Historian, Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio
The convening in Rome of women and men of different religions is neither ritual nor folkloric. I believe it is a sign of courage, also in consideration of the atmosphere and crisis several countries you come from are going through. It is a sign of interest, of opening to the other, of reaching beyond the boundaries of each individual community – and however wide it may be, it can be at times self-referential, contained by its own joys and sorrows.
These worlds, the fruit of ancient traditions of faith, are often the motherly womb for the existence of millions of believers. They are precious reservoirs in societies often poor in hope. Believers need to have the courage to look beyond their borders: it does not mean to discard one’s roots, but to be faithful to them in the spiritual adventure of encountering others. Pope Francis would say: the courage of taking to the streets.
On the streets of the globalized world, we come across people who are different in terms of faith, history, and identity. Living together for people who are different from each other is not easy: at times it is complicated and it turns into conflict. If the others are left outside, at the margins of my sight, they are perceived as dangerous, because they may slide over into the enemy zone. It is certainly a spiritually unhealthy condition. Martin Luther King was well aware of it when he said that the other is a religious question:
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God, but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three”.
By becoming a brother to the other, I find my soul and I find God: this is what he said. The other, who is different, is not only a political or a social problem: the other is a major spiritual question. There is a major spiritual question in this globalised world (too often eluded), where different men and women come in touch with each other and live together: how to live with the other? Do we appreciate the other? Do we hold the other in high regard? Do we exchange only things? Do we feel the spiritual vibrations that run through the other’s way of believing?
Our horizons have become incredibly wide with globalization. This widening questions religions. If the Latin etymology of the word “religion” derives from tying, the opposite of “religion” is not disbelief, but loneliness. The self-sufficiency of believers turns into blindness. But also avarice: not to make the spiritual and human resources growing in the womb of a religion available to others. And laziness: sometimes, when you can trace your own history far back, you feel you have the right to be lazy in today’s history.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Proof of faith consists in establishing whether I am capable of leaving room for difference: can I recognise the image of God in someone who does not correspond to my image, whose language, faith and ideals are different from my own? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image and likeness…”. The spirit of Assisi is not a form of relativism that deems religions all the same. Religions are undeniably different. But difference does not necessarily lead to conflict or to lazy and perilous ignorance.
In 1986, summoning the religious leaders on the hilltop of Assisi, with profound insight – and the cold war was still there – John Paul II felt the force of peace of religions. He wanted to inaugurate a new era: never to pray again one against the other, but one beside the other – he said. He wanted that path to continue, not to celebrate a moving but far removed event; there were new challenges rising for religions, requiring them to be friends and struggle for peace and the transformation of the world.
From Assisi in 1986 to this day, as globalization grew, through conflicts of civilization and interreligious clashes, we have carried on this path, still believing that religions are a strength, a humble strength. Pietro Rossano used to say: “At its best each religion tends to peace”. Religions are back today as the protagonists of history more than before, but they have often been exploited in a dangerous game of dramatizing or sacralising differences.
Dramatizing is very dangerous for our countries, even though it seems rewarding from an electoral point of view. In some countries (sometimes, unfortunately, even my own), what is really dramatic is to neglect the true tragedy of life and the world at large. While we make the ephemeral theatre of dramatization and useless contraposition into our tragedy. This tragedy turns some countries into spinning tops that spin around themselves and turn backwards. And I am glad to greet the President of the Council, Enrico Letta, who in a few months of government has embodied politics with a true sense of responsibility.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, the dramatization of differences is a real tragedy, a bloody tragedy: the other must be eliminated. It is the case of religious terrorism, a real ideology, which clothes itself even in the name of God. The ideology of terror is blasphemous, it attracts desperate hearts or satisfied and empty existences: it offers an enemy to fight, like a vocation to liberate. But killing innocents is never to liberate, it bears the slavery of fear. To make people slaves and to rob them of their freedom is to oppress them with fear. It means to crush hope.
