By Debbie Weissman
Common Ground News
It may very well be that one of the obstacles to the success of the Oslo Process was the absence of any component of religion or religious leadership. Oslo was, essentially, secular Israelis talking with secular Palestinians. Yet the Middle East is a region highly infused with religion and tradition. If we ignore those elements within our respective societies, we will never be able to mobilize masses on either side for our vision of a peaceful future. Religions and religious dialogue must be used in the service of pursuing peace–we must utilize religious symbols, texts, practices, and leaders.
In considering whether and how religious leaders can contribute positively to peaceful dialogue, we should first clarify what kind of leadership we’re talking about. Religious leaders function in three categories – A. The official, institutionalized leadership–rabbis, imams, priests and so on. Sometimes, their authority is bolstered by a hierarchical church structure or a Chief Rabbinate. B. Grass-roots lay leadership within religious communities. C. Professional and lay leadership within the various non-governmental organizations and other frameworks for dialogue and coexistence.
Each group has particular assets and liabilities that it brings to the dialogue. In the case of the first group, at least in this region, they tend to all be men, typically representing the more conservative forces within their religious groups. Their presence generally confers an air of legitimacy to the endeavor of dialogue, but often they have vested interests in the status quo, or, at least, find it difficult to think “outside the box,” something that is essential if progress is to be made.
The other groups may be more inclusive but are sometimes marginalized within their own religions. They may be challenged by the question, “so, who do you actually represent?” They rarely make the headlines. Their dialogue affects them as participants and, perhaps, other members of their families and communities, but it usually lacks wider influence. Those involved in dialogue often experience a “disconnect” between what they and what the decision makers are doing.
Ideally, all three types of leaders should be involved in the process.
In May 2008, at an inter-religious conference held in Hiroshima, Japan, I heard Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary-General of Religions for Peace say that what all the world’s religions have in common is that they have conducted deep conversations over the course of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years of human history, around two important questions – 1) What does it mean to be a human being? and 2) What does it mean to live in a community? In my view, insights derived from these conversations can be crucial for the creation and maintenance of a culture of peace.
Inter-religious dialogue shares in common with secular forms of intergroup dialogue certain features, perhaps most saliently, the emphasis on seeing the Other’s humanity. But it brings in some additional dimensions, as well. Most religions stress the theme of human humility, against the backdrop of a transcendent reality, as a bulwark against hubris. At the same time, religions can provide a bulwark against despair by positing that human beings were created in the Divine Image and positioning them a “little lower than the angels.” There are many shared religious values, beginning with faith and tradition and culminating in imperatives to work for justice and peace. Many religions have traditions of interpretation that can be applied to problematic texts. Religious leaders have had much experience in trying to reconcile different points of view within their own communities, often on issues that really matter.
Former MK and cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchior has been a pioneer in inter-religious dialogue for peace. He has often spoken of the need for “two-track diplomacy.” There is the official track of diplomats and politicians. The act in which they should be engaged is called “peace-making.” But the parallel track, made up of religious and educational leaders, grass-roots dialogue groups, men, women, youth, etc., would be called “peace-building.” This would involve developing a cultural milieu that could nourish and sustain a deep and long-lasting peace.
Religious leaders, I believe, have a particular responsibility in the creation of this culture. They may see their constituencies on a regular–even as often as daily –basis. They give them pastoral support at key junctures in life–birth, puberty, marriage, illness and death. They preach sermons and offer periodic educational messages to their communities. If these messages could be harnessed towards the achievement of peace-building, we would have taken a major step forward to our goal. As a great 20th century rabbi wrote, “…one should not despair, thinking that one cannot make peace, but rather one should pursue peace today and also tomorrow and on the day afterwards, until one reaches it.” (Chafetz Chayim, Shmirat Halashon, Sha’ar Haz’chirah, Chapter 17)
Dr. Deborah Weissman, a Jewish educator based in Jerusalem, is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews.