World Interfaith Harmony Week

On 5 February, Archbishop Stephen Brislin was invited to give a talk at the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, organised by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. Below is the text of his talk.



Thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts with you on this essential subject “The challenges of interfaith in a world of hate: can we do more to promote ubuntu?”

Sadly, history shows that people of faith are all too often part of the “world of hate” and many conflicts have – at least – a faith element. Many modern conflicts are undeniably about religion and by people of faith. This is particularly tragic as there is so much that we agree on:

  • we believe in God and that we are the created

  • we believe in the value of life and the importance of family

  • we believe in justice, peace and harmony

  • we believe in equity, care for the poor

  • we believe in compassion, mercy, forgiveness

If we are to promote Ubuntu in sincerity, we have to begin by looking at ourselves – as people of faith – and our relationship with each other. That is what I would like to address this evening.

Why do religions continue to be in conflict? It would be wonderful to be able to say that these are not religious wars. Northern Ireland, for example, was a religious war, but there were many other elements in the conflict involving economics, participation in government, discrimination. The roots may well have been in religion but it was not purely religious in nature. Many modern day violent conflicts also have elements of religion and elements of human rights issues. But not all of modern day conflicts have that “mix” – some appear to be purely religious in nature.

Peace is possible. Neighbours usually live in peace whether they are Muslim, Jew, Christian or another faith. In Cape Town Christian and Muslim have lived side by side, rubbed shoulders for centuries, and have got on together in good neighbourliness, not only tolerating each other but also caring for each other. I believe that people of faith, on a day to day level, respect people of faith, even if they are of a different faith. Presumably it is because they know each other, and know of their joys and struggles – they are human beings together.

The story is told of a family with a Christian son and a Muslim son. For years there was no difficulty. They could sit down at meals, share the tasks, talk about current issues and generally live a family life as we expect it to be lived. The day came for the two sons to make decisions about their future. Both decided to go for doctrinal studies in their respective faiths. Once they had completed their studies they could no longer sit down at a meal together without an argument ensuing. They could no longer tolerate each other. Tragically, a value they both shared – that of family – was destroyed.

Some may say that the reason for inter-faith conflict is doctrinal differences. Must we do away with doctrine to achieve peace? But teaching is integral to faith as we struggle “through a glass dimly” to know God. Besides, people well-versed in the doctrines of their different faiths

can get along well – we’re a good example of that. We work together with the objective of the greater good of society.

Tolerance and respect among faiths are not only possible but exist. But they are more likely to exist when there has been an encounter between people of different faith – when they know each other as people. When there has not been that encounter there is more chance of generalizations being made about others – often based on sensationalist media or simply ignorance.

While there are undoubtedly many causes of the vicious modern-day religious conflicts, I would suggest the following three as being important:

  1. Fear. There exists an underlying fear of each other. Considering history, I suppose that such fear is not altogether unrealistic. There is a “root of bitterness” that has not been healed, and so the past continues to negatively influence the present. A consequence of fear is obviously mistrust. If we do not or are unable to trust the motivation of others we cannot build a healthy relationship with them and it becomes a relationship of politeness rather than a genuine concern. A further consequence of fear is a tendency to isolation, to withdraw into one’s own group, the “us and them” syndrome. The more such isolation exists, the greater the “myths” about others thrive. As in the apartheid years, separation keeps people from knowing each other. It becomes easy to see others as a group, not as individual personalities with hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is easy to demonize the group. The particular is generalized, especially when it is negative. Once others are seen as demons the soil is fertile for violent conflict.

  2. Secularism: it is easy to over-react and to throw up on’s arms in despair at secularism. Nonetheless, it is a powerful force that has made many people of faith feel threatened. It has done more to lure people away from faith than any proselytization by another faith. It has attempted – in some instances at least – to push religion to the fringes of society, to ensure it stays privatized and to resist any influence of faith on governance policies. It is has provided the space to publicly ridicule faith. Considering the last point, there must always be the space for satire, of course – but the question of boundaries is always pertinent. The recent Charlie Hebdo saga is a case in point – the murderous response was clearly unjustifiable, but the deeper questions do remain. We believe in freedom of speech but has it no boundary? In any case, I suggest that secularism has led to some feeling threatened, “under attack”, even persecuted. I think it has led to a tendency to re-assert our religion, whether it be by dress code or other means, to become more uncompromising and to shrink into a “group” mentality.

