“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
– James 3:17-18 (Bible NIV)
Faith leaders bring people together. This convening power can be truly transformative when positioned for the purpose of creating a better world. As pillars of many communities, faith leaders instill values, set examples for daily life and share deep truths on how to connect with a higher power; along with these principles, it is also their responsibility to speak out against behavior that goes against these beliefs. Today, we are experiencing a dangerous resurgence of all types of prejudice and discrimination. Exposure to these forms of ignorance has become especially ubiquitous with the presence of technology and social media and the ease in which messages of hate can be spread. What then can faith communities do to foster more peace and understanding across all communities, even those who aren’t religious?
During a recent meeting at the UN Church Center, a panel of experts from a variety of religious backgrounds gathered to discuss today’s global issues and solutions from their respective communities. Female faith leaders shared stellar examples of how they’re bringing their communities together around contentious issues in order to create more empathy and understanding in society. Dr. Azza Karam from Religions for Peace and the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, mentioned the importance of faith leaders advocating for both people of faith as well as those with no religious affiliation: “It is impossible to lead without taking into account the diversity of religious beliefs and worldviews that exist.” Freedom to practice one’s faith or not have a faith is deeply intertwined with peacebuilding and the process of creating a more tolerant society in which everyone is free to live how they choose.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America spoke on the importance of engaging in interfaith dialogue and allowing people to hear firsthand perspectives from those who are different from themselves. This fosters better understanding and acceptance of other’s way of life. She shared the story of an ELCA pastor, Mandy France, who facilitated a town hall with a Muslim doctor serving a small, rural town grappling with Islamophobia. After an opportunity to directly engage with one another, they were able to dismantle stereotypes and better understand each other’s way of life. This story exemplifies the goals expressed in their ministry’s Declaration of Interreligious Commitment that outlines the importance of interfaith conversations as a tool for mutual understanding and cooperation amongst diverse communities. Bishop Eaton also mentioned the importance of ecumenical, inter-denominational dialogues amongst Christians in order to create more unity within the faith to work together to end prejudice and discrimination.
Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson from the United Church of Christ expressed an important point around accountability and reconciling with the history of Christianity as a means for working towards peace today. By acknowledging Christianity played a major role in global atrocities such as colonization and the marginalization of many groups, members of this faith can understand and engage in the process of reconciliation by fighting against injustice in modern society. Rev. Thompson also emphasized the need to expand beyond the Abrahamic faiths when conducting interfaith dialogues; embracing pluralism and the inclusion of all faith groups, especially those often left out of many of these opportunities. This is crucial to having meaningful conversations that bring people together. As part of her development of interfaith work, she also shared important shifts happening currently in faith communities and how it will impact this work. Young people are disaffiliating with traditional religions and seeking spirituality “outside the church.” As engagement with youth is important, there must be new ways in which religious communities associate and invite younger generations through their doors. Secondly, with the rise in the number of individuals who identify as multi-religious and the rise of interfaith relationships, more people are being raised in multi-religious households or marrying someone of a different religious background. Often, these groups extract what resonates with their lifestyles - from multiple religions or worldviews. This multi-faceted understanding of faith lends a new perspective to interfaith dialogues that can provide important insight.
Resources like the Religion of Peace’s Global Women of Faith Network, where women faith leaders convene to discuss issues occurring in their communities and strategies for achieving peace, are crucial. By sharing best practices, insight and experiences on their work in interfaith dialogue, women of faith are having significant impact on the role of religion in peacemaking.