Pursuing a Global Ethic
Interfaith's Foundational Document: A Brief History
by Marcus Braybrooke
The Global Ethic, adopted at the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, is clear evidence that the coming together of people of faith is not an end in itself but part of the search for a more just and peaceful world. Indeed one of the objectives for the 1893 Parliament, in the words of its President Charles Bonney, was “to make the Golden Rule the basis” for cooperation among people of different religions. “Only then,” he said, “will the nations of the earth yield to the spirit of concord and learn war no more.” Over the years, several interfaith conferences have issued declarations emphasizing the values that they share – some of which I collected in Stepping Stones to a Global Ethic (1992).
The search for an agreed basis for interfaith action for a better world was given a new impetus in 1992 with the publication of Hans Küng’s Global Responsibility. His argument was summarized in the now well-known mantra:
No human life without a world ethic for the nations;
No peace among the nations without peace among the religions;
No peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.
Then in 1992, Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez, the Parliament’s first executive director, invited Hans Küng to produce a paper that the Parliament could use as the basis for ‘A Global Ethic,’ which would be the Parliament’s message to the world. It is not always clear in subsequent books on the Global Ethic, whether they refer to Küng’s scholarly study or the Chicago Declaration.
Hans Küng’s starting-point was that the world was experiencing a fundamental crisis in global economy, global ecology, and global politics, together with the lack of a “grand vision.” Moreover, he said, religion was often used to incite aggression and fanaticism. (Both, sadly, are even truer today). A global ethic, by which Küng meant “a minimal fundamental consensus concerning binding values, irrevocable standards and fundamental attitudes” was, therefore, urgent. It was to be based on the premise that “every human being must be treated humanely.”
Küng argued that the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would want them to do to you,” which most religions teach in differing wording, implies four broad ancient guidelines, which he labels “four irrevocable directives.” They are:
- Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
- Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
- Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
- Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
These provide the framework for the Parliament’s Declaration, which was much shorter than Küng’s text and has an almost poetic feel.
The Parliament Declaration begins with the assertion, “The world is in agony.” It then condemns the abuse of Earth’s ecosystems, the poverty from which so many people suffer and die, and the violence, hatred, and aggression, which afflicts much of the world. This agony, the Declaration insists “need not be, because the basis for an ethic already exists, ancient guidelines … in the core values of all religions, which offer the possibility of a better individual and global order, and lead individuals away from despair and societies away from chaos.”
The authors of the Declaration then commit themselves to live in accordance with these ancient guidelines and briefly explain what they would involve today.
At the close of the Assembly, participants, in a memorable moment, signed the Declaration. This is important as the Declaration is not a matter of some remote religious leaders telling other people what to do, but an expression of their own personal commitment and their appeal to “all people, whether religious or not, to do the same.”
Critics say that such statements make the signatories feel good but achieve very little. Yet, as Hans Küng has said, fifty years ago few people would have believed that smoking would be banned in many public places. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, Bonney and others were calling for an International Court of Justice.
It is hard to assess what the Declaration of a Global Ethic has achieved. The world’s agony today seems even greater: but there is far more interfaith co-operation in seeking to lessen it – for example in the work of faith-based relief agencies.
There is also a growing recognition that faiths have much in common. In Testing the Global Ethic (1998), which Peggy Morgan and I edited, we asked a number of people of different faiths to show how the directives were grounded in the teaching of their particular tradition. In Yes to a Global Ethic (1996), Hans Küng collected supporting statements from around the world. The Davos conference now invites a number of religious leaders.
Much work is being done to see how the guidelines apply to many areas of life. In preparation for the Cape Town Parliament in 1999 a considerable amount of work went into producing A Call to the Guiding Institutions, which was the basis of discussions at the Assembly. Unfortunately, the discussions remained rather general as few experts from the relevant disciplines were present. Globalization for the Common Good, founded by Kamran Mofid, has held annual conferences addressing key issues in some detail .
There were numerous books which I have found helpful in writing A Heart for the World-The Interfaith Alternative (2005), books such as For the Common Good, by Herman E Daly and John B Cobb, Jr; Making Globalization Good, edited by John. H Dunning; For All Life, edited by Leonard Swidler; and Mind, Heart and Soul: in the fight against poverty, by Katherine Marshall and Lucy Keough.
The challenge, however, remains to effect change. As Edmund Burke said long ago, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” This requires more of us who are committed to change to involve ourselves in the murky world of political action. This is why I have always been a member of a political party, although I do not think any the candidates I have supported have ever been elected.
We have also not yet answered the criticism of Dr. Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, who felt that the 1993 Parliament fell short of its mission. “If you create an international secretariat or a permanent Parliament or a world spiritual agency, everything will change, because then the religious leaders will receive from these people, from their workers, from their representatives working daily together, the advice as to what we should do next. This is, in my opinion, the most important single result that could come out of the Parliament.”
I am glad that the Toronto Parliament of the World’s Religions this November will revisit the Declaration and give the threats to the Environment due attention. May the Parliament be a major step to soothing the agony of our world.
Header Photo: Pxhere