This article was originally posted in The Fiji Times.
By Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
LAST Wednesday was the International Day of Peace. As part of the Pacific Peace Conference held in Suva from 18th to 21st September, the first panel discussion was on Peace and Religion.
Presenters included Dr Jaqcueline Ryle, a social anthropologist who lectures at the University of the South Pacific and is the author of the 2010 book, “My God, My Land: Interwoven Paths of Christianity and Tradition in Fiji”; Reverend Dr Mele’ana Puloka- Oceania president of the World Council of Churches and Reverend Dr Tevita Banivanua, president of the Methodist Church in Fiji. A representative from the Fiji Muslim League was invited but did not participate.
In his presentation Mr Banivanua shared a story from one of the plenary sessions at the recent World Methodist Conference where participants were given a little plastic egg – the kind usually given to children In it was a small strip of paper – on which was typed a quote from the theologian Hans Küng. The quote read: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions. There will be no peace among religions without dialogue among the religions.”
Pluralism is a fact of life in Fiji. We are multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural and multireligious country.
Mr Banivanua said that while we celebrate our diversity, we must acknowledge that this rich diversity has also presented us with difficulties in terms of the notion of otherness – how we relate to those different from us.
“This feeling of otherness is compounded when it is based on both religion and ethnicity or culture. The other is both a person of different race and faith.”
He quoted the teaching of Jesus to love one’s neighbour, a an instruction to look beyond the physical, sociological and ideological difference and look at the common humanity – the dignity of the human person as, “also created in the image of God”.
“The story of the Good Samaritan, which follows this passage of scripture, frames this in the act of compassion — of kindness by an ‘other’ to an ‘other’.”
“In the wake of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, we witnessed acts of compassion, which for many Christians were an embodiment of loving and caring for the ‘other’. Stories from my own community of faith bear witness to this. Race and faith were not factors of consideration – human compassion overcame divisions. Christians received from Muslims and Hindus and vice-versa.
“For those on the receiving end, who may have had strong feelings of otherness – these acts of compassion challenged many long held perceptions. So our common humanity goes beyond our beliefs.”
Adding to his reflection in this column some weeks ago, Mr Banivanua said one of the major obstacles for peace among religions was a lack of understanding of other faiths.
“Our faiths are misinterpreted and we misinterpret the faiths of others, getting caught up in arguments in the correct name of God when the name is part of the mystery. Our not fully understanding each other leads to us fearing each other.”
Part of the fear around even in this type of dialogue is that in learning about the faiths of others we will become weaker in ours. Or that in building interreligious relationships we will compromise our own faith.
“I strongly believe that inter-religious dialogue calls for Christians to not only take their own faith seriously but enter into genuinely open dialogue with other faith communities during which there will be real giving and receiving on both sides. This not only serves as a catalyst to critically understand other religions, but also to critically examine Christianity in a way that refines and strengthens our faith.”
As in other types of dialogue interfaith dialogue calls for sensitive listening — those who well understood the people to whom they spoke and were able to address their real needs in ways that were effective and convincing.
“Even though we have our own claims, deep down we can find and connect to the same mystery.”
Suggesting some ways forward, Mr Banivanua said that while freedom of religious expression, provisions against intolerance and hate speech are part of our Constitution and legislation – it is not the State which mandates religious tolerance and respect.
“That has to come from us – as a result of deep conversations of the heart and practical expressions of loving the other. There is still a need for more dialogue spaces, more opportunities for building personal relationships and learning about and from each other. “Those who call for better interreligious relationships must themselves support and encourage initiatives.”
This remains an important issue as faith shapes the world view of the majority of Fijians, even in a secular state.
“They see the world as part of God’s sacred creation.”
A decade of peace-building dialogue forums and even longer in terms interfaith sharing, challenged us to move forward, said Mr Banivanua.
“We need to be willing to identify and collaborate on many of the issues affecting Fijians.
“We need to meaningfully engage in the issue of interfaith prayers — not as a state issue but in the process of respectfully living together in a multireligious community.
“We also need to engage in dialogue between mainstream religious and smaller religious communities, including indigenous religious perspectives — in a way of listening to other voices among us.”
These dialogues do not undermine the integrity of our faith.
“As a community of faith with a right to hold firm to our doctrines and theological perspectives we are able to share our faith and learn from other faith’s on our traditions that uphold the common good.
“We are able to work in partnership to address common issues of concern. Dialogue and collaboration does not mean compromise of our doctrinal beliefs and tradition. We will certainly not do so for the sake of political expediency or political correctness.”
In 2014, the standing committee of the Methodist Church in Fiji resolved that research on interfaith issues to be undertaken for discussion.
Mr Banivanua said that while this work was continuing, this discussion would be able to be taken to the grass root or local church level for discussion as well as national level next year. He concluded by saying the Methodist Church in Fiji was committed to these processes.
“The World Methodist Council, on which the Methodist Church has two representatives, in its last quinquennium, established a standing committee on inter-religious relations. I am happy to share that the Methodist Church in Fiji is represented on that committee and has already made some contributions to the work plan for the committee over the next five years.”
The World Methodist Council supports the Four Ways of Interfaith Dialogue as a model for those engaging in this type of dialogue:
Dialogue of life — In which people of different faiths and spiritual traditions strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit – includes socialising and hospitality
Dialogue of action — In which people of spiritual commitment and faith collaborate with others in building a just society — includes service and working for justice
Dialogue of religious experience — In which people steeped in their spiritual traditions share their ways of searching for God or the Absolute – includes prayer, worship, celebration
Dialogue of theological exchange — In which specialists seek to deepen their understanding of other spiritual heritages.
Deep listening, committed collaborative action and respect of our common humanity. Each is a step in the road of walking and talking peace among communities of faith.
“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.