Katherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in the development field, including several leadership positions at the World Bank, Marshall moved to Georgetown in 2006, where she also serves as a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
Faith in Action tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions, with a focus on development issues. Posts are originally published by the Huffington Post. Older blog posts appeared on the Washington Post'sGeorgetown/On Faith site.
There's wonderful power in an ideal. My childhood visions of Camelot, where gallant knights fought for justice, "July and August cannot be too hot", and rain "never falls till after sundown", still evoke dreamy smiles. Al Andalus is another mystical world, a place where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in harmony, taking learning and the arts to new heights. Camelot and Al Andalus both have historical roots, Camelot in medieval Britain and Al Andalus in eight centuries on the Iberian Peninsula before Ferdinand and Isabella came to power in that famous year 1492. But history and mythology are intertwined and the lasting imprint on our moral imagination owes at least as much to myth as to reality.
The occasional horror story seeps out, but the fact that significant numbers of children are abused and die because people believe they are bewitched or possessed by evil spirits is not well-known or documented. But when and where this occurs, it's among the most horrific of the dark sides of human behavior. And, though the numbers are very elusive, it seems that the practice is increasing (there are likely many tens of thousands of children involved). And it seems that today many of those accused of being witches are children, while in the past older women were more likely to be the targets.
The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was born with an idealistic hypothesis: the diversity and wonder of music from different faiths and cultures can break through barriers of intolerance and misunderstanding and create harmony among very different people. Another core belief is that the world and especially the phenomena we call globalization are badly in need of spiritual succor.
There's plenty of sin in the air these days: sins of commission, sins of omission, all seven of the original deadly sins (to remind, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony). Actually Mahatma Gandhi's 1926 seven social sins are also very present:
1. Wealth without work
2. Pleasure without conscience
3. Knowledge without character
4. Commerce without morality
5. Science without humanity
6. Religion without sacrifice, and
7. Politics without principle
Just 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Birmingham jail. A group of moderate clergymen published a letter arguing that King's tactics were "unwise and untimely" in trying to force change before the time was right. It was, they suggested, inevitable that African-Americans would "eventually" gain their rights. The implication was to stick to moderation and "due deliberate speed."
Over my lifetime (certainly not just my career) the causes of social justice and our responsibilities to act to serve them have taken on growing importance for me. More and more, I see relationships between women and men as vital. Now a visiting professor at Georgetown University and leader of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a tiny but dynamic NGO, the bulk of my working life was spent at the World Bank, always in front line operations centered on on Africa, Latin America, and East Asia and pushing boundaries for women as a leader. For over a decade my focus has been faith and development: what does religion have to do with the challenges and what does that mean for action? At this intersection no issue is as important as relationships between women and men.
Each March 7, a special pilgrimage takes place in Alabama, retracing the steps of the great 1961 civil rights march. It keeps alive the memory of the courageous people who stood up and stood together for what they believed, and for what they knew was right. Around my dinner table two weeks ago, Burns Strider, a veteran of the pilgrimage (and of Capitol Hill politics), and Rabbi David Saperstein, who went this year for the first time, entranced us with the story of a remarkable moment they had witnessed days earlier.
I sense a new tone of determination, sometimes an edge, in the annual outpourings of wishes and hopes that have come to mark March 8, International Women's Day. The occasion's socialist origins have rather receded in the mists of time and today this event is plainly about us, in the here and now. In the Facebook era, the day (and month, also, in theory dedicated to women's causes) offer both a chance to celebrate progress (with shades of Mother's Day) and to lament how far there is to go. There's an energy that's well reflected in the 2013 theme: "Gaining Momentum."
Few would contest the bald assertion that water (and hopefully its less discussed companion sanitation) must come at the top of any priority list for post 2015 development goals. Life itself depends on water: health, food, power, and even something as seemingly distant as mining, need reliable water. And with growing populations and rising demand for water, the prospect of water-related conflicts looms ever larger if water is not better used and the roots of conflicts addressed. As always, poor families and communities, especially women, bear the brunt of erratic water supplies, high priced water, and community tension.
The United Nations General Assembly last December 20 passed, by consensus, a resolution whose final section "calls upon States, the United Nations system, civil society and all stakeholders to continue to observe 6 February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and to use the day to enhance awareness raising campaigns and to take concrete actions against female genital mutilations." This resolution was a hard won victory after years of advocacy by an international coalition, the Ban FGM Campaign. Their target? A persistent practice that happens every day; the World Health Organization estimates that 140 million women have been cut and three million girls undergo the procedure each year. How it's done varies: from a "symbolic nick" to slicing off the full genitalia and sewing the opening shut; razor blades and knives are the instrument. The girl's age also varies but most often the children who are cut are very young.
Hillary Rodham Clinton bids farewell today to the State Department, where she has served with a stunning mix of skill and will. Yesterday, at a valedictory speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, she painted a panorama of a world that is complex, shifting, dangerous, and difficult. But the conclusion was upbeat and optimistic. The United States, she said, is the indispensable but not the perfect nation. Those who see America in decline are simply dead wrong: the best lies ahead. We make mistakes but we learn (though sometimes it takes time). Above all, the essential qualities of our nation, our core values, are what we need to lead in these demanding times.
"There is an amazing democracy about death", observed Martin Luther King, Jr, in his eulogy for three little girls who died in the Birmingham Alabama, September 1963 church bombing. His words resonate powerfully today: an agony of mourning for children whose lives were cut short brutally and a compelling call to action against violence. His appeal goes beyond the vicious violence of bombs and guns, as King speaks to the cruelty of systems that are profoundly unequal.
"We will do all that is in our power..." Those words were repeated again and again December 21 at the Washington National Cathedral as a diverse group of respected religious leaders shivered in the beautiful gardens on a chilly morning, calling Americans to action in response to the Newtown tragedy. The voices and the metaphors they used were different but the ideas they expressed were strikingly similar and familiar: we MUST act to enact gun control, we have a sacred duty to protect our children, we must confront and change the culture of violence in our society, we need to address far more compassionately and effectively the complexities of mental health.
Sunlight is a widely used metaphor that highlights the great benefits of opening up information to open scrutiny. But for all its powerful energy and capacity to "disinfect," sunlight can do harm if the information it illuminates is ill-used. With powerful new information tools unfolding each day that shed light in dark crevices everywhere, we need to be aware of benefits and risks and act to use sunlight as a force for good.
A baby is born in the middle of the night in a small rural clinic. The midwife's work is lit by a rusty kerosene lamp that belches fumes but gives the light she needs. The baby's first breath takes in the fumes. But there is a better way: the electricity that we take for granted is for many a miracle that can transform lives. Yet some 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity today. They spend long night hours in the dark, rely on primitive smoky stoves and walk miles to gather wood for fuel. Children cannot do their homework, clinics can't store needed vaccines, and women risk rape and assault when they venture out to to seek water and fuel and to relieve themselves.
President Obama's speech September 25 at the Clinton Global Initiative focused squarely on human trafficking, a complex phenomenon that he called by the name it truly deserves: slavery. It is, he said, "barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."'
The London Olympics were in full swing on Aug. 5, but in Battambang, Cambodia, on the other side of the world, the Oslo Cup pitted four soccer (or football, as it's called in Cambodia) teams against each other. The winners? Team Landmine and Cluster Munitions Survivors. It was an awesome match, worthy of the Olympic ideals of excellence, respect and friendship. The match finished in drenching rain, stretching into overtime. Among the heroes was one young man who used his head instead of the arms he had lost in a landmine accident to shoot a goal.
Critics rightly point to large gaps between Olympic ideals and Olympic realities. A global enterprise at the intersection of sports, business, and world politics, the Olympic movement succeeds spectacularly in pulling off the Games every two years. Along the way, the International Olympic Committee, its national offshoots, and diverse sporting federations profess that the underlying purpose is to advance the core Olympic values of excellence, friendship, and respect.
Aug. 1 was a special day in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia), the start of Choul Vassa. Buddhist monks dedicate themselves for three months (during the rainy season) to their Buddhist practice, retreating to the pagodas. By tradition people visit the pagodas (also called wats) on this day with offerings for the monks, seeking their blessings. This year the festival came the day before high school exams and hordes of young people crowded the Somrong An Deth Pagoda outside Phnom Penh, as laughing monks poured pitchers of water on their bowed heads to bring them good luck. Music played, children ran about the sprawling pagoda grounds with its fanciful statues of gods riding chickens and serpents, and white clad head shaved nuns added their blessings.
In the nave of the Washington National Cathedral on July 21, people from around the world gathered to remember the dark early days of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, to call for stiffer resolve and bolder action today, and to evoke the hope that there will be an end to this terrible plague.
As the 2012 Summer Olympic Games open in London on July 27 to wondrous fanfare, billions of people will be riveted for weeks on the unfolding Olympic and Paralympic athletic competitions. Values, ethics, and belief aren't likely to feature as such in the headlines (except perhaps when a kerfuffle around drugs or money surfaces).
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (aka Rio+20) is concluded in Rio de Janeiro amidst commentary that ranged from utter despair to very tempered hope. Those who see an existential threat to the survival of the planet and mankind describe the hard won consensus agreements that emerged as pathetically limp. Earth and mankind are at a point of no return when the accelerating pace of climate change becomes irreversible. Point of no return conveys the idea well: it's when an exploratory airplane no longer has enough fuel to return home. The chronic optimists among us see hope in the fact that something did emerge, and indeed that, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, the meeting took place. And we hope and wish for coalitions of citizens from around the world with a determination to act.
Two storks perch high on the castle ramparts, watching intently, it seems. Thousands of swallows spin in long arcs through the air, darting in and out of their nests in the walls. Thirty musicians, men dressed (most of them) in white robes and turbans, carrying lutes, violins, drums, and other instruments, shuffle onto the stage that is centered on the arches of the ancient city gate. The restive audience breathes a sigh of relief: the concert's delayed start is over. The show begins.
The focus for the Forum’s third day was on private enterprise and its role in recreating wonder in the world. Is there indeed spirituality in the enterprise of business? Is there a business and enterprise in spirituality? The discussion’s central thrust, though, was an exploration of the ethics and the challenges that both business leaders and the broader world of private enterprise face on a daily basis. In addition, it explored how the Festival’s theme of giving a soul to globalization applies to the world of business, where, at least on the surface, spirituality is rarely the leading issue.
The tone and topic shifted sharply on the Forum’s second day, from poetry and the meaning of life to today’s political dramas and challenges. That the flame of the Arab Spring was lit in the Maghreb is part of history. But how far can we draw conclusions about a history that is unfolding at this very moment? Moderated by Abdou Hafidi, the discussion was fast-paced and passionate, ranging from Morocco to France, Syria to the United States. It covered raw party politics, religion, social forces, and culture. Three themes came up often: (a) a pride in a new openness, the possibility to debate fundamental issues with honesty and without fear, especially in Morocco; (b) large and looming questions about the role of religion and Islam, but also of spirituality, in the debates and in the realities on the ground; is the Arab Spring the spring or the winter of Islamism? What is today’s season?; and (c) the central importance of women; many of the debates in fact swirl around women’s rights and their true (and contested) place in emerging societies.
If we do not know where we have been, how can we see the way forward? That wisdom from the opening of the Fes Forum yesterday explains this Forum’s tradition to distill briefly each day the prior day’s discussions. These summaries, initially at least in English, are available online or by email. They reflect our hope through the Forum to enrich our dialogue and understanding, day by day and year by year.
It takes only an instant to recognize in Rosalina Tuyuc Velasquez a force to be reckoned with. Small in stature, she stands tall. There's a warm twinkle in her eye when she feels the energy of a fellow soul but there's also a determined glint that speaks to steely purpose. Rosalina was taking on Japan last week, as winner of the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize, sometimes called the "spiritual Nobel." (I chair the selection committee.) She was making history, as the first indigenous religious leader to receive this award.
In far flung corners of the world, religious leaders are protesting against mining companies and projects. What are their complaints? In Guatemala, they argue that gold mining poisons the water table, in Chad that painfully negotiated revenues that promised to ease the pain of poverty are nowhere in sight, in Ecuador that oil drilling devastates the landscape, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Nigeria that mining feeds devastating conflicts, in Ghana that mining in forest reserves threatens animal and plant species, in India that it strips indigenous people of their land rights, and in Peru that it pollutes lakes and rivers. The litany goes on and on but the underlying story told is one of broken promises, of powerful companies for whom profit is their God, and of a wounded planet whose land resources are despoiled with little to show, harming the people who live nearby.
In our cynical times, it is gratifying and invigorating to be with young people whose sights are truly fixed on translating ideals into action. One example is the Global Engagement Summit, a Northwestern University student run enterprise. It has a seven year track record of supporting students in their determination to bring about change and to do it with skill and an ethical foundation.
The huge earthquake that struck northeast Japan on March 11, 2011 tested a nation and its faith. On this first anniversary we pause to remember that day, with prayer and reflection on what it means. Without warning, on a cold sunny day, an entire region was shaken by one of five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded; then the unimaginable power of a tsunami swept away everything in its path. The prolonged horror of the Fukushima nuclear disaster closed off vast areas and called reliance on nuclear power into question. 3/11 rammed home messages about human vulnerability.
The United Nations General Assembly began on February 11 to debate Syria's prolonged and bitter tragedy of killing, after the Security Council, next door, failed miserably to find enough agreement among the world's dominant nations to act. United Nations idealists believe that the General Assembly, as a body representing all the world's nations, has the responsibility and the capacity to protect the vulnerable. Sadly such idealism is generally in scant supply these day and so these General Assembly debates have an aura of symbolism as the tanks mass in Syria.
Two horrific news stories this week shine a spotlight on how far we are from the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the "golden rule" that we treat others as we would have them treat us. The BBC reported from Kabul, Afghanistan that a woman was arrested two days earlier for allegedly strangling her daughter-in-law for giving birth to a third daughter. The murdered woman's husband, a member of a local militia, suspected of involvement, had fled. The baby girl, who is now 2 months old, was not hurt. And in Canada, a man, an immigrant from Afghanistan, was convicted by a court for the "honor killing" of his first wife and three daughters.
Marley's ghost, in Charles Dickens' great moral parable, The Christmas Carol, reflected in anguish on what, beyond the grave, he finally understood to have been his core moral obligation in life: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
From December 11 to 13, the fourth annual Alliance of Civilizations Forum took place in Doha, Qatar, a splendiferous gathering at Doha's spanking new convention center, occasion for the opening of Katara, Qatar's huge and gorgeous cultural "village." Over 2000 people from all over the world attended: heads of state, diplomats, non-governmental organizations, business leaders, artists, young people and religious leaders. Banners everywhere proclaimed the theme: "Intercultural dialogue to boost development." So what was it all about?
World AIDS Day on December 1 was marked with an inspiring flood of articles, reports, demonstrations, speeches, services, and much more. The overall tone was worried optimism. The optimism is because, finally, after years of extraordinary effort, we can see tangible progress in saving lives and slowing the ravages of this terrible global pandemic, that 30 years ago was just a blip on scientific radar screens. There is plenty to worry about, however, perhaps most of all the evidence of faltering political will that shows unmistakable signs of bowing to the economic and financial crisis and pressures from the multitude of competing global challenges.
About 40 women, somewhere in the world, die in pregnancy every hour, 343 thousand a year by current (admittedly rough) estimates. It's a tragic reality but one we can do something about. We know the causes well and meaningful action can reduce mortality (and lifelong injury to mother and child) swiftly and dramatically. There is a huge range in rates of maternal mortality (calculated as annual estimated deaths per 100,000 live births), from the worst places -- 1575 in Afghanistan and 1570 in the Central African Republic -- to 3.9 in Italy and 4.6 in Sweden (the US comes 39th with 16.7). The huge gaps have to do with medical knowledge and care and social attitudes but it really boils down to political will -- how important is it to address the problem and where does it fit on a priority pecking order?
A Scandinavian colleague recently asked me to explain Family Watch International (FWI) and what kind of American ethos and ethics it represents. The name of this organization, she said, surfaced often at a recent United Nations meeting on HIV/AIDS. FWI had, she was told, invited representatives of small nations (who often feel neglected in international gatherings where the voices of larger nations carry further) to discuss their common commitment to families. On this basis, FWI "briefed" them on the evils of U.N. "human rights talk" and "hidden agendas" behind various proposed actions. In my colleague's eyes, the results were devastating. The lobbying poisoned debates, cast advocates of women's and gay rights as villains, generated tensions, and, worst of all, deflected the constructive path toward action on HIV/AIDS and common, urgent work to address a terrible pandemic that kills millions and leaves behind millions of orphans.
As Lyn Lusi accepted the $1 million Opus Prize on Wednesday night at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, she threw down a gauntlet. Churches must take on the challenge of changing relationships between men and women, everywhere in the world.
Hallelujah to the Nobel Peace Committee! By honoring three brave, determined women - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakul Karman, they shine light on true heroines of our time. This prize of prizes points to two realities that politicians, academics, and media have long downplayed. Women and those they care for suffer disproportionately in war and conflict. But they are also at the forefront of work for peace. Women tend to be shoved to the sidelines when it comes to negotiations and treaties,barely visible in photos of the peace tables across the world. But where it really matters you find women at work. The Nobel trio honors hundreds of thousands of unsung heroines in far flung, often dark corners of the world.
Venerable Algerian and United Nations diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun worries that neither world leaders nor the United Nations and national governments are facing up to the unprecedented problems the world confronts. What is sorely needed, he argues passionately, is a new, integrated, and bold approach that he terms "human security." In a series of recent interviews, he reflected on what that means in practice, what he hopes will come next, and why spirituality, which underpins an ethical approach, belongs at the heart of global efforts. In the course of the discussions he noted in passing his hitherto unreported interaction with President Kennedy at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
Central Munich is sparkling, meticulously clean. A lively city life, well-used historic buildings, many churches and well-stocked shops symbolize what peace, culture and prosperity together can bring. It is worth remembering that it was not always so. Munich was shattered by World War II, many of its historic buildings and churches bombed (most were rebuilt as they once were). Hitler started his political career there, and the Dachau concentration camp is nearby. I recall a far more subdued, pained city when my family lived there in the early 1950s. Forty years ago, Munich was the scene of the Olympic tragedy, when Israeli athletes were murdered. But for the inter-religious Sant'Egidio meeting this week, the sun shone brightly and gorgeously appareled men of many religions (yes, almost all men) embraced one another and spoke, one after another, of their passion for peace and justice.
For 25 years, the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic group inspired by the ideals of true friendship with the poor, has organized an annual gathering of religious and lay leaders from all corners of the world. Peace is the theme always, and the event has the character of a pilgrimage, as it takes place each year in a different city. This year it is in Munich, and this sparkling city in southern Germany is witnessing a colorful array of visitors that represents a living pageant of world religious history. Catholic and Orthodox leaders are perhaps the most obvious, in their contrasting red, white and black robes and hats, but a splash of orange on monks from South and southeast Asia, more sober garb on Japanese Buddhists and the meticulous robes of the Japanese Shinto group are testimony to the wide reach of this gathering.
It takes more than four hours by car from Gabon's capital, Libreville, to reach the Albert Schweitzer Hospital near Lambarene, but each day earlier this month people came from far and wide to visit. The hospital complex itself dates to the mid 1920s and the original buildings now house a museum, preserving the hospital, its equipment, and the Schweitzers' living quarters. There's a pelican and some antelope (Schweitzer loved animals), and the Oguooe river flows lazily by, seemingly eternal.
Loving kindness, compassion, and above all self-awareness: Thai Buddhist leader Sulak Sivaraksa always returns to those themes when he speaks. But there's a steely determination behind his gentle facade and admonitions to pay attention to one's breathing as a first step to self mastery. Sulak accepted the Niwano Peace Prize in Kyoto, Japan, on July 23 in a ceremony that highlighted his life's work, marked over many decades by the courage, determination, imagination, and the inspiration that are the anchors of his Buddhist faith. It was a splendid occasion to celebrate a special leader.
A remarkable Kenyan woman died on July 14, after a car accident that also killed her husband. She was much beloved and admired, in Kenya and around the world, because she fought fearlessly for peace. Her hallmarks were her skill in bringing the core values of her Muslim faith into her peacebuilding work and her belief in the potential of community spirit to transcend even brutal histories and deep divisions.
The shrines at Kumano are among Japan's holiest places. Located in the mountains about 75 miles south of Osaka, Kumano Hongu, the main shrine (of three that make up Kumano), is indeed a magical place, full of history and legend. An ancient pilgrimage site with more than a thousand years of history, today it is a contemporary refuge, far from the noise and bustle of urban life.
Balandou, five years ago. A small village in Guinea, 14 hours by bush taxi from the capital. My daughter was serving as a Peace Corps teacher and I was a fascinated visitor. We emerged from her hut early one morning to see groups of women, dressed in white, walking by. They were going, we heard, to bury two women who had died overnight. Why did they die? The cause? No answer, but death in childbirth seemed the most likely explanation. Muslim tradition calls for swift burial. In a village like Balandou the community mourns a young woman's death, but has little time and fewer means to question the event. Such deaths are simply and sadly a part of life in many poor communities.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by all world nations EXCEPT Somalia and ... the United States. The United States signed the treaty but ratification prospects are dim, in part because of the concerns of religious conservatives. These center on the possible overriding of American laws by international ones, questions about whether the Convention might challenge homeschooling and the paramount rights of parents versus their children.
The musical feast at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, in hundreds of events over 10 days, is about the beauty and spirituality of sacred music, but it also drums in a constant a message of the joys of diversity.
The Fes Festival faced pouring rain early this week but that did not dampen the spirits of the tens of thousands of people who mill around this beautiful old city in search of beauty and the inspiration that comes from a rich menu of sacred music. In a world where interfaith dialogue rarely makes headlines and provokes not a few cynical asides, it is heartening to see both large audiences and a forest of cameras and recorders at the Festival's "idea" segment, the Fes Forum. Why? The notion of linking the world's cultural diversity and its challenge meets a strong echo. And the inspiration of music frees people from set patterns of communications, opening the path to fresh exchange and a lively dialogue.
The theme of the five day Fes Forum (an integral part of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music held annually in Fes, Morocco) is "A Soul for Globalization. And the theme this year is wisdom or, as the official title puts it, wisdoms. As a comoderator of the Forum since it was created in 2001, it is my task and our tradition to distill briefly each day over the five days of discussion the highlights of the the previous session. Thus our hope is that we will build our understanding day by day and year by year. That is at least a piece of wisdom.
The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is in full swing in Morocco. Launched after the first Gulf War, this renowned musical event is now in its 17th year and, despite the troubles of our times, draws a large audience from around the world.
Father Greg Boyle moves swiftly around the headquarters of Homeboy Industries in central Los Angeles, looking a bit like Santa Claus, with twinkling eyes, a nice bushy beard, and a modestly comfortable middle. His birthday was May 19 and crowds of people pressed to hug him. A 57 year old Jesuit priest, he is the founder and president of an organization with an improbable name and a remarkable mission: to give hope to people our society seems to have given up as lost. The people who work with him call him a saint; even more, they see him as a friend.
Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, chose an inspirational challenge to open his homily at the wedding of William and Kate last month: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” His message was that marriage is an extraordinary chance for two people to help each other to be far more than could ever be alone. He touched a deep chord of what families are about and why they are the bedrock of our society.
Call it family planning or women’s rights or reverence for life, it’s a minefield today in American politics. But even this dangerous territory can boast at least a few safe hillocks. One is child spacing. Pretty much everyone, from the Koran to Dr. Spock, agrees that leaving about three years between babies is generally a good idea. Indeed, extensive research drives the point home: measures as far removed as children’s health and likelihood of survival, school performance and future earning capacity are all enhanced if parents are able to space the births of their children. That’s as true in Sioux City, Iowa as it is in San Marcos, Guatemala, Vientiane, Laos, and Alice Springs, Australia.
Tony Hall is a remarkable man. He represented Ohio in the House of Representatives for 20 years, and later served as the US ambassador to the several organizations based in Rome that are dedicated to producing and distributing food (among them the United Nations’ World Food Program). Today he heads the Alliance to End Hunger. He is a wonderful role model, that brave voice of conscience that we need today more than ever to point to what is right. He speaks out constantly, with hard truths, but also with great hope. He delivers a core message time and time again, in only slightly different words: Good nations, great nations, are evaluated by what they do for other people, especially poor people. That means their own people in their own country, and people outside. America has so much, and we should give and serve accordingly.
On March 19, 1911, the first international celebration dedicated to women’s work and roles took place. Thus 2011 marks the centenary of International Women’s Day. Some places devote a month to events, and March 8, the current “official” women’s day, is a public holiday in some 28 countries. But amid this year’s celebrations of courage and compassion and of progress towards women’s rights, there’s a parallel commentary: baby, you’ve still got a long way to go to full equality.
In November, 2009, peace-loving Switzerland shocked itself and the world when over 57 percent of its voters supported a referendum to ban construction of new minarets. The government had opposed the proposition on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, contravening Switzerland's commitment to religious freedom. In the expectation that the measure would fail and fearing that a "positive" campaign would fuel fear, the government did not actively campaign against it. In Switzerland's unique democracy, the citizens' vote meant that the constitution was changed.
The irony is familiar but still troubling: America, a nation proudly built by and for immigrants, today has a badly broken immigration system. But the debate about how to fix it has been fractious and unproductive. We seem to be stalled. At Georgetown's Berkley Center, a group of scholars and activists last week explored how religious leaders and communities see the issue and what they are doing about it.
A group of American Christians, most of them evangelicals, met for four days last weekend with a distinguished group of Moroccans at Eastern Mennonite University, concluding with a public session Monday at Georgetown University's Berkley Center. To an outsider, the point of the conclave was not easy to fathom. It opened with a showing of a terrifying film about nuclear threats: Countdown to Zero, and concluded with heartfelt statements of shared interests and values. What was it all about? Why did Morocco's busy ambassador to the United States and other distinguished Moroccans devote so much time to the discussion?
The rapid-fire events in Tunisia and Egypt have caught people everywhere by surprise. That's especially true in the neighborhood (North Africa and the Middle East). As I headed for Morocco for a weekend conference, I hoped to emerge with a far clearer understanding, both of what sparked these popular upheavals now, and what might lie ahead. What I found were people torn between a euphoric hope, especially at the unleashing of freedom of speech, and uncertainty laced with fear for the future. It's very complicated and the tale is far from over.
National pride is palpable in South Africa but so are the stunning challenges that face what is in many respects a new nation, reborn with the death knell to Apartheid in 1994. Nowhere are the roots of both more evident than on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. There sits a unique South African institution, its Constitutional Court, with 11 judges who can (and do) instruct political leaders on constitutional principles and uphold South Africa's young constitution, that took effect in 1997.
The great majority of Bangladesh's 160 million citizens are Muslims, making it one of the world's largest Muslim communities. Bengali Islam is distinctive, shaped by a long history in which adherents of different religions lived side by side. A Muslim family prayed five times a day, but also went to the Hindu temple. Bengali Islam was seen as tolerant, infused with the poetry and language of love of the Sufi traditions. Bengali women rarely wore head coverings. People speak, with pride, about traditions where neighbors not only respected each other's religions but joined in celebrating all festivals.
The headline in Sunday's Metro section of a leading Bangladesh newspaper, the independent, caught my eye: "Washroom woes: for a city of 14 million, Dhaka has only 100 public toilets - and most of them raise a stink." The story highlights one of the least talked about challenges of poverty: horrible sanitation. Both the problem and talking about it matter, because sanitation and health are tightly linked. Even more, it takes little imagination to appreciate that a meaningful understanding of human dignity can't ignore the need for safe and private access to a toilet.
David Brooks does a great service with his annual Sidney Awards: his selection of what he considers the best magazine articles from the past year. Two of his choices--Lawrence Rosen's provocative piece on corruption and Tyler Cowan's piece on inequality (both published in the American Interest)--are worthy winners. Both writers highlight how different understandings about fairness and ethics are fundamental to what may be the most crucial issues in international politics. To make progress on both topics we need to understand their complexity.
Relationships between Africa and Europe are complicated, witness the tense standoff now unfolding in Cote d'Ivoire. Even decades after independence, even with a history often marked by bitter conflicts, links among nations that were part of colonial empires remain surprisingly strong. Religion is one of the reasons why.
While I was sorting old books from my father's library, a yellowed envelope tumbled out. It was a letter I had written when I was about 11 years old, addressed to Dr. Albert Schweitzer. I was ready then and there to join him. The letter (never mailed) brought back the fascination and inspiration that his biography had evoked.
Trinidad and Tobago hardly seems a likely battleground for America's culture wars. But recent months have seen a drama there involving visits by American pastors with an anti-gay agenda, a response by locally based rights groups, and engagement of international organizations, especially UNAIDS, which coordinates international responses to HIV/AIDS. At a United Nations training session in Turin, Italy, last month, the Trinidad and Tobago story was presented as a case study of challenges and tentative success. In this case, an intelligent response seems to have cooled what threatened to be a nasty confrontation.
The trains run exactly on time in Switzerland, and when it snowed in Bern last week the streets were plowed instantly. The cows trek down from their summer pastures to winter stables on a well established timetable. So it should come as no surprise that Switzerland's international development programs are run with meticulous care. What's perhaps somewhat more surprising is that Switzerland has been one of the leaders globally in a thoughtful and probing approach to the question of why religion matters when it comes to fighting poverty.
The woman from Malawi stepped gingerly towards the barrier at the top of the Empire State Building to peek at New York City spread out below. She commented that the tallest building in her community was two stories high. The worlds of skyscraper New York and rural Malawi could not be much further apart.
When pitfalls of the modern godless secular state are decried, Norway is often invoked as an example. So Norwegians took note when the minister of development and the environment, Eric Solheim, published an op ed in a leading newspaper with the headline "Norway takes God seriously." And the next day he spoke at the opening of a conference on religion and development in Oslo. His message? It's obvious that religion is hugely important in the contemporary world and especially in the poorest countries, so it's time for serious reflection about why and how that matters.
Polio, that long dreaded disease, is almost but not quite eradicated. The global polio eradication campaign (a joint effort of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Rotary Foundation) was launched in 1988, with the target of ending polio by the year 2000. It has achieved remarkable success: by 1994, polio was officially declared eliminated in all the Americas. But now, in 2010, polio is still a threat in eight countries, and the campaign's hopes for defeating polio by 2012 hang on success there. What does it take to wipe out an ancient scourge like polio? Vaccines and dogged monitoring and a drive to track down all cases and stop transmission.
Aicha Ech-Channa sat six feet away from the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States last Friday in a Georgetown University lecture room. She jabbed her verbal sword at a host of social prejudices. Hunching her shoulders, she depicted the posture of shame of an unmarried mother who loves her child but has no way to care for him. She grabbed a scarf to cover her head and face to convey the fear a young girl feels, left alone in the world and beleaguered by problems. Aicha was talking last week about her beloved country, Morocco, but the biases she attacked are not specific to Morocco. They are a present reality in much of the world.
There was such a flurry of activity in Rome last week that it seemed as if the Eternal City was, once again, the center of the world. Bishops from all over the Middle East met in conclave, new cardinals were proclaimed and new saints were canonized. With a candlelight march, the Community of Sant'Egidio commemorated the dark day in 1943 when Rome's Jewish community was deported to concentration camps.
Dialogue, especially interfaith dialogue, gets a bad rap these days, but a pugnacious Italian historian and peacemaker, Andrea Riccardi, is not about to let such denigration stand. Looking already to the tenth anniversary of September 11th next year, he argues that the lesson we must learn, yet again, is that war achieves nothing and that tenacious dialogue is the path to peace.
In Biblical Israel, as in many agrarian societies, a family or community hit by a catastrophe like bad rains or illness would borrow to make it through, then find themselves forced to sell land because they could not repay the loans; many ended as de facto slaves with nothing to live on but their labor. Biblical teachings called for a periodic cleansing of the slates, a rebalancing, with forgiveness of debts every seven years. The Book of Leviticus called for a "Sabbath of Sabbaths" after 49 years, when all debts were forgiven and land was returned to its original owners.
Delhi is buzzing these days about the construction delays and shoddy work that have put the Commonwealth Games at risk. The blame goes squarely to corruption and inefficiency. There are plenty of other sad sagas in India across many fields: the spectacular corruption of the flagship software firm Satyam and the fact that one in four public school teachers fails to show up every day, for example. What will it take to change direction, to restore a sense of decency, an ethical compass?
When British businessmen and civil servants arrived in India in the 19th Century, they were flummoxed by the extraordinary diversity of the religious landscape. It still exists today. Fakirs, swamis, mullahs, imams, monks, nuns, dadis, and brothers are everywhere. When new religious movements emerge in India, they mobilize millions, not thousands, of devoted followers. This rich mixture, one person suggested at a meeting in Delhi on religion and global civil society last weekend, is so endemic that it's even in the curry.
Amid U.S. election fever, wacky pastors, and assorted other events, it's easy to miss the momentous opening of the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals. It happens on September 20 in New York, as about 150 heads of state and others converge on the United Nations for the annual shebang of the General Assembly. New York is always a chaotic scene when the General Assembly meets. But there's a special challenge for 2010.
Jobs and spirituality rarely occur in the same phrase, yet few states are as soul-destroying as unemployment and for many of us, our work vocation is central to life's purpose and direction. Thus the notion of "decent work," a central mantra of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has both practical and strongly ethical dimensions. ILO's definition is, after all, an international standard that is supposed to reflect our common ideal.
Washingtonians will remember this ferocious August for its unusual and disconcerting heat - a merciless string of 90-plus degree days - and an intemperate, nasty, heated public discourse. Meanwhile, human crises of biblical proportions are unfolding across the world: stunning floods in Pakistan, a molasses-pace rebuilding in Haiti, heartbreaking conflict in central Africa, droughts in parts of Asia. We badly need to bring down the temperature and refocus the agenda.
There's a Ghanaian proverb that goes, roughly: "Plenty of meat and fish does not spoil the soup." The saying suggests that diversity and robust faith can thrive, all mixed together. Looking at the debates swirling about during these dog days of summer in America, it's worth asking whether such a commitment to energetic religious diversity, a covenant that is an integral part of America's heritage, is alive and well today.
