Unity and peace among peoples is one of the most important aspirations of every human person and community. We desire to live in a place and a community where there is fraternal love, concern and charity towards each other. Without peace, there can be no security, progress and a future for humanity. Without unity, the country cannot move forward as one. There will be division, fighting and disorder. The economy cannot take off and no one can live in security because people will live in mistrust and suspicion of each other. It is right that leaders seek to protect the unity of the nation or the organization. This is the primary task of any leader, whether of a country, or a religion, or any organization. In particular, the task of promoting peace and security rests with the government. But this world is getting more and more divided in spite of globalization and mass media.
What is the real cause of the lack of unity among peoples? It is the wrong or narrow perception of seeing unity as uniformity. In the ancient world, where people were homogenous, sharing the same culture, same faith and were of the same tribe, unity was synonymous with uniformity. The community set the rules and if one wanted to be part of that community, he or she had to abide by the rules. However, today, in the wake of globalization and mass migration, the world is no longer homogenous. More and more, people of different cultures, races, languages and faiths are living in the same place. As such, unity cannot be based simply on uniformity. Unity must be founded in diversity. The failure to recognize this principle is the cause of much division and quarrels among peoples in the world.
The mistake of leaders is in thinking that unity is uniformity, and then trying to impose one common faith, values and culture on all. Some would even use force to have everyone adopt the same culture, faith and values so that there is unity. Such attempts were done in the Ancient world, whether it was China, India, Asia or Middle East. Every king or leader thought that it was the way to preserve the unity of the people. Often, those who resisted were persecuted and discriminated. This has always been the mistake of narrow-minded and insecure leaders who are afraid of diversity.
When faith and values are imposed, there is bound to be a negative reaction, resentment and opposition. This often results in retaliation and destruction of lives. Such enforcement might give a semblance of unity in the country, but those forced to submit live in fear, resentment and anger. There is no real conversion of heart and mind. The values, culture and faith are not subscribed to personally by those who disagree. Any unity is only a facile unity. It would be a matter of time when those being discriminated would eventually revolt.
On the other hand, those who are weak in their faith or culture or values, succumb easily to such coercive and covert pressures from the institution and from society. Instead of having the courage to be true to their identity, they choose to walk the ways of the majority to find security and acceptance. Such people have no values to protect or promote. They are pragmatic and choose whatever is in their favour. They do not live by principles but by whatever fulfills them. Moral relativism is the outcome of secularisation.
The failure to preserve one’s identity will result in the loss of authentic faith, culture and values. By giving up one’s practices and values for the sake of uniformity, the community will be impoverished further. Both the individual and the community are the losers. The truth is that if the community does not protect its culture and faith, it will have nothing distinctive to offer to the rest of the larger community. Those who insist that unity is based on uniformity fail to realize that unity is stronger when it is based on diversity. Most of all, the community has more to benefit from the diversity of the peoples than by forcing all to adopt a common culture. We are not robots produced out of a factory. Today, we are called to learn from the lessons of the past.
The first principle to promote a culture of peace and harmony is to recognize the principle of unity in diversity. We can no longer exclude others who are different from us in the way they live their lives. Their faith and culture might be quite different from ours, but they too should be given the freedom to practise their faith and culture. Such diverse cultures and faiths need not divide us if we learn to expand our horizons in looking at people who are different from us as a boon and not a bane. Religious and cultural intolerance will lead to polarization. The time has come for us to move beyond religious tolerance to authentic religious freedom. Religious tolerance is just the foundation to promote universal religious freedom. A full religious tolerance must arrive at a recognition of religious freedom for all. How can this be done?
Right from the outset, we must state clearly that Faith must be distinguished from culture even though it is expressed in and through one’s culture. Faith presupposes a personal encounter with the Sacred, and flowing from such an encounter, we express our love and devotion to God accordingly, using the human cultural expressions that help us to convey our sentiments and values of our faith. Consequently, the expressions of faith will vary from culture to culture. The same religion can therefore be expressed differently in different cultures, sharing the same faith and yet differing in customs. So, too, religious people experience God differently and can express their faith in their own distinct manner.
