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Religious institutions and faith leaders increasingly find themselves at the crux of policy-making, behavioral change, and the delivery of essential services. Below are the issues surrounding the Roles of Religion today:
Religious Collaboration for Public Health
Dialogue between science and spirituality is necessary for constructive cooperation on healthcare; in many parts of the world, faith-based NGOs have founded health facilities. In India, it is estimated that nearly 10% of such facilities are provided by faith-based organizations, often in remote areas. Yet, partnerships between different faith communities have largely been developed on a project-by-project basis, rather than through a more strategic framework.
For more than 2,000 years, Hindu scripture has taught us about mindful and holistic health. Sankalpa (commitment or plan for the day), sadhana (action that actualizes the commitment), samarpan (dedication of one’s labor and achievements), and samadhi (deep rest) provide a framework that jibes with the World Health Organization’s description of health: a state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being.
Life expectancy in India increased from an estimated 31 years in 1947 to nearly 70 years by 2020. As governments increasingly recognize health as a fundamental human right and public-sector responsibility, life expectancy and general well-being have increased. However, this is not universal. The poor and the powerless are still the first to be affected in a crisis, as COVID-19 has demonstrated.
Mutual respect has been a cornerstone of building path-breaking partnerships to advance public health. The organization Religions for Peace has engaged on global “child survival” efforts for more than 25 years, influencing policy (such as the UN Convention on the Right of the Child[i]), and working at the community level. This has included advocacy for safe deliveries, breast feeding, childhood immunization, gender equality, and shaping social norms in the care response to infectious diseases like HIV and Ebola.
A culture of silence has been broken around several issues among faith communities, which are increasingly willing to be challenged on gendered practices - including preference for the male child and harmful social practices. This greater openness is necessary for the difficult conversations needed to make lives healthier.
The “Marathon for Solidarity,” which brought together world-class obstetricians and gynecologists in the midst of the pandemic in 2021, was designed to help support the public health support services for vulnerable families, children, and elders provided by Shanti Ashram, a Gandhian centre of development, learning, and collaboration. The effort was both recognized and supported by Pope Francis.
Religion, Human Rights and Democracy
When democracy is in peril human rights are violated, human dignity is trampled, and inhumanity prevails. Endless war calls for finding new ways of combining the power of faiths to relinquish violence.
If decisions are made exclusively for the few, anything can be sacrificed and everything is for sale - ensuring a loss of dignity. Democracy is unrealizable without the full functioning of an enlightened conscience, and protecting human rights is an essential celebration of the gift of life. Generally agreed-upon democratic values including liberty, equality, and accountability cannot flourish when the right to self-determination, the basis of any meaningful covenant, is undermined.
And, the preeminent human right is the right to be human - to have one’s full humanity affirmed, respected, and protected. Religious institutions including churches, mosques, and temples, in addition to religious leaders and faith-based NGOs - in alliance with other civil society actors - are partnering in significant ways to restore peoples’ sense of human dignity and worth, and to strengthen human rights. These partnerships are often needed to transform principles into policies and actions, which can in turn restore everyone’s intrinsic worth and bolster our chances for peaceful coexistence.
Global, multi-faith activism was behind the formation of the Parliament of World Religions (1893), Religions for Peace (1970), and the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (2015). Relentless empire building and endless war call for continuing to find new ways of combining the power of faiths to relinquish violence and protect rights.
While working together, they are inspired by diverse traditions. Examples include Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders working alongside and within civil rights movements in the US, multi-religious activism against Apartheid in South Africa, interfaith groups working with human rights actors in the Israeli-Palestinian context, and the multi-faith women in Liberia holding regimes accountable until democracy took root.
From a religious perspective, human conscience is inviolable. Violating it negates a person’s humanity and deprives them of freedom of thought. Belief is therefore a sign of humanity; it is at the root of democracy and democratic processes. Most religious actors seek to be promoters of peace by advocating intellectual and spiritual integrity, and many works with the international community to instill faith, hope, love, compassion, and non-violence.
