DIVERSITY AND COMMUNITY
A Multi-Religious Statement on Social Responsibility
in the Context of Ethnic, Cultural, Racial and Religious Diversity
in the United States
Adopted at the Council of Presidents Meeting, November 3, 2000
UNITED STATES CONFERENCE OF RELIGIONS FOR PEACE
The United States of America is a land of ethnic, cultural, racial and religious diversity. This diversity is healthy for our civic life. The hesitation of society, however, to embrace fully its increasing diversity threatens to shatter the fragile mosaic that is our nation. As men and women with positions of responsibility within our religious groups, which in turn collectively comprise an integral component of our national life, we therefore make this call to the believers in our respective traditions in this country to affirm diversity in order to achieve the realization of community.
When we look to the beginning of our countrys history, we find what was considered a unique social contract. This contract, which encompassed a reciprocal relationship between the state and its citizens, was originally conceived with a relatively homogeneous society in mind racially, culturally and religiously. Indeed, at that time, this arrangement excluded from full participation in society women, indigenous peoples and Africans brought as slaves. Over the next two centuries, subsequent immigrant groups and peoples whose lands were incorporated as the country expanded, similarly found themselves isolated or treated as second-class citizens.
Today, the United States is a marvelous, creative mixture of peoples. With the myriad of gifts and opportunities in our nation, as well as its many achievements, our society is nevertheless marked by religious intolerance, ethnic stereotyping, cultural exclusivity, racial prejudice, xenophobia, gender bias, hate crimes and violence directed against those perceived as "others." Although not new in the history of our country, today these problems occur with alarming frequency, despite the promise of this land to be a safe haven for all. Such a situation highlights the need to reexamine the rights and responsibilities of all people in our society in a way that respects changing demographic realities.
The various religious groups of this country have a unique responsibility to undertake this reexamination, and to do it together. In addition to being the repositories of their religious traditions, religious groups express the concerns of diverse populations as they also reflect the cultures, ethnic identities and experiences of their adherents. Therefore, as traditionally recognized teachers of ethical values, religious groups can suggest touchstones for legitimate public discourse and proper social behavior. Thus we must ask ourselves a question: recognizing that religious groups have not always affirmed diversity, what are we now teaching our constituents about how to live responsibly respectful of others traditions yet faithful to their own in the midst of the increasing diversity that is characteristic of our national life?
We encourage this reexamination of our collective consciousness at an auspicious moment in human history a moment invested with the hopes in the new millennium held by many religious groups. Indeed, the significance of this moment is not lost on the world. This is most evident in the conversations now taking place in both international and national circles: on the impact of violence on children, on racism, and on the dialogue among civilizations. Our reexamination in essence a reflection on our past and a meditation on the kind of future we would want for our children will focus on one of the questions central to the future of our country: what are the needs of, and requirements for, community in light of our diversity?
The United States Conference of Religions for Peace (USCRP) operates on the conviction that multi-religious collaboration and common action can be powerful instruments in the quest for constructive social development, justice, reconciliation and peace. Therefore, as Presidents of USCRP, we urge the believers in our traditions to consider the following affirmations. In doing so, we note our dismay at the glaring incongruity between our societys reluctance to embrace diversity and our countrys constitutional guarantees of basic human freedoms, our alarm at the resultant disregard for principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our sorrow at the violations of the tenets of our beliefs and sacred texts that such transgressions represent.
We begin by reminding everyone that neither the varied circumstances and historical contingencies that have shaped us, nor the differences of color, ethnicity, cultural background, and religion among us, mitigate against the fact of our common humanity. This philosophical and scientific truth is reflected in our spiritual understandings, though our specific words and concepts describing it may differ. Indeed, whether we speak of creation of the human being in the image of God, bearing the spark of the divine, possessing inherent worth as part of the universe, being at one with cosmic laws, or being sacred with all living things, we all value human life. We affirm our common humanity and celebrate our diversity.
The term "community" ideally implies people living together unified in their commitment to the common good. Such unity of purpose takes into account values held in common, but it also allows for differences in belief that should be respected, so long as these differences do not infringe upon the fundamental rights of others. We have seen, however, that physical and socially derived differences are both the occasional and historical bases for setting individual against individual, group against group, and minorities and majorities against each other. The resultant strife often yields to violence, and to the systemic violation of the rights, dignity and worth of individuals and groups, thereby denying life in all of its fullness. We affirm unity of purpose in the promotion of the common good.
Many elements are required in the achievement of this common good. They include the emergence of a shared ethos; an operational civil ethic informed by religious values; responsible instruments of governance, which necessarily transcend the divisiveness of selfish interests and strive for justice; a reasonable degree of economic and physical security, ensured by principles of conduct based on individual and institutional trust; and some sense of right and belonging for all the members of the community. We affirm that individual freedoms must be protected, that fundamental rights must be guaranteed, and that the equal worth of every human being must be recognized and respected by all.
