Confronting Obstacles to Peace
Interview with Dr. William F. Vendley Secretary-General, World Conference of Religions for Peace
The Eighth World Assembly of the World Conference of Religions for Peace will be convened in Kyoto August 26-29, under the main theme of "Religions for Peace: Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security." Dharma World interviewed the secretary-general of the WCRP, Dr. William F. Vendley, who was recently in Tokyo for the preparation of WCRP VIII, about the significance of the forthcoming World Assembly.
What is the basic spirit behind the main theme of the WCRP's Eighth World Assembly to be held in Kyoto?
The theme's spirit is profoundly religious. There are many different religious traditions--Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Shinto, many indigenous religions, and others. But each of these religions asks at least two profound questions, and these two questions are directly related to the theme.
First, how do we make sense of the manifest disorder of our world--the innocent suffering of people, the experience of tragedy, the facts of "evil," and the experience of people hurting one another? This is a "question of pathology." It asks how we can make sense of what has gone wrong and how we might fathom the origins of having gone astray.
But religions do not stop with the question of pathology. If they ask about how things have gone wrong, they also ask about how they can be made right. They ask by what means we, in cooperation with the Mysterious Ground of existence, can transform ourselves, our communities, and our earth to heal the disorder exposed in the first question. This is a "question of salvation." If the drive of the first question pushes down to the root causes of pathology, so the second question pushes toward some ultimate notion of salvation. Each religion typically offers positive images of what the shape of our experience would be like if, as persons and communities, we were healed from pathological damage.
So these two questions--the one of pathology and the other of salvation--are two questions that can be found in some form in every religion. Surely these two questions are posed and answered by each religion in its own unique fashion, and attending to these two questions can take us to the heart of each religious community's experience. Our assembly, too, will be driven by these two questions. Because the assembly is multireligious, it cannot be occupied by any single religious interpretation of the root causes of pathology. Each religion has its own understanding of the root causes of pathology. However, the assembly will be seized by the concrete shape of pathology today, the shape of our shared suffering.
Our world is marked by wars, vast expenditures on arms, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the absence of peace, outdated and inadequate notions of security, the scandal that half the human family is living on less than two U.S. dollars per day, major disease pandemics, and an increasingly fragile environment. These painful facts are part of the concrete shape of pathology that we all, directly or indirectly, experience.
When we in the WCRP looked at these diverse forms of suffering, we wanted to find a useful name for a "common factor" present in all these diverse forms of disorder. We found that "violence" cuts across all of these manifestations. Violence takes many forms. It is present in a violent act among people, but it is also present in political, economic, and social structures that regularly--and needlessly--deny large numbers of people what they need to live. Thus, we recognized that violence is present in the concrete shape of contemporary pathology and as religious people we need to "confront violence" together. The first part of the assembly theme is captured in the words: "confronting violence," and it corresponds to our need to recognize and address the concrete shape of pathology today.
But what about the second question, the "question of salvation"? Is there a principled way by which multireligious cooperation can relate to this second question? First, I must hasten to say that in the WCRP we respect that each religious tradition raises the question of salvation in its own terms. We do not mix up one another's doctrines on salvation. In fact, we do not even debate our respective doctrines on salvation. But we do something else that is tremendously important: each different religious group translates its doctrines of salvation into a language of moral caring. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Shintoists, and others together map out areas of "shared care." It is our shared moral care, not our different doctrines, that provides us a base from which to respond together to many of the concrete manifestations of pathological disorder.
We are content in the WCRP to allow each religious tradition to understand for itself the religious significance of cooperating together on common problems. We do, however, need terms to describe what we are working for in a positive sense when we cooperate. Moreover, we do not work in a vacuum, and so we need terms that can be useful even for those working in other than religious fields. So, we in the WCRP came up with the term "shared security" to help us focus on what, in a positive sense, we are working for together.
Now, religious people know that the word "security" is unique, and in religious terms it can have very special meanings. We cannot deal with all of those meanings in our assembly, but we do need a public term that can help us to focus our shared "positive" multireligious commitments. The term "shared security" builds on recent discussions in the United Nations about "human security" that have emphasized that basic needs and rights have to be addressed for each person in order for them to be "secure." We want to take a small, but important next step. We want to focus on the notion of "shared security." Why "shared security"? Because we are convinced as religious people that we need to work together to overcome our common problems. To think that I can be secure, while others are not, is a kind of illusion. This is simply not true in practical terms. We are profoundly interdependent, and in practical terms our walls can never be high enough to insulate us from the impacts of the genuine needs and vulnerabilities of others. War, poverty, disease, and the destruction of the environment have direct or indirect impacts on all of us. Practically, we increasingly recognize there can be no real security unless we help one another to face our common challenges. Moreover, each religion has its own grounds from which to understand this point from a religious perspective. I have observed that sincere believers of the world's diverse religious communities know, from their respective religious perspectives, that we need the notion of "shared security."