Gender and Religion
Incredible accomplishments have been made by faith actors in terms of expanding gender equality. Today’s social challenges require collaborative strategies, and multi-religious work should be a fundamental part of that.
Religious-wisdom traditions, regardless of particulars and politics, can be unifying. By drawing upon shared values, mobilizing communities can trigger large-scale, systemic change - based on partnership, stewardship, and community care, rather than on domination, environmental and social exploitation, and individualism. For women, it is far from easy to attain religious leadership roles such as being ordained as a Rabbi.
Collaborative, multi-faith work empowering women can engender non-discriminatory behavior, and create cultures of peace and respect. Ultimately, it is about imagining partnership societies, and no longer relegating certain topics to the margins - but rather centering them as fundamental.
The allyship and boldness of those who came before us changed cultures and paved the way for women’s empowerment, both in the Jewish world and within religious communities in general. It takes considerable effort to deconstruct the roots of Patriarchy, which does not simply tout one gender over another but is an intentional, entrenched, and exploitative system.
Incredible accomplishments have been made by faith actors in terms of expanding gender equality. This means empowering women not as an end, but as a step towards raising the voices of all who have been systemically marginalized - and subjected to scourges like violence against women, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.
The feminist author Rebecca Solnit has written that, “After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere… Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork - or underground work - often laid the foundation.”
Faith actors must work together, to build movements and have a real impact. By fostering women’s leadership, this impact can take the form of equal access to education and opportunities, and equal pay. Some examples of women-based or gender-justice-interfaith work include the Religions for Peace Global Women of Faith Network, the Israeli peace movement Women Wage Peace, which includes both Arab and Jewish women demanding an end to cycles of violence, the G20 Interfaith Forum, Equal in Faith, a coalition of women promoting gender justice in religion, the UN Women Faith and Gender Justice Fellowship, and Trans faith, a non-profit supporting transgender spiritual workers.
Conflict Mediation and Reconciliation
Religion is often about a God who is all good and loving. His name should be synonymous with peace and harmony.
The fact that history is replete with so-called “holy wars” nominally fought in the name of the God of love and peace is a most regrettable discrepancy (Pope John Paul II said that to kill a fellow human being in the name of God is the worst form of blasphemy - namely, an insult to God). This is perhaps why, for a long time, secular efforts to resolve conflict and build peace tended to avoid involving religious actors who were seen as part of the problem rather than providers of solutions. More recently, however, this has changed. Nigeria provides a clear example of efforts by religious communities to work together for peace and harmony.
Secular society, in the form of governments and NGOs, is beginning to acknowledge its limitations and reach out to religious institutions. At the United Nations, space is being created for religious organizations within its elaborate peace-making architecture. Meanwhile religious communities are changing their attitudes about one another, building inter-religious rapprochement, and making peaceful coexistence a shared priority. When secular and religious institutions cooperate for peace, much can be achieved.
This is not without challenges, however - two of which are finding an effective forum for different religious groups can work together, and the logistics involved in boosting cooperation between secular and religious institutions. Nigeria provides an example of efforts by religious communities to work together for peace and harmony; its two main religions are Islam and Christianity, with nearly equal numbers of adherents. However, there is a problem with intra-religious discord, which often negatively affects inter-religious efforts. Nigeria must contend with the impacts of entities like Boko Haram, an extremist terrorist group which claims to be Muslim but is not part of the mainstream Nigerian Muslim community. There are also some fringe Christian groups in the country with extremist ideas and attitudes that undermine inter-religious coexistence.
Despite these challenges, there are positive efforts underway across the nation. The NIREC, or Nigerian Interreligious Council (a Religions for Peace affiliate), is the most important local interfaith structure and brings religious institutions from both communities together. This has inspired other groups to work for multi-religious peacemaking in Nigeria, including the IIP, or the Interfaith Initiative for Peace.
Humanitarian Work and Religion
The Environment and Religion
Scotland provides an example of the value multi-religious collaboration can add to relief efforts. Multi-religious collaboration has been instrumental in providing humanitarian aid to those most in need, both domestically and abroad.
