The Millennium World Peace Summit: A Baha'i Perspective
Presented by Dr. Albert Lincoln, Secretary-General of the Baha'i International Community.
Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen.
Over a century ago, a venerable religious figure confined in a remote outpost of the Ottoman Empire articulated a vision that may inspire our deliberations at this historic gathering. Addressing one of his followers, Bahá'u'lláh penned these words:
Our hope is that the world's religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.1
Our world is undergoing rapid and far-reaching changes, drawing humanity ever closer together, into what some have called a global village. Cultures and peoples that, for most of history, have lived in isolation from one another are now interacting face-to-face, on a daily basis. Sadly, however, social progress and the growth of wisdom and understanding have not kept pace with material advances, so that our global village is not a happy or a peaceful place. Indeed the time has come for its elders to take counsel together and think of the future.
Our Children are the Future
Looking beyond immediate crises and conflicts, one of the greatest dangers facing mankind comes from a generation of children growing up in a moral vacuum. Our hearts go out to the child-soldiers of Africa, the child-prostitutes of Asia and the desperate scavengers of the world's countless slums and refugee camps, victims of a poverty which is both spiritual and material. But we must not forget the millions of young people growing up in societies whose traditional value systems lie in ruins, or those deprived of spiritual training by generations of dogmatically materialistic education. And lest we oversimplify the causes or the remedies, let us also call to mind the young products of permissive liberalism in the West, some of whom are as well-armed and violence-prone as their age-mates in less prosperous lands.
Each child is potentially the light of the world, and its darkness. Lighting the lamps of these souls is a responsibility we must collectively assume if civilization is to thrive. Children must not be deprived of the light of moral education, especially the girl-child, who is the transmitter of values to future generations. Indeed, educated women are one of the most important keys to world peace.2
What will be our Response?
Here, I would submit, is a challenge to which we who have gathered at this summit can and must respond.
Above and beyond a remarkable maturation in inter-religious dialogue, this meeting of spiritual leaders in the Hall of the United Nations General Assembly, on the eve of the Millennium Summit of the world's Heads of State and Government, marks an historic and vital step forward in creating the necessary mutual respect and cooperation between religious and political leadership, conditions without which world peace and the prosperity of humankind are probably unattainable.3
Kindly do not mistake my meaning. We advocate no blurring of lines, no mixture of religion and politics. The harmonious cooperation of these two groups of leaders is all the more essential because their roles are both contrasting and complementary.
The Role of Religion
In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that much injustice and suffering have been inflicted throughout history in the name of religion. Even today, religious propaganda and incitement contribute to fear, hatred and warfare in many regions of the world. In the Baha'i Writings, it is said that, should religion become a cause of enmity, it is better to do without it.4
Yet, when examined in a fair-minded manner in the historical context of their times, the teachings of the Founders of the great religions provide no support for the contentions and prejudices convulsing much of humankind. Intolerance and fanaticism represent, at best, distortions of true religious values.5
Writing of religion as a social force, Bahá'u'lláh declared: "Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein."6"The purpose of religion," He affirms "...is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife."7
The true and lasting peace toward which we all aspire depends on unity.8 When we are united - in a unity that embraces and honors diversity - all problems can be solved. For a start, the conscientious application of the teaching that we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated - a principle at the heart of all religions - would bring about a radical change in the world.
To play a constructive role in shaping humanity's future, religious leadership must focus on the core of positive moral values held in common by all religious traditions, rather than on differences.9 We may each believe our religion is best, but we must respect the spiritual choices of others, even if we think that they err. If there must be competition among religions, let each strive to excel in guiding people to peaceful coexistence, moral rectitude and mutual understanding.
Religion wields the power to mobilize the hearts and minds of the people and to urge them forward on the path toward peace and mutual understanding. It has a moral authority and an ethical sensitivity that complement the resources and expertise of governments and civil groups. Indeed, religion has been at the heart of many of history's great social movements.10 The special role of religious and spiritual leadership is to take a long view, not from an ivory tower, but with a perspective that is detached from immediate exigencies and the often partisan struggles of day-to-day political life.
Our disordered world is in desperate need of a moral compass that is above passing fashion and untainted by the pervasive materialism of the modern era. The convening of this summit suggests that the world has become aware of this need and of the capacity latent in the world's religious traditions.11 Shall we not arise together to take up this challenge? If the task seems daunting, let us think of the children, our most precious trust.
The proposed International Advisory Councils of Religious and Spiritual Leaders should function as a vehicle to channel the power of religion to bring about a better world, for all, including the children. The Regional Councils could serve the same purpose at the regional and national level. Given the unique potential of these new agencies for concerted and sustained action by religious leaders in support of the processes leading toward world peace, we have made them the focus of our specific recommendations.
