Of Faith and Society

Of Faith and Society

Jerusalem — Faith is an engine that ideally should drive people of each and every religion to seek what is best for all. Faith is not judgmental as it emanates from convictions that direct a person towards practice that is good to God and to fellow human beings, irrespective of background and particular characteristics. Faith is not comparative: if I believe then my belief stands in and by itself. Any partial comparison with the faith of another person or people is liable to weaken the common bases upon which we can all build the good society. Faith is humbling as it teaches us to treat all alike and to do things for the good of all without self promotion or boasting of the goodness in one’s faith as compared to other faiths. Faith is an opening and widening experience in which all beings become part of our concern, love, compassion and understanding. Faith hence is a liberating force that teaches us that no personal or spiritual fulfillment is possible without first letting go of all our stereotypes and negative images of others and their traditions.

If faith is not judgmental; impossible to partial comparisons; humbling; opening, widening and liberating then how can us faithful work together to meet the challenges of Today’s Society? 

Living one’s faith in Today’s Society necessitates that we faithful look also at the realities of the world. This is not possible without a faith that has the characteristics outlined above. Thus, when we address the economic problems of our society and we decide to challenge them as faithful, this challenge becomes much more powerful if we, the faithful, develop a plan together. Poverty which is a continuing problem in our society should not be left only to policy makers and strategic thinkers; we should also provide our input and develop the mechanisms that would enable us as faithful, working together, to make a difference. We cannot practice our faith truly if there are many others, regardless of their religion, suffering from the consequences of poverty. If we do not speak up for integrating the poor in the society and economy then we are failing in an important part of our faith.

True, many of us undertake charity by giving alms and following the guiding principles of our faiths. This is a necessary reflection of our faith but not sufficient. We need as faithful to leave our imprint on plans for economic and social development. Our concern should be to work so as the developmental plans give particular attention to the neediest among us and to those who have no education, health care, decent housing, job opportunities and other services.

Mercy, which is one of the qualities of the Almighty in both Islam and Christianity, is a reflection of faith. Acts of mercy depend on the environment in which the faithful live. In the past, giving alms would have been fulfilling of the religious prescription to do good to others. This is a good practice that is continuing but in Today’s world and society with the built in social and economic inequities, the poor remain poor and the rich become richer. Our faith and its practice do not accept these inequities. Accordingly the challenge to the faithful, to us, is what are we doing in order to open up the society and the economy especially to those who do not have the opportunities?

Some would say that we live in a society that is more and more run by the technocrats, the professionals, the business people and the specialists. Therefore, we should leave the planning and implementation to them. We, as faith people according to some, should be satisfied with following the religious tenets. But we are not simply faith people, we are also the teachers, the professionals, the specialists and people in and of society; accordingly we have a special responsibility to work towards the development of the society and towards uplifting the conditions of life to the neediest in our society. There is no specialty in addressing the needs of the society as we are all responsible, particularly the faithful. The more faith one has the more she/he should feel the need of the society and should be in touch with the people. Faith is not a way to hide away or to shun responsibility; on the contrary, it is an affirmation that we belong in the society and we work hard for its welfare and prosperity.

The faithful should work so as their respective religious leaders and institutions should be active in developing plans to combat poverty and to get to accomplish the overall millennial goals adopted in 2000 by the 189 world heads and which proposed to end extreme poverty world wide by the year 2015.  These goals which we faithful can pay special heed and attention to them and that apply to our society are the following:

1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
2. To achieve universal primary education;
3. To promote gender equality and empower women;
4. To reduce child mortality;
5. To improve maternal health;
6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
7. To ensure environmental sustainability;
8. To develop a global partnership for development.

The Challenge here is how we, as faithful, can find the means to become part of the global and societal drive towards achieving these goals. Of particular bearing is that the global financial crisis would almost surely push back the achievement of the Millennial goals in so many countries. This means that millions upon millions of people, worldwide, would continue to suffer social, economic and other inequities that would not allow them to live their lives to their full potential or worse to the basic necessities and rights. Certainly, each society may have priorities and eradicating extreme poverty could be one, universal primary education could be another. But regardless of priorities the faithful have a responsibility to make sure that these goals altogether become part of the development plans of the society.

Dialogue is one of the topics so much on the minds of everyone these days. For us faithful in our society, dialogue does not mean only meeting each other in discussions but living our lives together. This is referred to as the dialogue of life. In such a dialogue, it is important that we work together, stand side by side and join hands in order to promote the welfare of our society and its general good. The dialogue of life is also a constant reminder of the great traditions of openness of our religious traditions on each other. It is a reminder of the history of living together. Unfortunately, there are some who like to forego all this history of togetherness and instead highlight differences. Accordingly, tensions are created based on misunderstandings and on the neglect of the greatness of the heritage of living together. Our task as faithful, as we try to help our society achieve developmental and millennial goals is to insist on the rich tradition of openness and mutual living together. Thus dialogue becomes not simply a mental exercise of faith but also the promotion of a culture of togetherness that is understanding, open and comprehensive in seeking solutions to the common problems that confront our society. Those who want to have an exclusive agenda may feel that they are serving their faith and society best but they are forgetting that the society is made up of all its believers and groups and that solidarity is a comprehensive matter and not an exclusive one.

