FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Two contrasting images hovered over the September 6-8 “Prayer for Peace” in Cracow, Poland. The first was the benevolent visage of Pope John Paul II, with his Cracow roots, and the memory of the exuberant role he played in Poland’s transformation and, after 1989, throughout the world. Recollections of the horrors that happened not far away, at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and during the conflagration of World War II conveyed very different images and feelings. The prayers were both for a hopeful future and a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war.
The annual Prayer for Peace is a remarkable fixture on the international interfaith scene. Termed a “pilgrimage of faith,” it moves from city to city, drawing many of world religions’ most senior and respected leaders. They rededicate themselves to work for peace and understanding. “Make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” intoned Cracow Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and similar sentiments were expressed in countless ways, drawing on many religious traditions.
The Prayer for Peace is not well known in the United States but it should be. Most of it is available as video or text, and, thanks to volunteer translators, in multiple languages. There’s no meeting like it. It has a noteworthy pedigree. In 1986, Pope John Paul II convened an unprecedented gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi. The images of the panoply of world religions standing side by side (yes, all older men) contrasted with the idea of clashing cultures that seemed then to reflect world reality. They pledged to work together for peace. Ever since, every year, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a remarkable lay Catholic movement, organizes a meeting that weaves together political and intellectual threads (speeches by heads of state, church leaders, and public intellectuals), religious observance, and spectacular pageant. This year about 360 leaders came, supported by about 2000 Sant’Egidio volunteers.
The staging of the meeting itself is a miracle of teamwork and Italian flair. The meeting began, in the ritual of this pilgrimage, with worship services at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy that Pope John Paul II visited; promptly at noon Pope Benedict XVI appeared on screens with a message of support. The formal opening ceremony featured a succession of speeches, highlights being the always inspirational rhetoric of Sant’Egidio’s founder, Andrea Riccardi, and especially thought-provoking addresses by Michel Camdessus, former managing director of the IMF (who said the economic crisis stems from ethical and moral failures) and Rabbi David Rosen (recalling the extraordinary intellectual and spiritual legacy of Polish Jewry). Then came a long day of 22 panel discussions exploring the nooks and crannies of interfaith dialogue.
The whole group visited the Auschwitz concentration camp and museum, then participated in a moving ceremony at the Birkenau camp nearby. I had not visited Auschwitz before, and it was a first for many others; some had dreaded the confrontation with evil. A jungle of cameras threatened to turn the visit into a circus. But the stunning, almost clinical realities preserved there – hair cut from the dead, heaps of shoes, suitcases, empty poison gas cans, dolls – spoke of a human horror that no one there will forget.
The ceremony at Birkenau began with a silent march along the 900-meter railroad track where the victims arrived at the camp. Then flowers were laid by 22 different groups (the Americans honored with this role were Cardinal McCarrick, John DeGioia, Joshua DuBois, and myself). During the speeches, the large crowd was silent. The words of Israel Meir Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel stood out, as he, a survivor of Buchenwald, evoked the face of Josef Mengele, ruling over this factory of death. Lau recalled a world comprised of three parts: the murderers, the victims, and a world that kept silent. “That’s why we are here. To promise ourselves and our children, never again. We cannot forget. This must never happen again, in any part of the world.”
The Europe in which the Nazi atrocities took place was not a different planet, he said, it was our planet. Its inhabitants had culture, music, books, they studied philosophy and they elected their leaders democratically. But they allowed the Holocaust to happen. Rabbi Lau reminded everyone that even with all the pledges to improve things, every day 18,000 children die of hunger.
The ceremony ended with the prayer of kaddish. A priest said afterwards that he was not sure if the rabbi (whom he knew well) was singing or crying.
Interfaith events are treasured by many but plenty of cynics hold that they attract only the convinced. Those of us who were part of this special pilgrimage were reinspired in our belief in dialogue. The Prayer for Peace concluded with its symbolic multifaith pageant. Leaders worshiped, then marched together, signed a declaration, and lit candles for peace. The shared experience of witnessing the abyss, shoulder to shoulder, as friends and neighbors, and then sensing the energy of Cracow and the spirit of the Community of Sant’Egidio, is so powerful, so evocative, so unforgettable, that it must show the way to change.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
Here’s my translation (from French) of the keynote address, delivered Sept. 6 by Michel Camdessus. It’s entitled: Economic Crisis and the World’s Religious Traditions.
