From Building an Interfaith Community Summer Course
27 July – 14 August 2015, Chateau de Bossey, Switzerland
We are a group of 13 young people who have met this past summer at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Geneva, Switzerland to build an interfaith community together, and to discuss the vital theme of wealth and poverty in our world today. We have come together from different parts of the world, from different religions and different professional backgrounds. We are citizens of countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and North America. We are members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. All of us recognize that the need for a more equitable distribution of wealth is an issue which deeply affects us, both as citizens of our own particular countries, but also as human beings, called by our religions to care for the welfare of all humanity. How we engage with and give voice to those who are poor constitutes a very visible mark and symbol of our concern for “the other”, a concern which lies at the heart of each of our faiths. During our three weeks together we have become more aware of how the need for global justice in the area of wealth and poverty interfaces with other pressing global concerns, such as the need for greater responsibility and care for our environment.
Our religious traditions have valuable resources to encourage and enable us to respond critically and compassionately to the topic of wealth and poverty in our world. We learned that in the Jewish tradition, the Midrash Rabbah Exodus 31:12 notes that, “There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty—the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers said: All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side, and poverty is on the other.” We also explored the importance of the Shemittah (the Sabbatical Year/Year of Release) as a religious resource offered by Judaism to encourage a realization that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24.1), and that we are called to be stewards of God’s gifts to us, not simply for our own benefit. We learned more about how Zakat (obligatory giving) constitutes one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam, how Muslims are instructed to “keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed Zakat, and bow down to Allah with those who bow.” (Qur’an 2.43) Such “Prescribed alms are meant only for the poor, the needy, those who administer them, those whose hearts need winning over, to free slaves and help those in debt, for Allah’s cause, and for travellers in need. This is ordained by Allah; Allah is all knowing and wise” (Qur’an 9.60). The understanding of our call to be responsible for the world as God’s just stewards is also intrinsic to Islam, as expressed in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h. “The creation is God’s household, so the dearest of them to God is the one who spends most for His household.” (Bihar al-anwar 96.118). The Christian tradition is marked by an understanding of a bias on God’s part towards the poor, and that they are the special recipients of God’s love and care, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6.20). Our debt to the poor is sharply stated in the admonition to the wealthy made by the Syrian saint, St Jacob of Sarough, “You have no tears? Buy tears from the poor. You have no sadness? Call the poor person to moan with you. If your heart is hard and has neither sadness nor tears, with alms invite the needy to weep with you…provide yourself with the water of tears, and may the poor come to help you put out the fire in which you are perishing.”
We are all members of religious traditions which honour the figure of Abraham, not least for his role in welcoming the stranger. We have learned about mutual engagement across faith boundaries to offer support to migrants and refugees, who constitute a powerfully visible symbol of contemporary inequalities. As we have explored the topic of wealth and poverty during our three weeks together, we have come to realize more acutely the need for all people of faith to work together for a more equitable world, and that interfaith engagement itself constitutes a means to enable us to do so. As “Peoples of the Book” we know that education is an important tool for combatting poverty and that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and poverty. We return to our contexts and our faith communities energized to take practical steps to encourage our co-religionists to work seriously on this topic. As we do, we carry with us the challenging comment once made by Mahatma Gandhi, whom we all honour as another person of faith, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”