Dr. William F. Vendley

Common Ground among the World’s Religions

Your Excellency President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Your Excellency Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro, Esteemed Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good morning. I am Dr. William Vendley, serving as the Secretary General of Religions for Peace, the world's largest multi-religious organization working in over 90 countries. My task is to speak about "commonalities," areas shared by the world's diverse religious communities.

I must begin by saying a word on their differences: The world's religions are different. These differences are profoundly defining. The fact of difference translates into a very simple practical precept: Turn to Buddhists for an expression of what Buddhism means, turn to Muslims for an understanding of Islam, turn to Hindus for Hindu interpretations and so forth for each faith.

If there is no fully adequate way of speaking about religious commonalities, we all, perhaps, spontaneously make rough approximations of them: That there is a Transcendent Mystery; that It is imminent in human hearts; that It is supreme beauty, truth, righteousness, goodness; that It is love, mercy, compassion; that the way to this Transcendent Mystery is honesty, humility, repentance, self-denial, prayer, meditation; that the way to It is love of one's neighbors, even of one's enemies; that the way is love of the Transcendent Mystery, so that bliss is conceived as knowledge of this Mystery, union with It, or dissolution into It.

However weak this kind of description necessarily is, we can all ponder the fact that well-developed religious personalities around the world "recognize" each other across traditions. The eye of Mercy—if you will—sees Mercy, and sees it wherever it is to be found and across differences. 

We are here to celebrate harmony. So what should we actually do in common?

Mr. President, to go forward, religious believers must, first of all, acknowledge that their religious traditions have at times been abused by extremists. Then, standing together across all religious differences, they must reject this abuse. 

Second, diverse religious communities and governments must work together on common problems. We need to put those problems squarely before us.

We know too well the blood of war, how it kills, maims and destroys the lives of the innocent. We know too well the crushing weight of poverty, how it stunts, humiliates and plunders. We know too well the children lost or held back by preventable diseases and denied educations. These and the abuses to our environment are genuine threats to peace. They are common problems. They call us to cooperative action.   

Act we must, but on what grounds shall we act together? The fact is that—despite real religious and theological differences—the moral sensibilities of diverse religious communities converge in a shared conviction: honoring the Divine is directly linked to honoring and protecting the inviolable dignity of every person. This is the basis for multi-religious cooperation.   

So it is that cooperative action among religious communities and states for peace must express our common commitments to honor and protect the inviolable dignity of each person.   

Three decisive steps are needed:  

First, our commonly shared conviction on personal morality that can be expressed as “do to others as you wish done to you” needs to be translated into a new political paradigm. We need to forge a notion of shared security.

We need to forge a notion of “shared security.” Today, my security depends on yours. Yes, we can and do respect the need for state security. Yes, we are grateful for the expanded notion of human security. But, these are not enough. Today, no walls can be built high enough to protect ourselves from the needs of others. Their security has to be our concern. We are no safer than the most vulnerable among us.

Second, we applaud the United Nations Alliance of Civilization as a fitting space for UN religious engagement. We applaud that UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA and others are engaged in concrete projects with religious communities. Nevertheless, we can do more. Governments can and should better equip themselves for partnerships with religious and multi-religious bodies. How many Foreign Ministries have portfolios dealing with religious cooperation? Each government’s main agencies—those dealing with domestic and those dealing with international affairs—need to become equipped to enter into principled partnerships with religious and multi-religious bodies in the service of the common good. In short, states need to build strategies and equip themselves for partnerships with religious communities.

Third, religious communities should unite to build the simple and honest mechanism that can serve principled multi-religious cooperation for peace on every level: local, national, regional and global. This is what the religious leaders in Religions for Peace and other multi-religious bodies have been laboring to do for many years. Already we have dramatic examples of how governmental—multi-religious partnerships can yield real fruit in conflict resolution, the fight against disease and poverty and concern for our earth. But, but more governmental partnerships are needed.

Two conclusions: first, religious communities differ in their beliefs, but share profound moral concerns.  Second, religious bodies on the one hand and intergovernmental and governmental bodies on the other have different and quite distinct identities, mandates and capacities. Cooperation between them should respect these differences, even as it helps us all to build the peace for which our hearts hunger. 

Thank you.

Dr. William F. Vendley is the Secretary General of Religions for Peace, the world’s largest and most representative multi-religious coalition that advances concrete action for peace. He is a pioneer in advancing multi-religious cooperation to help resolve conflict and has been engaged in multi-religious peacemaking efforts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and other countries. Dr. Vendley is an advisor to a number of governments on matters related to religion and peace. He advised US President Barack Obama through his service on the Multi-religious Cooperation and International Affairs Task Force of the White House Faith-Based Council. He was recently appointed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as one of ten members of the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Strategic Partnership with Civil Society and is a Co-chair of the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Dr. Vendley is a recipient of the UNICEF Lifetime Achievement Award.

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