-quarters of U.S. adults say religion is at least “somewhat” important in their lives, with more than half (53%) saying it is “very” important. Worldwide, only 16% are not affiliated with any religion.
A look to the Middle East shows how much politics and religion can be intertwined: during the 1990s, with bilateral and multilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, peace seemed near at hand. “But the process never got translated into people’s lives, so the people didn’t trust the other group,” said Paul Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, at a panel at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in May.
Without reaching peoples’ hearts — and religion is not a matter of pure intellect, but also of heart and soul — peace is difficult to achieve. With globalization, most people today are immersed in diverse multicultural, multifaith communities, and that is where the bigger challenge begins.
The moral compass
How can we practice our faith or spiritual values when our community is made up of various groups that do not necessarily share all those values? Sometimes those who look to a higher power as their guiding compass on moral issues are seen with suspicion and incredulity.
Two examples come to mind: marriage and gender. Are people like Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who refused to sign a marriage document for two men, heroes of religious conscience or bigoted discriminators? Is gender determined from birth or is it something to be discovered? More and more society is asking whether one’s religious beliefs make him or her unfit to hold a public office or a particular job.
In the past, religion was an important factor in choosing a candidate for a job or public office. Besides the necessary professional skills, basic characteristics were needed: being trustworthy, honest, capable of building relationships, unbiased. Being a faithful believer was an advantage for that endeavor.
Times have changed, but we cannot set aside the role that faith, religious or not, still plays in our lives. If certain viewpoints influence laws, those laws may contrast with the faith perspectives of others. Christians, for example, are called to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17). So they must respect the law inasmuch as it does not conflict with what they consider the law of God, which comes first. The problem arises when in the name of protecting the rights of one group, the rights of another are infringed.
How do we find balance between the rights of various groups? And which circumstances take priority? God does not impose his will on us, so can we impose our religious interpretation of his will on others?
Entering into dialogue
I propose a response of Pope Francis as a kind of a compass to guide us. At his first audience with the press in March 2013, he said, “Since many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are non-believers, from the bottom of my heart I give this silent blessing to each and every one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.”
That doesn’t mean that religious believers have to remain silent or not have an impact on society. Instead, our individual choices make a difference, since as always “actions speak louder than words.” In forming our conscience, as well as of those who are entrusted to us, we can help others to make good choices, and eventually in this way also work toward the improvement of certain laws and popular convictions.
The second point is: we should not stay within our own circles, affirming ourselves and speaking to people who believe more or less what we do. We also have to reach out to those who have very different viewpoints.
“The security of faith does not make us motionless or close us off, but sends us forth to bear witness and to dialogue with all people,” tweeted Pope Francis on August 2, 2013.
That’s there where true dialogue starts! We have to find words to explain what the core of our belief is, and give witness with our lives that we love and respect everyone, for example, both students who are or who are not troubled about their gender identity. We should care for the homosexual coworker as much as for the one who is heterosexual and happily married, maybe even more, because a person who feels discriminated against reminds us of Jesus, who was discriminated against at the end of his life.
Wake up an optimist
How can religions contribute to peace in society and among nations? Former ambassador Kurtzer wakes up every morning an optimist, thinking that peace in the Middle East is possible, but by sunset, based on what he sees, he is again a pessimist. Even so, he thinks religions can contribute to peace — through individuals.
He remembers that during the Cairo protests in 2013, Egyptian Christians joined hands to protect Muslims during their prayers, and Muslims protected Coptic churches against radical protesters.
People inspired by religion can help unmask the misuse of all religious texts to reveal their real meaning in a spirit of the Golden Rule. People of faith are the best messengers to show that coexistence is possible and easier to achieve if everyone follows their own religion. Society may want to eradicate faith from public life, thinking it is the best way to avoid conflict, but an important contribution toward coexistence would then be missing.
On the level of society, belonging to a certain faith does not make you a poorer citizen. The opposite is still true: to have a compassionate love for every person probably makes you a more engaged teacher, sheriff, mayor and so on. A judge who believes that some kind of a final judgment will take place might be more humble and less self-righteous in his sentences and decisions.
Then on a larger scale, religions have proven to be able to patiently persevere in a trust-building dialogue. Archbishop Bernadito Auza, who represents the Vatican at the UN, pointed out the potential of faith-based diplomacy, naming two examples: the peace negotiations in Mozambique, where it took 20 years before rebels and government were able to meet face to face to talk, and the example of Cuba, where it took the Catholic Church five decades to gain trust and respect from the Cuban government, but this eventually led to Pope Francis’ visit last September.
Speaking at a gathering of global diplomats during a 2016 New Year’s address at the Vatican, the pope said, “Every authentic practice of religion cannot fail to promote peace.”
Let’s prove his words true.
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