People who live together in communal harmony seek the fullness of life for all. While good governance, security, and the protection of rights provide the context for social integration within community life, and for addressing existing and emerging social challenges, we stress the fact that such community will result only if all of us act respectfully and responsibly toward one another. We affirm that the values upon which the viability of community depends are the concerns of our religious traditions.
In reality, every major religious tradition is now part of our national mosaic. Where once it was taken for granted that one or two religious traditions informed our social experiment, now a multiplicity of traditions guides the thoughts and actions of our countrys citizens. No longer can we gloss over this multiplicity by perpetuating the myth of the "melting pot." We affirm the need to encourage believers within our various religious groups to respect freedom of conscience with regard to the adherents of other religious traditions as well as to those who claim no religious identification.
Such respect regrettably has not always characterized relations among our religions. Indeed, despite expressions of goodwill and charity toward all, from time to time throughout history too many of our religious groups have committed wrongs toward other religious groups. Moreover, our educational efforts, rather than promote constructive self-differentiation and identification, have sometimes yielded to fear and distrust of the other. We affirm the need for religious groups both to lift up the good moments in the history of our relationships, and to seek mutual forgiveness for wrongs committed.
Furthermore, as religious leaders we recognize that, in our diverse traditions, there are shared moral imperatives that bind us together as men, women, and children of religious belief. Our own multi-religious encounter, and our commitment to address social issues of common concern, have helped us to appreciate the values found in the universal claims in each tradition that promulgate responsible community. We affirm the need to draw upon our shared commitments as a guide to proper social engagement.
These affirmations compel us, as women and men of religious belief, and as responsible members of our society, to commit ourselves to a plan of action that has as its aim the promotion of community well being through the acceptance of diversity as identified in this statement. We do so with the understanding that community means being united in the desire for the well-being of all members of society, and with the equal understanding that the failure to embrace diversity will lead to the failure to achieve a true sense of community. We commit to this plan of action aware also of the difficulty of what we propose, though we are reminded that all tangible expressions of religious belief, particularly those that involve human relationships, are challenging.
First, as leaders in our religious groups, we point out that true acceptance of diversity moves from genuine tolerance to mutual respect to positive affirmation of one another. Thus we encourage the adherents of our religious traditions, as people of religious belief and as members of this society, to embrace one another in our diversity, and to work to bring about authentic community.
Second, as articulators of religious values to whom women and men in our religious groups often look for guidance, we believe stereotyping is inappropriate, prejudice is wrong, hatred is unacceptable, and violence is evil whether involving religious, racial, cultural, or ethnic contexts. The call to higher standards of behavior implied by these beliefs will be included in our respective methods of spiritual formation.
Third, as teachers of others by virtue of our leadership positions, we advocate within our religious groups rules to promote responsible social behavior, and to ensure civility in public discourse. These rules must be taught through example, story sharing, preaching, religious instruction, dialogue and service.
Fourth, as members of civil society concerned with all facets of life that affect the spiritual well being of our neighbors, we collectively call attention to the influence of the media in the formation of public morality. We therefore urge all persons in our religious groups: 1) to join us in holding the decision-makers in the news and entertainment industries accountable for responsible programming, with particular regard for matters of religion, race, ethnicity and culture, and with further regard for the often negative consequences of their work in society; and 2) to stimulate public consideration of the negative potential, and ramifications, of the unregulated use of cyberspace.
Fifth, as bridge-builders committed to dialogue and collaboration, we call for participation in appropriate local inter-religious programs throughout the country. These programs are to be seen as an integral component of religious education programs within each of our local communities.
Sixth, as Presidents of the United States Conference of Religions for Peace, we commit ourselves to work together in providing opportunities for inter-religious discussion of the issues raised in this statement, and in promoting specific programs, particularly those developed by USCRP, designed to improve the healthy dynamic of ethnic, cultural, racial and religious diversity of our society.
These commitments, while meant to foster a true sense of community here in the United States, also have worldwide implications. The influence of our country extends across our borders. Growing interdependence, with all of its positive and negative factors, will only make that influence stronger. This accentuates the need for the United States to be concerned with all matters that affect the well being of the global community. These concerns, which we express as religious persons, we lay before society at large. We share a collective responsibility to promote good governance, security, and the protection of the rights, not only of our own people, but of all people of the world.
The United States of America is a mosaic pieced together by the lives and experiences of many peoples. If we do not embrace the diversity that is characteristic of our country in the twenty-first century, we run the risk of shattering that mosaic into fragments. We cannot afford to do this. Instead, we should seek to strengthen that which holds the pieces of the mosaic together, thus revealing its inherent beauty.
We therefore call upon ourselves and all of the believers in our religious groups to affirm, respect, and honor one another, so that we may indeed live together in peace. And we further call upon, and promise to join with, all men and women of goodwill in working together to achieve authentic community based on respect for diversity and the promotion of the common good.
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