Not in God’s Name
By Bruce Duncan CSsR
It was like a dream come true. Who could have foretold 50 years ago that the leaders of the world religions would gather at Assisi at the invitation of the pope to show their reverence for other religious traditions and as one denounce violence committed in the name of religion?
But in September, 500 religious leaders met in the Italian town to discuss how to spread a message of peace, especially in places where political forces invoke God’s name to justify violence and oppression.
Participants from nine world religions were present, including Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Christianity. Also at the gathering were immigrants, refugees, war victims, Holocaust survivors and a smattering of atheists and agnostics.
A prominent attendee was the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is well-known for his concern about creation and the ecology, and was a major collaborator with Pope Francis in writing the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, lamented that hunger and inequality were driving some people to extremism, yet the “mercy of God sought to embrace everyone in a more just world.”
Mohammad Sammak, sectary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue spoke on ‘common respect’ between Christians and Muslims, and how religions can complement one another. The pope’s old friend, Rabbi Skorka from Argentina, bemoaned growing violence and insisted that hope for peace was at the heart of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths.
Francis is not the first pope to attend the annual gathering at Assisi, sponsored by the Sant’Egidio community in Rome. St John Paul II began the process in 1986, and attended the gathering in 1993 during the conflict in the Balkans and again in 2002, following the attacks of 9/11 on the United States. Pope Benedict also spoke at Assisi in 2011, insisting that violence is “the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.”
Such inter-faith meetings represent a stunning change in Catholic thinking and a maturing of views about other religious traditions. There was a time not long past when Catholics were not supposed to attend a Protestant or Anglican church service without permission, or even to go to a funeral or wedding. Fortunately, such rigid attitudes began to dissolve after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Today, there is a new appreciation of other world religions, especially in countries that were traditionally Christian like Australia and New Zealand. The situation has changed dramatically with the migration of large numbers of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the major cities people now rub shoulders with those from all the great religious and philosophical traditions, especially Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Friendships have removed barriers to understanding and inter-marriages are frequent. Countries are firmly committed to a richer cosmopolitan culture and future, based on a strong system of law, tolerance and human rights.
Catholics once believed our duty was to try to convert people to our religion. The popes at Assisi have been sending a different message. “There is no Catholic God,” as Pope Francis once said. There is only the one God who has created the entire universe and we are all created in God’s image. God loves everyone whatever their religious beliefs, without exception.
Francis has previously said there must be no proselytism, only the example of our good works and the joy and hope that belief in the Good News offers us. Of course he does not forego his belief in the uniqueness of Christianity, that God is invested transparently in the person of Jesus, whose Holy Spirit continues to animate and guide believers.
Throughout history all peoples have sought to explore and explain the meaning of their existence, especially in religious terms. They have developed rich traditions over time, deeply enmeshed in their cultures and identities. This rich tapestry of beliefs is striving for the good of human beings, though perceived through many different worldviews or lenses.
Francis is not saying that any religion “will do” or that they are all the same. He recognises there are major differences among religions and people must choose which are most meaningful and offer the greatest help and support in living a good life together.
For Francis the key word is dialogue, meaning listening closely to people articulating their religious experience and traditions. He believes we can learn valuable insights from every person and tradition by careful listening to their experience and understanding of the Mystery, the Transcendent, the divine that many of us call God.
The Bishop of Rome, as Francis refers to himself, sees this dialogue and deeper appreciation of the many religious traditions as vitally important today, since much will depend on world religions generating international understanding and cooperation in securing our human wellbeing on this planet. And not just to eliminate religion as a cause of conflict, but also to address the effects of global warming. He has linked developing a sustainable global economy and lifestyles with international efforts to eliminate hunger and the worst poverty, notably through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
On the final day at Assisi, Francis said it was the urgent duty of all religions “to bring about encounters through dialogue and to oppose every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism.”
In effect rejecting the ancient crusade mentality to wage war in the name of God, Francis said, “War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself. With firm resolve, therefore, let us reiterate that violence and terrorism are opposed to an authentic religious spirit.”
Francis believes everyone can be an artisan of peace. “Through this gathering in Assisi, we resolutely renew our commitment to be such artisans, by the help of God, together with all men and women of goodwill.” He concluded, “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!”
Image: A flower tribute to the victims of the Bataclan concert hall massacre in Paris in November, 2015.