Monday, September 21, 2009

No World Peace Without Religious Peace

"No world peace without religious peace" is a quotation from Hans Küng, the Swiss Catholic theologian who has been so active in the work of worldwide interfaith reconciliation. When we look around the globe, we see that a high percentage of conflicts and wars have a religious dimension. Virtually all of the various wars in the Middle East are obvious examples, including America's seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Küng puts forward the argument that such conflicts will not be resolved by politics or weapons alone; the underlying religious issues must be addressed as well. It is not just nations that are at war, but religions too. If Küng is right, then interfaith reconciliation is a necessity for peace on earth.

I first became aware of Küng's work at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993. It was at this historic global interfaith gathering that Küng put forth his idea of a global ethic, a set of principles that could be adopted by all of humanity, that would favor no one group over the others and could enable the human race to live in peace. The 1993 Parliament in Chicago was followed by Parliaments in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999 and Barcelona, Spain, in 2004. The next Parliament will take place in Melbourne, Australia, December 3 through 9, 2009. Once again a movement will be made to bring the faith traditions of the earth into cooperative interchange of ideas, beliefs, and commitments.

At the 1999 Cape Town Parliament, Nelson Mandela proclaimed that the worldwide scourge of AIDS needed the cooperative effort of the world's religions to be conquered. Today the world, and Africa especially, are still ravaged by this disease. The 2004 Parliament in Barcelona focused on four major global issues: clean drinking water, religious violence, third world debt, and the plight of refugees. Significant projects were undertaken in all four areas by religious leaders.
The theme of the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne is "Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth."
You still have time to go, and you might get to talk to Hans Küng yourself. Find out more at

If it is true that the huge social problems of the world need religious cooperation to be overcome, or at least the cessation of the conflicts between religions that exacerbate these problems, then interfaith involvement becomes a kind of moral imperative. There are many ways to participate, and your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue may offer such programs. I have found the Interfaith Alliance, supported by the late Walter Cronkite, to be a creative, active group for interfaith issues within the United States, and the Parliament of the World's Religions to be the cutting edge movement for global interfaith dialogue and action. I encourage you to explore these two good options and others as well.

Religion, to be helpful to humanity in the 21st century, must lead to dialogue and peace, not hatred and war. Now we must each figure out how to contribute toward that goal. What are your ideas?

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Question of Character

Jacob Weisberg, in a recent Newsweek opinion essay, writes that "health-care systems are not just policy choices, but expressions of national character and values." If Weisberg is on target, as I think he is, then what kind of national character and values would our present health care system imply—assuming for a moment that our hodgepodge collection of procedures constitutes a system? I would suggest that our present, unreformed system implies the following:

1) We are more concerned about whether relatively affluent people can get the very best care as quickly as possible than whether less affluent people can get any care at all. We are very willing to live with stark inequality.

2) We are determined to look at health care as a collection of profit-making businesses, even though it is ever more clear that health care does not fit the standard business model and that providing health care as if there were a competitive marketplace for such services keeps driving prices higher and higher. We are very fearful of more cooperative and inclusive solutions, which are demonized as socialism.

3) We are in love with technology, the newer and more sophisticated the better. We believe that technology—not compassion, personal care, or finding lower-cost alternatives—is the solution.

4) We link health care to employment. This link may have been created almost by accident during the WWII era, but it fits strangely well with our history. The old pilgrim rule that "the one who doesn't work, doesn't eat" applies to health care as well. There is an unmistakable streak of judgment in our rationing of health care. What's worse, even those who work may still not get care.

5) We apparently do not believe that health care is a right, but rather a privilege for those who deserve it because of their station in life.

I may be overgeneralizing, but these are not far-fetched claims. They are also not very admirable characteristics. But all of this is now being challenged. The president claims that this overly selfish, profit-oriented, divisive system does not represent the real American character, does not reflect our true selves. I pray that he is right.

Apart from economic issues, which are important and challenging, and political issues, which are difficult and often nasty, health care clearly has a moral dimension. In Ted Kennedy's moving last letter to Obama, he lays out the case "that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

What kind of a people are we? Are we compassionate or selfish? Do we seek justice or only self-interest? Will we care for all the people or just our particular tribe? Do only the few enjoy the huge wealth of our land, or the whole people? These are the questions of character to be answered in the next two or three months. I deeply hope that we will hear the call of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" and discover a new sense of national community and caring. In the current president's words, "That is our calling. That is our character."