Issue 43, July 2004
Towards a culture of religious diversity and communal harmony
The World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia jointly sponsored a Consultation of Christian and Theravada Buddhist leaders at Tao Fung Shan Centre, Shatin in Hong Kong from 2nd to 6th July 2004. We, the participants, came from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Buddhists and Christians from Bangladesh, Japan, Hong Kong and Switzerland contributed as participants and observers. The consultation was an opportunity for us to meet, observe our religious practices and pray together, share our stories and listen to stories from other parts of South East Asia, committing ourselves to work in respect for religious diversity and communal harmony.
We began each day with devotions, which was a rich experience. Two keynote addresses, one Buddhist and the other Christian put us into the heart of our theme. In listening to the stories shared by the participants, we noticed that there were two sides of one story; one a story of good and harmonious relations and the other a story of tensions, antagonism, pain and suffering among people of different religions. We wrestled with the issues arising out of the pain we heard. We spent a considerable amount of time in small groups and discussed issues such as conversion, contextualisation, religious and ethnic identities and power, intra-religious relations and interreligious relations, and a Code of Conduct for relations between people of different religions.
Religious and ethnic identities and power:
Each one of us has different identities and these identities have many attachments. Culture, tradition, language, literature, ownership of land, autonomy constitute some of these attachments. Some expressions of identity create barriers leading to negative reactions to other identities. We need to transcend such expressions of identity and respect and honour people in their different religious and ethnic identities. Different minority groups, indigenous and religious, should be assured of their rights. Both Lord Buddha and Jesus transcended narrow identities by emptying themselves. But emptying oneself should not be interpreted as entitling others to oppress ethnic and religious identities. We need to find alternative liberative traditions in our scriptures and texts in order to transcend narrowness and exclusivism. This is a spiritual way and pilgrimage for us. Our spiritualities should transcend restrictive social identities and enable changes in social structures. That is what both Lord Buddha and Jesus did. However, both our religions at times use their pyramidical structural powers, not only towards undemocratic processes but also towards a harmful spiritual environment. Such negative power is often used to oppress differences. Both Lord Buddha and Jesus were able to serve without such negative power. The positive power Lord Buddha and Jesus used was love, compassion and humility, which was no power in the eyes of the powerful.
Interreligious relations and dialogue cannot be dissociated from our relations with our own community. We are aware that sometimes we find ourselves at odds with certain aspects of behaviour among our own co-religionists in relation to our neighbours of other faiths. We are faced with a dilemma. We know that their behaviour may be hurtful to our neighbour and we realise that the fibre of living together as Buddhists and Christians may be jeopardized through an over-enthusiastic and sometimes ill-directed zeal. At the same time, we do not want to dissociate ourselves from fellow believers. As we progress in nurturing our relations between Buddhists and Christians, we feel the urgency of committing ourselves to an intra-religious dialogue within our own communities, in order to promote a relationship between Buddhists and Christians that does not denigrate or harm the other. We believe in fact that our dialogue enables us to grow as better Buddhists and Christians. The aim of our involvement is to bring about a renewal within our respective communities willing to affirm religious plurality and respect for the other. In all this, we need to have a self-critical approach to our social and religious systems.
We therefore commit ourselves
We believe that such honest efforts will promote peace and harmony in our communities, because it is through honesty and trust alone one engages in dialogue.
Conversion has become a threat and tension for religious diversity and harmony. We need to understand that conversions take place in different socio-economic-political contexts for different reasons. It can happen due to dissatisfaction with one’s own religion, life-changing experiences, but also through the use of force and aggression. However conversion is not only an issue of changing religious affiliation. It is a reality when mass media e.g. convert us to consumerism and self-serving ideologies. The most important thing however about conversion from another religion is that one has the freedom to change if one so desires, without any coercion but also without any fear. True spiritual conversion will respect the dignity and value of persons and religious traditions. Conversion should render us more and not less human. Conversion can take place within one’s own religious tradition as much as it can be a spiritual journey from one religion to another. In all we are supposed to be led from ignorance to wisdom, from darkness to light, injustice to justice, falsehood to truth, affirming our identity without denigrating the religious tradition of the other. While some conversions may be genuine and spiritual, some others may not. In true spiritual conversions, a selfish person should become a selfless person. There should be space and an alternative community for anyone to enter. It is the responsibility of our religions to create such caring communities. Throughout our consultation we have emphasised that the problems of unethical conversions need also to be tackled by religious and civil societies, and not by the state and law through legislature, since bills on prohibitions against conversion can easily lead to arbitrary harassment, arrest, and even torture, thus opening up for abuse.
We express our concern learning about increased tensions and expressions of intolerance between Buddhists and Christians in some Theravada Buddhist countries. While these tensions may not all be caused by religion, they are regretfully perceived to be expressions of religion and are therefore harmful to the very notion of Buddhism and Christianity.
Any message has to be communicated in an understandable and intelligible way. Any message therefore needs to be related to the context of our time. Our mission and the methods of contextualisation should however not confuse the minds of the common people. There should be a sympathetic approach to each other. There is in any contextualisation or adaptation an inherent risk of not being sensitive to issues of justice and equality. While you adapt yourself totally to the existing context, you may lose the meaning you want to convey. There have been adaptations in some of our religious traditions, which we consider as negative. Contextualisation should have its limitations and should be engaged carefully, and in a skilful amd respectful manner. Any contextualisation, which treads on the holy ground of the other for the sake of winning converts does wrong not only to the other religious tradition but also to the people to whom they want to minister as well as to one’s own religious tradition.
Code of conduct:
1. Share the same purpose of mutual spiritual development for the transformation of individuals and communities
Next article: Inter-faith integrity and Christian witness: a consultation in Bangalore – Clare Amos, Michael Ipgrave, Susanne Mitchell, Andrew Wingate