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Welcoming Remarks PDF Print E-mail

Joseph C. Paige
Shaw Divinity School

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I am the former president of Shaw Divinity School, where I now teach world religions. One of my favorite courses is one we call “Dialogue with People of Living Faiths.” I got the idea for the course from a meeting sponsored by the World Council of Churches. They had a section dedicated totally to dialogue among people of living faiths in which people from the different faith communities came together to discuss their similarities and differences.

Now there is a strange thing about people in religion, especially Christians. I never understood it myself. I have a little sign that I wear saying, “W.W.J.D.” When people start acting crazy with me, if they are Christians, I ask them, “What do you think Jesus would do?” Whatever that is, it seems to me that is what they ought to do. I have found that a large number of people in the Christian community fail to understand the concept of religious pluralism. There are also people who fight ecumenism wherever they find it. So in my course, and in my life, I have devoted myself to religious liberty and to promoting ecumenism and dialogue with people. Our course, which began in 1984, is one of the most popular courses because we invite people from all the faith communities to share their beliefs.

When I go back to the Genesis story, I find that God made “man in his image, male and female He created them.” The book doesn’t say, “He made them white or yellow or black or purple or green or brown or red.” Nor does it say, “He made them Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or Islamic” or whatever. It just says, “male and female, made He them.” Therefore, I expect all these males and females to talk to each other, to share things, and to love each other, to hug each other, to kiss each other, to be there for each other.

The Bible says that Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I believe a much better way to deal with that is to say that each man should try to be my brother’s brother and my sister’s brother, and for the women to be my sister’s sister and my brother’s sister. It is a much deeper concept. I believe we must move in this direction. This meeting is to promote the concept of my brother’s brother, whoever my brother might be, and my sister’s brother, and for the women, my sister’s sister and my brother’s sister. That cuts through all the things that divide us. It cuts through race, it cuts through economic circumstances, it cuts through national origin, ethnicity, and all other barriers.

I am indeed pleased to welcome you to Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, on behalf of the International Coalition of Religious Freedom, and to welcome your participation in this, the inaugural conference of Religious Freedom and the New Millennium.

I think this is a truly great occasion. It is an international event, and I am excited about it. Inasmuch as nearly half the participants are from foreign countries, I think this gathering is unique. We have 43 different nations represented. That is especially unique. We have a broad spectrum from the United States, representing most of the religious faith communities. We have people representing business, media, and education, as well as religious scholars. I want to say to all of you that we are very happy you are with us tonight. We hope that the conference will inspire you to go back and become activists.

A friend of mine once said at a conference, “Many of you will not like everything I say. When you hear me talk, I want you to eat what you can digest and what you can’t digest, just leave it on the plate. Rather than calling me names, just write it down. Maybe tomorrow you can eat it, or next week.”

During the present conference, eat what you can digest. That which you can’t digest, just leave it on the plate. You don’t have to get all upset. Just leave it on the plate. In that way we can move on. To those of you who have come from other countries, I just want to say, welcome to the United States and to Washington, D.C. Despite our shortcomings, I think we have one of the greatest countries in the world. I am sure you feel the same way about yours. Likewise, Washington, D.C., with all its ups and downs, is a great city.

There is a song that we used to sing, called “But I Won’t Complain.” It says, I have had some good days and I have had some bad days, but my good days outweigh my bad days. When I put it all together, I won’t complain. That is what I found out about life. I want those of you from other countries to see Washington’s positive side and see the United States from the positive side.

I hope that your stay here will be a productive one and that when you return to your country you will be enriched and inspired. You will hear great ideas expressed by wonderful people. You may also hear things you disagree with. It is all right. We don’t have to agree on everything. The important thing is that we share and that we are open in our sharing.

Our prayer is that when you return home that you will be more sensitive than ever to the rights that are articulated in Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is what this conference is all about.

“Everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” We need to believe that. Some of us don’t. I know this is not true, but we used to say that the Baptists pray that the Methodists might go to heaven and that the Holiness people would pray that maybe the Baptists might go if they change some of their ways. It was always, I am all right, but what about you? Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and conscience and religion.

The right to religious freedom includes the freedom to change his or her religion or belief. And the freedom, “alone or in community with others, in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The problem is that so many of us have problems with the way other people practice their belief, because ours is the standard. We have problems with how people pray. There are problems even in the United States, which was founded on basic God-centered principles. We have a real big problem when it comes to prayer in public places. I could go on and on with problems I think we need to deal with in a country like ours. We have a wonderful country. I am so proud of the things that we do, so we have to move through these things. We have to somehow find a way to deal with religious pluralism as a reality.

As I said previously, be my brother’s brother. Be my sister’s brother. On notions of brotherhood we should go a little bit further than just quoting Bible verses. It has a much deeper meaning, and hopefully some of these things will come out tonight.

As a member of the board of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, I like to think we are an advocacy coalition, that we are a monitoring group. We are an educational organization, and we will do research. Furthermore, we hope to promote understanding among people of varying viewpoints. It is very much in keeping with the United Nations’ view, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I met with the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations for about five years. Most of the meetings were in Geneva. We talked about understanding and tolerance. There is a big difference between understanding and tolerance. When you tolerate something you just put up with it. That is one of the things that so many of us are guilty of doing. We hope that you will move from just tolerance. That is an OK term to me, but let’s move toward understanding differences. That means we must talk and put things on the table. I have to talk with you and you have to talk with me. I have to be honest with you and you have to be honest with me.

If I like something I have to tell you that. If I don’t like something I have to tell you that. If I am confused about something I have to tell you that. If you are confused you have to tell me that. Then we will move from there, but we have to put it on the table just like it is. That is a fact that is real. It is real internationally and on the national level. I have traveled to conferences all over the world and it is a big problem we have, just being honest with each other on matters of differences, especially in religion. The word that most of us use is that we will tolerate you and you will tolerate me. That is a negative. Let’s try to understand differences in religious beliefs and practices and let’s be able to hold hands.

If you are on an airplane, you never know who is on the plane with you. Let’s face it, if you have all these attitudes you will have a lonely trip if the trip takes 23 hours. We are saying, let’s get our act together; it is very important.

As stated in your program, as a matter of background, the International Coalition for Religious Freedom was founded in 1984 as the Coalition for Religious Freedom. I was a member of the board of the coalition back then, as were some others who are present. In time, I became an officer. At that time, our emphasis was on events in the United States. In 1997, we decided to expand the emphasis of the coalition. The name was changed; our commitment broadened. This conference is a demonstration of our renewed and expanded commitment.

As stated by the president of the International Coalition, Bruce Casino, we are indeed grateful to the Washington Times Foundation for its continuing support. I have expressed that to the president of the Washington Times. They are making a difference worldwide. I want to point that out over and over again, because they keep doing so many good things.

I could list many of the problem areas that I think we need to deal with. Separatism is one concern. We need to talk more and have more dialogue at all levels with people of living faiths. We need more honest dialogue.

I have looked at the list of participants of this conference. It is a list of wonderful people. I know that you are going to have a good time. I see a lot of people who are making a great contribution. I want to thank you very, very much for what you are doing and again, “welcome.”