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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Covenanting to Live Together

As our world increasingly diversifies in the 21st century, societies will inevitably be confronted – physically and figuratively – with “otherness”: other cultures, races, and religions. In this post, Knox Thames discusses how empathy, respect, and advocacy can foster a framework of covenantal pluralism that respects difference but upholds human rights. Whereas many posts in this series have focused on the legal framework for promoting pluralism, Thames highlights the importance of religious figures and international organisations in supporting this effort.

Diversity will define the 21st century. People, cultures, and religions are intermixing as never before. How societies deal with this reality will significantly impact human rights and global stability.

Hostility against people perceived as the “other” is a consistent story, regardless of time or location. For instance, when arguing in the Federalist papers in favor of America’s new constitution in 1788, James Madison said, “It is of great importance … to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” Yet, unfortunately, humanity’s track record of welcoming new communities is shockingly poor.

With the information and travel revolutions, people once separated by continents are now neighbors. Ways of living once considered foreign are now seen daily, from shopping centers to schools. Fareed Zakaria, writing in 1997 for Foreign Affairs, noted how the “introduction of democracy in divided societies has actually fomented nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war.” Freedom can lead to depredations. Learning to live together is complex and challenging, even more so today.

To break this habitual cycle of violence and exclusion, societies must aim higher than tolerating diversity. Something more durable than a cold peace of reluctant acceptance. To ensure a future free of persecution and oppression, we must aspire towards a respectful pluralism honoring the right of individuals to pursue truth as their conscience leads. Only by learning to live with our differences will durable peace come.

While diversity is a fact, we should go further and promote pluralism. Diversity connotates people living side by side, aware of others but not interacting. Pluralism emphasizes respect for others, covenanting to protect the rights of different religions and philosophies, pointing towards a better way. As described in the article “Toward a Global Covenant of Peaceable Neighborhood,” such “covenantal pluralism” requires “a praxis and continual cultivation of the character traits needed for robust, sustained engagement between people of different religions/worldviews—foremost, virtues such as humility, empathy, patience, and courage, combined with fairness, reciprocity, cooperativeness, self-critique, and self-correction.”

Covenantal pluralism has emerged as a framework for collaborative engagement and respect centered around the dignity of others. When done right, an expanded appreciation of pluralism can counter negative trends curtailing freedom of conscience, enabling societies to deal with a pluralistic future and prevent human rights abuses and restrictions. But unfortunately, this mindset is increasingly in short supply.

From diplomatic work, I know how religious minorities suffer in the absence of covenantal pluralism. For instance, minority Christians worldwide face violence, persecution, repression, and discrimination in environments hostile to diversity of beliefs. Other communities suffer, with Muslims facing genocide-like conditions in China and Burma, Baha’is persecuted in Iran, Yazidis hunted by ISIS in Iraq. The list goes on. And even in the United States, the most ethnically and religiously diverse country on the planet, consistent examples of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred demonstrate we must continue to perfect our union.

“Societies that have no place for diversity have no space for humanity.” – UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022

In the face of these violations at home and abroad, durable change will not come through selective advocacy or selective amnesia but by empathizing with others and courageously advocating for conscience rights for all. From my travels over two decades, I have seen how the rights of religious minorities are best protected when majority communities create and defend space for diversity of beliefs. Endeavors centered on covenantal pluralism can provide a framework of equal rights and responsibilities that builds relationships fostering reciprocity and human dignity.

Religious leaders are beginning to address the challenge of living together. For example, Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “FRATELLI TUTTI” on fraternity and social friendship emphasizes the importance of understanding and respect. He lived out this example by signing the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” with the Grand Imam of Al Alzhar. From that, they launched the multi-faith Higher Committee of Human Fraternity to promote the values of the document. Other notable examples include the Marrakesh Declaration issued by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the work of Rev. Bob Roberts with Rabbi David Saperstein and Imam Mohamed Magid to launch the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.

These efforts between the Pope, the Grand Imam, and Sheikh Bin Bayyah, as well as Rev. Roberts, Rabbi Saperstein, and Imam Magid, are potential antidotes to human rights abuses. They emphasize the importance of bringing individuals together across profound theological and philosophical differences, united in a shared respect for human dignity and equality. Yet, more is needed.

International organizations are also exploring ways to promote pluralism. The UN-sponsored “Faith for Rights” framework is a notable example. Launched in 2017, a multifaith gathering pledged in the Beirut Declaration to “promote respect for pluralism and diversity in the field of religion or belief as well as the right not to receive religious instruction that is inconsistent with one’s conviction.” To equip communities, the #Faith4Rights Toolkit offers modules for facilitating peer-to-peer learning exercises to enhance the skills of faith actors to manage religious diversity in real-life situations. In this vein, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable brings differing religious communities together around a shared commitment to freedom of religion or belief.

In closing, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said,” Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” To achieve that level of focus and dedication, communities of faith must advocate for their own and the rights of others to peacefully live out their beliefs in dignity. By covenanting to promote pluralism and protect freedom of religion or belief for all, we can begin to overcome hate.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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