When South Africa was emerging from the dark shadows of the apartheid era, Malaysia was one place it looked for successful examples of how to address the difficult legacy of racial inequality. Malaysia's Malay citizens (about 60 percent of the total) lagged behind other groups and helping them to "catch up" was a deliberate government policy.
There are few sadder fates than to be a child abandoned in Cambodia. Every day newspapers carry stories about trafficked children, harsh child labor, and abused children. Last week alone one report reminded readers where they could drop off unwanted babies (after a story of an abandoned baby), another recounted graphic details of the death of a woman after a a botched abortion, there were ongoing trials of pedophiles, and girls were rescued from brothels. Child mortality is still very high.
Phnom Penh was hot, noisy, and bustling last week. Cars, motorcycles, and the ubiquitous tuk tuks (motorcycle taxis) raced through the city with perpetual near collisions. Markets were full. Children were everywhere. There were clouds gathering, but the coming storms of the rainy season held off.
The body of Simon Bolivar, father of the Latin American revolutions, was exhumed last week in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president, is pursuing a hunch that Bolivar died of some nefarious violent act, and not, as the official story holds, of tuberculosis.
The unlikely and inspiring Nigerian duo Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye were in Switzerland last week at the Caux Forum for Human Security. Their partnership is unlikely because they were militia leaders on opposite sides of the conflict in northern Nigeria and lost not only friends but parts of their own bodies as combatants (James wears his artificial arm proudly). It is inspiring because they are powerful exemplars of the possibility of reconciliation.
Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a courageous woman from the arid north of Kenya, devotes her life to building peace. She compares this work to an egg. "An egg is delicate and fragile. But if given the right conditions, it gives life." Likewise, the potential for peace is fragile, and it needs careful nurturing if that potential is to be fulfilled.
Two hands cradling a tender young plant provided the visual image for an ambitious conference last week in Alexandria, Egypt. The image aptly illustrated the underlying question: have the new beginnings that President Obama promised one year ago, in his speech to the world's Muslim communities at Cairo University, taken root? Not surprisingly, those of us who attended the conference heard a wide range of answers.
South Africa already was at fever pitch when I visited 10 days ago, more than a week before the 2010 World Cup began. It reminded me of the extraordinary spirit of South Africa in June 1995 when the Springboks won the rugby World Cup and the country went wild. The tension leading up to the match and the outburst of excitement when their team won against all odds were unforgettable.
These are exciting but tense times in the West African nation of Guinea. A presidential election is fast approaching, on June 27, with legislative contests to follow six months later. The elections are playing out against a 50-plus-year history of dictatorship, a current military regime that came to power in a coup d'état, and memories of horrific violence last September when over 150 people died in clashes and many women were raped in broad daylight.
One of South Africa's leading papers, The Mail & Guardian, announced last Friday that it had underestimated "the depth of anger ignited' by a cartoon it published earlier. It depicted the Prophet Muhammad lying on a psychiatrist's couch, with a thought bubble over his head that said, 'Other prophets have followers with a sense of humor!' The weekly said it regretted "the sense of injury it caused many Muslims." The cartoon was by Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, whose sharp satiric pen has gouged many a politician.
What's a nice Irish American priest like Séamus Finn doing on The Daily Show? The answer is not what you might think: he's squirming to avoid nasty questions and jokes about abuse scandals. The show's producers caught Séamus Finn and some colleagues in New York's Financial District as he pressed a cause that has been his job and passion for over 20 years: banking and financial sector reform and social justice.
My grandmother, a very wise woman, gave me a piece of advice that sticks in my mind to this day: "A gingerbread he went to Rome, a gingerbread he came home." She was urging that, going into any new adventure or faced with any new idea, I should not be stuffy and stuck in the outlines of the way I understood things, because if I did, I would miss the chance to learn and change. Doing things that way, I might just as well stay home.
Ela Bhatt began her career as a labor organizer, a métier that lends itself more to conflict than to peace. She does not have any formal religious affiliation. And yet last week in Japan she was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize, which highlights the positive roles that faith and religion play in world affairs. (I am a member of the selection committee.)
In airports nowadays it's quite common to see groups of people, young and old, heading overseas as part of a church group. They are part of a large, totally decentralized American engagement with other parts of the world: short mission trips to dig wells and build stoves and help orphans and engage in other good works.
A cycle of disappointment has taken hold in the Côte d'Ivoire. Month after month of behind-the-scenes discussions raise hopes; too often they are dashed even before the ink on peace agreements has time to dry. Optimism and commitment wither in the face of continual failure.
At sundown, the barn swallows twirl in loping circles around the ancient walls of Fes, darting in and out of holes in the earthen walls where they build their nests. At the foot of the walls, people gather in the glorious light of early evening, strolling and chatting. It's a peaceful and inspiring scene that evokes the magic of Fes. One of the world's most ancient cities, probably the largest and most authentic living medieval town that still lives today, Fes proudly savors an extraordinary array of culture, crafts, and spiritual gifts. It's past and present in a seamless fabric, religious and profane, west and east.
Perhaps nowhere is the challenge of poverty as stark as in the bald numbers about maternal mortality. In the poorest parts of the world, the risk that a woman will die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth is about one in six; in much of Europe it is one in 30,000.
Don't blame Nigeria's violent conflicts on religion, Nigeria's acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, argued forcefully during a far-ranging discussion last Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. The brutal conflict that took place near the city of Jos last month (where as many as 500 people died) reflects tensions between longtime residents and recent settlers, plus economic misery, not a clash between Christianity and Islam.
The hot spots this week are Kyrgyzstan and Bangkok, but every day brings new reports of riots and unrest somewhere in the world. America has rarely seemed as unsettled as it is today. Angry "tea parties" inspire similarly angry "coffee parties". I was invited recently to a "green tea party" to protest inaction on climate change. Some Catholic Church leaders seem like deer caught in the headlights as they stare into the public furor inspired by their reaction to the abuse scandals. There's turbulence everywhere you look.
Confronting corruption is not a good path to popularity. Sparks flew between Kabul and Washington last week as Hamid Karzai shot back against U.S. officials who admonished him to get serious in that department. A large donor gathering in New York looking to build a new Haiti rarely strayed far from the corruption sore spot. Daily jabs are traded in the District of Columbia about scandals, old and new.
Stephen Heinz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is passionate about democracy. For him, it is about far more than voting and congressional battles. It is a way of life, a set of fundamental values, a will that leads to courage, reason, compassion and the common good. America has no right to impose its democracy on others but it has a responsibility to live its values and to share them. He terms his deep belief a civic faith.
Two statues of women dominate the central square of Hopkins, a small town in Belize. One celebrates Martina Vicente, a true matriarch figure (a sign says 85% of the town's population claim her as their ancestress). The other is of Marcella Lewis, poet, musician, writer and patroness of the town but also of the Garifuna community, a proud and distinctive ethnic group now concentrated in Central America. "She lived to love and she loved to live," says the inscription; legend has it that her spiritual force shaped all who met her.
In Japan, each day brings new death tolls from the horrific earthquake and tsunami. Each death is counted because each person matters. The rough estimates are that the toll will be around 20,000, but scrupulous attention is paid to verifying the numbers. This reflects the Japanese culture: each death is mourned, each life celebrated.
A hundred years ago a feisty group of women met in Copenhagen and voted unanimously to launch an International Women's Day on March 8. The idea took. Today, some 15 countries celebrate it as a national holiday, and thousands of events worldwide put women's issues in the spotlight. Women are, after all, half the population, so the day has mutated into a month of events
Jane, a Kenyan woman, showed off her brand new house to Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund, which had financed the housing development. She was justifiably proud. Starting with nothing, Jane worked and saved for years to escape the Mathere Valley slum community where she used to live. Jane exuberantly demonstrated the wonders of her toilet. For Novogratz this was a truly a spiritual moment. My curiosity piqued by the association between sanitation and spirituality, we spoke about how religion ties into Acumen's work.
Whether it's rebuilding Haiti or debating about America's health care or immigration reform, it's just plain silly to leave out the religious actors. They are advocates, doers and thinkers who have vast knowledge and experience. But plenty of thoughtful citizens prefer to relegate religion to the margins.
Last week's National Prayer Breakfast cast a spotlight on the gaps between what people of faith say (and pray) and what they actually do. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both discussed the puzzle of how religion can be such a uniting force, but also such a divisive one.
Sulak Sivaraksa exudes a rare blend of calm and passion for action. Carrying a tall gnarled staff, dressed in a baggy outfit, and with an everpresent cloth bag stuffed with copies of his books, he's a presence wherever he goes. He prides himself on the many labels people attach to him: intellectual, troublemaker, jailbird, engaged Buddhist, spiritual leader. He carries them all with a smile, wise words, and a barb or two.
A monkey, so goes an ancient eastern parable, passed by a stream and saw a fish in the water. Assuming that it must be struggling for breath, he "rescued" it. On dry land, the fish flopped about as the monkey rejoiced in its liberation. But the fish soon died. The monkey was sad that his rescue had come too late.
A monkey, so goes an ancient eastern parable, passed by a stream and saw a fish in the water. Assuming that it must be struggling for breath, he "rescued" it. On dry land, the fish flopped about as the monkey rejoiced in its liberation. But the fish soon died. The monkey was sad that his rescue had come too late.
Zilda Arns Neumann, sometimes called Brazil's Mother Teresa, was among those who died tragically during Haiti's earthquake. She was in Port-au-Prince to share lessons from the enormous church-based child health program she established in Brazil.
Africa, with its complex mosaic of countries and communities, is in the throes of religious revolution. Some trends are troubling--witness the Nigerian Muslim who tried to blow up a plane and the move to make homosexuality a capital offense in Uganda. Yet other trends may offer hope.
The dust has yet to settle on the scramble for charitable gifts at the end of 2009. In the last few weeks, a combination of extraordinary need and new outreach technologies produced an extraordinary flood of appeals. Up to 60 percent of charitable gifts generally come in the last days of the year.
I'm dreading my son Patrick's caustic comments about Copenhagen when he gets home from college for Christmas break. As he predicted, the older generations have tied themselves in knots. Despite multiple all-nighters, passionate speeches, and huge efforts by an extraordinary and creative array of groups (prominently including religious leaders), Constipagen's modest "deal" falls far short of pretty modest expectations. There's an agreement, but it's not unanimous, it's not binding, and it's limited in scope. For young people of Patrick's generation, it will surely be a huge disappointment.
Every five years a gathering known as the Parliament of the World's Religions draws people from all over the world. It's happening now, this time in Melbourne, Australia. For seven days, a jam-packed schedule of events ranges from the ultimate and urgent to the personal and pragmatic. There's culture, politics, meditation, exhibitions, bells and, yes, some whistles. Monks mingle with Catholic priests, Hindu swamis with Zoroastrians and Sikhs. Atheists and pagans have their place. Just walking through the crowd gives a vivid portrait of humanity. And a sea of cameras capture the extraordinary scene.
Believe it or not, the term 'glocalization' has entered the vocabulary enough to appear in a slew of places, even in book titles. However clumsy the term, it refers to an important and complex challenge. Globalization is upon us, changing lives in countless ways but it's local events, those close to home, that we feel most directly. And it is where most people can truly make a difference. "Think global, act local" is a watchword in fields as diverse as community activism, business strategy, church outreach, and policies to address climate change.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams occupies a unique position in the religious world, with the potential to bridge religious and secular. As leader of Britain's established religion, he engages constantly with political leaders. So the title of his recent speech in London jumped out at me: "Relating Intelligently to Religion". Heaven knows, surely that's what we need.
