The Healing Force of Multifaith Work
Since the trauma of 9 ⁄11, religious extremists have expanded their heinous tactics to include unimaginable acts of human trafficking, mass executions, abuse of women and children, and territorial conquest. They pose some of the gravest humanitarian and security challenges of our time.
Never has it been more important to pursue multifaith relationships in the cause of peace. The axiom is as urgent as ever: “There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions.”1
According to the Pew Research Center last year, governments with high restrictions on worship or enforcement of preferential worship rank highest for social hostilities – including armed conflict, terrorism, mob sectarian violence.2
It’s a familiar paradox: Policies of exclusion, isolation, and discrimination are more likely to engender anger and religious extremism than prevent them.3 Defying this stark trend, enlightened multifaith encounters build social trust based a mutual recognition of our innate human dignity.4 Indeed, the United Nations and other international organizations seek to integrate this understanding of faith into negotiations and peacekeeping.
Harmony and trust, however, mean more than tolerating diversity. They depend on a genuine interest in crossing lines of difference. A dramatic example is the current pope. In his quest to end discord and violence, Pope Francis has been reaching across religious divides, visiting some of the world’s most conflict-prone countries. Last November, on his first trip to sub-Sahara Africa, he called for interfaith initiatives and insisted that religion can never justify violence. His plea is considered critical in a region where the number of Christians and Muslims is increasing, and tension between the two faiths is intensifying.5
Closer to home, the search for sustainable bonds of social cohesion continues. In recent years Yale Divinity School and the UN have carried out a series of events that focused on a deeper understanding of inclusiveness and faith.
One of the events, a retreat at Yale in October 2014, was co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Permanent Mission of Iraq to the UN. It centered on the role of religion in creating inclusive governance, with emphasis on Iraq. The discussion looked beyond sectarian divisions and sought common theological threads found in Islam that could offer a compelling foundation for moderation and consensus.6
The retreat featured Yale faculty and others who examined the relationship between Islamic Sharia and civil law, methods to combat the narrative of transnational jihad, and strategies for dealing with fear of religious diversity. Scholars stressed the core religious tenets shared by Shia and Sunni Islam and suggested how faith leaders could work harmoniously at a community level. This retreat broke new ground for interfaith dialogue.7
A foundational assumption of multifaith work is that a conversation among faiths will generate peaceable illuminations about each other. Mutual respect finally issues forth from awareness of our common humanity as creatures of God. Discourse is not based on trying to persuade one faith over another but acknowledging the positive aspects of other faiths.8 Ultimately we must regard the sheer diversity of creation as a benign and healing force. Christians, for instance, live out the truth within the church, but their faith unfolds in the world of countless diverse relationships. We hold our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.9
We only have to look at the horrific civil war in Syria to ponder what might happen if multifaith work were deployed preemptively. Before the war, Syrians lived together no matter their beliefs – Judaism, Christianity, Islam.10 The strife began as a protest against state corruption and a lack of freedom, then escalated with the government’s severe and sustained backlash against protestors.11 The violence drove religious groups against each other, especially after they sought help from foreign governments. As conflict intensified, a new sectarianism spread, legitimating violence among the three major monotheistic religions.12 The engulfing violence spread to the region, making it one of the worst religious wars of our time.13
Multifaith initiative may not bring about a universal agreement on the meaning of the good life, but its accomplishments prove that collaborative efforts – based on the dignity of every person despite religious differences – will serve the common good.
Moving forward in search of peace, we global citizens of the 21st century must grasp this: Multifaith engagement does not require a diminishment of one’s own theological commitment or undercut the truth of other traditions. Multifaith work sees the diversity of beliefs under God as a source of compatibility and coexistence. This search for empathy – a journey made with strangers – has very ancient roots. “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” says Exodus 23:9.
It is a potent force for peace.
Yvonne C. Lodico ’09 M.A.R. is head of the UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) New York Office. Previously, she served as special advisor with the UN mission in Timor-Leste and worked with three other UN missions in sub-Sahara Africa. She has taught human rights law and advised on international affairs and law. She has a law degree from NYU and an international affairs degree from Columbia.
1 Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (SCM Press, 1991).
3 Maajid Nawaz, Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism (Lyons Press, 2013), p. 45.
4 William Sullivan, “Making Civil Society Work,” in Civil Society, Democracy, and Civic Renewal, edited by Robert K. Fullinwider (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), p. 37.
5 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/24/ in-africa-pope-francis-will-find-religious-vibrancy-andviolence/
6 Speaking at the retreat were: Gregory E. Sterling, dean of YDS; YDS professor Lamin Sanneh; Darryl Li, associate research scholar at Yale Law School; Yale political science professor Andrew March; Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani of the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation in New York; Kareem Adeeb of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, and Yvonne Lodico.
7 Last fall, during a General Assembly high-level focus on countering extremism, YDS held a side event at the UN on “Trust Building and Peaceful and Inclusive Societies.” It included Gregory E. Sterling, dean of YDS; YDS professor Miroslav Volf; Sabri Boukadoum, Ambassador of Algeria; and Yvonne Lodico. See, http://www.unitar.org/building-andpromoting- trust-peaceful-and-inclusive-societies.
8 David Hollenbach, S.J. The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights and Christian Ethics (Georgetown University Press, 2003), p. 5.
9 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-c-stiller/dontmistake- pluralism-fo_b_2837966.html
10 Dennis Covington, Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World (Little, Brown and Co., 2016), p. 74.
11 See Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012), p. 103.
12 https://www.worldwatchmonitor. org/2013/08/2648161/
13 Covington, p. 62