We gather here, at this International Meeting for Peace, to spend several days in prayer and fraternity. This fraternity links us to all the world’s people, at this profoundly testing time. That has inspired me to reflect briefly with you today about the dramatic trial that this financial and economic crisis represents, and the challenge that our religious traditions are called upon to meet. We should focus on it not only because of our solidarity with the countless victims, and not only to steel us for the difficult days that lie ahead, but above all because its intensity can only be understood as the product of a culture of idolatry. In its face we, people of religion, are among the final witnesses for mankind amidst the deep-seated relativism of our times.
Let me try to characterize this crisis briefly and to highlight the demanding reflection that it requires us to undertake. We are called, together, enlightened by our religious traditions, to confront it as we work to serve mankind, believing, as we do, in the greatness of our destiny.
I – The Crisis and a Culture of Idol Worship
Tragedy struck in August, 2007, and the virus from which it sprang has mutated into a global economic crisis that has produced human ravages everywhere:
– Increases in all forms of insecurity
– Unemployment, approaching 10 percent in the United States, 20 percent in Spain
– The risk that we will see more than 53 million people in Africa fall back into extreme poverty, from which they had so painfully begun to emerge
– The risk that public development assistance will dry up.
And as is always the case, let us never forget that all these forms of devastation strike first and foremost the poorest amongst us!
We must appreciate that this crisis has many dimensions. Nothing would be more dangerous than to understand it simply as a short-term economic setback, violent, admittedly but “normal”, from which we will emerge as we have before. This is not yet another crisis in a globalized world but the first true crisis of globalization itself. It is undoubtedly about finance, and that dimension is what we must, first and foremost, master. But, just as the Hydra of mythology had seven heads, it is systemically part of at least six other crises: the poverty of the third world, the climate crisis, the food crisis, the energy crisis, the crisis of multilateralism, and the crisis of culture: seven crises altogether. All must all be taken into account if we are to address any one of them. And that brings me to the cultural crisis which dominates them all. For they all have their origins in individual and collective greed, in the choice mankind has made, to have rather than to be.
Yes, let us understand clearly the roots of the crisis. If you run once again the film of events that have transpired since the late 1980s, the deregulation of the sub-prime system in the United States, then the collapse of the great American and British financial institutions, and the spread of the crisis just a year ago, we can see that they have transpired in a world of which the principal leaders were convinced by the neoliberal economists that the self-regulating forces of the market would always produce the adjustments that were necessary, and thus that all public interventions that might counter market forces were to be rejected.
“The State is the problem, not the solution”, said President Reagan.
Thus an international financial market was created over the past twenty years, left to its own devices without rules or monitoring institutions. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a good number of actors began to behave like people without faith or laws. Their behaviors came to serve as the reference point, even as more and more voices echoed warnings. So we ended up with what Alan Greenspan in 1996 called “irrational exuberance”, but his characterization did not shake the global consensus that urged “laissez-faire”. This inexorably led towards an extraordinary deregulation, one driven both by serious technical flaws and grave moral lapses. The list of these moral lapses is long. We can see them at every stage of the crisis.
The fact that our world thus settled into this “irrational exuberance”, the fact that no true social opposition was presented, no sufficiently vigorous and organized citizen opposition emerged, the fact that the leaders who were responsible allowed themselves to be carried along on this collective wave, raises questions that, as a close witness to these events, I have turned over in my mind hundreds of times: how was it possible? I find only one convincing explanation: these behaviors must be deeply rooted in a cultural context where the seduction of money is so strong that it produces a collective blindness, disarming all forms of vigilance.
This context has prevailed despite all sorts of protests against the commercialization of the world. Since the 1960s, the advanced countries – more and more imitated by the transition and emerging countries, allowed a culture to take root whose drive “to earn more, always to consume more” became the central, certainly not exclusive, but clearly the dominant force. Man was reduced, degraded, to his simple economic function. Consumption became destiny; life was emptied of meaning. The cupidity which President Obama so vigorously denounced in his Inauguration speech surreptitiously had become, subliminally, politically correct, fixed at the heart of the collective culture. We all began to worship the golden calf, gripped as we were by this culture in which our countries had immersed themselves. Like the Jewish people after the death of Joshua, settled in heathen lands, we allowed ourselves to be governed by the collective culture which, little by little, took over so that we came to “serve Baal and Astarte” (Judith.2, 11-13).