We're seeing many calls to conscience these days. Nibbling breakfast, I clicked on a video where Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, calls on people everywhere to sign an appeal to the World Food Summit that begins November 16 in Rome. He counts aloud to six, then reminds us that in that time a child has died. Karen Armstrong launched a Charter of Compassion on November 12 in Washington. Its aim is a groundswell of citizen action to live the golden rule - to treat others as you would have them treat you.
Aicha Ech Channa, a gutsy Moroccan woman, has worked for five decades with young unmarried mothers, who stand at the very bottom of the social heap in her country. Even if their pregnancy resulted from rape, they are condemned as prostitutes and thrown out by their families, and their babies are stigmatized as bastards.
As a development practitioner who also teaches about development, I have tended to take the term for granted. But it's far from simple to define. Universities, non-profit agencies, and churches call fund-raising people "development officers" and the word crops up with other meanings in virtually every discipline.
On October 16, as millions of people were riveted to video of a runaway balloon thought to be carrying a 6-year-old boy named Falcon, a statistic was released on a problem that affects millions of children around the world: hunger. A billion people today are chronically hungry or malnourished, more than ever before in human history.
Last Friday evening, in the quiet sanctuary of an old Catholic church in Brooklyn, a group gathered to talk about a community that works globally for peace and social justice, the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio. To understand this group, you have to explore the interwoven notions that they see as their special mark: prayer, friendship, and community.
The "God Gulf," title of a chapter in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book, "Half the Sky," describes one of the more contentious issues in American foreign policy, one where religion plays a profound role. The divide is around family planning, but it relates directly to broader questions of women's roles and the power they hold to direct their own lives. As Kristof and WuDunn put it, "secular liberals and conservative Christians regularly square off. Each side has the best of intentions, yet each is deeply suspicious of the other - and these suspicions make it difficult to forge a broad left-right coalition that would be far more effective in confronting trafficking and overcoming the worst forms of poverty."
Newsweek has some edgy covers these days. How about, "The Case for Killing Granny"? Sure catches the eye. But "Is your Baby Racist?" on September 14, with an adorable little face staring innocently out, is equally disturbing.
It's the season of large international meetings. The General Assembly of the United Nations is in full swing in New York, the G20 is about to meet in Pittsburgh, and the ritual gathering of financial souls, the IMF and World Bank annual meeting, takes place in Istanbul in early October. So what's on the global agenda? And what grabs the most attention?
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.
Labor Day evokes images of politics and picnics, summer's end and a fresh school year. But this celebration of work and workers has important spiritual dimensions. First celebrated in the late nineteenth century (1882), when active labor disputes were the stuff of constant tension, Labor Day gradually came to be celebrated as a national holiday in all fifty states. And by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday before Labor Day was declared Labor Sunday, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
"Don't give money to the beggar with a baby," a colleague cautioned me in Phnom Penh. "They rent them for around a dollar a day." I heard about little boys and girls with shocking injuries, about traffic in young housemaids, six and seven years old. The bar scene where anything is accepted. Families that sell their daughters so they can buy food or pay for an urgent operation.
These and countless other heart-rending stories I heard this summer, in several countries, reflect the dark recesses of the human condition. These are ancient abuses, but in our "modern" world, exploitation is happening on a far larger scale as barriers of distance and community restraints crumble. And today, we can't say we don't know about it.
Everyone in Cambodia has an extraordinary story of personal or family survival. Almost the entire population was displaced, often fleeing again and again, during the genocidal era of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979. Most people lost everything they had. About two million people died. Schools were closed and destroyed, and anyone with an education was targeted. It is only in the past 10 to 15 years that it has been possible to talk of hope.
Hospital waiting rooms are glum places pretty much everywhere. People, sick or injured, wait and wait and wait. Nowhere are the huge gaps between rich and poor so graphically in evidence. That's the essence of the American health reform challenge, however deeply it gets submerged in the passionate debates now raging: to bridge those gaps so that the misery of illness is not compounded by inability to pay.
"If you are not at the table, you end up on the menu." The issue? Whether mainstream development specialists take faith-inspired work seriously and, more importantly, truly engage with and support it. Currently the answer is no, or very patchily. Why? Think "religionophobia."
The issue came up again and again at three different gatherings this summer: a meeting on service delivery and faith in Accra in early July, organized by the World Bank and the World Faiths Development Dialogue; a U.N. agency meeting in New York last week organized by UNFPA, the Family Planning Organization; and the African Religious Health Assets Program meeting in Capetown, South Africa. At all three, participants were frustrated by the way the experts ignore the multitude of faith-run hospitals, clinics, and other programs, and genuinely puzzled as to why.
A dear friend set me on an unlikely journey last week when she told me that Oscar Wilde's work De Profundis had moved her, as no other, to understand what Christianity really meant. Oscar Wilde? Cynic and rebel against Victorian conventional thought? Famous for comments like "I can resist everything except temptation," "the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it," and "I sometimes think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability"?
The Swiss village of Caux has become a watchword for reconciliation across the fiercest kinds of bitterness and hatred. It was at Caux that French and German leaders warily came together after World War II and emerged with a sense that human beings, not monsters, were their neighbors. Today, Pakistanis and Indians, Israelis and Palestinians, Sudanese and warring groups from many parts of Africa and Asia come to the Mountain House in Caux, perched high above Lake Geneva, searching for a similar understanding.
A story. In 1854, a baby girl was very sick with diarrhea. Her mother washed the diapers and threw the waste water into a cesspit under a house in their Soho neighborhood. Within weeks a cholera epidemic had killed some 700 people in the neighborhood. Thousands more were sick.
As the G8 meeting took place in Italy last week, three different voices spoke up on the same subject: the wide gap between promises made to address poverty and the realities on the ground. It's worth pausing to reflect on what these thoughtful people said.
"Obama Fever Grips Accra" reads the banner headline of Ghana's Daily Graphic. President Obama arrives here July 10 for his first African visit as president. U.S. Air Force planes crisscross the airport and the streets are loaded with Obama memorabilia.
The annual ritual of the G8 Summit is upon us. There are plenty about other Gs (groups) - the G2 (U.S. and China), the G20 and the G77. Cynics speak of a G1, suggesting that the United States rules the roost. But the G8 is still the pinnacle of the world's powerful and rich. So these meetings are a magnet for those who would like to sit at the table and shape the world's agenda.
Here's a topic that deserves center stage this Father's Day: family planning. It's an improbable but vital issue for Father's Day for two reasons: It's more often linked to women than to men, and it's shrouded in tensions, many with religious overtones.
The meeting room at the Washington office of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was packed last Wednesday to hear from Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
We often bemoan the fact that we Americans have, to put it charitably, large gaps in our understanding of Islam as a religion and of the endlessly complex Muslim world.
Ignorance contributes to the global tensions that some call the "clash of civilizations". It makes it harder to deal with the day-to-day challenges of international interactions as well as with conflicts and hot spots. After 9/11 there was a blizzard of talks, books, and articles, the most intensive public education effort in recent memory, but, depressingly, polls suggest that the knowledge gaps today are, if anything, worse than they were in the summer of 2001.
Vienna has a lovely tradition: once each year the Vienna Philharmonic plays at Schonbrun, the grand palace complex that was a model for Versailles. It's a free outdoor concert and everyone comes. On June 4, Daniel Barenboim conducted and over 120,000 people, including Austria's president, reveled in beautiful music and fireworks.
Vienna has a lovely tradition: once each year the Vienna Philharmonic plays at Schonbrun, the grand palace complex that was a model for Versailles. It's a free outdoor concert and everyone comes. On June 4, Daniel Barenboim conducted and over 120,000 people, including Austria's president, reveled in beautiful music and fireworks.
The recent flare-up over whether American soldiers should be free to distribute bibles in Afghanistan highlights a simmering debate that comes to a boil every once in a while. It's not about whether people should be free to practice their faith, but how and when they should be free to share it. This knotty issue comes pretty high on the agenda for the new President's Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Council which is shaping the new administration's approaches to public funding for faith-inspired organizations.
One of the world's longest running and nastiest wars, in Sri Lanka, may be near an end. Sri Lankan government troops have cornered remnants of a force called terrorists by some, nationalist guerrillas by others: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE. Over 70,000 people have died in a conflict that has raged, off and on, since 1983. Peace would indeed be a blessing.
Mother's Day sees outpourings of affection, funny stories, floral tributes on the Google home page, and a blizzard of phone calls and emails. There's something wonderfully universal in the sentiments, the ritual but warm tributes and the somewhat sheepish acknowledgment of the vital role that mothers play. They keep daily life together, serving up Cheerios and bandaging skinned knees, at the same time that they convey the basic values that guide our lives. Mothers like Ann Dunham Soetoro, who yanked Barack Obama out of bed at 4 a.m. to do extra lessons despite his grumbles, are recognized, for one day anyway, as the pillars of families and life.
Years ago, while traveling with my children in Africa, I heard about a Catholic charity that ran a home for witches. That sounded mysterious and interesting, so we stopped for an afternoon to visit. It was a rough compound where perhaps a hundred rather forlorn old women sat on the dirt floor staring into space or working with spindles and looms, mumbling to themselves. A few old men, too, sat with vacant stares.
The video shows the brutal beating of a young girl, well covered in her burka and red trousers, screaming and struggling as she is held down by a man and a woman. The scene symbolizes the tensions tearing Pakistan apart and it raises a host of questions. Is this what Sharia law is about? What does this primitive justice by bearded Taliban leaders portend for Pakistan? For south Asia? What's caused the Swat Valley, a region celebrated for peace, civility, and beauty, to change so rapidly? And what can be done about it?
It's hard to find any silver linings in the dark gathering clouds in Darfur. It's the time of year that many parts of Africa call the "hungry season" or the "soudure" (a joint whose parts are welded together and thus is liable to break). The rains are about to begin, and with them comes planting season. Mud roads and tracks become impassable. Food from last harvest is gone and the new harvest is months off.
How can the United States harness the extraordinary organizational capacity of global religions and turn them into a force for peace and welfare? That's a question the Obama administration should confront early on. The faith factor can and should be a critical part of America's public diplomacy--and not a piece apart but integrally linked to the core question of how the "smart" new diplomacy needs to unfold.
First the steep jump in food prices, then in gas prices, now a world-wide credit crunch: for the world's poor, these three shocks have dealt a crippling blow. Yet at the London meetings of the G20 last week, there was barely a nod to this harsh reality. Instead, the focus was on stimulus and bailouts, certainly not meeting the promises of the year 2000 Millennium Summit, to end hunger and halve poverty by 2015.
The cartoonists had a field day with the Pope's trip to Africa earlier this month. One cartoon showed Pope Benedict on a charger attacking a giant killer condom with his staff. Another had a large condom as the banana peel on his elegant Italian shoe. And a London Times cartoon showing the Pope with a large condom hat pierced by a hatpin drew an angry response from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. The Washington Post got heat for its March 21 cartoon showing the Pope in an AIDS ward blessing the sick because they did not use condoms.
Gender, sexuality, and religion have plenty of third rails - topics where passions run high and thoughtful dialogue seems a forlorn hope. Female genital cutting, also referred to as mutilation or female circumcision, is one. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women have had this "procedure"; about 3 million girls each year are cut.
The Vatican seems to be going through some tough waters; last weekend's article in the Vatican paper, Osservatore Romano, honoring International Women's Day is a vivid example. The headline: "The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax".
Women lead church attendance in many if not most societies. They affirm strongly in polls that faith is deeply important to them. Women faith leaders are more visible and vocal. Calls for social justice resonate. And yet there's a shroud of discomfort around issues of women's rights when religion comes into the picture.
The Niwano Peace Prize isn't nearly as well known as its Nobel counterpart, but the work of its recipients is just ast important and meaningful, as exemplified by this year's winner, Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest in Uganda.
Depending on who you listen to, the Common Word is an extraordinary opportunity, a watershed event that promises to counter threats of a "clash of civilizations," or yet another interfaith dialogue in which narrow groups argue about the meaning of life and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Last weekend I dined on gruel. The meal was part of an annual conference on international development, where a random draw determines whether you have a grand meal or a miserable repast that is the lot the world's poor.
Poverty statistics can be numbing. We scrabble for tangible images to translate sterile estimates of poverty's effects -- hungry, homeless, jobless - into terms people can grasp: daily deaths from AIDS are equivalent to x number of 747s crashing, avoidable deaths in childbirth to hurricanes. But it's still pretty abstract.
This is a guest post by Dr. Zilda Arns Neumann, founder and president of Pastoral da Criança. It is part of Religion and Global Development Project survey of Latin American Faith-Based institutions at the Berkley Center.
We always work closely with the government. One
of my children is a doctor. For 19 years now, he’s
been working with the Pastoral, and he cross-references
the Pastoral information with information
from the government.
Washington is still basking in the euphoria of the inaugural week. It's one of those times engraved on memories, young and old: "Where were you when Barack Obama was sworn in?" There are millions of stories, Facebook photos, emails of congratulations from every corner of the world.
Political discourse these days seems more fitted to Halloween than All Saints Day. Angels and devils, witches and shamans. Rancid prose. We all wonder and worry at the nastiness that shows up in political campaign ads, the polarized news outlets, and beyond.
This is a guest post by Dele Olowu, a consultant, pastor, and former professor of Administration and Local Government. It is part of the Faith and Governance research of the Religion and Global Development Program at the Berkley Center.
Development must start at the local level and it must
Unfortunately, in spite of a major reform of local governments
in 1976 and the infusion of huge intergovernmental
financial transfers estimated at 5% of the
country’s GDP, most local governments in Nigeria have
not been very successful in terms of development
impact—judged by their performance in health care
(mostly preventive health, which included Malaria control).
An example is the Barkin Ladi Local Government
in Plateau State, with 11 other “success stories”, out of
774 LGUs. The main explanation for this success was
strong local leadership and their engagement with
local the non-governmental community and faith-based
organizations. What is essential is to build a
framework for co-production by local government and
faith organizations, working on a pilot basis.
This is a guest post by Paul Caron, Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies. It is part of the Faith and Good Governance research of the Religion and Development Program at the Berkley Center.
Mainstream approaches to addressing corruption
focus primarily on law and a series of social interventions
centered on legal frameworks. This could be
termed the “secular” view of the possible solutions
to corruption. It is an “outside to inside” approach,
characteristic of social engineering. Such approaches
carry certain assumptions, both implicit and explicit.
An example is a Harvard economist who, in an excellent,
technical study on the impact of religion on economic
development, used as the defining marker of
religion (or people who are religious) people’s belief
in heaven and hell.
As the new year dawns, India is massing troops near its border with Pakistan after the Mumbai tragedy, and Israel is wreaking havoc in Gaza to stop the rocket attacks from its hostile neighbor. Just days ago, the political scientist Sam Huntington died, bringing his controversial theory of "the clash of civilizations" back into the public consciousness.
Journalists rarely pursue stories of interfaith dialogue with much enthusiasm. A yawn is the more common reaction. And in the circles of those who work to promote such dialogue, the foibles of journalists are the topic of much grumbling: No matter how noble the objective, no matter how significant the interfaith breakthrough, there is barely a mention in the press.
This is grading season in universities so I was interested to hear a respected colleague suggest that Tony Blair's speech to a packed Council on Foreign Relations meeting merited an A. That's impressive considering the topic was the Israel-Palestine conflict.
There's a long line of people and organizations impatient to meet America's President-elect and to place their issues high on his agenda. The Community of Sant'Egidio is right there, pressing for early meetings with Barack Obama's new foreign policy and national security teams.
Markets, economics, and economists may still command some respect in Washington but as many eminent religious leaders met in Cyprus November 16-18, few if any had a good word to say about them. Relentlessly, the world's economic system was described as valueless, harsh, erratic, and arbitrary, serving only the interests of the rich and driving the poor into deeper misery.
After the euphoria that greeted America's presidential election, I was a bit taken aback to discern a tremor of concern rippling through a group of religious leaders from every corner of the world gathered in Cyprus this week. Their worry: expectations are so high that Barack Obama simply cannot meet them. As I pushed back against that assumption, I could see that our historic election has raised not just expectations for what the United States will do, but what people hope and expect from their own governments.
Around the world, religious leaders have often been at the forefront of fighting corruption, but you would never know that from looking around the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) held recently in Athens.
The long road to the U.S. presidential election has gripped people all over the world. Millions have followed the horse race minute by minute, puzzled over the gaffes and slogans, and figuratively scratched their heads. This campaign has challenged the deeply held image of a racist America.
A remarkable woman died this week - Soeur Emmanuelle, an indomitable nun who topped surveys time and again as France's most admired woman. Nora Boustany wrote a wonderful obituary in Friday's Washington Post. If you want to know what Faith in Action is about, look at her life and work.
Soeur Emmanuelle was a beacon at interfaith meetings, especially the annual Prayer for Peace that the Community of Sant'Egidio organizes each year (the next in Cyprus November 16-18). There, among somber and almost exclusively male religious leaders, this small feisty woman could not be missed, striding rapidly along in sturdy sneakers, wisps of hair escaping a headscarf, with two women, one on each side, supporting her. Age did not wither her (she was 99 when she died), and neither did protocol.
The scene was a muggy hotel conference room in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, last week. The topic was grand: "Building Peace, Cooperation, and Harmony through Interfaith Dialogue." The audience was a somber group of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian leaders, government officials, students and a smattering of international speakers. The tone was utterly serious - no backslapping or chitchat. The organizer was a small new group called the Asian Faiths Development Dialogue.
Jesuit schools around the world have educated an amazing array of world leaders and citizens and are renowned for their excellence and discipline. That is true of places like Georgetown University--but also, around the world, in very poor communities "where the asphalt ends."
The most shocking comment for me in last week's Vice Presidential debate was Joe Biden's rather casual suggestion that foreign assistance would be the first budget item to cut in the face of the current financial meltdown. Sadly, there has been no storm of protest, scarcely a whimper from secular or religious leaders. It was another sign that global poverty is plummeting to the bottom of the developed world's agenda once again.
WCRP (the World Conference on Religions for Peace, known more commonly as Religions for Peace) is the world's largest interfaith organization, and it is increasingly engaged in mobilizing religious communities in support of the Millennium Development Goals. Thus during what has become an annual stocktaking of progress towards the MDGs that is integrally part of the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings, WCRP organized a series of events to advance the cause. The centerpiece was a half day meeting on September 24, aimed to bring together government leaders and representatives from the UN agencies with religious leaders. A declaration that stressed the moral imperatives of honoring the pledges that all world nations and governments have undertaken through the 2000 Millennium Declaration was circulated after the meeting.
There's a sharp new focus in international circles on an ancient plague: malaria. Despite huge advances made against the disease, hundreds of millions of cases occur each year and a million people die, most of them children in Africa. Most worrying, in some regions, the disease seems to be making a comeback.
A fat envelope from my son's school this week had a slim letter with a reproachful tone and a bunch of remedial forms: I had missed a critical meeting about the college application process. I missed the meeting because I was in Chicago for a meeting of a task force on religion and public life.
Pretty much any public matter can be linked to faith - if you don't think so, take a look at Ghana's interfaith initiative against garbage. Recently its leaders got together in Accra to take stock of their somewhat improbable project - an effort they call their "Crusade against Filth".
In the midst of the gripping political dramas dominating our news cycle, images of Bhutan (where I was earlier this month) color my processing of the news. Bhutan is about as far as you can get from contemporary American life - a small Himalayan kingdom where ferocious deities are part of daily life and serfdom is a living memory (it was abolished in 1956). Nevertheless, parallels there are.
Teams from the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) met for two days in Accra Ghana to address core issues of strategies towards development and poverty alleviation. The meeting was under discussion for several years and represented a continuation of a dialogue process initiated in 2002 . The meeting was deemed a success by all, challenging preconceived ideas and opening the path to continuing exchange. The core idea behind the Ghana event - that dialogue about development strategy can not really budge unless it is brought to a country level - proved its merit. The event also benefitted from the constructive moderating role played by Gerrie Ter Haar, from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.
Out of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan came a concept that has enthralled the international development community: Gross National Happiness. GNH offers up a different way to measure a country's well-being, based on the common welfare and infused with a good dose of spirituality--in contrast to the materialism represented by the Gross National Product (GNP). In a time dominated by anxiety about recession, climate change and spiraling energy and food prices, GNH seems to offer a respite, an alternative vision.
Your work in the coming days to promote integrity, honesty, and efficiency in the public and private sectors is a critical part of the fight against poverty. This is very much a global effort and it involves all sectors of societies, all countries, and many different kinds of intellectual approaches. You will be touching on many different dimensions here. I am sorry that I cannot be with you in person to learn from you all, but am honored to share my reflections with you and I look forward to learning of your work over the next days and your vision of the important work still to come.
Far away on a remote border between Cambodia and Thailand, an international conflict is brewing. The United Nations Security Council has been notified. Newspapers in Thailand and Cambodia report on hourly developments and, at least in Cambodia, the Ministry of Education warned students to remain calm in the face of nationalist fervor, recalling past violence triggered by similar disputes.
Tolstoy wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The same could be said about the ethnic and religious conflicts that cause so much strife in the world--in Burundi, Sri Lanka, the Ivory Coast and the Middle East. Memories run deep, and anyone who attempts to mediate finds bitterness, conflicting narratives and wounded people. Efforts to find common threads that could lead to solutions can be slow, fitful, and full of pain.
Last week (July 9, 2008), I attended (on behalf of the World Bank) a long planned interagency meeting in New York, organized and hosted by UNFPA. The meeting was described as a UN Interagency Consultation on Engagement with Faith Groups. Brady Walkinshaw and Marisa Van Saanen also participated. There were two particularly interesting conclusions: first, that the topic of religion as an ingredient in public affairs is emerging across many agencies, and many are seeking strategic directions in response. And second, the Bank emerges as a leader among agencies in terms of its experience and particularly its strategic reflection.
That’s the basic explanation of why Richard Cizik, a prominent evangelical pastor, could be found for two days last month closeted at the World Bank and on Capitol Hill with a group of other evangelicals and a delegation of Moroccan Muslims, led by their ambassador to the U.S., Aziz Mekouar.
World leaders are heading for Japan for the annual ritual known as the Group of Eight meeting. Last week a different group of leaders met, also in Japan, also to take stock of the leading issues that face the world.
They were religious leaders, and their gathering took place in two Japanese cities with spiritual roots, Osaka and Kyoto. The meeting is part of a tradition, now three years old, of a religious summit on the eve of the grand G8 summit.
Religious leaders don’t make policy, but they wield tremendous influence on billions of people. So their meeting, echoing the summit of states, could have real significance. If, for example, religious leaders were to agree on needed action to address climate change, they could truly make a difference.
I admit I was a bit baffled to hear a Nigerian pastor discussing this subject at a conference in the rather staid and orderly capital of the Netherlands. But meeting Dele Olowu in person, I came away with new respect for the phenomenon that some call the “reverse missionary movement”—Africans bringing religion to Europe. He upsets plenty of notions about religion and proselytizing, which he calls planting churches.
