Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action
— Rabbi Warren Stone
I was invited to Rome to speak by the U.S. Embassy and the Vatican’s Pontifical Gregorian University for a major one-day conference on October 12, entitled: “Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action.” The program’s vision was to include the Abrahamic faith traditions on three global issues panels, each of which included a Christian, Jewish and Muslim leader. The issues were:
- Equitable and Ethical Development,
- Caring for the Environment and
- Preventing Conflict.
Atttending the conference were worldwide ambassadors to the Vatican, Vatican Bishops and officials, seminary students from Gregorian and the international media.
U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz envisioned this conference as a concrete expression of President Obama’s interfaith goals. He spoke about the critical importance of having religious voices work on world issues: “We believe that interfaith strategies can solve many of the world’s biggest problems.”
A special banquet was held at the US Vatican Embassy in honor of the speakers, with kosher/halal food thoughtfully provided to the Jewish and Muslim participants. Together we shared our interreligious visions for cooperation and bold action on environmental and climate challenges, the alleviation of world poverty and hunger, and the development of courageous paths to ease world conflicts. The press was pleased to get many pictures of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders fully engaged in friendship and dialogue.
Joshua Dubois, head of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offered greetings from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His keynote address encouraged faith communities to actively engage on these global political issues: “Every day, brick by brick by brick, men and women of faith continuously lay the moral and intellectual foundation of our public life and dialogue, and you are the first responders when for various reasons, that foundation is shaken.”
The vision of this conference was to turn interreligious dialogue into interreligious action. I served on a panel with Father Joseph Rozansky, the justice chair of the World Franciscans, and Fazlun Khalid, founder and director of the UK’s Islamic Foundation for Ecology and the Environment. We concurred that religious leadership from all traditions must act to alleviate environmental despoliation and the world-wide threats of climate change.
The other two Jewish representatives, each of whom sat on a panel, were Dr. Hillel Levine, founder of the International Center for Conciliation, and Dr. Edward Kessler, founder of Cambridge University’s Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. The conference ended with Dr. Levine embracing Archbishop Chacour, a Palestinian priest, on the podium after the archibishop gave an emotionally moving talk about his life in Israel. Cameras went off to capture this moment of embrace.
We were given an “insider’s tour” of the Vatican, which included the Pope’s inner sanctum behind the Sistine Chapel, and I spent a bit of time seeing the Coliseum and the Jewish Ghetto. Of course, I went to see the Arch of Titus, which bears the famous sculpted relief of the Roman soldiers taking the Second Temple’s Golden Menorah and the phrase, “Judea Vanquished.” It felt good to be in Rome in our time, where we as Jews stood in partnership with representatives of Christianity and Islam to confront our world problems.
We left united in the hope and with the commitment that the message of interreligious dialogue and action will grow throughout our communities. It was a most inspiring and uplifting conference. We focused on the positive and the doable rather than the divisiveness found too often between faith traditions.
And now it’s time for all of us to act.
“Building Bridges of Hope” An Interfaith Conference
An ancient Jewish Midrash describes how God took Adam around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My Creation, how beautiful and perfect is everything that I created. I created it for you. Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world. If you ruin it, there is nobody to restore it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28)
Those words ring mightily today, for the very future of life as we know it is at stake. I fervently believe that climate change and our human despoliation of our sacred and fragile Earth has become the most profound religious issue of our times. Like Adam, we have been warned and cannot plead ignorance. Like Adam, will we fail to heed God’s words? The mythic story of Creation warns us that we are guardians of all creation, human and all other species.
Ancient Jewish traditions call for justice, equity and the Deuteronomic commandment, “Baal tashchit,” meaning, “thou shalt not destroy.” The reference is to the trees and fruits of future generations and hence, human survival. Ancient Jewish traditions call for the corners of the fields and the produce of our harvest to be left for the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable of society. Yet in our world, it will be the most vulnerable, with the least resources, who first reap the consequences of our environmental failures. I am referring to the peoples of Micronesia and Bangladesh and hundreds of millions of other of the world’s most impoverished people living close to the seas, who are on the front lines of climate change and have become the first of our world’s environmental refugees. While at the UN in Copenhagen, I met with leaders from the Micronesian island of Kiribati who are already planning the emigration of their entire population. They have already run out of fresh water and soon will be threatened with food scarcity.
For all of us, impoverished and comfortable alike, our future will be tied to the scarcity of fresh water and food, as our glaciers melt and water sources, including the Jordan River in our holy lands which has been diminished. Who is responsible for responding to these threats to our environment? We may believe that our political leaders and bodies, which came together at the United Nations in Kyoto and Copenhagen and which will meet again in Cancun, or our individual nations’ leaders and lawmakers will have the political will to solve these issues. Others put the burden on our scientists and particularly, our environmentalists. But climate change and the despoliation of our earth and its limited resources are the most urgent moral and spiritual issues for all of us, and we are going to have to be active instruments for driving the necessary changes. In this regard, people of our faith traditions have a great deal to say. Our futures and the futures of our families are at stake. This conference is meant to express the urgency of people of all faith traditions, represented here by the Abrahamic faiths, to take the bold lead in insisting that world leaders act to protect our earth-changing climate and threats to humanity that those changes portend. Like Biblical Joseph of old, we have been forewarned and need to plan our survival particularly with water and food issues for our planet. The future will bring environmental refugees in numbers unknown in previous ages. As a result of climate change and habitat destruction, a myriad of species now faces a silent genocide. We are caretakers of God’s creation. We must never forget that along with the creatures of our earth, the fish of our seas and the birds of our air, we, too are part of the great change of life. We are all interdependent for our common survival of life.
