The elderly Venerable Tep Vong, the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist community in Cambodia, traveled to Jaffna in Sri Lanka in the middle of the recent civil war. In a broken city under siege, he joined others – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians – to try to bring a peaceful end to the violent separatist conflict. The force of his quiet Buddhist resolve was unmistakable. Yet he never quoted a single Buddhist scripture. He spoke, instead, in the plainest of ordinary words.
Who would have thought that speaking plainly in ordinary language is revolutionary? But for many religious communities, it is. The revolution is the growth of multi-religious action based upon ancient religious meanings but using new ways to communicate across religious lines. The evidence, if you look, is everywhere: war zones, places of extreme poverty, schools, and regular neighborhoods. Religiously fanatical forces capture headlines, but the big story is that religious communities are actively cooperating on a scale until recently unimaginable. Shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines of today’s challenges, multi-religious cooperation is mainstream, and it’s growing.
What’s up? Have religious communities decided to blur their distinctive identities, drop their doctrinal differences, and jettison the transcendent to flatten themselves into merely humanistic organizations? Hardly. They are holding fast to defining differences in relationship to the transcendent. But they are also working together. It’s the successful melding of these two – real religious differences and positive cooperation – on an ever greater scale that is revolutionary. A key to understanding the underlying revolution is the fact that today’s religious communities are increasingly “bilingual.”
MLK's example of religious bilingualism
A double image illustrates the new bilingualism. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached to a small Christian church about the scourge of racism. He used the language of Christianity – its scriptures, images, theologies, prayers, and other customs. He spoke to Christians as a Christian in their own religious language.
Now follow Dr. King to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, where he spoke with conviction on racism to hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom held different – or no – religious beliefs. Dr. King remained the same religious man. He didn’t change as he walked from church to public mall. But he couldn’t just repeat the sermon given in the little church. Many of the people gathered there didn’t share the language of his church. Instead, King spoke in the language of the public square. He never ceased being a believer, but in different circumstances of church and public square he expressed his religiously rooted care in two distinct ways.
He was religiously bilingual.
Public language brings private worshippers together
Many religious communities are rapidly gaining this same bilingual skill. They keep their own religious language for exchange and action within their communities, but use ordinary language for the same purpose in the public space.
Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina led his Islamic community toward healing and reconciliation after the bitter trauma of civil war. To do so, he first worked as a Muslim among Muslims using the riches of Islamic language, including its scriptures and traditions. But together with Roman Catholic Cardinal Puljic, Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikolai, and the Jewish leader Jakob Finci, he also worked in a shared public language to offer the exhausted nation a common vision of unity that called all to action. In the aftermath of the pain of war, bilingualism helped harness the powers of each religious community to cooperate to build the nation.
Both sectarian religious and public languages are irreplaceably important for religious communities in our globalized world. Neither can be collapsed into the other without impoverishing a religious community’s ability to both know itself and to act upon its deepest possibilities for care in today’s pluralistic world.
A revolution is underway because more and more religious communities have acquired the remarkable ability to switch from the language of the temple, synagogue, mosque, church, or gurdwara to the language of the public square. Discourse in both forms of language is required for us to have diverse religious communities composed of well-informed members with durable moral sensibilities who can find a medium for collaboration with people of all faiths, or none at all, in facing the global challenges of our day.
Dr. William F. Vendley is Secretary General of Religions for Peace. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or any of the institutions with which the author is affiliated.
Editor's note: This is the final piece* of five in the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project. Explore the previous pieces that ran each day this week.
*No. 5 – William F. Vendley on the role of ordinary language in religious cooperation