The Bank responded to a request from both the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Moroccan government to host an event on June 19. The Bank was invited largely to offer technical expertise on climate change strategy, but also because of our long-standing commitment to development faith partnerships. What made this event unusual was the effort to address underlying issues of West/Muslim work tensions generally and Christian/Muslim more specifically by means of a dialogue about an issues of patent common concern, climate change. The key personality involved in promoting this dialogue process has been Rev. Richard Cizik, a prominent leader in the US evangelical movement who has passionately espoused the cause of global warming. The Moroccan ambassador to the US was also intimately involved, as was Michael Kirtley who heads an NGO called Friendship Caravan. The two day dialogue (one at the Bank, the other on Capitol Hill and Mount Vernon) was meticulously planned.
The blitz of publicity around the launch of the new Tony Blair Faith Foundation hammered home one core theme: Religion matters. Public policy makers and intelligent citizens should give it due attention.
I participated as a panelist (theme, cultural dialogue and media roles) in a large international conference in Fes, Morocco that ran June 3-6. It involved a lively and sometimes quite fractious debate about the proposed new Union, and was a lead up to the planned meeting of Mediterranean heads of state in Paris on July 13. The meeting was timed to conclude just on the eve of the opening of the Fes Festival of Global Sacred Music, now in its 14th year, and a substantial draw. However, there were no formal links between the two events.
The disconnects among different worlds come through powerfully at World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings. Bringing everyone together under one tent is a feat all by itself, but once they get there they can talk quite different languages.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its principal, and best known, meeting at Davos each January but regional meetings in different parts of the world are taking on increasing importance. The annual Middle East meeting, which has for the past few years alternated between the Dead Sea complex in Jordan and Sharm El Sheikh, in Egypt, took place this year at Sharm El Sheikh, from May 18-20. As part of this large gathering (some 1300 participants plus staff), a series of private meetings about the state of West Islam dialogue was organized by the WEF; Tom Banchoff and Katherine Marshall from the Berkley Center participated.
The World Economic Forum on the Middle East at Sharm El Sheikh reeks of solemnity. There is a sense that the people who attend this annual business-driven meeting carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. With speeches by three heads of state (Presidents Hosni Mubarak and George W. Bush and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud) at the opening event Sunday, with 1,500 world leaders from many different sectors, the gravity of the issues at hand seemed overwhelming.
Seamus Finn OMI is a priest with the Catholic religious order, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He spends a good amount of his time on investment issues. He is a â€œsocially responsible investingâ€ (SRI) consultant and a leader in a new international effort to bring different religious traditions together in using their financial muscle for worthy causes. I asked him what is most on his mind these days: Wheat subsidies? Mining ventures? Gas prices? No, he said, outrage in his voice, it's the credit crisis. The current financial meltdown in the United States reflects failures to look at the ethical implications of basic lending practices right up and down the line. And millions of real people are hurting as a result.
Music is a well known path for crossing wide cultural divides. Music speaks without words. It can epitomize a mood as well as a culture. And it can stir up emotions and preconceptions. There's a fascinating venture afoot in Fes, Morocco, to use those very qualities to bridge divides between the Muslim world and western cultures and faiths. The idea is that people can, through their love of music, explore new realms and appreciate the world's wonderful diversity. But even more, the hope is that with emotions roused through music and art, people will open their minds as well as their hearts to new ideas.
For guts combined with grace, Thoraya Obaid has few rivals. A proud Saudi Muslim, she leads what is probably the United Nations' most controversial agency, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) â€“ which addresses women's reproductive health. Recently she was the speaker at the Washington National Cathedral's Sunday Forum, arguing that religious leaders must address the sorry state of women in much of the developing world.
The landmark "Breakthrough" summit at the National Cathedral had a clear goal; to bring together faith, development, and women's organizations in order to create a powerful new force for reducing poverty by improving the lives of women and girls around the world.
The event, held April 13-14, had two distinct parts. The first was a grand and moving show that drew in the crowd in both a spiritual and sensory way. In the morning a forum in the Cathedral nave featured Thoraya Obaid, who heads UNFPA and the sermon at the 11:15 service was preached by Agnes Aboum, who heads the All Africa Council of Churches. At 2pm the 2,000 person audience in the National Cathedral was treated to inspirational speeches with Madeleine Albright standing out: her comment "some people call domestic violence cultural; I call it criminal" was perhaps the most memorable of the day.
Sloshing through Hezekiah’s tunnel near the City of David in Jerusalem brings home what fear and faith can do. The 530-meter-long tunnel was chiseled out of rock over 2500 years ago, deep underground, by men without flashlights or scientific instruments to guide them. They knew that if they were attacked they could survive only if they were sure of their water source. To this day water flows through the tunnel from a spring to a reservoir.
This note, just for information, reports on an interesting meeting that form part both of an emerging dimension of the World Bank faith/ethics dialogue and a broader evolution of coalitions for change, especially in the US but also more broadly - that is, the growing interest of the vast community of faith institutions in climate change and their increasing activism.
Because of a suggestion from James Wolfensohn while he was in Israel, I was part of an exciting workshop in Neve Ilan at the end of last month. In a nutshell, the meeting was presented as the second designed to reflect on and to revitalize both Jewish and Israeli development work, and to draw together both religious and secular experience and approaches.
Avoid religion and politics at the dinner table -- so goes the conventional wisdom. Tempers will flare and appetites curdle with the passions that both topics so often arouse. But in reality we need to get the kind of dinner-table discussions going that can help overcome some deep and poorly understood prejudices about religion in American life.
You can't miss rising food prices if you do the grocery shopping or listen to the radio these days. They are causing real pain all around the world as family budgets everywhere are squeezed. There's no end in sight, though hunger is much more prominent at least in policy discussions, from Davos to U.S. political campaigns.
"Come with an example of a situation where you were judged by a stereotype. Tell about how it affected you and what you tried to do to address it." A group of strangers tackled that tantalizing assignment one evening last month. We were invited to a lovely dinner at a private Washington home for an introduction to the "Public Conversations Project".
Where are the passionate moderates in Islam, Madeleine Albright wanted to know. Why does all the passion seem to come from extremists? The former secretary of State was speaking at the recent U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, sponsored by the Brookings Institution. To the Islamic world, her message was that what we need now is “moderates on the march, moderates with swagger.”
From videos left behind by suicide bombers to movies like Syriana, Americans have become quite familiar with radicalized Muslim youth. But last week, a remarkable Egyptian evangelist, whose influence reaches across much of the Muslim world, offered a different vision: young Muslims driven by both hope and faith. At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum that just wrapped up in Doha, Amr Khaled was everywhere with his message that faith is a powerful force and motivator for young people in the Middle East, but that it doesn't have to lead to jihad.
I should have been prepared for the backlash! I stepped right into the middle of a heated controversy when I co-authored a report for Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in November about the role of religious organizations in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Just last week, an angry letter from the Gerard Health Foundation in Boston to Georgetown University’s president actually called for the report’s withdrawal, with a litany of accusations. The complaint? That our report gives insufficient “credit” to promoting abstinence and faithfulness as a central approach to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and that it reveals an “anti-Catholic bias” in its treatment of Church teaching on condoms. Perhaps nowhere is the role of religion in public policy and service delivery more significant than in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The storm around the Berkley Center report is a depressing illustration of how hard dialogue can be. And how important.
As I ventured into the hotel lobby in Jeddah earlier this week, I was not thinking about the role of women in Islam, but the issue came abruptly into the picture. In my terms I felt pretty well covered in a mid-calf dark red suit with long sleeves, but I was quickly conscious of disapproving stares from two hotel porters. One asked me what I was looking for in a way that made it clear I did not belong there. I knew that women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear the long black robes known as abayas in public places, and I was hoping to find a shop that sold them in the lobby. In the meantime, I thought I would be given a pass in this hotel that catered to Western visitors. It was my temporary home–for me, it wasn't really a public place, was it? The porter's glance told me otherwise. My abaya search was unsuccessful and I turned to a planned meeting with a colleague (a man) whom I had known for years. We sat down at a café in the middle of the lobby. A waiter materialized instantly, but said that these tables were for men only. There was a "family" section, hidden to one side, where they were willing to serve us. It's been a long time since I felt that combined sense of being unwelcome and disapproved of.
This is a guest post by Zainab Salbi, President, Women for Women International. It is part of the Faith, Gender, and Development research of the Religion and Global Development Program at the Berkley Center.
The emergence of religious fundamentalist movements
in many parts of the world is the result of a variety of
historical and socio-political processes. By examining
women’s attraction to the Islamic revivalist movement
in the Middle East general themes emerge which are
applicable in other countries albeit within their own
unique religious and cultural contexts. Contrary to
popular beliefs of Muslim women as complacent and
docile, in supporting Islamic fundamentalist movements
women in the Middle East operate as active
agents seeking to advance their own interests through
the revival of religious traditions.
This is a guest post by Shareen Joshi, Visiting Professor of International Development at Georgetown University. It is a part of the Faith, Gender, and Development research of the Religion and Global Development Program at the Berkley Center.
Interactions between religion, the status of women,
and fertility rates are the subject of intense academic,
economic and political debate in South Asia. They are
typically influenced by two observations: First, significant
differences in rules and accepted marriage mark
practices across religious groups in this region; Hindus
and Muslims for example, differ in their views of the
acceptability of polygyny, the prevalence of dowry, the
preferences for marriage to a first- or second-cousin,
and the opportunities for a woman to divorce and
remarry. The differences in these systems of marriage
and household structure have often led to contentious
social, political and religious debates about morality,
the role of women, and the role of the family in economic
development in South Asia.
This is a guest post by Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Professor at Georgetown University. It is part of the Faith, Gender, and Development research of the Religion and Global Development Program at the Berkley Center.
Women are at the crux of changing values concerning
religion and gender, reform and social change, including
religious and secular fundamentalism. As social
changes transform communities in widely differing
societies, women are redefining practical and intellectual
categories and issues. Religion is a central part
of the change process, as women engage in a selective
blending of local and world religions in ways that
transcend conventional descriptions.
Three Catholic bishops from three West African countries (Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso) crisscrossed Washington last month. Their purpose was to put a human face on Congressional deliberations about the farm bill. They trekked from office to office, all over Washington, to make the point that a very American piece of legislation, that Congress has wrangled over for months (and which is now in Conference), has profound effects that go far beyond American farmers and other Americans who are slated for support. The bill’s provisions for subsidies that will benefit above all some 13,000 American cotton farmers will affect world cotton prices. And world cotton prices are a matter of the keenest interest for about 13 million West African farmers, because cotton is often their only source of cash income.
If Muslim leaders were underrepresented in Naples at the Catholic Church's International Encounter for Peace last month, it must be said that there were also remarkably few women religious leaders nominated to represent their faiths. The predominance of males reflects a power reality that deserves careful consideration. It is, after all, obvious that women are critical for all the religions, and that religion is of deep importance for many women. But what troubles me more is how few issues for women make it onto the agenda at meetings like this one, issues such as domestic violence, education for girls, ways to balance families, and nurture children. What kind of picture would we hope to see when religious leaders gather 10 years from now?
The concludes with a striking ceremony where religious leaders sit on a platform grouped by religion, in ceremonial garb. The colors are vivid, crimson, white, black, and saffron. The symbolism is also vivid, as they light candles together for peace. This year's visual pageant showed some of the complexities of encouraging dialog among very different kinds of religions and religious organizations. The Catholic hierarchy was marked by differing colors and robes. The ranks of Orthodox recalled their ancient history with varied, yet distinctive robes and headgear. Protestants generally wore more sober hues, but visible symbols marked their office. Other faiths, and especially Islam, were represented more sparingly, and underscored the broader question of who can speak for Islam. Ezzeddin Ibrahim, founder of the University of the United Arab Emirates, was the principal spokesman for Islam at the inter-religious gathering and Muslims were outnumbered and, by some measures, outranked. The challenge of representing this diverse global religion was vividly apparent.
