BLOGGERKatherine 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...
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's Georgetown/On Faith site.
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AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES: MUSLIM
A Religious G8
July 4, 2008
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.
There are some tough issues to resolve before this potential can be translated into action.
Who did the leaders meeting in Osaka and Kyoto speak for? While the Group of 8 is made up of the worldâ€™s leading economic powers, is it really possible to â€œrepresentâ€ religion in any meaningful way? The answer is probably no, because the world of religion is so incredibly diverse and decentralized. But the group of 100 or so who met was certainly diverse, with important Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Shinto voices. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Cambodian Prince Norodom Sirivudh, secular leaders committed to bringing religious voices into the debate, provided stimulus and a bridge. Mary Robinson, for example, pressed hard on issues of human rights and the responsibility of religious leaders to keep girls and women on the agenda.
This pre-G8 gathering is a forum thatâ€™s still taking shape. It is not clear who among the G8 leaders is even aware that revered religious leaders are lending their voices to their debates. They came up with a graceful if somewhat bland â€œA Proposal from People of Religionâ€ that offers a graceful statement of moral obligation to care for Godâ€™s creation. I was pleased to see that it presses for true commitment to human rights and to the welfare and rights of women and girls.
But even if the religious leader declaration, so carefully hammered out in late-night sessions, falls on deaf ears, the meetings are still an important stock taking. The torch of leadership passes to a religious group in the country where the G8 meeting is held, hence Russia, Germany and Japan, with the next two in Italy and Canada. With time and experience, these gatherings may become something to be reckoned with.
The religious leaders noted that the G8 is not exactly representative of the world. A Buddhist monk from Mongolia has no counterpart leader who is part of the assembly, nor is Senegal part of the G8. But these leaders transcend national boundaries and serve as a reminder that the worldâ€™s fate depends on more than the seven men and one woman who will meet this week.
The G8's two primary areas of focus will be climate change and African development. The Japanese organizers of the religious leader summit chose to focus on those two as well, but added a third: settling conflicts, especially those with links to religion. All three have religious dimensions. While most religious traditions preach that God wants people to care for the world He created, in practice, there is only a shadowy consensus on what needs to be done. â€œBlessed are the peacemakers,â€ says the Sermon on the Mount, but across many traditions and places there is a long way to go to earn that blessing. And religious leaders in Africa can play a mighty role in that continentâ€™s myriad problems.
Although the religious leadersâ€™ statement was as uncontroversial as you might expect as they labored for consensus among a diverse group of strangers, some of the events were decidedly undiplomatic. The representative of the Dalai Lama at the meeting minced no words in sharing his view of the horrors of Tibetâ€™s situation. And the Japanese hosts who organized a visit to a revered Shinto shrine in Osaka then detoured to an Osaka slum where homeless men waited for day labor. It took a Catholic priest to put this labor center on the agenda, denting the image of a well ordered Japanese society where people are disciplined and families take care of their own.
The Japanese who hosted the Osaka/Kyoto Religious Leader Summit spoke often of Mount Fuji, Japanâ€™s beautiful mountain symbol. There are many ways to climb the mountain, they said. They were referring mainly to the differences among religions but they also were making the case that religious and secular paths both lead to the same summit and finding meeting places along the way is in everyoneâ€™s interest.