Faith presupposes a personal encounter with the Sacred without which it is just a religion based on practices, rituals and customs. This means it is not productive to impose faith on others when they do not have a personal encounter with the Sacred. Just by observing the rules and doctrines will not change the heart. That is why religion cannot be imposed but can only be shared and offered as a gift. Without a personal experience of God, religion can become another ideology rather than a true communion with God.
Human culture is the way we express our common values and identity. This might include faith values, but need not be confined to faith alone. Most of these are universal human values such as filial piety, respect and devotion. To strengthen a common identity, it is also expressed in customs, attire and dressing. Some of the cultural expressions could be adopted or adapted even by others, so long as they are consistent with the Faith values as well. Indeed, with globalization and mass migration, the world has become a melting pot of cultures. Inculturation is a reality when peoples of different cultures and faith live together.
When we see religion and culture from this perspective, then the second principle of unity is that we must foster what is common among the different religions and cultures. We must be proactive in appreciating what is good, holy and noble in others’ faith and culture. In recognizing the goodness in the faith of others and the values being promoted, our own faith and values are reinforced and strengthened where they are weak. So people with diverse faith and culture should not be seen as threats to us but they can enrich our lives.
But it also means that we must be honest with our beliefs and values. We need to recognize and acknowledge that we differ. We all have our sensitivities to some issues and practices. Because we experience the Sacred differently and the way God works in our life, our view of God will necessarily be coloured by our experiences. In such situations, we need to articulate our views clearly without condemning others who think differently. In expressing our identity, we should always respect other religious traditions and cultures. But we should be able to acknowledge our differences even whilst we want to reinforce what is common among ourselves. We must accept our differences and work on what we have in common.
The third principle of unity is that we need to engage each other in dialogue. Dialogue is the key to a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s position. It is also the key that binds us together as members of the human family. We must use friendship and religion as a critical force to bring harmony, peace and promote goodness in a troubled and divided world. In the midst of conflict and division, religions must come together to promote peace and unity. Through reciprocal dialogue and tolerance, we can help the world to cure its ills, such as inequality, injustice, corruption, moral relativism and xenophobia. Vatican II urges us, “Let Christian’s while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.” (Nostra Aetate, No. 2)
This dialogue should take place on three levels. Firstly, we should have a dialogue of culture and life. When there is love among peoples of different religions, there will be no enmity, extremism and terrorism. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8) All religions promote love and peace. As faith believers, we are all called to be instruments of God’s love and harmony. St John says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 Jn 3:17) This is where we share our culture and our common love for humanity, in helping the poor and in works of charity. We too should work together to promote family life and family values such as care for the children, elderly and the sick. We are called to work together to promote justice and free the world of diseases, hunger, poverty and violence. Through sharing our culture and values, we can inspire and edify each other as well.
The second level of dialogue is the dialogue of faith. This dialogue should begin with the sharing of faith experiences and encounters. This is a non-threatening approach because it is a personal sharing. One can either listen in faith or simply be open to the sharing. The whole purpose of sharing and faith testimony is so that we can strengthen our quest for God and promote fraternal unity among all peoples. If we listen attentively with our heart the faith of others, this will enrich us and help us grow in our own faith.
We should not be afraid to dialogue if we all seek the truth. Inter-religious dialogue is the way to encourage friendship and tolerance. But it should go beyond just being nice to each other and side-stepping talk on those areas where we disagree. Partners in inter-religious dialogue are pilgrims seeking truth in faith. Our dialogue must not stop at just identifying our common values but to see the ultimate foundation of all values, that is the ultimate truth.
Finally, we need to be strong and persevere in building unity in diversity. We must desire to see the truth and be sincere in searching for the fullness of truth together with other believers. There will be some who are against such inter-religious dialogue and friendship overtures, but we must be persistent. We must resist attempts to destroy unity because of fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, intolerance and pride. Only when we see that there is so much goodness and truth in other religions and cultures, can we together praise God and follow Him in love and service.
This message by Archbishop William Goh, was delivered on the 14th October 2017 by Msgr Heng during an International Conference. This conference, held at the Pan Pacific Hotel, Singapore on 13th-14th October 2017. was themed “Role of Muslim NGOs in Promoting Culture of Peace: Challenges and Prospects” and was co-organised by Jamiyah Singapore and the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO).