Religion, Policy and Human Rights
The pandemic has stopped the world in its tracks. Healthcare systems have been pushed to breaking point, global markets face a downward spiral and inequalities have deepened as society’s most vulnerable are hit the hardest.
Spiritual solace is an obvious hallmark of religion — and doubtless something that is acutely needed amid this year’s fear and pervasive sense of mortality. However, experts argue that faith-based organizations can go beyond matters of the spirit to provide targeted assistance that bridges the gap between the divine and more earthly, humanitarian concerns.
This week, religious leaders and policymakers from across the globe convened at the G20 Interfaith Forum to explore how to support and mobilize faith communities during this protracted period of crisis.
At that global platform, they discussed the biggest problems that face humanity —proposing solutions and looking for ways to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through collective action. For several years, KAICIID has been closely involved with the Interfaith Forum; both share a similar mission, promoting dialogue and collaboration between religious leaders and policymakers on the most pressing development issues.
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Leadership is not about knowing everything — it’s about knowing who to connect to. Faith leaders are trusted agents, embedded in the community and the local establishment. I always see that as an opportunity to mobilize faith-leaders, whether on humanitarian grounds or in efforts to build relationships between communities.
Inclusion of the marginalised is at the heart of the world’s religious traditions. As the pandemic intensifies inequality, religious leaders are strongly positioned to champion human rights and dignity throughout this global emergency.
I came across one such a positive in the shape of a very interesting yearly event set up by the Jewish community called “The MITZVAH day”. It is a Jewish led day of social action, and focuses on the Jewish ‘mitzvot’, or values of ‘gemilut chassadim’ (loving kindness), ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world) and ‘tzedek’ (righteousness). On this day the Jewish community engage the public to take part in local projects (such as giving/collecting small food tokens which are then in turn given to local soup kitchens, the poor and elderly). Their mission, and the emphasis for the day, is to get involved locally, roll up sleeves and without fundraising, reduce hardship and poverty, help the environment and bring a little joy to another person.
Similarly Charity in Christianity is not just almsgiving, and should not be seen only as an obligation or duty. Charity is love. Christians believe that God’s love and generosity towards humanity moves and inspires us to love and be generous in response.
Jesus taught that to love God and to love neighbour are the greatest commandments. Charity is not an optional extra, but an essential component of faith. In Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), Jesus identifies himself with those who are poor and excluded, and teaches that we will be judged, not on how beautiful our altars are, but on the way that we treat others. We cannot profess to worship God in church, yet not express that love practically to our neighbour. And our neighbour is not just someone local to us. In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus made clear that our neighbour may be someone on the other side of the world, who is not ‘one of us’ but different
In the Islamic tradition Sadaqah’ literally means ‘righteousness’ and refers to the voluntary giving of alms or charity. Sadaqah has been defined as an act of “giving something…without seeking a substitute in return.
The term ‘sadaqah’ stems from the Arabic root word ‘sidq’ (s-d-q) ص د ق, which means sincerity and it is considered as a sign of sincere faith. Examples of sadaqah include:
- To administer justice between two people
- To remove harm from a road/removing thorns, bones and stones from paths
- A good word
- Every step taken towards prayer
- Guiding the blind
- Supporting the weak with the strength of your arms
The dharmik traditions have the concept of Sewa. Sewa is a sanskrit word. It means to sacrifice your time and resources for the benefit of others without wanting anything in return.
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Previously, participating groups have organised Sewa Day volunteering projects in old people’s homes, homeless shelters, schools in disadvantaged areas, hospitals and hospices, country parks, conservation areas and city farms – all with an aim of making a positive difference to someone else’s happiness and prosperity.
Sometimes, we are stuck in a narrow way about what an organization should look like and can be uncomfortable with dealing with those types of organizations. There’s a nervousness of community-based organizations that are ‘too religious’. The language of religious actors is different from policymakers because of the inherent nature of spiritual belief, which can make certain stakeholders and governments slightly uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily a problem with the organization — their commitment is born of their religion and they may be doing amazing work.
The key, is to find common ground and a common language — the benefits of which are two-fold. This would instill confidence in policymakers to speak without fear of making mistakes about religious dogma. In turn, it would enable religious actors to become key partners without having to shun their worldview and rebrand as secular NGOs.
We haven’t quite worked out that common language, that space where both sides are comfortable and where faith-based organizations can retain their identity and be open about it. For me, that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Once that cohesion and intrepid spirit of collaboration is established, a coalition of secular and faith-based allies would be well equipped to tackle the diverse and devastating dimensions of the pandemic.
Our obligations to the citizens of our own country must not negate our duties to global humanity. Active support for the poor and the displaced will be essential in longer-term efforts for a more just, more inclusive and healthier post-crisis world.
“All human beings are limbs of the same body. God created them from the same essence. If one part of the body suffers pain, then the whole body is affected. If you are indifferent to this pain, you cannot be called a human being.”
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