De speech die ik hield bij het 6th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana (Kazachstan) op 11 Oktober. Het thema van het congres was Religious Leaders for a Safe World en onder de ruim 80 afgevaardigden uit 46 landen waren veel vertegenwoordigers van religieuze stromingen maar ook politici en academici. Ik weet dus niet precies bij welke categorie ik hoorde, maar ik was wel uitgenodigd voor een bijdrage.
Your Excellencies, your Eminences, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I worked as a protestant minister for 10 years, as an academic scholar of religion for 20, and as a politician for 7, and I discovered that there is a crucial parallel between the realm of politics and the realm of religion. Both are not just satisfied with the status quo of the existing world and its realities. Both believe that the world could be different from what we see today. Both are built on a vision that transcends the deterministic and cynical realism we see so much around us. But both can be perversions of this as well. Even if only for that reason, this congress is an important marker of the visionary perspective we need to tackle the fundamental problems and risks of our time: war, inequalities, and climate change.
I purposely mention these three fundamental problems because they are indeed so crucial to humankind today and because they have been addressed in visionary documents. The Manifesto we discuss this morning couples the need to eradicate war to a call to remove the causes of war, including inequalities. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si championed social and ecological initiatives, similar to those proposed by the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew. And we could add more, linking up with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.
The interconnectedness of all these grand challenges points to a deeper wisdom that we may need to reflect on today: we have only one world. We are in it together and there is no escape route. We are therefore all part of the same geopolitical and environmental ecosystem. Events in one area inevitably will affect other areas. Wars in the Middle East send refugees to the doorsteps of surrounding countries as far as Western Europe. Climate change affects the poor more than anyone else and makes them call upon the rich. Social inequalities in Africa cause instability in Europe. Economic crises in the West have catastrophic effects on the development of other parts of the world. And so on. These are not separate events or circumstances. They are all connected to the fundamental and overarching challenge of our times: how to make our existence sustainable. And we are intrinsically part of that challenge: how to honor our connectedness with our fellow human beings and with the natural world around us. We are called to build new societies in which we are in harmony with each other and with the earth.
For that reason we urgently need the voices of politics and religion, as well as of course art, science, and everything else. We need the visionary stories that it could be otherwise. We need leaders who strongly believe in the possibility to make a change and to change this world into a better place. We need leaders who are brave enough to admit that our traditional styles of politics and religion have wreaked havoc and have led us into this world of war and inequalities. We need leaders who are humble enough to admit that they need the wisdom and contributions of others. We need leaders who use their power to create space for the other instead of expand their own realm of influence. We need leaders who understand that they are called to serve. We need leaders who understand the signs of the times and the urgency of radical steps towards peace, social equality, and ecological harmony.
Politics and religion have the potential to inspire such leaders and to make them successful for the common good. Because politics and religion share this one characteristic: they believe that the world can be different from what we see. Both are built on visions.
But I don’t want to be naively optimistic. I immediately have to admit that both politics and religion often fall short of this visionary approach. Politics is often reduced to power games or negotiation of vested interests. Religion is often limited to self-absorbed and absolutist ways of bolstering group identities. Even stronger: Religious leaders and institutions usually see themselves as only positive whereas in fact they are often part of the problem rather than of the solution. Religions are in my view by definition ambivalent and can be used for good and for bad, to bring peace and lead to war, to grow love and to instill hate. As someone who is active in the worlds of politics and of the academic study of religion, I am deeply aware of their shortcomings, but I am also convinced of their potential. And I believe it is our task today to avert the dark sides and to foster their visionary potential.