Religious Diplomats

How can religion be enlisted to make peace rather than suffer the wars carried on in its name? Thinkers in a number of countries have been developing a global perspective on this question. Now such a task is assigned to the US State Department's new Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.

Born in controversy, the committee inspires confidence with its recently announced roster of 20 distinguished scholars and religious figures of various faiths. Its formation follows long pressure from evangelical Christian groups for appointment of a "special adviser" to address the persecution of Christians overseas. The committee's charge is to advise the administration on human rights abuses against people of all religions. It has the added responsibility of seeing how nongovernmental religious groups can help resolve conflicts like those in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East.

Here is where such a committee fits into the new global thinking about religion. "Global" is a catchword in business, communications, and the environment. Now it is being applied in phrases like global theology and global spirituality.

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These concepts relate to both (a) the broad diversity of religions and (b) the ideas of coherent world order and potential oneness of humanity found in many religions, according to a current analyst of the global perspective, Prof. Ursula King of the University of Bristol in Britain. She notes the early presence in the Christian tradition of the idea of oikumene, of "the whole inhabited world," taken from the Greeks and Romans. Eventually Christianity reached out around the globe. Now it is part of the spectrum of religions embraced in theology's new "global consciousness," characterized by a search for greater unity, peace, and social justice in the world.

"Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed," said the declaration "Towards a Global Ethic" presented at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago three years ago.

One of the global scholars on this side of the Atlantic is Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. Her appointment to the new committee was one example of the State Department's care in picking the right people for an international job. She is a leader in recognizing that relations between differing religions must go beyond toleration to the quest for mutual understanding.

This is something individuals can act upon in their own communities, and ultimately it is the sum of loving individual efforts that will provide the climate for international ventures like the Advisory Board on Religious Freedom Abroad to succeed. We await the committee's first public meeting, which could come early next year, with the greatest interest and hope.

Meanwhile, we revisit Professor King's discussion not only of globalization but of "glocalization," the necessary intersection of the global and the local, which is also stressed by Professor Eck. It's tempting to paraphrase an environmental slogan and say, "Think globally, pray locally" - though people who pray anywhere these days must have the whole world in their thoughts.

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