Faith and development
FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams occupies a unique position in the religious world, with the potential to bridge religious and secular. As leader of Britain's established religion, he engages constantly with political leaders. So the title of his recent speech in London jumped out at me: "Relating Intelligently to Religion". Heaven knows, surely that's what we need.
As part of a series of seminars organized by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Williams argues that faith communities can be serious and effective allies in the struggle against privation. Even more: their participation could infuse the whole "development project" with a renewed political and moral energy. Development groups need to recognize that religious groups are more than a source of cheap labor. For their part, faith institutions should not grumble at what they see as "prosaic accountability and effectiveness."
He acknowledges that implicit, and to him anachronistic, taboos still block an appreciation of religion, despite a slowly increasing awareness that the majority of the world's population have religious convictions. To ignore religion "is to push against the grain of the societies you're trying to help and support."
Williams is unusual in his willingness to recognize that there are valid reasons behind the suspicions and hesitations that block this sensible alliance. We are seeing some played out vividly in Washington, where the Catholic Church threatened to withdraw from its essential and admirable work in the city's poorest neighborhoods if the City Council makes gay marriage legal. For some observers this hammers home the conviction that church and state cannot and should not mix.
Williams acknowledges that there will always be a shadow of suspicion that churches will favor "their own", and that their good social works are really "a cloak for proselytism". Unpacking the problem, Williams urges a level of mutual trust. This, however, is not an easy sell, given the enormous diversity of religious views. He suggests more religious literacy for a start, so development workers are at least aware of the elements in a particular religious culture that would be most fruitful in the struggle against poverty. These could then be utilized "to stimulate effective action and, ideally, change."
Where there are conflicts between the religious approach and the development approach, Williams urges taking them "as genuinely a disagreement, not simply a standoff between enlightenment and prejudice." Otherwise, he suggests, the development effort will be viewed by the locals as "an agenda that is not theirs, activated by foreigners claiming to act on their behalf, co-opting some of the local people into a new and largely alien elite of income and lifestyle." The resulting resentments and mistrust can paralyze development processes.
Williams acknowledges a reality that many prefer to duck: that supporting human rights can be tricky when engaging with religious peoples. Many human rights principles have deep religious roots, especially their focus on an individual's dignity and our responsibility before God for the welfare of each human being. But the language of human rights can be arid and legalistic. We need "to rediscover how to argue robustly in the public arena over broad ideas about what the good life looks like". Like Pope Benedict XVI, he is concerned that the model for good living should not be shaped solely by law and government.
This takes Williams to the global economic crisis and the related fear that development work is still driven by a belief in unrestricted economic growth - "a dangerously naive hope". "An unbalanced distribution of power is in the long run as damaging to the powerful as to the powerless." He highlights the dilemma of a rights discourse that fails to address the true complexity of societies where "'equal' freedoms amount to protecting the liberty of the already secure and wealthy - just as in the discourse of a lot of modern market economics, unconstrained freedom for some means powerlessness for many." Development is not "simply about the prosperous giving something to the poor, but about a gift that contributes to the liberation of both poor and prosperous and transforms both."
Williams' wisdom and call for honest dialogue offer a welcome opening to what could and should be powerful and modern alliances for the common good.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
Posted by: ccnl1 | November 23, 2009 8:52 AM
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