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Some Observations on Building Peace, Security and Co-Existence from around the World

  • Chris Seiple
  • October 11, 2013

This article is based on Dr. Seiple’s 1 October presentation to the “Security, Peace, and Co-Existence” conference that IGE co-convened with The Sitatgu International Buddhist Academy, in partnership with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar, the Myanmar Council of Churches, and the Judson Research Centre at the Myanmar Institute of Theology.

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you, distinguished guests, and with your Excellencies, the ministers of government and ambassadors from various countries. Speaking with you is a precious privilege made possible by the Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw. I am most grateful that our organization, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), can co-convene this event with him and the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy; while also thankful for the supporting partnership of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar, the Myanmar Council of Churches, and the Judson Research Centre at the Myanmar Institute of Theology.

I spent some time with the Venerable Sitagu yesterday and I am reminded by how much I do not know. Nevertheless, the Venerable Sitagu has asked me to share some observations, learned outside of Myanmar, from our comparative experiences in places like Africa and the Middle East, as well as Central, South, and Southeast Asia. I welcome your feedback to these five observations.

Observation #1: The pessimist seemingly has all the facts. It is not hard to produce the necessary evidence that our world is in a terrible state, and getting worse. The headlines from the last few weeks — across most of the continents — testify to the worst of what humans can do to humans in the name of religion. Such times beg a simple question: Can we live with our deepest differences? Can we co-exist with peace and security for all?

Observation #2: If we are to be optimists, we must practice wisdom. Wisdom begins with naming things accurately, with getting the questions right. Here are some facts for which we must account:

We are all minorities somewhere. I happen to be a Christian from a Christian majority country (America). It only makes sense — as someone commanded by my faith to love God, neighbor, and enemy — to treat well the ethnic and/or religious minorities in my own cultural context, understanding that Christians are a minority in other cultural contexts. Treating the minority well is the right thing to do, and it is my own self-interest.

Next, we must not sugarcoat this simple fact: religion has been a part of the problem. It has been used to validate violence. But what if religion could be a part of the solution? Can the best of faith defeat the worst of religion? Can we recover and live the best of our respective holy scriptures and what they teach about “the other”?

Third, no change is sustainable unless the top-down of governments works with the bottom-up of the grassroots. Why? Because none of us can take on these global challenges alone! For example, whether the challenge is the environment, health, terrorism, or sex-trafficking, there is no single state that can solve these issues. And there is no single non-state actor (or non-governmental organization) that can do so either. It is not a question of if, but when state and non-state actors will partner to address global challenges in their particular countries and contexts.

Moreover, these global challenges occur across international boundaries. These challenges insist that if governments work with governments (Track 1) and if peoples work with peoples (Track 2), then we live in a “Track 1.5” world where governments and peoples must be working together, all the time, worldwide on these common challenges.

And so before any of us even get to a particular global challenge, the process of building the required partnership across faiths and philosophies will demonstrate how we — as representatives of our faiths, our institutions, our governments — think and act regarding “the other.”

Therefore it is also a time to speak the truth with love, to those within our countries, and to those within our faiths…and to receive the truth with love! Love can be defined many ways. For me, as a Christian, it is unconditional love, a forgiveness offered when no one asks. That is what Christ did on the cross.

From a practical perspective that speaks across faith traditions, we sometime use the following acronym to describe our work: Listen, Observe, Verify, Engage. L.O.V.E. Love is hard-headed and soft-hearted as it builds practical partnerships.

In short, we cannot build partnerships without honesty and wisdom. Sustainable partnerships require mutual respect and accommodation from all parties in the partnership. Sustainable solutions can only take place with sustainable partnerships.

Observation #3: The possibility of partnership begins with a “safe space” for people to meet, who would otherwise not meet. The space has several characteristics:

Foremost, a “safe space” is where a spiritual architecture can emerge of mutual respect for the other, grounded in the very best of our different faiths. In other words, no matter our theological, philosophical, or political points of departure — which can be irreconcilable — our common values can contribute to a common moral framework through which all parties serve the common good.

Such a space is inherently “multi-faith,” that is, a space where participants acknowledge and respect irreconcilable theological differences, loving each other according to the best of their different faiths, their common humanity, and their need to work together. Indeed, it is the responsibility of faith leaders to help build a spiritual architecture, by speaking into the safe and sacred space, prophetically, inspiring participants to live out the “Golden Rule” found in every tradition. It is in such a space that individual and collective dignity is given and received.

With this spiritual architecture calling all faiths and none to live out a common moral framework for the common good — not despite but because of different theological and philosophical points of departure — then other key stakeholders can and must participate. Of course that includes representatives from state institutions and non-state NGOs.

The safe space, however, must also include women. To state the obvious, women are 50% of the population. To ignore women is to be irrelevant. Meanwhile, the only thing less included than religion in international affairs is women of faith. Women have vital contributions to make as they bring their values and perspectives to the public policy table.

And the youth must be included. In some ways, they have much to teach the adults about co-existence. They naturally understand the nature of our global environment and its partnership requirements. On the other hand, they are also vulnerable to learning how to hate. We must work together to ensure that the right patterns of mutual respect are established now among the next generation.

Observation #4: Co-existence is ultimately a conversation about citizenship and constitution. These two words are quite sensitive in every context that I have ever experience, including my own. My country’s constitution began by valuing the lives of slaves as three-fifths of a human being. Part of the reason that we Americans are so passionate about mutual respect is that we continue to suffer from the sin of slavery. Please do not make our mistakes as Myanmar stewards this unique opportunity to begin again.

