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Documents from the conference in September 2010

Federalism : A Protestant Interreligious Perspective

William McComishI must confess that my contribution has been developed in a situation which is a little bit confused in my personal life in the sense that my wife is very ill and she is in hospital, which is why I do not have written notes about my paper, but the great advantage of the invitation to speak this afternoon was that it has actually made me think and so I have thought about federalism. I have thought about federalism, what it means to me as a protestant and also, with my activity in interfaith matters, [about] how federalism could help us to progress, in terms of religious influence on a world with many problems.

My first reaction to the question was, of course, the usual protestant superiority by saying that of course [that] federalism was our idea anyway. This goes back to my studies of political science at Trinity College, Dublin, where I had to read the federalist papers by the very protestant, James Madison. These were written when the newly independent American colonies were trying to work out a political system which would in fact protect minorities. And the fact that, if you accept that you are a minority and everybody else in this world is a member of a minority but they do not think so, then you feel that it is you right and your duty to protect other minorities.

And so to me this is the basis of federalism. It comes very much from a protestant perspective: most protestant churches were minorities, most protestant churches were not hierarchical, they were run by committees so, for them, this kind of way of looking at the world came fairly naturally as a means of protecting dissent and disagreement.

Now, I believe, and I hope I do not offend anybody, that we are living, to an extent, to the end of an era which was created after the Second World War. We have these great institutions, the United Nations, we have the World Trade Organisation, you have the World Council of Churches, you have the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and these were all set up after the Second World War when each state had its role, each church had its role and, to an extent, we are now living through the situation where we discover that there is a certain loss of confidence in institutions and we are beginning to realize that, in political and religious terms, there are a number of problems and I might mention Kashmir, I might mention the Palestinian problem, which are both problems that involve politics and religion, which we have not managed to solve, and they are far from the only ones and in our world there are many conflicts in which “religion” actually plays a role, because it is a component of human identity. And of course as an Irishman, I come from a country where we are experts in mixing ethnicity, religion and politics.

So, I started thinking and I thought but, I mean, religion to me should be a force for good in our world. There are many, many kinds of religion. There are many methods of being involved in religion. There has been in Protestantism a great deal of individualism: from the evangelical revival in the 18th century, [came the question as to] do I believe in God, and sometimes people have tended to forget that it matters even more if God actually believes in them.  And sometimes I meet people who would tend to talk to me about God as if they had created God and they want to tell me about it. Very good, I try and listen to everybody, and what is very difficult for an Irishman, try not to lose my temper. But there are many, many kinds of religion; there are many ways of looking at God; there are many ways of defining spirituality. There are so many different aspects that it seems to me that, if religion is ever to have any influence on this global and multicultural world in which we are condemned to live, that this can only be through some kind of federalism.

But obviously it is not very easy because if you don’t have federalism, then you start talking about majorities and minorities and, if you want religions to work together, obviously that is excluded, so some form of federalism would be the only thing, because there are religions like Islam or Protestantism or Judaism where you have basically an empty building and an ecclesiastic who is a teacher, the pastor, the rabbi, the imam. He is somebody who teaches his people who has the special training to do so. But you will get other religions, where the ecclesiastic is a priest, where he is regarded as an intermediary between the people and God. You have religions with more complicated buildings which are not empty, which have statues, which have priests. You have forms of religion today which continue to teach and to preach even when it is obvious that what they teach very often on sexual matters is disregarded my many people who still consider themselves to be members of those religions. And as a protestant in Fribourg, I’m not going to mention any examples.

So, there are religions which are absolute, which are hierarchical, which have a pyramidal structure where authority flow down from above and which are institutionalized. You have organizations which are religious organizations which have no institutional structure at all. You have religions with buildings and religions without buildings. You have religions with clergy and religions without clergy. You have in each of the great traditions many different forms. I think probably only God knows how many different forms of Protestantism actually exist in this world.

And in my own life and in my own experience, as the dean of the Geneva cathedral, one of my pleasures is to keep a little collection of papers from American fundamentalists who denounced me as an instrument of the devil. These are some of my most previous possessions and yet these people would call themselves Protestant, and so would I. Maybe you never hate anybody as much as you hate your neighbours, I don’t know. But, what is religion? Is it to do with astrology? Is it to do with superstition? It is to do with something like Zen Buddhism, which to me is neither a religion nor a philosophy, but a method of trying to achieve some form of nirvana.

So, to me the varieties of religious experience are enormous and almost infinite, and we know very little about what is actually happening in the world. One of the biggest movements which is happening in our time, of which probably most of us are unaware, is the great revival of Confucianism in modern China. It’s an enormous and complicated movement.

Now, when we were all living each one in our own village, and everyone thought the same thing and everybody went to the same religious building, and we were not confronted with people who were different, then it was quite easy to believe that we possessed the truth. But, we are in a global world, we are in a world with plurality. We are no longer isolated. Physically, we are no longer isolated because of our media. We are not isolated because of the Internet, and so we become aware of people who have different ideas.

Now this, in fact, goes a little bit back to Konrad Lorenz and the comportment of animals, that when you see somebody who is different, do you regard them as a potential enemy, somebody from whom you must be protected or do you regard the person who is different as somebody who can enrich you and from whom you can learn? Obviously, I believe in the second, but I believe also as I look around the world that there is an enormous need for action stimulated by religious people. About what? About justice. I see injustice everywhere. I see conflicts everywhere. And I would like to see a system where religious leaders could take a greater and a concerted action to resolve conflicts.

There is a matter of a decent work agenda. To protect people, there is the matter of poverty. There is the matter of the distribution of water. There is the matter, the whole matter, of economic sharing throughout the world. All religions worthy of their name work for peace and for justice, but it seems to me that we should find a way to do it. There is the matter of ecology. There is the matter of the protection of the environment. These are not simply political questions; these to me are religious questions, because our religions in great majority teach that the earth has been created, and not created for nothing, but created with a purpose. There is the matter of peace. There is the matter of education. There is the matter of ethics. There is the matter of morality. And I am nothing simply of our own lives, but of the lives of our financial institutions, of our investment institutions.

And so, I would believe, I would hope, but it’s a dream, that there might be some form in which we might work better together. And, as I say, a majority/minority system, forget it. But some kind of federalism, it seems to me, would be a way forward, because the world is interdependent, the world lacks dialogue, and some form of concerted action could certainly help to solve some of our problems. Any kind of federalism in religious terms, in global terms, would have to involve people coming together who would accept that God listens to the prayers of other people. This would not be a problem for the major religions, but it would certainly be a problem for some of the more marginal and extremist groups. But even a federalist system, I don’t think in religious terms, could involve everybody. It would have to be non-hierarchical; it would have to be as far as possible non-exclusive. It would be enormous because there are so many different groups, but would need to have some kind of executive to help bring people together. And it would somehow involve both an acceptance of the legitimacy of other groups and of the fact that there is still a desire, much as it could be affection, much as it could be respect, the desire to pretend that you are one faith, because our visions of God, I think, are too different. But, as I said, what matters is not that we believe in God, but that He believes in us.

And so my last reflection, and with that I will finish, was that in fact I have been living through a federalist system for the last ten years. In 1999, the ambassador, Walter Geiger, who I think also comes from Appenzell, he was most impressed by the ceremony which we organized in Geneva cathedral, which was an interreligious ceremony for the victims of the Swiss airplane that crashed in the Atlantic. And he said, “but couldn’t you do something for the United Nations day in 1999?”. So, I gathered together a number of my friends from different traditions in my office in the cathedral of Geneva and what do you do when you bring religious people together, you write a text, and so I have brought along our text. We are still together today. We still enter into dialogue to deal with situations, we still pray together, and we are Christians of different kinds, Orthodox and Protestant, Old Catholic and Roman Catholic, we are Jews, we are Moslems, we are Buddhists, we are Hindus and we are Baha’i. And we come together: we have our own association, we have our own object, which is to defend and to promote our text. And so, I would like just to finish by reading you our text, which is called the Geneva Spiritual Appeal, and I brought along a French version, so I’ll be translating it into English as I speak.

(editor’s note : I include the text from the website of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal rather than the version translated by Reverend McComish.)

Geneva Spiritual Appeal

Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a respect for the integrity of humankind.

Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a rejection of hatred and violence.

Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common the hope for a better and more just world.

Representing religious communities and civil society we appeal to the leaders of this world, whatever their field of influence, to strictly adhere to the following three principles :

A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual power to justify violence of any kind.

A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual source to justify discrimination and exclusion.

A refusal to exploit or dominate others by means of strength intellectual capacity or spiritual persuasion, wealth or social status.

Grounded in the Genevan tradition of welcome, refuge and compassion, our appeal is open to all whose convictions are in accordance with these three demands.

As I said, ten years later, we are still together. This was written before 11th September; it was written before many other things and we believe our text is more necessary today than ever. It has the advantage of being short and I think these three negatives have a certain force, so it’s a kind of federalism that we have been living through, and it’s only today that I realize that it was a federalism. So thank you very much for listening.

N.B. This article is based on the talk given by Dr. McComish and we apologize for any transcription errors.

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