Forty years ago, Andrea Riccardi dedicated himself in Rome to helping his poorest neighbors. Last month in Naples, he challenged leading religious officials and members of the Catholic lay group he founded to confront terrorism and the "idealized" violence of war, as well as the "culture of contempt" that feeds them both. Speaking at the opening of this year's International Encounter for Peace, organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, Riccardi acknowledged the difficulty in overcoming "the mist of pessimism that often clouds our vision." However, the gentle-aired, erudite history professor also reminded those in attendance that faith requires them to overcome pessimism and to act. "Anyone who uses the name of God to hate the other, to practice violence, or to wage war, is cursing the name of God," said Riccardi. "We commit ourselves to learn the art of living together and to offer it to our fellow believers."
Faith is more than beliefs. It is about right and wrong, justice and injustice -- about remaking the world. "Faith in Action" tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions. It maps their engagement around critical issues, from global health to the environment -- from AIDS to zebras. It explores the struggles, alliances, and common efforts of people of faith, public and private, local and global. And it highlights how important it is for Americans to look beyond their borders and to appreciate the struggles of the "bottom billion" people in today's globalized world.
The monk-led protests in Burma are about spiritual authority as much as they are about raw political power. They are deeply rooted in Burma’s religious culture. Nothing illustrates this so well as the chants of the protesting monks and their overturned begging bowls. Everyone in Burma understands the message: the military rulers are evil spirits who have lost their authority. The monks are chanting the Metta Sutta, a verse that embodies the Buddha’s counsel on the power and meaning of loving kindness. Part of it runs: “Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited… Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature.”
Katherine Marshall, a Berkley Center Senior Fellow and Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, attended the Monterrey Religious Encounter, September 21-24, 2007.
The Interreligious Encounter hit its full stride Sunday, with speakers and participants well into routines of speeches, panels, and the like. Overall there were three full days of events, with the closing plenary on Monday evening. The International Interreligious Encounter then concludes, and in Monterrey, the Cultural Forum shifts its focus from religion to other dimensions of culture, over its 80 day life. For the Parliament of the World Religions, the focus will shift to the major global event on its calendar, the meeting in Melbourne Australia in December 2009.
There are some 60 people that the Parliament of Religions has invited to be part of the Interreligious Encounter (40+ plus speakers plus people accompanying them). This is a truly "global" group, coming from all over the world, and from an extraordinary span of religious traditions. It includes Christian leaders, a woman who works with Muslim Sufi networks, several Jain representatives, Sikhs, from the UK and California, filmmakers, Baha'is, and a few who resist simple categories (myself among them - I introduced myself as coming from a tradition of Episcopal Christianity with faith in the development of human potential). Perhaps most striking, visually, to an observer is the group of Buddhists, as Dharma Master Hsin Tao Shih from Taiwan (creator of the remarkable museum of World Religions there) came with 11 nuns, all in identical grey robes, their heads shaved, and with the same backpacks. The indigenous group includes a Hopi from Arizona, several Yorubas from Nigeria, and a representative of Paganism, who traces his roots to the Celtic world.
Interreligious gatherings have very different flavors. I have been to many in recent years and each evokes vivid yet very different memories. But all have some special, common qualities. The united presence of people from all corners of the earth, many wearing visible symbols of their faith and cultures, makes a poignant tapestry of the diversity of humanity. It is history come alive, but also today's plural reality in living color. A side product is a sea of cameras seeking to capture the color, life and diversity. Another is a vibrant feel of diversity at such meetings are particularly tough to organize as participants come with very different habits, not to speak of dietary needs, daily rhythms, and expectations.
"Herding cats" is a common analogy.
That's the theme phrase for the Monterrey International Interreligious Encounter that had its formal opening last night. The event took place in Monterrey's cavernous arena, where concerts and sports events are often held; there was an eerie smell of popcorn in the air.
The streets of Monterrey were clogged this evening as Mexico's president arrived to open an 80 day named the Universal FORUM of Cultures, Monterrey 2007. The hotel lobby of the Holiday Inn swarmed with bagpipe groups in kilts, and a group that looked like medieval troubadours. I am here to participate in a first event of the Forum, which is an interfaith meeting, called the International Interreligious Encounter. A group of about 40 people from all over the world, scholars, practitioners, preachers, from a feast of different faiths, are arriving. We received a program book with a dizzying array of events â€“ plenaries, performances, panels, life stories, introductions to religious traditions, and so on. Some 15,000 people, we were told, will attend a program with up to 15 sessions running in parallel.
When tragedy strikes, many look to religion to help understand what has occurred and why. The religious community offers comfort and support in times of trouble. But religion is not only about consolation. Religious institutions from time immemorial have engaged communities directly in action. After the 2004 tsunami, the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, and earthquakes in Peru, Pakistan, Iran and Japan, faith-inspired institutions were among the most active in bringing relief. The mobilization of energy and resources that we see through religious organizations of many kinds, large and small, of virtually all denominations, can show humankind at its finest. There are downsides too, especially where pressures to conform or convert are exerted on people who are at their most vulnerable, but they are a relatively small part of the story.
I participated in an inaugural event in Fes, Morocco earlier this week, focused on Sufism and Human Development. Faouzi Skali, creator and founder of the Fes Festival and Forum, is the leader and inspirer. The Festival/Forum attracted much attention, despite its newness and quite recent planning - attention from media (Moroccan and foreign), attendees from several continents, and considerable engagement from different Moroccan social and political currents .
Marisa Van Saanen (World Bank Ethics and Values unit) and I participated in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives round table on malaria, aimed at highlighting the vital and central role of faith-based organizations in fighting malaria. The participation of Mrs. Bush, Ambassador Randall Tobias, Georgetown University President John DeGioia, Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, US Malaria Coordinator, and Jay Hein, Director of the White House Faith-Based office gave a clear indication of the level and focus of the meeting. Participants (some 100) came from faith organizations, private sector, academia, NGOs, and the US government; while the meeting focused on Africa, few if any Africans were there. The two hour meeting consisted of a series of quite short presentations that highlighted US commitment to the malaria program and tangible successes of faith led programs. The roundtable was a follow-on to the December 2006 White House Summit on Malaria hosted by President and Mrs. Bush, which launched the Malaria Communities Program, a $30 million initiative to advance grassroots malaria-control projects in Africa, as part of the PMI (a $1.2 billion program directed to 15 countries).
The Executive Group of the Council of 100 met as part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos; the C100, briefly, is a WEF initiative (rather atypical among WEF activities) that aims to further dialogue and understanding between "the Islamic World" and "the West". At present the group includes some 86 people, and the intent is that they be drawn from both the Islamic world and western societies, and from five major sectors: business, politics, religion, media, and civil society. The C100 meetings are thus a rare place, perhaps unique, where such broad cross sector representation engages on the complex issues for West Islamic relations. The co-chairs are Lord Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury) and Princess Lolwah (Saudi Arabia) - who recently succeeded Prince Turki. I have been part of the group over the past three years, and am an Executive Group member, with specific responsibility for an education sub-group; I was at Davos in that capacity.
In accordance with the TORs dated Oct. 27, 2006, I participated on behalf of the Bank, as a panelist and speaker at two events in Geneva commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development (RTD). Both events were co-sponsored by the Frederich Ebert Foundation and the UN. The first was held as a parallel event to the third session of the UN Human Rights Council and included participants from country delegations and NGOs accredited to the Council (some 70 participants). The second was a closed experts meeting bringing together a number of speakers and senior representatives from several donor agencies, both bilateral and multilateral.
Responding to a long-standing invitation from the Institute of Social Studies, based in the Hague, I visited the Netherlands this week. The trip was essentially in my "new life" as a professor, but because the World Bank and its work, and the issues of religion and development were so very central, I summarize the discussions for both Bank and Georgetown colleagues.
An "out of the box" meeting at the UN last week presented some interesting features. Its full title was "Our Common Humanity in the Information Age: Principles and Values for Development". Full information can be found at the special website.
The World Economic Forum's annual Europe regional meeting was held in Istanbul for two days earlier this week. It was (as appears to be traditional for WEF regional meetings) heavily focused on Turkey, the host country, though ostensibly it covered all Europe. I was there because the Core Group (now renamed Executive Committee) of the WEF's Council of 100 Leaders on West Islamic Dialogue met as part of the meeting. But I was also part of a panel on education challenges for Turkey, and then did a lengthy, live CNN Turkey interview (with the meeting's co-chair Guler Sabaci) on issues for education.
Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Azusa Church, considered the first formally established Pentecostal Church, this conference brought together a fascinating blend of scholars and "practitioners", in this instance preachers and activists in the Pentecostal arena. Among luminaries at the meeting were Rev. Harold Caballeros (Guatemalan preacher and candidate for President), Peter Berger, David Martin, Luis Lugo, Eugene Rivers, and Jack Miles.
I was in New York September 19-21 for various missions, primarily to serve as moderator for a day-long launch meeting for a High Level interfaith Forum within the United Nations system. This note reports briefly on that meeting and its conclusions, with some background as the effort may not be widely known to you and other Bank colleagues. I will report separately, to those most directly concerned, on other New York meetings, which included inter alia a presentation for the UN Ethics Office staff on our work and approach to ethics, a meeting organized by the Cordoba Initiative with Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi, a Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Bolivia's President Evo Morales, meetings with Carnegie on the C-100 education initiative, and the annual Appeal of Conscience dinner which featured awards and speeches by inter alia President Lula. The latter was at the invitation of Count Auletta, benefactor of WFDD, and I was able to discuss WFDD strategy and prospects with him.
Today marked the formal launch of the Tripartite Interfaith Forum, and involved inspirational speeches and wise comments from global and UN leaders and the wide range of participants, from member states, from United Nations agencies, and from many Religious bodies and NGOs. My colleagues as moderators, Sister Joan Kirby and Stein Villumstad, have highlighted some key points. My summary briefly reviews what we have achieved, in the form of a stock-taking, starting from a set of fundamental questions about when, how much, why, where, who, what, and how.
At the April Oxford Ethics Forum, I met Tunku Aziz who I had worked with some years ago in the context of the Asia Anti-Corruption Advisory Group. He is currently serving at the United Nations as Ethics Officer, in an assignment reporting to the Secretary General, with the objective of launching a UN ethics office and recommending a future course of action to the SG (his assignment ends in December). Mr. Aziz invited me to give a presentation to his team. After some months of trying to coordinate schedules with INT I took advantage of being in New York to follow up.
Last week I traveled far off the beaten track in western Guatemala. The only news of the world that registered there was the path of hurricanes heading in our direction (the area is still recovering from Hurricane Stan two years ago) and the Peruvian earthquake (the areaâ€™s history is full of earthquakes and volcano eruptions) . But the central question on my mind was a global issue: what can religious communities do about the stark poverty that is so obvious there?
Awraham Soetendorp is a household name in the Netherlands so an English language symposium to celebrate his life and mark his formal retirement as rabbi of a Reform Jewish congregation in the Hague last month was quickly over-subscribed. Those lucky enough to attend were in for an eclectic treat: wise words, history, politics, provocative suggestions, music, and theology all woven together with good humor. It was a well timed reminder, at a time when Dutch politics are often tense and polarized and many Muslim immigrants meet intolerance, of what is finest in the Dutch traditions of pragmatism and spirit.