So our assembly will be religious in spirit, asking the two main questions of religion--what is the concrete shape of pathology today, and by what means can we work together to mend what is broken and to advance what we agree is good for all of us. We will, of course, examine both of these questions in a fashion that fully respects the principles of multireligious dialogue and cooperation. Our assembly theme, "Religions for Peace: Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security," is intended to be a modern, contemporary, relevant theme, but, at the same time, one that is sensitive to the two ancient questions that are so profoundly important to the world's religious traditions.
Could you elaborate more on the definition of the word "violence?"
Violence has an obvious meaning. We all know that war is violent, or that forms of aggression can be violent. But is not poverty also violent? When 12 million children die for reasons that are largely preventable, is that not also violent? Poverty kills--and it can thwart the development and stunt the growth of a vast number of members of our human family. It is violent.
So we extend the examination of violence from the obvious cases of violent conflict to the less obvious ones: the absence of peace, which holds people back and hurts them; crushing poverty; a lack of development; the impact of preventable or treatable illnesses; and the destruction of the environment that is the basis for life.
But if the notion of violence is so extended, it also invites us to similarly extend the notion of "shared security." It, too, should embrace the same set of issues. Security cannot simply mean the absence of war. Real security requires us to work together to forge a comprehensive notion of peace that includes sustainable development in which all of us in the human family are stakeholders. As religious people, we are quite sober about the roots of pathology, but at the same time we also know we have a growing capacity to change many violent situations. They can be significantly changed with intelligent cooperation guided by humility, wisdom, love, and compassion. Further, we know as religious people that moral responsibility follows capacity. If we can change something for the good by working together, we have the moral responsibility to do so.
Thus, the assembly is going to focus on the ways that cooperation among the world's religious communities can help to unleash the religious communities' capacity to take action to confront violence and advance shared security. Even non-religious actors, like international governmental and development bodies, are beginning to realize that religious communities have major roles in stopping wars, addressing the poverty that holds us back and protecting our earth. The religious communities have great "spiritualities," cultivated moral heritages, and enormously developed grassroots structures. These are deep reservoirs of powerful energy.
Multireligious cooperation can work to harness these tremendous energies for peace. In practical terms, cooperation is powerful because it: helps religious communities to avoid conflicts; aligns them around common goals; harnesses the complementarities of diverse religious communities' ability to help solve practical problems; allows for an efficient way to equip religious communities for action; and can facilitate the formation of public partnerships. In short, cooperation can help to unleash the tremendous potential of religious communities to transform the concrete shape of pathology. In terms of our assembly, cooperation can assist religious communities to "confront violence and advance shared security" together.
The concept of an Inter-Religious Council is one of the driving forces to help bring about that goal, isn't it?
Yes. There is a simple question that helps to organize the WCRP at all levels. We ask ourselves: where are the religious people already organized? The answer to that question tells us where we need to advance multireligious cooperation. In fact, the religious communities are organized everywhere. Religious people are present and organized on local, national, and regional levels. And, of course, religious communities are present on the international level. So the WCRP encourages multireligious action on these same levels: local, national, regional, and international.
The Inter-Religious Council, or the IRC, is an instrument to help religious communities cooperate on the national, regional, and international levels. Thus, there are IRCs that are built and led by the religious communities on each of these levels. Today, we have many national IRCs. These are led by the religious leaders in each particular country. National IRCs are built and led by national religious leaders who already have deeply developed access to their own community's grassroots structures. So national IRCs are designed to utilize the religious structures that religious communities have already built. Ideally, they can reach deeply into the local grassroots communities, and we have brilliant examples of some of our national IRCs fostering action on the grassroots level. We also have regional IRCs forming in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and these are led by regional religious leaders. Finally, during our assembly we will elect an international Governing Board. This Governing Board will really function in many ways as a "World Council," or IRC on a global level. So we are developing across the WCRP family more and more representative multireligious structures, the IRCs. They are designed to harness what the religious communities have already built in the work of multireligious cooperation.
Beyond helping religious communities build IRCs for themselves, there are two other key challenges that the WCRP works to address: the need to help equip IRCs for action and the need to keep all of the affiliated IRCs and groups in a network.
First, let me give you a few examples of what I mean by helping to equip IRCs for action. Right now the United Nations is engaged in the Millennium Development Campaign, which is designed to cut poverty in half. Working with the UN, the WCRP has developed training materials that can be used by IRCs to harness their great strengths for advocacy and action. With other partners, including governments, development agencies, and foundations, the WCRP has developed materials to help religious communities train themselves for roles in conflict resolution. We have also assisted IRCs to equip themselves to help thousands and thousands of children orphaned or impacted by HIV/AIDS. These and other examples have taught us that we need to go beyond helping to build IRCs. We also need to provide the training materials and the seed resources necessary to enable them to unleash their real potential to address concrete problems.