We forget always how much the culture around us surreptitiously binds us. “The little mother… “, said Kafka, speaking about culture, “has claws”. It grips us. Thus there was fertile ground for all the abuses of the financial sphere until its current collapse. A model of generalized greed dug an ethical pit in which the world economy was engulfed, until the pyramid crumbled.
So let me summarize: there are three major failures that explain the origin of the crisis: the absence of the necessary rules, the inadequacy of monitoring institutions, and collective behaviors that result from this culture of having. It is the task of governments, impelled by the G20, to mitigate the first two, those that touch on regulations and institutions. They are well occupied there, working also to reboot a dynamic economy. But let us beware: if the underlying cultural challenge is not addressed, the same causes will produce, tomorrow, perhaps with far greater damage, the same effects. So it must be addressed, and that is of paramount urgency. Governments are insufficient there. It is here that all our religious traditions are together confronted with an immense responsibility.
II. From the Crisis of Culture to a Civilization of Global Common Good
It is the idolatry of money and the collective rejection of an ethical foundation for managing economic affairs that led us to the catastrophe. We thus need a collective awakening because we are, all of us, affected. We must try to define, together, some paths towards a world more worthy of mankind, no longer reduced to “earn more, consume, and keep silent”, but restored to his full dignity. What’s involved is no less than to establish a world dedicated to the common good, replacing a world that worships the god of money. How could all our religious traditions not feel called to join such an endeavor? All have something essential to bring, starting from their own treasures which are uniquely theirs. Together, they can contribute, through common effort, offering to this globalization without faith or law, a global ethic. Let me to pause a moment on these two points.
All our religions have, indeed, in the treasure of their traditions, a vision of man and his destiny, guidance, and practices that can bring a healing contribution to a troubled mankind.
We all can feel it: there is no sustainable, viable path out of the crisis unless the world of the wealthy relearns frugality. Before this imperative, how can we not pay tribute to the example that our Muslim brothers offer us with Ramadan, an extraordinary example of mastery over our consuming frenzy? …
We know well the role that Churches play in the struggle for a humane treatment of immigrants, a reflection also offered in the recent Encyclical of Benoit XVI who, with his calls to restore giving as an expression of fraternity, offers a splendid message of hope and confidence in mankind. These and many other messages converge in their effort to tear mankind away from the controlling and destructive idolatry to which they have given themselves, to restore confidence and hope to them, to help them to build in fraternity a new world. Each one of our traditions has work to do here, and their dialogue can only encourage them to devote themselves to the task with renewed energy. There is, however, another contribution which their common effort can bring to this world which, through so much sufferings and failures, is becoming one: I refer to a global ethic.
As we have seen, one of the sources of this crisis can be found in the refusal to subject economic activity to any kind of ethical or legal norms. It is therefore, more than ever before, vital that all of us, who see this as a fatal flaw, take up the common task so that a unified world can be built on a common basic ethic. Work along these lines has been underway for more than fifteen years in the context of the Parliament of Religions, but today’s crisis calls us to go further in defining the global ethic that Benedict XVI called for in his message on the World Day of Peace.
Even beyond a code of ethics, we must also seek, together, in the light of our traditions, the elements of a definition of a world common good, towards which humanity can converge. It could involve:
– To struggle everywhere for respect for man, in his dignity and his cultures;
– A reform of our states, limited certainly in their roles, but nonetheless exercising all their responsibilities to serve the common good and support those who are least privileged;
– Building a new economic model at the heart of which transparent, just, and equitable management of finance would drive a true sustainable development;
– A global governance, at last, that serves this universal common good with solidarity among mankind.
But there is something more important, and I want to conclude there. One of the most unfortunate characteristics of our time is that, in this crisis, we came to see a world without hope, a world without joy, a world turned in on itself. And here our meeting has greater relevance than ever. Over the course of a decade when – especially since September 11, 2001 – dialogue among religious traditions seemed to have lost its footing, Sant’ Egidio continued and expanded it, convinced of its prophetic value and its importance, to restore to mankind men hope, an appetite for fraternity, a sense of unity. Let us pay homage to them for that. More than ever, such dialogue has a crucial role to play, to facilitate dialogue among cultures and to contribute to their conversion, their transfiguration in the light of the Holy Spirit. That is yet another reason to underscore how opportune it is that we are meeting here now.
By Katherine Marshall |
September 14, 2009; 12:55 AM ET
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