It is incumbent upon every religious leader, religious institution and person of faith to serve as beacons to our communities, illustrating by our actions and example our spiritual commitment to our earth and its threatened and limited resources.
In a world where matters of faith seem so often and so tragically to divide us, there is no issue that aligns us more deeply than our shared dependence upon and sacred responsibility to this tiny planet, enfolded within its fragile atmosphere, spinning in the vastness of time and space. I experienced this shared conviction most profoundly when in 1997, I served as the Jewish NGO representative at the United Nations climate talks in Kyoto and this past year at the UN in Copenhagen. I met with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders from around the world. We spoke at Kyoto’s largest Buddhist Temple and in forums throughout Copenhagen. We led an interfaith march and vigil in our religious garb to the center of Copenhagen to share our concerns as faith leaders on this world stage.
We all concurred from our diverse faith traditions that our human actions, our human failing and sins, have damaged the environment. Each speaking from the voice of his or her own authentic spiritual tradition, we affirmed our religious responsibility to act. Amidst chanting from Christians of the Psalms and the reading of the Koran, I blew the shofar, a ram’s horn, the blast of sound that has been Judaism’s ancient call to action since the days we wandered, searching for our way in the desert.
I carried this mandate for bold action on the environment back to my own country and my own religious community. Here, too, I found that faith traditions can readily unite on issues of climate change. Working for many years with the National Partnership on Religion and the Environment, and as Chair of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, I have joined interfaith leaders to engage Washington’s Capitol Hill leaders and to meet with White House staff. Political leaders are eager to hear our religious point of view. As interfaith leaders, we also met with the leadership of the World Bank asking them to devote resources to sustainability in the world and cultivating the development of the world’s alternative energy sources.
Statements by Catholic Bishops, Protestant leaders, Rabbis and Muslim Leaders have symbolic power and carry political weight. Formal resolutions affirmed by hundreds of thousands of persons of faith help embolden our legislators to act. Our country witnessed what has been considered the worst oil spill in our world’s history, with the BP massive oil spill of millions of gallons into the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. There is an urgent need to regulate worldwide corporate energy companies and put prioritize caring for our sacred Earth as the primary moral concern. Now is the time for religious leadership to be heard, now is the time to engage our world bodies and speak out for Creation.
As chair of the Environmental Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I have joined with many committed colleagues to use our faith tradition to increase awareness and encourage action in response to climate change and other environmental challenges. We have passed national resolutions on climate change and energy policy and have established environmentally conscious guidelines for our myriad congregations around the country. We have worked with the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light to green religious communities around America in order to serve as a model of the millions of people who observe faith traditions.
And finally, I believe that our religious voice must be strongest closest to home, manifest in how we daily live. And, of course, our collective, interfaith efforts gather their strength from the work each of us does within our own particular communities. The congregation I serve, Temple Emanuel of the Greater Washington area, has worked on greening its agenda for over 20 years. We believe that local action by religious communities can have a national and international impact. How have we implemented our agenda? Let me mention some of the ways:
- We installed solar panels on the roof for our eternal light, added wind power from a regional collective, made use of energy efficient zoning, lighting and office equipment and during a building phase, made use of passive solar throughout the building.
- We planted sustainable gardens to meet our annual ritual needs, growing grapes, horseradish, and indoor olive and pomegranate trees.
- We regularly schedule environmental Shabbats and other opportunities for learning with our state representative and national leaders.
- We sell CPF bulbs and have information about climate change on our coffee tables.
- We have become an EPA energy star community and one of the nation’s first “zero carbon footprint’ communities by supporting alternative energy investments.
- Our webpage includes our Green Shalom action guide which is designed to educate and spur further community involvement and environmental action in our own homes and community.
- Let us all work with people of every disciplines, be they diplomats, scientists, environmentalists, engineers, architects, writers, artist, poets and journalists to create programming that changes hearts and minds and helps to refocus us on sustainable living and a culture of meaning, not possessing.
This community focus has borne fruit, with a good number of our young people choosing science, media, religion and public policy arenas that deal directly with environmental issues. We in faith communities must train our future religious and lay leaders to see the close connection between caring for the Earth and our own spiritual traditions.
People of faith around our world number in the billions. We are the largest constituency of any nation of our world. The opportunity to be heard is greater than in previous decades, and we have a prophetic responsibility to seize it. There is so much that each of us can and must do, within our own homes, congregations, and countries, and beyond, as we work together as a global family in common cause, to preserve and sanctity life.
As Rabbi Tarphon of the second century reminds us: “It is not your duty to finish all the work, but neither are you are liberty to desist from it.” May it be that years hence, our children and our children’s children will look back with appreciation to this moment when we heeded one of the great moral imperatives of our time. May they know that we had the vision and the strength to fulfill our sacred obligation to preserve and protect the earth in all of its majesty, this garden with which we have been entrusted, for those who will follow.