Berkley Forum

Spiritual Contributions to a More Just World

Responding to Religion and Development: Building Partnerships to Fight Poverty

A recent exhibit at the Louvre in Paris inspired by Jacques Attali conveys, graphically, a disturbing picture of the state of our world. Underlying his vision and his message is a conviction that the path, indeed the very survival, of our civilizations is fundamentally tied to their spiritual roots. Empires upon empires have died spectacular deaths, and it is worth reflecting whether such a fate may be upon us. If we open our eyes we can see the potential of bleak prospects: take for example the endless processions of refugees and migrants, constant images of destruction and hunger, and countless young parents who, every minute somewhere in the world, mourn a child who died of hunger or because their water was contaminated. Count up to seven: one, two, three... Seven seconds passes swiftly! And during those seven seconds a child somewhere has died.

Can we, with our gifts for reason, expect that these realities can continue without provoking a revolt? Can we truly believe that things will calm down, that the “trickle down” of wealth will automatically allow the infamous “invisible hand” of the market to bring so much suffering to an end? It would be a foolish illusion to believe so. It is quite plausible to believe that the empires built on trade that today extend their grip across the world will, like those that preceded them, sooner or later come to an end. That end could well find its precipitating force in the tendency we know too well for everything to become a commodity, or in the impulse to seize whatever one can. Likewise it may be inevitable that the pressures that stem from inequalities will provoke revolts and conflicts, possibly with violence on a scale that we have yet to witness.

Faced with these forces surely our impulse and our will is to change the course of history. Are there forces or ways not yet tapped into, actions that we could take (or not take), ways to work together, to avoid this future apocalypse? Can we regain some control of our destiny, to make it truly human? Does that path lie in efforts to eradicate poverty and violence? Surely it does.

In many ways and in many places, spiritual forces—humanist or religious—give us hope. They offer a real chance to turn us from the grim path that Atali’s vision of apocalypse and our newspaper headlines portray so graphically. Looking to the resilient strength of spirituality we find a sense of solidarity and fraternity that binds us to people of many persuasions. Throughout the world, even if often too scattered, many are already engaged in efforts to change the path: silently, quietly, heroically, and in a holy manner.

These spiritual forces, it cannot and must not be denied, are not all good news. It is foolish to argue that the track record of religious ideas and communities is always inspiring. We could mention the Crusades of history or massacres in the twentieth century, carried out in the name of crazy ideologies that often are framed in religious terms and language. Perhaps. But we should also highlight the presence of repentance and the will to reflect on history and to change. Should we not listen to the appeal that these spiritual traditions, each in their own language, make to the brotherhood of man? 

Is it not time to recognize that all who follow different spiritual traditions seek a path to human development and salvation?

Is it not time to work together with leaders of different traditions to help them to see themselves, and be seen, not as causes of division and violence but as workers in the same field, striving to build a better world for all men?

Is it not time also to listen as they tell us what language or expression they could convey, both individually and together, to pacify negative instincts, address the factors of greed and envy, and civilize relations among all men and women?

And is it not time, at long last, to hear what they expect from each other, so that the promise they offer as they engage more intensively in a fraternal dialogue can fulfill the promise of making ever more concrete contributions to saving the world on so many fronts?

This kind of dialogue and exchange are more essential today than ever before. We need, all of us, coming from different disciplines and institutions, different religious traditions or none, to listen, to borrow more boldly from each other’s wisdom, to chart a path together toward a world of justice, peace and brotherhood, and fraternity. For this is the most important, common duty for all mankind.
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