  3. Unwillingness to speak out about injustice: speaking out about corrupt politicians is easy, but when it comes closer to home it is much more difficult. There are a number of issues here. The first one is illustrated by the example of traditional Christian communities in the Middle East who lived in relative security under dictatorial regimes. They feared that if this strong authority disappeared, chaos and extremist groups would take over. Thus, they tended to defend those regimes; instead, loyalty to their faith and concern for the good of their country should have perhaps led them to speak out much earlier, telling the truth and calling for reforms. There is the danger that self-interest can cause us to be silent even when we recognize the truth.

A second aspect is co-option by civil authority. We know this well from our own history in South Africa, when there was co-option of some religions, but there are many examples. Vigilance in this regard is always necessary because such co-option is insidious. Attempts by civil authority to co-opt faith will never end. Such co-option destroys our integrity, our commitment to truth and justice, as well as polarizing us from other faiths. Sadly, we as the Catholic Church, historically went much further than simple co-option – we governed countries. There may have been some good in the motivation – Europe was no garden of Eden, was in chaos, and threatened by violent brigands. But inevitably, greed, power and exclusion of others formed part of the motivation. We live with the consequences until today, not only in terms of our relationships with other faiths and Christian denominations, but also in terms of our relationship inter nos, among ourselves. I am told that in certain areas of Italy, for example, that you cannot mention the name of the Pope without people spitting and cursing. They have no problem with the present Pope or generations of Popes of the past – in goes back to the Papal states when taxes were imposed on people. The discontent has been passed on from generation to generation. Another example is how Christianity became closely associated with colonialism, the effects of which remain with us to the present day. Simply put, when faith and political power become too closely intermingled, faith suffers and there are severe, long-lasting consequences.

And so how do we promote the values of ubuntu in a world of hate without first promoting our own common beliefs of compassion, mercy, tolerance, justice, peace and harmony among ourselves? Inter-faith movements are essential, we have an enormous responsibility on our shoulders to keep doors open, to dialogue, to speak to each other. Some criteria necessary for the success of that are:

  1. Our own commitment to be honest in our aspiration to live and concretely promote among our own adherents the values we profess and believe in: family, respect for life, the dignity of each person, tolerance, justice, peace.

  2. To be humble. This is a lesson that Pope Francis is emphasising and teaching by example. So many of the conflicts of the past – and the present – were caused by sheer arrogance. As people of faith we are only to aware of our finiteness, our creature-status and our inability to “box” God is our own categories.

  3. To be careful of the language we use. More and more we hear people talk about “persecution” of Christians, for example. Often it indicates a superficial understanding of situations, and it is emotive language that can establish a mindset leading to violence.

  4. To recognize that in our faith-groups we are not united. Christianity provides a good example. Up until the 11th century there was one Church, the Catholic Church. Then there was the split into the Latin Church and the Orthodox Church. In the 16th Century Martin Luther protested and this led to the Lutheran Church and later to Protestant churches. I heard the figure recently that today there are 53,000 Christian denominations. There are two points here: firstly, we are not always sensitive to the nuances of different streams within other faiths; secondly, there are extremist groups in most faiths. Regarding the latter point: there is a need to discourse and dialogue within our own faiths and, in fidelity to what we believe, we must have the courage to denounce extremism when it threatens and indeed breaches the values we believe in, when there is blatant injustice. We have to be able to say “not in my name”.

  5. As mentioned before, the relationship we have with political power needs continual vigilance and reflection. Prophet should not try to be king: we need co-operation and mutual respect, but nonetheless we need boundaries. Certainly we wish to influence, to comment, to guide. But when faith and politics become equated it is a recipe for disaster.

  6. As I have mentioned, it is easy to demonize people when there is a group mentality and polarization. One of the advantages of inter-faith forums is that we can practically work together on programmes and projects that benefit society. Such projects need to go beyond leadership and to include adherents, to get people rubbing shoulders with each other – allowing them to see people as people.

  7. Finally, I strongly believe that we have to establish peace groups or movements that transcend faith differences, drawing from our common beliefs, I have no blueprint for this or particular vision, but I believe that there is an urgent need, a responsibility that we have, to work for the things that make for peace. We all cherish and believe in peace. Surely, this – more than anything else – is something that we can work towards, not only to build bridges, but to be faithful to the God who created us.

+Stephen Brislin

Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town

5th February 2015

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