Faith and empathy

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - August 25, 2020 - 12:00am

In the most difficult of times, many of us turn to religion for solace. To reach out towards an unseen higher power – this has been the instinct of human beings long before recorded history. When there is something that humans do not understand, when we seek an explanation for things that happen in our lives that seem beyond human control, we often turn to the divine to find our answers, and our explanations.

Religion is how we unite as communities in shared expression of a personal faith, and how we structure our relationship with the divine. The strength we draw from personal faith is one that is of utmost importance to millions of people, amongst whom I count myself. There have been many difficult times in my life when I believe I was only able to persevere because of my faith. As individual institutions, organized religions have also contributed much to the uplifting and benefit of humanity as a whole, and have been driving forces behind many positive advances in human civilization.

Yet even as we acknowledge all the good that has come – and continue to come – from religion, we must not be blind to the harm that has been done in its name. Religion has been the source of much oppression and bloodshed throughout history, used by perpetrators either as a means to select their victims, or as their motivation and justification. Religion has become integral to how many of us construct our own identities – but the danger comes from doing so by dividing the world into “us” and “them”, into “the chosen” and “the others.” This “Othering” is how we rob minorities of their humanity, in the process of justifying truly terrible acts.

Last week, the United Nations commemorated the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, where it strongly condemned “continuing violence and acts of terrorism targeting individuals, including persons belonging to religious minorities, on the basis of or in the name of religion or belief.” It is sadly a call that is more relevant today than we would want it to be.

Religious violence has been on the rise for the past four decades. For many of those who are my generation and younger, the September 11 attacks in 2001 were a defining, traumatic moment even if it occurred far away. A 2019 report from the Pew Research Center shows that from 2007 to 2017, many types of hostilities involving religion have been on the rise. This includes religious violence committed by small groups (such as gangs) and those by organized groups (such as Neo-Nazis and Boko Haram). While interreligious tension (sectarian or communal clashes between distinct religions) had declined between 2007 and 2017, in the latter year these clashes still occurred in 57 different countries.

Why is it that, when most religions preach love and compassion, their teachings can so often be twisted into justifications for violence and oppression? Perhaps it is because some of the most zealous believers in their God (or Gods, or other form of the divine) cannot actually conceive God as infinite, omnipotent, and all-loving.

Instead, the God in their minds is finite, with only a set amount of love and blessings to bestow. Others then become not siblings but rivals.

The God in their minds is limited, easily insulted by the mere words of mortals, not above the fray but immersed in it – a God that takes sides. And of course, God is always on their side, right?

The God in their minds can be owned and made exclusive – the creator of all somehow reimagined as being the protector of only a chosen few.

This is the misapprehension of the divine that every religion must actively work against, not only to create a world of peace, but one which will guarantee the safety of our own religions from persecution. Any nation where one can be prosecuted for their faith – and not for specific actions that harm their fellow citizens – is one where no religion is safe. Yet it’s also important to remember that oppression of religion does not always take on overt, extreme forms. Exclusion, even if not maliciously intended, can also have significant negative consequences when it leads to feelings of marginalization or ostracization.

The Philippine Constitution states that: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed.” But to truly protect freedom of religion, we must also resist the urge to create a national identity which leave out those that do not belong to the same religion as that of the majority. While the Philippine population is mostly Catholic, and the Catholic Church continues to play an integral part in the development of Philippine culture, we must take pains to ensure that the systems of government and public institutions do not simply assume Catholicism – or even a belief in any God at all – by default. The government must also encourage interest in and exposure to religions other than that of the majority, striking at the root cause of religious intolerance – a lack of empathy and understanding.

However, because of the unique nature of religion – something that is simultaneously public and private and which the State must keep at arm’s length – it may be more appropriate for the leaders of religions to be at the forefront of initiatives for interfaith dialogue. And it should be on the shoulders of the believers of all faiths to take a long and hard look at our own relationships with God – and with all God has created.

For if we believe our God is the creator of everything, then God cannot be owned by any one group.

If our God is transcendent, then God takes no sides but everyone’s.

If our God is infinite, then no one and nothing is excluded from God’s grace.

To paraphrase the statements of the Catholic Church in its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” – let us each, while witnessing to our own faiths and ways of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found in the beliefs of others.

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