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Foundational Documents of the Interfaith Movement

By Jessie F. Tanner

It is no longer news that we live in a growing diversity on an ever-shrinking globe. Whether the subject is crime or economics, politics, entertainment, or almost everything else, strangers from different parts of the world are in dialogue, interacting personally and becoming ever better connected. Along with international communication, travel, and diversity in our neighborhoods comes the growing awareness that a thousand different flowers bloom in the same soil that grows ‘my’ faith, ‘our’ faith, or, we might say, ‘our faiths.’

The World’s Parliament of Religions held at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago cracked open the door to talk to one another about how we understand the world, speaking from the heart, honestly, with mutual respect. Today expressions of this growing dialogue can be found, homegrown, all over the world.

Core Interfaith Values

As with any group, association, or tradition seeking to make a difference in the world, religious movements, even the most dispersed, face the task of articulating the core tenets that bring people together to advance their particular goals. In most religious heritages, central values become expressed and codified so that they may continually nourish the community and be transmitted for future generations. Whether these principles are conveyed through scriptural texts and recorded legal or ethical regulations in written cultures, or through more verbally spoken means in oral cultures, every tradition creates ‘foundational documents’ that communicate and maintain its core values. Such is the case with the interfaith movement, as well.

Despite its remarkable religious diversity, one discovers certain unifying ideals shared by the interfaith movement’s many threads, local, national, and international. At least five fundamental values can be discerned underpinning the movement:

  • belief that religious, spiritual, and indigenous traditions can be positive, productive forces for good in human affairs,
  • appreciation of religious differences and diversity as well as similarities, shared values, and commonalities,
  • affirmation of the freedom, dignity, and civil rights of all human beings,
  • concern for the Earth and its healing, and
  • promotion of equality, justice, and peace in the world.

These values reflect a creative, collaborative interreligious effort to move forward toward greater peace and sustainability in a world often rife with conflict and violence, much of which is influenced by misconstrued religious teaching.

Foundational Documents

Although many texts produced within faith and interfaith circles represent these key ideals, four documents stand out and have gained widespread recognition and influence: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Toward a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, generated at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the United Religions Initiative Charter (2000), and the Charter for Compassion (2009). These foundational documents establish and exemplify the core values of the interfaith movement and have inspired other excellent, congruent efforts.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted after World War II and ratified by the UN General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, as an international effort to affirm and uphold the basic human freedom and rights of all persons “without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The essential affirmation grounding this document is that the basis for achieving and maintaining peace and justice in the world resides in a deep recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. The Declaration is a milestone in human history, the first truly international statement of the fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Indeed, this document set the stage for the formation and growth of the interfaith movement, establishing the basic principles of innate human integrity and civil rights in which interfaith activity is grounded.

Hans Küng

Hans Küng

Another significant document is Toward a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration. It was written by Professor Hans Küng working with dozens of staff, trustees, and religious leaders, all part of the 100th year anniversary of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, renamed in 1993 the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The Declaration draws on the teachings of and dialogue among people of many different religions, beginning by roundly condemning the violence, injustice, and suffering in the world. Conveying essential interfaith core values, Towards a Global Ethic identifies a profound shared commitment to a culture of non-violence, economic justice, tolerance, truth-telling, and human rights as elemental principles conducive of a worldwide ethic engendering peace. More than 200 leaders and representatives from 40 distinct faith traditions signed the declaration, and since then thousands more have added their names.

In 1993 Episcopal Bishop William Swing was invited by the United Nations to host a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the UN Charter at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The subsequent interfaith service inspired him to gather the group who founded a new global grassroots interfaith organization, United Religions Initiative (URI), to connect and empower people of faith and practice in becoming a positive influence for peace. Five years of work from several thousand participants forged a new Charter, signed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 2000.

Bishop William Swing signing the URI Charter in 2000.

Bishop William Swing signing the URI Charter in 2000.

