A U.N. for Religion?

The headline on the CNN website on Feb. 17 read, “Religion’s Week From Hell.” In this case, no one can accuse CNN editors of hyperbole. It had been an atrocious week—and month—for religions worldwide. The week began with another Boko Haram attack, this time in Cameroon. In the United States, a Hindu temple was desecrated, and a Muslim mosque was burned to the ground. The murder of three young Muslim people in Chapel Hill, N.C., by a man who posted antireligious diatribes on social media shocked the nation.

Violence continued in Yemen, Iraq and Syria among Muslim communities. In Delhi the Indian government struggled to respond to violence and vandalism directed at Catholics. In Copenhagen, an apparent sympathizer with the Islamic State terrorist group fired on people at a synagogue and a free speech meeting. The week reached a crescendo of cruelty on Sunday with the gruesome beheading of 21 Coptic Christians who had been kidnapped in Libya.

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The ongoing strife in the Arab world is generated by a complex of socioeconomic, historical and political forces, but it would be foolish to pretend that a twisted religious component is not an accelerant to the conflict. Likewise historical grievances within the Orthodox tradition and between that tradition and the Catholic Church are an undeniable aspect of the continuing turmoil in Ukraine and other border regions of what was once called Christendom. These historic internecine and geopolitical tensions appear to be now spilling over at the local level as criminal expressions of intolerance and hate begin to appear on the streets of U.S. and European communities, as well as in anti-Semitic outbursts in the high-poverty, low-opportunity ghettoes of France.

Responding to the escalating pace and expansion of the “religious” violence is clearly a responsibility for the world’s political leadership and security entities, but there are no quick or easy solutions, and it is becoming clear that secular leaders are running out of ideas. Trying to “drone” or bomb Islamic extremism into submission, for instance—apparently the default response of political leaders from Washington to Cairo—may be succeeding mostly in exacerbating that extremism.

Each cruelty cloaked in religion, each act of violence in the name of God or in honor of the Prophet reduces all religious traditions; it provides false evidence of something irredeemable at the heart of religion itself. Astute observers of religious phenomena, of course, reject “the idea that ‘religion’ is a trans-historical and trans-cultural feature of human life,” as the theologian William T. Cavanaugh has written, one which is “essentially distinct from ‘secular’ features such as politics and economics and has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence.” At the same time, believers understand these expressions of violence and barbarism as something completely contrary to the essential injunctions of mercy, peace and brotherhood at the heart of the world’s great religions.

Like other religious leaders from different faiths around the world, Pope Francis has said the right things when such outbursts trouble television news reports. But this time of accelerating crisis demands something more substantial from world religious leaders.

The Vatican has hosted interreligious prayers for peace in Assisi. It maintains regular channels of dialogue with other Christian communities and other faiths, but these are in effect irregular and small outreach efforts, largely invisible to the wider world. A demand is frequently made that Muslim leaders step forward to condemn the violence perpetrated by Islamic militants; they have repeatedly done so, but how many people ever hear of these denunciations? Whether on the front lines in Ukraine or at a madrassa in North Waziristan, a bolder, consistent expression of religious cooperation, tolerance and mercy is needed.

The real and imagined conflicts within the Islamic world and between Islam and Christianity, Christianity and Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—and on and on—demand a regular, transparent and frank forum for dialogue and conflict resolution—a United Nations for world religions, as former President Shimon Peres of Israel proposed at the Vatican last September. The Vatican may be uniquely capable of creating and sustaining such a forum, and it should put its good offices, together with influential representatives from other faith traditions, to work to do so.

Politicians can combat extremism nonviolently with greater social and economic investments in troubled spots around the world, but only the world’s religious leaders—working together—can confront the emptiness within a person’s soul that can lead to “religious” violence. They need to do so in a representative, authoritative and permanent forum, that. while avoiding reductionism and relativism, is devoted to discussion of historic grievances and the promotion of tolerance and cooperation. Messages of intolerance and hate need to be combated with acts of mercy and practical expressions of all that is good in our common humanity and faith.