The membership of the Advisory Councils should be broadly based and representative of the world's religious and spiritual traditions. We recommend that the Councils function on a consultative basis and, to the extent possible, by consensus.12 We also believe it would be preferable to avoid the election or appointment of permanent officers.
Essential to all the functions of the Advisory Councils would be the task of identifying the core values that are common to all religious and spiritual traditions. The resulting shared understanding would constitute a firm foundation for united effort in a spirit of service to humankind as a whole.
Among their most urgent assignments would be to cooperate with appropriate U.N. agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP and the World Bank in addressing the need for appropriate curricula and delivery systems for the moral education and training of children and youth. To this end, the Regional Advisory Councils could be instrumental in nurturing consultative processes at the national and regional levels involving educational experts and representatives of the religious and spiritual traditions espoused by the relevant populations.
The Councils could be called upon to offer or arrange mediation services in conflicts and potential conflicts where religious differences are at issue or where religious or spiritual guidance would be effective.
They could also recommend and encourage the development and use of programs aimed at bringing about reconciliation and restoring trust as part of the reconstruction of societies torn by past conflict.
The mandate of the International Advisory Council should include the authority to review and offer advice on the full range of United Nations policies, programs and processes, bearing in mind that, despite its many impressive achievements, the world body and its agencies often reflect and promote a materialistic world-view which is at variance with the spiritual values held by the majority of mankind. We submit that the harmony of United Nations operations and the effectiveness of its programs would only be enhanced by a more spiritual approach based on the common core values of the world's religious traditions.
If the human race is to meet the challenge of establishing world peace, the spiritual energy latent in each and every one of us must be released and directed to this noble task. Religion can provide the vision and unleash the spiritual energy necessary to guide humanity to a New World Order worthy of its destiny.
To build a global commonwealth based on unity in diversity, animated by both love and justice, is no easy task. But it is one that we must undertake, for ourselves, for the children of today and for generations yet unborn. In so doing, we may surely rely on the almighty assistance of the Sovereign Creator of the Universe, whatever may be the name by which we call Him.
Our role as participants in this historic gathering is as simple as it is challenging. Let me leave you with this exhortation from the Baha'i Writings:
With the utmost friendliness and in a spirit of perfect fellowship take ye counsel together, and dedicate the precious days of your lives to the betterment of the world...13
1. Bahá'u'lláh, Lawh-i-Maqsud, English translation published in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p168.
2. The Baha'i Writings explain that women are "advocates of peace" [''Abdu'l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. 14, August 1923, p133.]. When women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, war will cease. See: 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace; Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, October 1995; Women, Compiled by the Research Department of the Baha'i World Centre.
3. The establishment of global peace and security involves much more than creating procedures and institutions that bring about the cessation of conflict. It calls for drawing on all the intellectual, moral and spiritual resources available to humankind. For a detailed discussion of this question see The Promise of World Peace. The transformation necessary to bring about global peace and prosperity must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and social institutions. This will require concrete policies and programs to promote the building of both moral capacity and technical capacity. Such capacity-building efforts will call for partnerships among religions, organizations of civil society and public agencies working at the individual, community and institutional levels. For an exploration of the role of religion in building human capacity see The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement of the Baha'i International Community, January 1995; and Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, a concept paper written by the Baha'i International Community for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, February 1998.
4. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp167-8.
5. Baha'i International Community Office of Public Information, Who is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century, February 1999, p8.
6. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in: Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha'u'llah, pp186-187.
7. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p129.
8. Bahá'u'lláh affirms that "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established." Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p286.
9. There is a growing number of interactions between representatives of different faiths dialoguing about areas of commonality. This work foreshadows advances in this area, where no doubt continued interfaith discussions will uncover the deep conceptual threads of unity that link our religious systems.
10. For example, individuals and communities acting on their religious beliefs played a fundamental role in the abolition of slavery; the civil rights movement in the U.S.A.; and the anti-apartheid struggle.
11. Some will think this assessment overly optimistic, but we are not alone. Consider the Alliance of Religions and Conservation , the World Faiths Development Dialogue (religions collaborating with the World Bank in combating poverty), the work of the Parliament of World's Religions culminating in the document A Call to Our Guiding Institutions, and Prince Philip's remarks in the BBC Reith Lectures 2000 series.
12. This recommendation is based on our experience with the process of consultation in the administration of the world-wide Baha'i community. For an explanation of this unique process, see The Prosperity of Humankind, p 9-10.
13. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p184.