Second, there is also the important role of maintaining a "network" among all of the IRCs and other groups that make up the WCRP family. The networking service among IRCs is deeply important. It can help the IRCs to share their experiences and best practices with one another; it can help build action coalitions among the many IRCs when problems require cooperation among religious communities in different countries or across national, regional, and international levels; and it can be the mechanism to build "public partnerships," bringing governments and other sectors of civil society into partnership with our religious communities to solve problems.
In short, part of the work of the WCRP is to help build our growing family of IRCs and other groups, equipping them with programs and networks. Then, together, each IRC, whether on the national, regional, or international level, can work to transform conflict, build peace, and advance sustainable development.
Is that why the action program is so important in the forthcoming Kyoto Assembly?
At the assembly, the representatives of the IRCs will engage in commissions examining particular areas of the assembly theme, for example, conflict transformation, peace education, human rights, or the impact of HIV/AIDS on children. Now, we want to examine these topics so that we can understand them and discern the large areas of shared moral concern among our different religious communities. This in itself is a large step. But we always want to go another step. We also want the commissions to be the place where we take practical steps to equip ourselves and our IRCs to be better prepared to act. In addition, we will bring natural potential partners for the IRCs (from governments, government agencies, or NGOs) to join those commissions, so that we can also facilitate action partnerships at the assembly.
But we will do something else as well. The assembly is an extraordinary gathering during which religious leaders from all parts of the world and all religious traditions come to work together. It offers a uniquely supportive environment that can assist religious leaders struggling to build peace in situations of conflict. During our assembly, groups of religious leaders from zones of conflict, such as Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and the Sudan, will gather in special meetings with sessions designed to assist them in their efforts for peace building. Thus, the assembly itself will become a unique moment in multireligious action for peace. It is a time when religious leaders can, in a safe and supportive environment, reach out to one another, build trust, and take real steps to build peace.
On the occasion of the Eighth World Assembly taking place in the city of the WCRP's birth, what do you expect of religionists, especially Japanese religionists?
First of all, we need to recognize how much the WCRP has grown since the first World Assembly in Kyoto in 1970. Its mission of multireligious cooperation for peace has been the same from the time of its birth in Japan, but the family of affiliated IRCs and groups has grown over one hundred percent since even the last assembly in 1999. This means that the majority of representatives from the national chapters who are coming to Kyoto will never have attended an assembly before. They know that there is a wider group of WCRP family members, but they have not yet met them. So the first point is to recognize that the WCRP movement that started in Japan has now spread around the world, and also that there are many brothers and sisters who have not yet come to an assembly or come back to the place of the WCRP's birth.
This is important to remember because, as we take large steps forward, we need to stay in touch with our history and keep our identity strong as a worldwide family. So I believe that we will engage in highly important, substantive work at the assembly. But we will also do the important work of deepening our sense of family, recalling our history, and strengthening our identity. And here our Japanese hosts can give us what is priceless. I am deeply grateful to the Japanese religious leaders who will open their arms to receive their brothers and sisters from around the world, many of whom they have not yet met.
The world has changed drastically since the 1960s when the WCRP's forefathers first established the group. At that time, the world was divided ideologically between East and West. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the world seems to have become more dangerous. Given this situation, the WCRP has a much larger challenge to face. What do you think is the most pressing challenge for the WCRP right now?
Your question is perceptive. Our mission stays the same. But the world has changed. So the way to express our mission must also change. Our mission is to confront the real challenges of peace. Today we have to confront the present challenges to peace. When religion itself is being misused and pulled into violent conflicts, we have the special responsibility to use the deepest, most liberating, and dignified voice of our religious traditions to counter the misinterpretations of religions. We must face directly and in a unified way the manipulation of religion. We need to say together that our different religions cannot be used as justification for war against one another. More, we need to say together that our diverse religions call their respective believers, each in their own way, to respect all others and to work together for peace. This is a powerful role that the WCRP strives to fulfill today.
Further, the WCRP is also learning how to unleash the concrete delivery power of religious communities--not only in situations of conflict, where, for example, we are helping to mediate civil wars, but also in the areas of peace education, the struggle for good governance, the advancement of human rights, the promotion of sustainable development, and the combating of disease.
As I mentioned earlier, half of the world's population is living on less than two U.S. dollars per day. In the countries where these people live, government services are often quite limited. But in these same countries, the religious communities have direct access to people and their families on the most local of levels. Religious communities can provide an organizational base for responding to many labor-intensive problems. To do so, the religious communities need to learn to become partners with one another first and then with the other sectors of society committed to solving these problems. This is the front-line challenge for the WCRP, and I am happy to report that religious communities together are walking up to the front lines of this challenge and are finding ways to cooperate. Today, as we find ourselves in a time of great change in religion, the mission of the WCRP is increasingly being recognized by religious communities as mainstream.
William F. Vendley has served as secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace/International since 1994. Dr. Vendley holds an M.A. in Religious Studies from the Maryknoll School of Theology and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Fordham University.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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