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Leonard Villa
2 years 7 months ago
There is a whiff of moral equivalency in your essay. This was often done in the Cold War. You pointed to warts and failures in the U.S. and make them equivalent to the crimes of Communism their Gulags and toll of human carnage. By and large the vast majority of attacks are on Christians or Westerners in the name of Islam. There seems to be a reluctance to say this on your part. President Obama did a gross caricature of this moral equivalence with his "crusades" remark echoing ISIS propaganda. ISIS/Boko Haram and their like are not interested in dialogue nor in jobs for that matter! They must be defeated as menaces to civilization like the Nazis and the communists. But re your point about dialogue it depends what you mean by dialogue. Will it be a search for religious truth and the clash of truth-claims or will it be just people getting together trying not to offend anyone (irenicism) at best fudging and at worst descending into the false teaching/heresy of indifferentism that all religions are the same, lead to God, and it does not matter which religion you follow which is decidedly not Catholic teaching and not true ecumenism.
John Barbieri
2 years 7 months ago
All of us (including me) are acting out on the basis of what we believe to be true at best or think we can get away with at worst. Over the course of my life, I have met mostly very good and only very few bad people. Moreover these people come from many different religious persuasions as well as no religious persuasions at all, Living a peaceful benevolent life appears to be a personal choice. Violent fanatics use all varieties of ideologies to rationalize their criminality. Perhaps we are fatally flawed as a species. It is easy to say that only the law can save us. Alas, whose version of the law will that be? It may well be that only secularization offers us a future where the destruction of each other will not be tolerated.
STEVEN PAYNE
2 years 7 months ago
If the Vatican called on religious groups to send a representative for an initial discussion on this matter, perhaps they could find common ground on other problems that feed into it: income inequality, class and racial discrimination, environmental issues, etc. It may not accomplish much at first, but it could in the long run. It would also be a good addition to the "the New Evangelization" outreach. Maybe it would also give each religion a different perspective on issues by reducing isolation and ignorance among the groups.
Carlos Orozco
2 years 7 months ago
And who would listen to an internationalist religious bureaucracy? A bureaucracy most likely a simple extension of the UN and the powers of this world. How would this religious UN work? Would the Church be forced to implement its resolutions? If so, would Catholics that ignore or openly condemn them be excommunicated, for example? As Catholics, how could we reconcile this bureaucratic abomination with the Apostolic tradition? The mixing of politics and religion is always a very bad idea.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
This seems like a naively daft idea - another inconsequential discussion club that achieves nothing accept gets people to fly around the world (just think of the carbon footprint of the attendees!), issue documents and assuage consciences while the killing and conquering escalates. I would note, President Obama's high horse ruminations notwithstanding, and the atheist-motivated killer in NC, that the "new" threat of this century is uniquely Islamic, just as the uniquely dangerous threat of the last century was atheistic (communism and Nazism). To deny that this threat is Islamic is like denying the Nazi's were German. Even if many/most of their immediate and initial victims are/were within their own groups (Muslims and Germans), they are really about subjugating those outside their groups. ISIS and its demonic sister organizations (Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, the Taliban), all Islamic, are an existential threat to civilization, akin to Nazism in their ferocity. The threat is military and can only be addressed militarily. A new jobs program or poverty dialogue just will not do it. Appeasement will only embolden them. President Obama, ostensibly the most powerful man in the world, and commander-in-chief of the greatest military power, is constitutionally incapable of leading the US or the present UN to end this scourge. His historical legacy will include ISIS just as much as Obamacare.
Carlos Orozco
2 years 7 months ago
And yet, Tim, these radical Islamic groups are so many times supported by the folks that advocate perpetual war to defend "civilization". It is as if they were the perfect excuse for imperial intervention. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS have in different moments of their relatively short history received covert or open support from Western nations to fight, for example, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Gaddafi in Libya, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Just a couple of weeks ago, a prominent neocon Senator was fueling the fire, calling for the so-called "moderate Syrian opposition", being trained by the American military, to not limit itself to fighting ISIS (which it really does not), but to attack governmental forces. Everybody in Washington knows they will eventually be fighting for ISIS, and yet the charade goes on. Maybe the true threat to civilization is not Islam, but a mad New World Order/banking-industrial-military complex bent on destroying alternative thinking regimes. Or maybe it has lost control of its Frankenstein.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
