In a political moment often teeming with anger and surging with hate, common folks may rationally ask, “Where can the world turn for peace?” The answer usually goes straight to governments and political leaders. But politicians wring their hands and find scapegoats for the source of the problem. And when it comes to unrest or violence, faith groups are the regular suspects.
Not only is this inaccurate, it is short-sighted and counterproductive.
At the G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo, Japan, this weekend, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, countered those false notions while showing why faith groups are so well suited to lift people, preserve the planet and actually promote peace.
On Saturday he remarked, “There is no peace when we are in conflict with ourselves, the earth, or our neighbors. There is no peace when we are in conflict in the name of religious belief.”
He continued by referencing an idea from William T. Cavanaugh’s work, "The Myth of Religious Violence," saying, “In our post-9/11 world, some argue religion inherently leads to violence. However, historical and empirical analysis dispels the ‘myth of religious violence’ — the notion that religion ipso facto is somehow responsible for violence.”
In reality, religious organizations have great strength and are open to the kind of bridge building that can bring government, nongovernment and other organizations together to alleviate suffering, foster dialogue and promote peace.
In his book "The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation," University of Notre Dame professor and historian Scott Appleby writes, "Religions, despite the shameful record of a minority of their adherents, are strikingly accomplished in developing their own traditions of peace-related practices and concepts. Lifting up, celebrating, and empowering those elements of the religious community are acts of civic responsibility in today's world."
The ultimate test of the G20 Interfaith Forum will be whether it can properly connect with or provide influence on the world political leaders who will gather later this month in Osaka for the G20 Economic Summit.
Strong economies and robust institutions of civil societies, including faith organizations, lead to human flourishing. But pews and halls of many religious organizations around the world are shrinking. By many indicators, the rising generation appears indifferent to organized faith and belief. Many governments look on religious organization with skepticism or even disdain and have permitted or promoted policies that undermine religious freedom.
The question looms large: Can religious groups still have an influence on people, on the planet and in the promotion of peace?
Elder Gong provided a powerful metaphor for moving forward. He referenced the Japanese hibakujumoku, or "survivor trees" that miraculously weathered the Hiroshima bomb. While most trees where destroyed by the blast, 170 of these trees not only survived but soon sprouted new leaves and signaled rebirth to the nation. Roots and regenerative resilience will be key to faith communities moving forward with maximum influence in worthy projects local and global.
Elder Gong concluded, “We promote peace when all voices seeking the greater good participate, where none is disparaged or denied, even if the inevitable disagreements of healthy pluralism persist.”
Faith communities of all kinds can and must engage with government and nongovernment groups to bring about peace and lift the condition of people everywhere. Governments must protect the rights of such organizations to take their faith into the public square to bring about good. Individual citizens must likewise come together and participate in civil society to prove that peace is not to be found in government buildings or documents, but that it is fostered in people who turn to the interconnected workings of human hearts.