A New Platform for Inter-religious and Inter-civilizational Partnership
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Commencement address by Fr. Eliseo ‘Jun’ Mercado, OMI to the Graduates of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas on May 10th 2013
Dear graduates, as I speak to you this evening, paramount to our minds is the increasing violence, acts of terror, and the anger and suspicion that continue to mar relationship not only between and among believers but also between civilizations that make people take a second look at Prof. Samuel Huntington’s seminal work in the mid 1990’s – the Clash of Civilizations.
We also know, too well, that the said path of clash leads to a NO EXIT path for humanity. We also recognize that the ground and the meaning of dialogue have radically changed since the terms have been used in official documents about 45 years ago. The change is due not only because globalization has changed the world but also because major events and movements have given new meanings to interreligious dialogue and inter-civilizational solidarity.
Three or four decades ago, the major concerns of interreligious dialogue were about paths of salvation, the relations between Christianity and non-Christian religions, the mysterious working of the Spirit, and the collaboration of all peoples of goodwill to build a more humane society.
In Asia, in particular, dialogue takes concrete forms in the interaction with three realities: religions, cultures, and poverty. The Church desires to be in continuous, humble and loving dialogue with all the realities of the life of the people and whose history it gladly makes its own: its meanings, values, aspirations, thoughts, language, songs, and artistry. Dialogue assumes even the people’s frailties and failings, so that they too may be healed.
These discourses are, often, marked by intractable conflicts following the religious as well as the ethnic divides in our pluralistic world. The Oblates have an ample knowledge of what it means to be a ‘minority’ in the midst of growing ‘extremism’ of religions and ethnicities. And we also share in the history of martyrdom in Laos, Sri Lanka, Southern Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
New winds blowing and shaping new platforms of dialogue and solidarity…
While all of these concerns are still valid and are still being raised in many new fora, a new shift has taken place in the understanding of interreligious and intercultural dialogue vis-à-vis the great challenges of our contemporary world. New platforms for interreligious and intercultural discourses are now emerging.
15 years ago, on the eve of the new millennium, in a summit of world leaders at the United Nations, they agreed to confront the major problems of the planet. The consensus was unprecedented because they not only identified the issues and concerns that ailed the world, but they also committed to provide the wherewithal to accomplish the goals by 2015.
The issues and concerns are now popularly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The 8-point agenda include halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other curable diseases, providing universal primary education, and building international partnership by the target date of 2015. The MDGs form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. For the first time, the United Nations, led by the leaders of about 20 developed countries, has galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.
Then the challenge of climate change was taken up at the UN High-level Summit in Bali in November 2007. The UN initiated a process that sought a more stringent protocol to consolidate and strengthen further the Kyoto Protocol. The process continued in the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.
The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 is not the solution to the problem of global warming. It lacks the ‘daring’ spirit to arrest global warming. But it agrees to continue the process and hopefully in the coming years the global community can muster enough courage to galvanize humanity’s unity and resolve to save the planet.
This was followed by a “pilgrimage,” sometime in October 2008, by a group of prominent religious leaders under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew, to somewhere in Iceland to see with their own eyes the impact of global warming. They came, they saw, and they were shocked that the melting of the glaciers now threatens the survival of the planet. We are now all considered “endangered species” either by inundation or by hunger. As the Patriarch beautifully captured in his message to the world: “We have to rethink not only our sense of sin… but our sense of morality.” At stake now is not just individual lives or the life of a single or even of a group of nations, but that of the entire planet! It calls for a new relationship – a new solidarity for all peoples across political and ideological boundaries, across cultures and religions.
The impact of global warming would be first felt in agricultural production that will put food security in great danger. Each 1 degree centigrade rise in temperature would cause a decrease in agricultural yield by 10%. The continued rise in global temperature would give not only a specter of less rain or too much rain but also the ‘unpredictability’ of rainfall. The same rise in temperature will wreak havoc on the global water resources and marine resources.
More and more we shall be seeing longer dry periods, but heavier rains in wet seasons. It will be a combination of decrease in the number of days with rain, yet an increase in a proportion of total annual rains contributed by heavy rain. The world would be caught between drought and deluge.
Another equally powerful wind was the UN-sponsored talks on “Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation” in October 2007. This initiative was further boosted by a major UN project called the Alliance of Civilizations the founding forum of which was held in Madrid in January 2008. In both sessions, participants from non-government and civil society organizations and state actors were enjoined not only to exercise greater tolerance and understanding, but also to explore joint activities and programs, cooperative agreements and partnerships for peace and development, regionally and across cultures, in order to build cultural understanding in the areas of youth, education, migration and the media.
Then a new “wind” came from the Muslim side at the end of the month of Ramadan 2007, when the leaders of various Christian churches received, to their great surprise, a letter entitled, “The Common Word”. The letter, addressed to leaders of the Christian faith, was signed by 138 Muslim scholars, and can be construed as a very important step in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
In the letter, the Quranic verse on tolerance is quoted: “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works“. “Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (Al-Ma’idah, S. 5:48). This verse is fundamental because it states that God wills religious diversity. The challenge, “So vie one with another in good works” can be a platform of dialogue.
With time, this letter can create an opening and a greater convergence on the more delicate issues of religious freedom, the absolute value of human rights, the relationship between religion and society, the use of violence, and other current issues that worry all believers in our world today.
On a parallel track, there is yet another strong wind blowing in the horizon, one that is often characterized by its dynamism and fragility. Youth movements are growing all over the world as young people search for new meanings in their lives and relationships. They also desire, in more creative ways, to participate in shaping the direction and destiny of the planet. Pope John Paul II was able to capture this wind early on in his pontificate, when he launched the World Youth Day Movement in the Catholic Church in the early 1990s. No doubt, the planet will have no future without the young people being put right at the center of the world’s agenda. It is their world today and it is their survival that is at stake!
Streams that form a river…
People of goodwill will continue to look for models and platforms for interreligious and inter-civilizational alliances. I believe that world events do give us not models but examples akin to tributary streams that shape a mighty river.
Within the Oblate Philippine Province, there are many and different “streams” that of late have been emerging as new platforms for interreligious and inter-civilizational alliances. I cannot enumerate them all here, but we can mention few initiatives that have become remarkable new types of interreligious and intercultural engagements.
The first one is a platform that focuses on ecology and the need for sustainable practices in utilizing the earth’s natural resources. The Galilee Farm in Cotabato that was started by Fr. Yves Caroff in Southern Philippines promotes the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) in preventing soil erosion, as well as earth-friendly techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry. The farm demonstrates to all who visit the place, regardless of religion or culture, how what was once a barren land has now been transformed into a flourishing community that can sustain itself from the produce of the soil, while continuing to care for the land. It is a program that attempts a more planet friendly agriculture and a spirituality that incorporates new insights provided by a new understanding of the cosmos and our planet.
A second platform consists of the many programs of peace-building in conflict-ridden places of Oblate ministry. The examples are the NDU’s Peace Education and the Peace Advocacy by Fr. Jun and companions combined with the “Space for Peace” that was pioneered in Pikit, North Cotabato, Philippines by Fr. Roberto Layson. It began with a few villages declaring their areas as a collective “space” for peace where the victims of war can rebuild their lives and homes.
In a similar vein, our direct peace facilitation – a work of peace making as well as protection of civilians caught in conflict since the mid 1990’s are now beginning to bear fruit though through tentative agreements and ceasefires. People are beginning to go back home to their farm and actually begin rebuilding not only their homes but also their livelihood.
The newest platform for dialogue and inter-cultural exchanges is the Oblate ministry with and among the youth. The Oblate engagement with the youth movement has always been a feature of our parish and school ministries. Our work among the youth has acquired a new character and a new dynamism with our participation in the World Youth Day (WYD). In many ways, the Oblates who are involved in youth ministry have re-invented the traditional ministry into a new platform not only for dialogue and intercultural exchanges but also as powerful witness of Oblate internationality. No doubt, youth ministry has emerged into a new platform for dialogue and inter-cultural exchanges of many nations, tribes and cultures.
All these streams of dialogue, with their many and varied expressions in the Oblate world, need to be recognized and supported. At times, because these initiatives are nowhere to be found in our OMI established traditional ministries, they are marginalized or have remained in the periphery akin to simply being tolerated. While all these attempts and new platforms do not make big waves, yet they already serve as lights of hope, especially to the restless youth as they continue to discern the new movements of the Spirit in our pluralistic world.
In trying to formulate in the abstract what is involved in the shared life commitment intended by the somewhat inadequate term dialogue, it is important to keep in mind that the raw material of inter-religious encounter is composed of the issues faced daily in concrete ways by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Indigenous Peoples who live in plural societies. Such people are not professional theologians and have not engaged in formal dialogue situations, but grocers, housewives, manual laborers, nurses, students, clerks and secretaries who want to live conscientiously and with faith amid the challenges that arise in the context of religious and cultural pluralism.
These small streams form new “platforms” that capture the dialogue and exchange that people face as they eke out their daily life. These streams become actual platforms for people to meet, pray and work together.
Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil was a good example of this emerging platform. When he was once asked about his unsettling involvement with the poor and the cause of justice in the early 60s, he said that his ‘Christian witness in this area is not the big fire that burns a forest but a lighted matchstick in the darkness of poverty and injustice’.
These streams in the world and in our Oblate units, though small and seemingly insignificant, are in reality attempts to light the proverbial matchstick. They are rays of hope and strength to many Oblates, especially to our renewed apostolic communities and their lay partners/associates. They are lighted matchsticks that show the way in the search for new and emerging platforms as they forge ahead in interreligious and intercultural enterprise.
We cannot conclude this presentation without recognizing the wounds of the ethnic and religious divides that mar our relationship as people and communities. The wounds are, indeed, very deep and are closely familiar to them. The trauma and pains continue to exercise tyranny over the spirit of the peoples on both sides of the divide. This is one reason why the relations between and among peoples are, largely, shrouded in mutual suspicion and mistrust. There remains the challenge on either side to rise above the general ignorance and bias that have, for years, characterized the relationships between and among faith and ethnic communities and individuals.
Now that we have come at a critical juncture in defining and shaping our relationship in the context of interreligious and intercultural enterprise, there is a sense of urgency to dare break new ground both in our discourses and actions. Our sacred spiritual traditions need to rise above the heritage of mutual suspicion and fears and address squarely the conflictual relationships that continue to soil the earth and divide our faith and ethnic communities.
I wonder if this is what the martyred President of Egypt Anwar Sadat expressed at the Knesset during his historic visit of the Holy City of Jerusalem on November 7, 1977.
“… Yet, there remains another wall. This wall continues and constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection, a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deeds or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this official statement as constituting 70% of the whole process. Today, through my visit to you, I ask why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?”
Our interreligious dialogue and intercultural solidarity have to give birth to a new relationship that heals and empowers. Politics and economics are inadequate to shape that meaningful relationship. We affirm that our religious traditions have the power to not simply to manage conflictual relationships but to transform them. Here, I echo what Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ said years ago:
“The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudice and build the earth.”
Fr. Eliseo Mercado is senior policy adviser at the Institute for Autonomy & Governance. Follow Fr. Mercado on Twitter @junmeromi.