Terrorism makes a handful of people enough to harm many others, showing, through the media, their power to strike. These are people who do not want to change the world, they want it to suffer. So in Nairobi, Kenya, religious terrorism identifies a western child as an enemy to kill. So death is brought with a suicide attack at a Shiite funeral in Bagdad. Or the faithful are killed on Sunday at an Anglican church in Pakistan. And I cannot forget the many people held for ransom, especially in blood stained Syria, including our companions in dialogue, the bishops of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi and Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, together with Paolo Dall’Oglio and others. After two and a half years of deadlock, it is necessary to salute the recent and unanimous resolution of the Security Council on Syria, because the way out of a situation of inhuman violence is never violence, but only negotiations.
With regard to terrorism, let us not believe it is possible to evade it, hoping in good fortune for ourselves and our dear ones, or trusting in belonging to a non-targeted category. Global terrorism is blind. We need to face it, fearlessly, before it is born or as it is born. Its religious roots must be delegitimized. The holy name of God must be stripped from its mouth. It must be deprived of its followers by educating to peace, according to the teachings of the Teachers and Prophets of religions. Terrorism is faced also with the unity of religious leaders together in peace, as we see them now. The images of these days (in this meeting of ours in Rome) are a response to terrorism: they are a revolt against a few violent men, an unmasking of unreligious ideology, they are a vision of hope that opposes the spectacle of terror we see on screens and sometimes in real life.
Dialogue makes our bond visible. Dialogue is that “reasonable concord among religions”, Cusano wrote in De pace fidei after the Turks conquered Constantinople, while the western crusade was being planned. In order to evade the clutches of war, he envisioned a dream: a council of religions to reason together on peace and faith in front of God. In the heart of religious traditions there is indeed a message of peace and respect for life. We read it in the Sura Al-Maida: “Whoever kills one person, merits punishment as if he had slain all the men in the world […] The person who helps to preserve the life of even one person, on the other hand, is the protector of the whole of humanity”. We can find similar words also in the Talmud. An ancient Jewish text highlights the blasphemous essence of violence: “Whoever violates the face of a man, violates the face of the Lord”.
Peace has a dire need of the foundations of religions, regardless of contingent urges. A religiously founded peace was the dream of John Paul II in Assisi. Peace possesses an undeniable spiritual dimension, because it needs to be weaved and re-weaved in time through faith. So we need to delve deep in the wells of our faiths, and deepen our faith: there are many spiritual resources that will enable us to embrace the others with friendliness, feeling the necessity that the other exists. Indifference and intolerance are often the attitude of shallow believers, lazy repeaters of exhausted formulas.
Many ideologies are extinguished. Many hopes likewise. The economic crisis disseminates pessimism. There are not many visions of the future. This unified world has less hope than in the past. It seems the sky of the global world is hollow of dreams and hopes. Only a great superstition is left. A religious historian, Mircea Eliade, described this modern superstition: “We were all born with a superstition: that we have better places waiting for us further above, never further below”. To have more and get more for ourselves. But it never happens in life. Then comes disillusion, but most of all this crisis.
We need to give hope to existences that have been halved. The spiritual dimension speaks of a greater hope, which is not related to the assertion of individuals, it is connected to a dream for everyone. Eliade writes: “We each possess a jar of lamp oil, but instead of sharing it with the poor, who rot in the darkness filling their lamps, we keep it to ourselves, while we wait for the headlight we believe will fulfil our destiny, that we may illuminate the world. In the meanwhile men and women die at our side”. Jesus taught it with simple words: “There is more joy in giving than in receiving”.
Hope makes us generous in the present and rich of future. Religions can give humanity the courage to hope. Abraham Yehoshua, a lay Jewish writer, wrote: “Even though I do not believe in God, his presence in the hearts and minds of many human beings is my concern and my interest”. Here and now, the humanist thought challenges religions. Its presence is not harmful to religions, rather in some situations it aids them in becoming what they were meant to be.
We are different. Religious difference is not something men and women can adjust. This diversity, however, means different wells, for genuine hope and strength of peace, because religions have a strength that is not arrogant, but humble and tenacious. And diversity is not contrast, but persuasive and polyphonic strength. Friendship and mutual understanding are a crucial step to work in the same direction: that is why we spend time in dialogue. The task is huge, men and women are small, but religions teach us that God is greater still.