URI was established as an international grassroots association committed to working across religious boundaries for the common good. The Charter identifies 17 principles conveying core interfaith values and governing guidelines for self-organizing local “Cooperation Circles.” Today more than 500 circles in 80 countries design their own activities, but always in conformance with the Charter’s root affirmation, distilled in its purpose: “…to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

A more recent document was established when writer and scholar Karen Armstrong won the TED prize in 2008 and was given a “wish.” Her wish called for support in formulating, launching, and promoting a Charter for Compassion, which was ultimately presented in November 2009. The Charter for Compassion exhorts all individuals and religions of the world to embrace compassion as a central value “at the heart of all religions, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.” The great avowal of this important interfaith document is that it is the Golden Rule of compassionate reciprocity that allows people to appreciate and respect each other despite differences, and that fosters the impetus for working toward peace and justice throughout the world.

A distinct feature of this Charter is the call to all religious persons and heritages to look within their own traditions to find, experience, and express this compassion and the goodness it unfolds. The Charter has been signed by over 76,000 individuals and communities from all over the world, including such religious leaders as His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Related Resources

These four documents stand as exemplars, but similar constructive efforts are being conceived all the time. The Earth Charter, with its concerns for the environment and sustainable development, is intercultural and interfaith-friendly. Its mission is “to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework that includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace.” The Charter of Human Responsibilities is a refreshing statement that comes with a global community of activists working to create a better world.

Last month, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, two new documents emerged to fortify religion’s dedication to interreligious amity and peacekeeping. The first is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions, launched at the Second Global Conference on the World’s Religions, held September 7, 2011, in Montréal, Québec. This conference convened leaders from different faiths who framed their Declaration as a distinctly religious statement of human rights to compliment the 1948 UN Declaration and help bridge the secular and religious communities who share these values. Their Declaration adds a rich new layer of dialogue among diverse religious worldviews, acknowledging that we cannot adequately address human rights today without enlisting and employing religious organizations and institutions.

As this photo suggests, media are paying a bit more attention to serious religious support of human rights. It is posted after the Second Global Conference on the World’s Religions on its website.

As this photo suggests, media are paying a bit more attention to serious religious support of human rights. It is posted after the Second Global Conference on the World’s Religions on its website.

Another new document has been crafted by Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College, Rev. Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA, and Valerie Kaur, a Sikh, of Groundswell. They came together and drafted an interfaith pledge on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 called A More Perfect Union: A Statement of Religious Commitment following the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. Recognizing the differences among faiths, the pledge affirms basic shared values that will continue to help create a better future. The purpose of the pledge is to strengthen interreligious commitment to religious pluralism, justice, and the healing of the world. The writers and sponsors invite those who feel in solidarity with the pledge to add their names to the list of signatories.

Supportive Documents from Individual Religions

Besides the documents produced by intentionally intercultural, interfaith organizations, critical statements written by groups within individual religions uphold core interfaith values. For example, for Christians there is Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) written during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the World Council of Churches’ “Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies,” composed in 1977. Both of these documents represent a major shift in Christian attitudes toward non-Christian religions, calling for a more tolerant and appreciative outlook and inspiring much of the Christian leadership and participation in ecumenical and interfaith relations.

Moreover, one can see interfaith principles in the “ Statement of Principles ” of the American Islamic Congress and “ Our Concerns ” of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, as well as in the “ MissionStatement of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the World Sikh Council-American Region’s “Aims and Objectives.” These statements and others like them are examples of associations within particular religions that reflect and support interfaith values, with the guiding purpose of moving toward greater compassion, peace, and justice in the world.

A Continuing Articulation

As the interfaith movement advances into the 21st century and beyond, it will be crucial to regularly return to foundational documents like those mentioned here as a reminder of the central values that shape the purpose of creating a world of peace that works for all. While significant new documents will undoubtedly emerge from interreligious organizations and networks, the ones we have today serve to pave the way and establish the building blocks for further generations of interfaith work.