Carlos - it's easy to get cynical and use past mistakes as excuses for inaction. The whole Obama presidency is based on that theory. The inaction of the Western powers against the Nazis was similarly justified ("not another war...it's Europe's problem...Hitler can't be all that bad compared to the weak Weimar...Germany needs the jobs...American companies are make money arming them..."etc. etc.). Yet, the delay of 5 years translated to 50 million dead and the Holocaust. Who would have thought that from his apology tour and Nobel peace prize that kicked off his presidency, Obama would end his presidency with so much loss of territory to a fanatical Sharia governance (Libya, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, parts of Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan). Listen to the words of ISIS and believe their threats. They will come to Rome (and the US) if they are not stopped. Millions will be abused and enslaved, millions killed, thousands beheaded and burned and killed if the democracies just sit on their hands and hope it will all go away.
Carlos Orozco
2 years 7 months ago
Tim, I would be the last person to defend the Obama presidency. I have extensively criticized his administration on this site. On foreign policy, he has given too much room to warmongers such as Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Victoria Nuland. The current crisis with Russia is the result. I agree with you that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda have to be eliminated by fire, but the most important thing the West can do is stop supporting these groups. That simple. NATO has become a tool of evil: American neocons started a catastrophic war based on lies in Iraq; Sarkozy and Cameron led the charge in Libya and Syria; Nuland and the American ambassador in Ukraine plotted a coup during the Sochi Olympics. As we change opinions, Islamic groups are being trained by the West to battle the mostly secular government of al-Assad. Who has benefited from all that imperial meddling? Islamic radicals and fascists. Behind the mask of wars of civilizations, the struggle is for energy resources and geopolitical positioning. I think the plans for destabilization and imperial control can best be evidenced in the papers known as "Project for a New American Century", edited by Paul Wolfowitz (as I recall) at the end of the 90's and can still be found online. I have no doubt even Ronald Reagen would be shocked of how warmongering forces have taken control of Western democracies.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
Carlos - we agree on a lot in the theological sphere but differ in our interpretations of foreign affairs. No matter how ISIS got here, I think your position is that a major part of the solution is for western democracies to retreat from any involvement in the Arab world and leave ISIS etc. to themselves, in the idea or hope that they will dissolve once we leave or that the local Arab nations will take care of them. I just do not think that will happen.
Carlos Orozco
2 years 7 months ago
What about the following plan? Cut the Western covert support to ISIS and let Putin and al-Assad finish them off. If NATO really wants to help eradicate the nihilist group, it should coordinate with the Syrian regime and stop pursuing a hidden agenda.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
Carlos - I am unaware of any Western (non-Islamic) covert support for ISIS (I do not believe that all opponents of Assad are members of ISIS). In any case, Assad will be left alone by the West as long as ISIS is there, moving East into Iraq and expanding into other countries like Libya and Afghanistan. Putin doesn't care, as he wants to expand closer to home (Ukraine and Baltic states). I'm sure you would be the first to howl if NATO aligned itself with Assad, who is a butcher, even if a less virulent one than ISIS. But, the latter might still happen, if ISIS gets big enough.
Carlos Orozco
2 years 7 months ago
Tim, I do not believe in a heroic, democracy-spreading, humanitarian bombing NATO (as it exists only in MSM propaganda). Whatever faults Putin may have, if it was not for him, NATO/ISIS would have overrun Damascus by now, like they did Tripoli. I would find it interesting to learn the opinion of Syrian Christians on this ongoing crisis, that we debate thousands of miles away, and that endangers their very existence.
2 years 7 months ago
Be today the bearer of good news. As the various acts of violence, terrorism, intolerance and war occur they are given prime time in every available media. The commoners impression is that this is all that is happening. It becomes the news...the bad news. The various acts of peace, mending fences, tolerance and development are treated like salt. A little salt is good but too much is harmful for one's health. And so we get a dash of good news in the midst of what seems overwhelmingly bad news. Truly all that happens whether bad or good is news and we have a right to be informed about it. But I raise the question. Is our search for a solution not in great part a matter of editing proportionally all the information we receive?
Susan Wilcox
2 years 7 months ago
Maybe the Vatican could participate more fully in the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions which predates the UN. http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/

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