By Angela Butel
Stories Generating Peace
Turning the final page of Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, I felt what only comes from finishing a great book: a mixture of equal parts exhilaration and disappointment that it’s over. Patel is an engaging writer with an intriguing personal story, and the major ideas encapsulated in his book spoke to me on a very basic level.
He argues that relationships between faith communities will be increasingly important in the coming decades. “The esteemed writer W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, the problem of the 20th century will be the color line… I believe that the problem of the 21st century is the faith line. This line does not separate Muslims from Christians, or Jews from Hindus, but rather religious totalitarians from pluralists.”1
In Patel’s mind, the major question in the quest for peace is whether religious communities learn to coexist or let their differences continue to set them apart. As a member of a generation that grew up in the shadow of the events of September 11, 2001 and the waves of religious hatred that followed, this question seemed key to me as well.
I had been initially perplexed and then pained by the tensions that seemed to appear (or at least become more apparent) after 9/11. In 2001, I was on the brink of turning 11, and, based on my life experience, would never have imagined that religious communities had any reason to quarrel. My school, Notre Dame de Sion, was founded on a mission to bring about better understanding between Christians and Jews, and I took interfaith cooperation for granted. Gradually, I encountered countless news stories about violence between faith communities. It began to dawn on me that respect for other traditions is not a given.
Interfaith cooperation has always interested me, but finishing Patel’s book as a high-school senior, I was able to put words into action. The next year at college I joined the Multifaith Council and had the chance to exchange ideas with others interested in interfaith. Our bi-monthly meetings were spaces where stories of hope and healing could counteract those negative stories I continued hearing elsewhere.
Our conversations led to new opportunities – a leadership training institute run by the Interfaith Youth Core, and then, in 2011, the North American Interfaith Network Connect, as a Young Adult Scholar. At NAIN my eyes were opened to the scope of the world I had stumbled into; this was not just a gathering of young people on college campuses, it was an international movement with entire organizations dedicated to the cause.
Eager for more, after NAIN I signed on with The Interfaith Observer as an intern, researching interfaith peacebuilding organizations. During the Fall 2011 semester, I discovered dozens of groups worldwide, working to bring people from diverse faith backgrounds together to work toward peace. Research exponentially increased my personal collection of hopeful interfaith stories. Here are a few representative groups helping to make those stories happen:
In the arena of research-action, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy is focused on “identity-based conflicts that exceed the reach of traditional diplomacy by incorporating religion as part of the solution.” The Center brings research to bear regarding religious tension to train religious and lay leaders in peacebuilding. Their goals:
- decreasing religion’s role as a driver of conflict;
- increasing the role of religious clergy and laity in peacemaking;
- increasing the capacity of religious peacemakers;
- increasing policy-makers’ awareness of and receptivity to the potential contributions of religious peacemakers.
The Center deploys action teams to areas affected by religious conflict – Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Kashmir, Sudan, the United States, and Afghanistan, among others. Their programs range from teacher training workshops on human rights, religious tolerance, and conflict resolution in Pakistan, to meeting with 57 Afghan Taliban leaders and negotiating the release of 21 Korean hostages.
Many peace organizations target religious leaders, hoping that cooperation among major decision-makers will trickle down to their communities. The Elijah Interfaith Institute, responds to “controversial issues of global concern” and promotes growth of individuals in their own religious traditions. The Institute’s programs include the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, a platform for religious leaders to meet and “collectively address today’s problems from within the resources of their own traditions”; the Elijah Interfaith Academy, providing similar opportunity for scholars; and the Elijah Educational Network, striving to harness the wisdom of the previous two groups to educate interfaith organizations, local interfaith councils, and local communities and congregations.
Then there are a multitude of interfaith groups working within a conflicted arena seeking an end to violence. For instance, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel uses religion as a tool for peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ICCI’s mission is “to harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths and transform religion’s role from a force of division and extremism into a source of reconciliation, coexistence, and understanding.” ICCI fosters dialogue among groups of religious leaders, women, and youth, and challenges each group to develop plans of action to foster peace in their communities. It also coordinates a series of seminars, lectures, open dialogues, tours, and other educational activities throughout the year.
Had I the space, we would tell stories about the extraordinary activities of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the Carnegie Center and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (both founded in 1914, inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s quest to end wars), the World Prayer Peace Society, planting peace poles everywhere, and training organizations like Pace Bene. Plus dozens more. This is not a new quest, and activitsts are waiting for new colleagues to join them.
In short, a vast array of organizations is doing inspiring work. Then why didn’t I know anything about this work before starting my research!? Why are stories of religious intolerance and misunderstanding so much more prominent in the media than stories of hope and cooperation? The prevalence of discouraging stories involving religion contributes to the sense that, in today’s world, religion creates more problems than it solves.
The hopeful stories are there. You just have to look a bit harder. Remember the tales of Christians and Muslims who have protected each other during sectarian violence in Egypt. Or, in the midst of a political campaign year rife with religious tensions, read about the Caravan of Reconciliation, bringing inter-religious training teams to communities across the U.S., offering workshops on pluralism and inter-religious harmony. Or note than in the face of ongoing religiously motivated violence, Nigeria was chosen to host the third annual International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue and Non-violent Communication. It’s inspired me, and I hope it inspires you.
My research has helped me set my path. I’ve spent much of this year studying in Africa, and I’ll be doing a French intensive this summer. Then back for a final year of college to detail how I want to use what I’m learning to become an effective peacemaker in years to come. Hope I meet you there!