COVID-19-related relief efforts have highlighted the vulnerabilities of government-led humanitarian missions. Within Europe, and particularly the United Kingdom, Brexit and the pandemic combined to undermine humanitarian initiatives aimed at Africa and the developing world; in many European countries (and in the US), necessary materials and staff suddenly became far less available.
The health crisis has necessitated more integrated strategies that bring together different sectors, from the level of grassroots collaboration to official civil-society entities. The Religions for Peace Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund, for example, has sought to take on issues ranging from the “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence in Colombia, to the delivery of emergency food supplies in the Philippines. Scotland has provided a clear example of the value that multi-religious collaboration can add to national responses to both COVID-19 and the inflow of refugees.
In the midst of COVID-19, for example, churches, mosques, and temples were often able to successfully (and uniquely) address issues like worsening homelessness and food shortages.
Bi-weekly debriefs with the Scottish Government allowed for an evolving strategy pursued by what became a tripartite featuring the public sector, private sector, and religious institutions. Likewise, a combination of government, civic, and multi-religious actors have worked together to promote, secure, and uphold the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
The vast majority of those forced into sleeping rough in Scotland have been housed by religious institutions, and churches under their various charitable arms have worked in partnership with Jewish and Muslim communities to provide medication and food parcels. Related projects have included integration, destitution, and resettlement services, and a free helpline with interactive sessions on housing and employment.
In times of austerity, in particular, it will be important to maintain multi-sector engagement based on private, civic, and multi-religious partnerships. Multi-religious actors have worked with civic organizations to effectively create a platform for refugees seeking security which is at once inclusive and comprehensive.
In an ever-uncertain context increasingly impacted by conflict, climate change, and COVID-19, focused humanitarian initiatives will continue to be extremely important.
Rainforests, more than 70% of which are in Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are essential for sustainable development. The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative provides a prominent voice denouncing deforestation.
According to the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, 12 million to 13 million hectares are destroyed annually. And, if the current deforestation trend continues, the planet will have lost 289 million hectares of tropical forests by 2050 - an area nearly the size of India. The IRI was formed as an international, multi-religious, and multi-stakeholder alliance. It works in five countries to encourage a sense of moral urgency, and to mobilize multi-religious leadership to end tropical deforestation - at national and global levels. The IRI provides a prominent voice to denounce deforestation as an environmental crisis of an existential nature, threatening Earth's ability to sustain human life as we know it.
They guarantee a supply of fresh water, protect against floods and landslides, and help prevent diseases. They also help provide incomes in rural areas and bolster food security. Yet, rainforests are also under sustained attack that is causing them to disappear at a terrifying pace.
Leaders of all religions, faiths, and spiritual traditions are working to stop deforestation by raising awareness of its destructive impacts, guaranteeing the protection of the rights of Indigenous people, calling attention to broader needs to address climate change, inspiring related action, and encouraging the adoption of protective public policies and plans.
The IRI has succeeded in establishing a global platform for interfaith action, while at a national level IRI-Colombia serves as a strong example of multi religious and multi-stakeholder collaboration. IRI-Colombia has founded 36 local interfaith chapters in the twelve Amazonian municipalities where rates of deforestation have been highest. This has been done in a manner that stimulates dialogue between faiths and environmental science.
IRI-Colombia also has an advocacy strategy at the municipal level, with religious and spiritual leaders advocating for local public policies related to rainforest protection.
Environmental and pastoral action plans have also been formulated for training programmes focused on the importance of forests and the need to restore them, on reforestation and the restoration of degraded water basins, and on activities to control and prevent both deforestation and pollution.
ROLES OF RELIGION
The COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and climate change have exposed the vulnerabilities of aid delivered solely by governments and the private sector.
Religious institutions and faith leaders increasingly find themselves at the crux of policy-making, behavioral change, and the delivery of essential services.
Multi-religious collaboration can provide an essential push towards greater social cohesion, to better protect human rights and democracy, pursue conflict mediation and reconciliation, increase environmental sustainability (particularly the protection of rainforests), foster gender equality and women’s empowerment, provide humanitarian relief, and boost public health.