In a more secularized world in which the technological means of communication have become a dominant business enterprise and that changes cultural norms, tastes and expectations, it is important for the faithful to be knowledgeable of what is going on in the world and in the society. In particular, there is a need to pay attention to youth because many among the young people feel that religion is not talking to them. Often young people are socialized blindly into their respective faiths; most continue to believe in a more traditional and inherited way. Those among youth who are believers because of their search for faith may sometimes find difficulties with traditions and proscriptions that limit their potential and restrict their openness to others. Some of the youth are attracted by the modern technological developments and are studying subjects that will make them into the new professional and specialized elite in the society. These youth find some of the faith traditions and ways distant from them and accordingly do not take part in religious rites and ceremonies. In order not to be ostracized by the society, these youth pay lip service to the respective religious traditions without giving these traditions the attention and time investment needed. The faithful have a particular challenge with youth. How can we bring them in? How can we make them committed to the welfare of their society and to their own future? What should happen in order to make youth understand that their future and that of their society depends on how they view the world and that faith is an important part in viewing the world in a more humane and open way? Much work is demanded in order to get young people, who feel distant from the faith experience, to join in.  

Another responsibility for the faithful in today’s society is how to make the religious institutions to which we belong more effective in facing the socio-economic and other challenges confronting the society. Often, because of the preoccupations with religious matters that are vital to the continuity of the faith community, the religious establishments cannot cope with the social and economic problems facing their own community as well as the larger society. There are specialized caritative organizations that cope with some of the problems facing the neediest in the community and the larger society. Attention, though, should be paid to the fact that these specialized caritative organizations do not often deal with the more general problems and challenges facing the society at large. Thus their work, although very important, remains limited to a certain group or segment of the community and society. We must work as faithful to make the work of these faith based organizations more comprehensive and in line with the overall goals and objectives of economic and social development of the society at large. Another important part of the work of these caritative organizations should be cooperation across the faith communities in order to make their work more effective and in order to build the capacities that can deal more efficiently with the myriad of problems facing the society and its neediest groups. The faithful in today’s society have a responsibility to encourage cooperation and networking among caritative organizations and faith based developmental organizations for the good of all.

With the tensions that exist worldwide, particularly after September 11th, the situation in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the situation in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, the faithful have a particular challenge. The tensions we are witnessing are not based in religion or in our faiths, contrary to what some may say. The conflicts are geopolitical and often based on economic, military and other interests that unfortunately do not consider the broader religious, moral and ethical questions. We need as a community of faithful and across religions to remind the powerful in today’s world and society that the conflicts need to be resolved justly and on the basis of the human rights of people. The faces that are shown on the TV screens and other media and that reflect despair, fear and lack of confidence in the future are our responsibility as well. We need to work for peace and to argue for a world and society in which reliance on force and military intervention is not the way forward. I am heartened by a recent Palestinian opinion poll of September 2010 that shows a majority of Palestinian respondents either for negotiations as an acceptable way to end the conflict with Israel (53%) or for non violent resistance as the acceptable way to end the conflict (15%). Yes, there are those who believe that armed struggle is the way forward but they need to be convinced that armed struggle, regardless of a myriad of justifications, could not be the best or the most acceptable way to end the conflict. I like in particular the Palestinian Christian document KAIROS issued in December of 2009 and signed by hundreds of Palestinian Christians. What attracts me most to the document is that it sees all people, irrespective of religious background, as created in God’s image. Accordingly, and based on Christian faith and belief, KAIROS calls on all to work towards challenging the evil within people and not the people themselves. Thus we need to end Israeli occupation, because it is evil, and the methods we need to use for the purpose should be consistent with the fact that we are all born in the image of God, the Almighty. But the KAIROS document perhaps summarizes the challenge of people of faith in Palestinian society, irrespective of their religion, on three counts:

First is the Challenge of ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. This is a challenge that not only Palestinians are called for to undertake but for all peace loving people to make it as their own challenge as well, irrespective of nationality or place of residence. This is in fact a challenge that is as much pertinent to Israelis as to Palestinians.

Second is the Challenge of creating a Palestinian society that is pluralist, open and that believes in equal citizenry across all segments and groups of the society. This challenge should be addressed side-by-side with the political challenge of ending Israeli occupation. Without sharing a vision for the future of Palestine we will remain incapable of preparing for the day when our people is free.

Third is the Challenge of reaching out to our Israeli adversaries in order that they join our preoccupations for ending Israeli occupation and creating a viable Palestinian state. We are a people with rights that have been denied; many Israelis do not know this and in fact do not equate the creation of the state of Israel with the fact of dismantling and disintegrating Palestinian society. Many Israelis are unaware of the practices of the Occupation and of the Settlers towards Palestinians on a daily basis. We need to develop a strategy to reach out to those Israelis who are willing to confront the evil as we are.

Finally, as we commit to our faiths and to our different religious traditions, we need to work out what is common among us and to use this to create an agenda that confronts those who think that combating the evil would be assured by doing away with the evil-doer.

The challenge of peacemaking though should always be placed in a wider context of political, social, economic, cultural and religious rights to all without exception. Some would argue that this is most difficult as this would imply changing many established facts and confronting some of our own inhibitions and taken for granted positions. But for a different future for our society and our region, we do need to challenge inhibitions, positions and perceptions in order to reach to a society that enjoys equal prosperity to all of its citizens and that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

*Dr. Bernard Sabella is Executive Director of the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, a partner of Global Ministries.