Thursday, November 02, 2006

Building World Peace

At the last minute (and I mean literally, the very last minute) I was offered a media pass to cover the Building World Peace conference put on by the John Humphrey Centre, October 20-22. The aim of the conference is to explore the role of religions and human rights. I heard about this conference over the summer, but the large registration cost deterred me. I also considered volunteering, but feared my schedule would not allow for it. However, I could not pass up this opportunity.

On the first afternoon I attended an interfaith dialogue between representatives in the Jewish (Reform), Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian (Catholic), and Native traditions. Most of the speakers were clergy; a couple were not. Each spoke about the role of faith in terms of bringing about peace and social justice, and usually discussed this in the context of the person's specific faith. They also spoke about how faith has been perverted by people, and this has been the cause of certain forms of violence and terrorism. The Muslim speaker (Karen Hamdon, who is active in a variety of local organizations such as HumanServe) particularly spoke about how Islam is a religion of peace that has been misterpreted by some extremists. However, it would have been nice for a Muslim clergy person to have been up there saying the same things. Rabbi Lindsey Bat Joseph from Temple Beth Ora, a Reform congregation (one of the more liberal branches of Judaism) also spoke about terrorism and also about the need for people of faith (speaking from a Jewish viewpoint) need to be involved in issues of social justice. The Priest mostly read Bible verses about the teachings of Jesus on peace.

I was most impressed with Rabbi Bat Joseph -- she is the first Jewish person in the local community who I have heard speak so clearly about peace and social justice (and yes, I videotaped it and will have it online in a day or so). One of my biggest questions when I got involved in the local peace movement was, Where are the Jews? And I can add to that as well, Where are the Evangelicals? I am getting completely frustrated with both Judaism and Christianity because of the insulated, cliquish, nature I am seeing by adherents. At this conference, I see Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and I am sure there are some Mennonites and Quakers there too. Where are the Evangelicals?

Most of the audience, which numbered around 500 I would guess, were mostly middle class and middle aged. Some were students, many were clergy, some were teachers. They came from all over to attend this. The reaction I was noticing was that it was more than meeting everyone's expectations. It certainly has met mine thus far, in that for the most part, everyone on the panel said the right things: that extremism is wrong. That people have perverted the teachings of their religions. That goodness and peace comes from true faith. Which is all fine and well and good -- the right things are, after all, the right things. But I have heard it all before and I certainly would not spend close to $400 to hear it again.

A questions-and-answer period followed the presentations from each panel member. Again, in response, the person would say "My religion teaches such-and-such about that issue." Only a couple of brave audience members touched upon the really difficult questions of how faith has been used to justify killing. No one denied that this was indeed the case, and for that I give the panel a lot of credit.

This was the main session of the day, lasting well over two and a half hours. That evening, several keynote speakers were scheduled to appear. The main one I would have been interested in seeing was James Loney, one of the Canadians from the Christian Peacemaker Teams who was held as a hostage in Iraq. However, he wasn't on until well after 8 pm, leaving me with about four hours of blankness until then.

My second day at the Building World Peace conference started with a breakout session featuring David Goa talking on the topic "The Holy Books: Is Religion the Problem?" Goa, a well-known scholar on religion, suggested that the psychotic religious leaders and fundamentalists who use religion as an excuse for violence and human rights violations will only be stopped when everyone is educated about religion: not to be afraid and skeptical of it, as is sometimes taught, but the history and beliefs behind the major religions that are the foundation of Western society: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I believe his logic was that this would empower people to say no when they confront fanatical religious people/leaders, that the religion does not teach violence/war/human rights abuses. He also said something very interesting: that the people he has known in his life who have been the most passionate about human rights and justice have been people of true faith, not "bleeding heart liberals."

The afternoon plenary session featured Indira Samarasekera, O.C., the President of the University of Alberta. She was mostly talking about the accomplishements of the U of A and some of the students in terms of advancing human rights. Following her, via video, was Federico Mayor Zaragoza, a Spanish biochemist who chairs Foundation for the Culture of Peace, about "Ending Violence in the Name of G-d." Yes, violence in the name of the Almighty is wrong and due to misinterpretation. (I think I see a pattern emerging here).

The next plenary session started to get into specific issues facing the world and the cultures within. Ovide Mercredi spoke about Canada's abysmal history of the treatment of First Nations peoples during "Canada: Is Our Reputation for Inclusion Deserved?" David Kilgour, a Canadian politician and activist, spoke on "The Role of Goverments in Building A Peaceful Society." He discussed how Canada's role as a peacemaker has been greatly diminished in recent years -- from being one of the top supporters of UN peace missions to being number 32 in the world. He also spoke about the current crisis in Darfur and how Canadian peacekeeping troups need to be there. The battery in my camcorder died on me during his speech, and I was sad.

The final speaker was the granddaughter of Lester Pearson who is a social studies teacher involved in the development of a curriculum encouraging the use of education as a tool towards mutual understanding. The person who introduced her was also involved in developing a new Social Studies curriculum for Alberta -- which had not been changed for 25 years! Education to bring about tolerance should not be a revolutionary concept, but as someone with a Bachelor of Education I can remember being taught a lot of things about classroom management, discipline, and how to grade an essay -- but nothing about using education as a means for real social change.

I had a hard time deciding which afternoon breakout group I would attend, but eventually settled on "Religious Responsibility for Building a Peaceful Society" presented by David and Mary Lou Klassen, a couple who has spent a lot of time doing humanitarian work in Africa. They presented a slide show and talked about the role of the Mennonite church in taking part in humanitarian causes. At the end of their presentation they also attempted to take back the word "Evangelical" (it originally meant the bearer of something good).

While I don't think I really heard anything new or revolutionary, others were acting like this was some of the most profound stuff they had ever heard. I was raised with religion, I practise religion, and I respect religion, and indeed I know that religion can be a motivating factor in wanting to bring about a peaceful society. Like many conferences, this was likely another case of preaching to the converted (no pun indended) but good ideas always deserve to be heard.

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