Faith can overcome religious nationalism. Here’s how

Religious Nationalism 2018

UN Photo/Rick Bajornas Religious leaders.

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Chris Seiple, President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement; advisor to the Templeton Religion Trust; Senior Fellow, University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

It’s not the 1930s but you can see them from here. If we are to defeat the rise of religious nationalism, we will need a faithful patriotism equipped with new ideas and new skills.

The cross-cultural religious literacy skills of covenantal pluralism remind us of the best of who we are (defined by what we are for), equipping us to engage us at our worst (defined by what we are against).

It will take individuals and faith communities (the scriptural literacy of knowing what your beliefs say about the other); it will take education (the religious literacy to know enough about our neighbour’s faith to respect it); and it will take the cross-cultural skills of self- and contextual evaluation, communication and negotiation to lead and prepare faithful patriots to stand against the authoritarianism of religious nationalism.

I returned to Poland on 24 August, 1989. It was the day after the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Poland between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. And a week later, on September 1st, church bells tolled across the land, marking the 50th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The next year, the Soviets would massacre Polish elites in Katyn, and soon the Nazis established their death camps in Auschwitz and Majdanek, among other places.

Lessons from the past

Poland, of course, is famous for the role that faith played in resisting the Nazis, and then the Communists. No one embodied this faithful patriotism more than Karol Józef Wojtyła, who would later be selected as the Archbishop of the town where I lived, Krakow, precisely because he was not considered a threat to the regime.

Wojtyła would become the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. He knew his own faith at its best (scriptural literacy). He worked to ensure that his faith was equipped to respect other faiths, most notably at Vatican II (religious literacy). And as Pope, he led, relationally, and cross-culturally: as a Pole in the Vatican, as a European in the Cold War, and as a Christian in a multi-faith/multi-ethnic world.

Today there is no doubt that that John Paul II played a decisive role in ending Communism in Poland, and Eastern Europe, setting the stage for the demise of the Soviet Union. My return to Poland also witnessed the first non-communist Prime Minister to freely take power since 1946.

But it has been a generation since 1989, enough time to forget the lessons learned, the examples that inspired us.

Demonizing minorities

In some countries, we are in danger of returning to the 1930s — a time when dictators refashioned beliefs and behaviours in their own image, using a religious nationalism that manipulated the ethno-religious majority, defining it against ethno-religious minorities. Most citizens were not equipped to defend against this demonization, setting the stage for the invasion of Poland, and World War II.

The 1930s seemingly loom again. Unlike then, however, ordinary citizens now have much more information and choices that they can make about how their society and world is organized.

In my own global travels, I have found that only a faithful patriotism can defeat religious nationalism. A faithful patriotism is a non-xenophobic pride of country, defined by what it is for, and to include a welcoming place for ethnic and faith minorities.

Faithful patriotism, however, requires a covenantal pluralism that is, in turn, equipped with the practical skill sets of cross-cultural religious literacy.

Mutual respect

Covenantal pluralism moves beyond mere diversity — living side-by-side without engaging one another — to a mutual pledge to engage, respect and protect each other, without necessarily lending moral equivalency to the other’s beliefs or behaviour.

Covenantal pluralism includes exclusive truth claims. Covenantal pluralism does not seek to assimilate minority beliefs and behaviours — to make their adherents look and act like the majority — but to integrate them as key contributing ingredients to the common good, as fellow citizens.

I asked my friend how I should think about his identity. He responded, “I’ve been a Pashtun for 3,000 years, a Muslim for 1,400, and a Pakistani for 57.”

The result is more stability because minority faiths and/or ethnic groups see themselves as a part of the country’s common story, and thus feel like equal and contributing citizens to their country’s common good.

This effect is more likely, and sustainable, when people are intentionally equipped with the skills of cross-cultural religious literacy. I remember my first engagement with the Pashtun people. I asked my friend how I should think about his identity. He responded, “I’ve been a Pashtun for 3,000 years, a Muslim for 1,400, and a Pakistani for 57.”

I soon discovered during those trips to the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, that the best way to engage such an ethno-religious identity was to embrace my own faith identity. I knew my own faith (Christianity) well enough that, when combined with the tremendous local hospitality, I was not intimidated by the overwhelming Muslim majority context. In fact, because we each knew what we believed, we were able to listen better. Across irreconcilable theological differences, we learned how to agree to disagree, agreeably, and therefore how to work together, practically (developing, for example, a scholarship program for students at the University of Science and Technology in Bannu).

Understanding your own faith

In other words, I had to understand my own faith at it best (scriptural literacy) and enough about my neighbor’s faith to respect it (religious literacy). The key is an elicitive and empathetic ear that enables the possibility of relationship—of a cross-cultural engagement that learns to speak to each other in a language and logic of mutual respect, and, eventually, mutual reliance.

I also learned in my travels that if I wanted to work on behalf of minorities, it was best to build work with and through the majority ethno/religious group. If I could understand those believers as they understood themselves, then I could also begin to understand how they understood and related to those of a minority ethnic/faith group.

In my many trips to Myanmar, for example, I met many Buddhist monks who had a profound respect for other religious traditions as a function of their own faith. Such influential leaders, in any setting, give permission for the majority to behave according to the best of their faith.

The worst of religion

But I also met some who believed that to be Burmese was to be Buddhist, and therefore there was no place for ethno-religious groups like the Muslim Rohingya in Burma. Such examples encourage the worst of religion.

Leadership begins with the majority group, whose responsibility it is, as a function of their faith, to include minorities as equals. Such leadership must be defined by a cross-cultural religious literacy that not only includes scriptural and religious literacy, but also, as I have learned, the relational skills necessary—of evaluation, communication and negotiation—to be better, together, across faiths and groups, developing practical policies and programmes.

Seeking these kinds of skills in order to be in, and deepen, a covenant among us won’t be easy. We will have to understand the best of faith and the worst of religion in our own tradition, promoting the good, and speaking against the bad.

We will have to learn how to listen in humility to other traditions that, like our own, will vary from culture to culture. And we will have to want to learn the cross-cultural religious literacy skills of building the multi-faith and multi-ethnic coalitions for the common good that our countries require, as global communities of the willing.

If we do, however, we will not only stand together as faithful patriots worldwide against religious nationalism, we will provide a new model of containing common threats by sustaining our common values.

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