Just a few days into January 2016 and my tenure as the new Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I want to wish you a productive and meaningful new year! I hope that wherever you live and whatever you do will give you many opportunities to contribute to our shared mission of promoting understanding, cooperation, and harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities.
The present state of the world—where war, conflicts, terrorism, ethnic cleansings, refugee flight from danger, hatred, bigotry, random violence, and crime create anxiety, uncertainty, and fear for millions of people—the need for the followers of all faiths to work for a better world is self-evident. We must not think that these problems will disappear on their own, for they demand the response of good and courageous people.
One of the books I read in my graduate theological program was a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount written by Austrian Orthodox Jewish professor Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997). Something Lapide said I have remembered all of these subsequent years. He wrote: “Even in Jesus’ lifetime the Talmudic fathers, faced with the question of whether peace on earth is at all achievable, answer with a theo-politics of small steps: curtailing conflicts, blunting confrontations, waiving rights, keeping and going beyond the law of love, being flexible, and all the thousand and one ways of persistent ‘busy-bee’ labor ‘for the sake of peace,’ as the Talmud so often says.”
“A theo-politics of small steps”—that’s the strategy I recommend we follow in these difficult and challenging days. In fact, the suggestions this 20th-century interfaith Jew made in his 1982 book are still very valid. In our own multi-religious relationships, what little actions can we take to curtail conflicts, to blunt confrontations, to waive our own rights, to be flexible, to keep and go beyond the law of love—in fact, to follow the thousand and one ways of making peace that our separate religious traditions teach.
Achieving peace on earth is something we hear about often. Perhaps you have seen the Microsoft commercial filmed November 16, 2015, in which employees of the company came out onto 5th Avenue in New York City to sing “Let There be Peace on Earth (and Let it Begin with Me”. Their tag line, “Spread harmony,” sounds like an advertisement for the Parliament of the World’s Religions rather than for one of the five largest information technology corporations in the world. But even Microsoft’s mission statement is inspiring: “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Would it be too bold to say that the Parliament’s mission is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more peace”?
Yet, how can such a formidable, seemingly impossible, task be undertaken, much less fully accomplished? Of course, the Parliament is committed to dreaming big dreams, casting giant visions, and attempting great work for world peace, justice, and sustainability. We will not shirk from our responsibility to do all within our organizational structure and purpose to foster neighborliness across the boundaries that separate us.
But what is our task as individuals? Our role, it seems to me, is for each of us to perform those small steps of peacemaking and relationship building that will make a difference in our part of the world. “But my small acts of kindness would only represent a drop in the ocean,” you might protest. To that familiar objection the Catholic Nobel Peace Laureate Mother Teresa responded: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Even more profoundly, the Persian Sufi poet Rumi observed: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
Will you join me this year in practicing a theo-politics of small steps toward achieving the global goal of peace? We who are committed to the interfaith movement and to the work of the Parliament can do no less. I welcome your partnership in this amazing and fulfilling work!