Now, it is certainly not my place to tell you or anyone what citizenship and constitution means in your context. Only you can decide such things in conversation with each other. I can, however, provide some characteristics based on my comparative experiences.

As noted, we should never forget that “citizenship” is inherently sensitive. The word itself embodies a conversation — or a lack of conversation — between the policies of the state and the peoples of society.

Citizenship exists at several levels. It begins with “spiritual citizenship.” 84% of the world’s people believe in something greater than themselves, and that something transcends international boundaries. One cannot simply categorize faith and put it in an analytic box or social sector. Faith is present in all the boxes and all the sectors, with the great potential to serve the common good in those contexts.

Citizenship is also global. Our world and our faiths care about people in all contexts, especially as they are impacted by such issues as the environment, terrorism, sex-trafficking, etc. And citizenship takes place at the level of the state and within our own ethnicity.

It takes great maturity to steward these combined citizenships — identities, really — in the context of a safe space that both state and society should ensure together.

That said, co-existence, citizenship, and constitution, can be boiled down to two choices. For individuals living in society, each must make a basic choice: will people tolerate or celebrate “the other,” who does not look, act, or pray, as we do?

Please allow me to answer this question. Tolerance is not enough. No one likes to be tolerated. We must celebrate “the other” because of the dignity of their difference, inviting them to bring the essence of their beliefs and identities to the public square, and to public policy table.

The second choice is for the institutions of the state — made up of individuals, incidentally, many of them faithful — and the policies they enact: will the state assimilate or integrate minorities of any kind? Assimilation suggests that minorities should look and act like the majority culture. Integration expects that the whole is better when minorities are included as full and equal citizens under the rule of law.

Our world and common security need countries, citizens and constitutions with people who celebrate and policies that integrate. The social ownership and legal protection of all — especially minorities — as equal citizens under the rule of law, must be our aspiration, the standard we seek to make common in our global age.

Observation #5: There are four results to this safe and sacred space (assuming it is maintained by society and the state). The first — especially if the space did not previously exist — is to cherish the fact that the process is the product. Whatever the issue, altruism, or self-interest that brings people together who would not otherwise meet, it is the process of building a space for loving, honest, and wise conversations that will eventually transcend the original purpose.

As that process takes place, trust emerges. When people get to know one another, people with whom they generally have no previous experience, stereotypes are reduced. Individuals, no matter their faith or institution, are understood as fellow human beings with real concerns, and common values. When that takes place, a sustainable partnership is possible that can effect sustainable change. Talk leads to trust, and trust leads to tangible action for positive change.

Third, scholarship emerges to form and inform good policy decisions. Global challenges require comparative perspectives that help government and grassroots leaders make decisions that serve the common good in their country and cultural contexts. One metric of a sustainable safe space is the development of local scholars whose research contributes to the education and training necessary to develop good mindsets and good behavior regarding the issue at hand.

Fourth, over time, based on new relationships and new scholarship, sufficient consensus takes shape about what is the best action that yields the most good. And when such consensus exists among multiple stakeholders, there is less political vulnerability to suggesting a strategic action plan for sustainable change.

Conclusion: Since this conference is a safe and sacred space for us to share global lessons and personal perspectives, I end with two personal comments. I am an American who has spent the majority of his life in the state of Virginia (another identity!). A fellow Virginian of mine is an American named Thomas Jefferson. I can critique his leadership across different responsibilities in his lifetime, but I want to call attention to the three things he got right. And, in the end, due to his intellectual honesty, they are the only three things he put on his gravestone.

First, Jefferson recognized that we are all minorities somewhere, and that the human condition often defines itself against the other. If the state cannot accommodate a space where religious minorities, among others, can be celebrated and integrated, then there will be political instability. Virginia’s religious freedom statute of 1786 was Jefferson’s first attempt to institutionalize the recognition that the rights of minorities must be legally-protected.

He also recognized that true social harmony could only exist if religious freedom was socially-owned. Since it is not always human nature to respect someone different than oneself, education was needed. A good mind enables good behavior. Put differently, the only way to change bad behavior is to change the mindset. And the only way to change a mindset was through education. So he founded the University of Virginia to educate the mind and inform the behavior of American citizens.

Third, he was the primary author of the declaration of independence. Societies and states cannot truly be independent and free unless they have the maturity to steward their various citizenships, based on mutual respect and accommodation.

Finally, I am a Christian who happens to be American. In many ways, our conference and conversations about peace, security, and co-existence are a discussion about what it means to be reconciled to each other, across deep differences. The best definition of reconciliation that I’ve seen comes from the scholar John Paul Lederach, who uses a Spanish translation of Psalm 85:10 to illustrate reconciliation.

Reconciliation is when peace and justice embrace, and truth and mercy kiss.

May this conference contribute to our practical understanding of such intersections, of a safe space where a spiritual architecture yields a common moral framework to serve the common good, as equal citizens under the rule of law. Thank you.

About Chris Seiple

Chris Seiple is Principal Advisor for Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is widely known and sought after for his decades of experience and expertise regarding issues at the intersection of geopolitics, US foreign policy, Asia, conflict resolution, human rights, and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023), co-edited with Dennis R. Hoover.

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