By Rahim Kanani
More than two thirds of the world’s population – over four billion people – identify with one religion or another. Imagine the motivational energy of these four billion people used as a positive force for global social change. Whether tackling issues of poverty, disease, health, energy, education, gender inequality or any urgent challenge facing our world today, the possibilities are endless with four billion minds and eight billion hands working together.
This is the potential power of faith.
Incredible, isn’t it?
Designing and developing a movement, a Global Interfaith Volunteer Corps, to professionally bring together members of different faiths in acts of public service internationally, nationally and locally is one possible way to spark this flame. The goal of such interaction is to demystify the “other” through joint engagement in activities and initiatives that benefit not only their own communities but also society at large.
Many believers already serve their communities and each other in a multitude of ways, such as volunteering at their local church, synagogue, mosque or temple. The Global Interfaith Volunteer Corps, however, would be aimed at a much larger concern brought upon our world by rapid globalisation. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, tensions begin to flair. This mounting of tension was best described by His Highness the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslim community and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, at a recent speech on pluralism in Toronto:
“The variety of the world is not only more available, it is nearly inescapable. Human difference is more proximate – and more intense…. Almost everything now seems to “flow” globally – people and images, money and credit, goods and services, microbes and viruses, pollution and armaments, crime and terror. But let us remember, too, that constructive impulses can also flow more readily, as they do when international organisations join hands across dividing lines.”
Service on the basis of shared beliefs and common ethics can take the shape of local, national and international character. At the local level, multi-faith initiatives can be designed to engage with homeless shelters, heath clinics and special-needs schools. At the national level, joint action plans can be devised amongst faith advocates of all stripes to advance women’s rights, children’s education and environmental stewardship.
And at the international level, increased collaboration between faith-based humanitarian services, joint statements by different faith communities drawing attention to under-reported injustice and inequity, and inter-religious calls to drawdown global nuclear stockpiles are all possible when walls that divide are replaced with bridges that unite. Such multi-religious endeavours not only introduce one faith base to another, but they also build trust amongst different kinds of believers.
The idea of creating a Global Interfaith Volunteer Corps, then, is not simply about creating acceptance and shared religious understanding. It is also about ingraining a broader ethic of pluralism, of accepting and understanding difference – religiously, ethnically, culturally and linguistically.
The volunteer corps could serve as a global entity to increase collaboration amongst religious institutions, faith-based organisations and faith-inspired initiatives, ultimately becoming a forum from which pluralism of all sorts can develop and emanate.
A group of religious leaders could be appointed to local, national and international community councils of multi-faith action. These leaders must be courageous, open and willing to engage. Above all, they would need to set an example for their followers in both thought and action. Imagine these community councils replicated – town-by-town and city-by-city – across the country and around the world.
The differences among us, while important and pronounced, pale in comparison to our commonalities. Generosity, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, respect, charity and acceptance do not belong to any one religion, but are the raw materials that bind the fabric of our faiths together. This sense of shared commitment to the common good, guided by different religious traditions, is perhaps the biggest resource for meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
We must humanise each other’s beliefs by collectively engaging in active citizenship and service to others.
And we must start somewhere, for as famed cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
* Rahim Kanani is pursuing his second Masters degree at Harvard Divinity School in religion, ethics and politics, where he focuses on Islamic studies, human rights and international security policy. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).