Religious perspectives of women and youth as the future-oriented way to peace

Religious perspectives of women and youth as the future-oriented way to peace

by Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Naurath*

President of Religions for Peace Germany/

Vice President of ENIB RfP Europe

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for inviting me to your country, Albania with incredible beauty, fascinating nature and warm hospitality and above all honesty of the people. A short story: when I wanted to rent a sunbed at the sea for me and my mother, with whom I travel, last week, the operator of the beach bar said 5 euros. I held out two 5 euro bills to him for our two loungers, thinking: 5 euros per person.  He gave me back a bill and said: no, a total of 5 euros.  This honest and friendly attitude impressed me very much. This is rare. I thank you for the honor to speak to you here and to thank you on behalf of the whole RfP Group Europe for your hospitality. In particular, I thank my esteemed colleague Prof. Genti Kruja, with whom I have worked together on much in the interfaith dialogue over the past years.  I congratulate you on such a scientist of your university, who represents his country, his religion and his love for peace with an unbelievably high level of commitment every day and who, according to my impression, has already made a name for himself all over the world.

I am speaking to you as a professor of Christian (specifically, Protestant) religious education. I believe that our societies need religious education from an early age, because this serves not only to find identity and to cope with crises, but also to be able to engage in dialogue and peace.

I also speak as a peace researcher, because I am deeply convinced: where people live a relationship with God, they long for charity and peace, they seek peace. Even if the media want to show us otherwise – I am convinced that religions have an immense potential for peace, because all violence is ultimately blasphemy against God’s creation.

We all long for peace in Europe, because only peace can be the guarantor of a good life for all. Only in peace can prosperity be built for people, can education be built under socially just conditions. Europe so urgently needs peace again.

As representatives of the established interreligious peace organization Religions for Peace.

(RfP), we want to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to promote peace. Religions, through their God-given mission, bear a responsibility for peace, that is, for dialogue, cooperation, reconciliation.

It touched me deeply when I was in the small mountain village of Vuno on my vacation trip a few days ago. In the middle of the small market place a memorial reminds that this village was occupied by Germans in the last years of German fascism 1943-45 and was burned down twice by Germans because people who lived there defended their home against the invading fascists. The male villagers who resisted and defended their village were executed by German

Nazis. Their names are recorded on the memorial. What suffering was inflicted here by Germans? I am convinced: Whoever tries to invade a foreign country by force of arms is burdened with an inconceivable guilt! Full of shame I look at this scorch mark that my country has made in Europe and I cannot understand that people were so blinded and so cruel. How they could inflict such inconceivable suffering on our Jewish brothers and sisters in particular. As a German, I feel a responsibility to work for peace and reconciliation among peoples and religions. And I am grateful for my country’s fundamental change to establish human dignity as the highest good through the Grundgesetz. (basic law)

But we must be very vigilant, because once again right-wing forces are growing in Germany as well as in other European countries, spreading hatred and hostility against citizens with an immigrant background. Working for peace means promoting democracy education and counteracting growing anti-Semitism and increasing Islamophobia from an early age – also through religious education.

RfP Europe has set itself this goal. We are composed as an organization of four sections – the

Youth Network, the Women’s Network, the Religious Leaders and the National Representations. Here in Albania we have the meeting of the National Bodies, which I represent as Vice President. We want to network and work together from the perspective of the represented religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahai, Buddhism, Brahmakumaris and others for peace in Europe, which starts in each individual country.

I am very impressed by the statements I have just heard from committed women and young people in Albania who are working for interreligious dialogue. I think this work is immensely important because it points the way to the future. Two points I like to emphasize:


1. The role of women in interreligious dialogue

“To do good things in secret” – it is not rare that religious women have chosen such a life motto. Men representing their religion to the outside and standing in the front is something religious women are used to. Thus, on the one hand, we have the phenomenon that women are the actual tradents of religions because it has been proven that the religious socialization of children and young people runs primarily through their mothers and grandmothers – on the other hand, men appear as the primary representatives of religions. Interreligious dialogue is no exception. On the contrary, where official representatives of the religions sit down at a common table, in most religions, these are the dignitaries in the sense of the full-time male religious leaders. In Germany, for example, the round tables of religions are consistently more male – with the consequence that women’s perspectives are less in view. However: without women, there is also a lack of competencies and options in interreligious dialogue that neither our society nor the international community can do without. As the Swiss organization, ‘1000 Peacewomen Across the Globe’ has shown, the majority of those who carry out reconciliation work at the grassroots level are women. All over the world, it is, again and again, grassroots movements initiated by women, which self-organize in resistance against rape, violence, or war. Who has not heard of the so-called ‘Women in Black’ who first took to the streets in Israel against the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 1988? But also the ‘Soldiers’ Mothers’ or the ‘Organization of the Mothers of Srebrenica’ went into protest to stop the murder of ‘their’ children together.

Interestingly, these autonomously organized women’s groups usually do not draw internal boundaries but welcome all generations, nations, religions, and world views. The enemy is constantly at war, so to speak – because peace as a principle takes precedence over the respective specific (power) interests. In this context, women benefit from the fact that they are ‘only women,’ i.e., that they are less likely to be threatened with violence and arrest during protests because they are less conspicuous and seem less threatening in the hegemonic trial of strength of masculinity stereotypes due to a devaluation of the feminine. Also, a decided appearance as mothers or widows makes it more difficult for soldiers or police officers to attack female pacifists with massive violence. Small movements of women worldwide come together quite unconventionally. – comparable to a self-help group – to stand up for peace: such as AVEGA, an association of widows from Rwanda who have built up a peace network. However, only a few of these committed women become known as peacemakers, such as Wangari Maathai, who in 2004 became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to sustainable development, peace, and democracy. As the ‘Mother of Trees,’ the biologist started the reforestation program ‘Green Belt Movement’ to end soil erosion and enable rainwater storage, providing for many families. This initiative started a Pan-African movement to plant millions of trees, which ultimately served to secure peace by preserving natural resources. Can women also be peacemakers in interreligious dialogue to a greater extent than previously seen? The substantive context for this could be that the contentious issues of interreligious discussions can often be traced back to questions of gender relations. These are primarily questions of the coexistence of men and women, gender-specific role divisions, questions of representation, liturgical rights, opportunities for public participation, clothing, education, sexual ethics, and more. Precisely because it is so difficult to differentiate theological justifications and culturally developed contexts, to bring questions of human rights and the respective theological anthropology into the dialogue in a clarifying way, special sensitivity is required here. However, it is more problematic if female participation in the dialogue is excluded precisely in the case of these sensitive gender-related topics. It is evident that especially the opening of communication structures of interreligious conversations towards the equal participation and integration of women would be future-oriented and basically indispensable – by the way, independent of the respective theological and ethical points of view, which would clarify the intersectionality, i.e., the overlapping and simultaneity of discriminations. For this future chance of gender justice, the movement ‘Religions for Peace,’ the most prominent international religious peace initiative, tries to go a new way by valuing women as peacemakers in interreligious dialogue on an equal footing. For example, a women’s conference (as well as a youth conference on intergenerational equality) has already preceded the World Conference in Lindau 2019 to raise the profile of topics from the perspective of girls and women and bring them to the Assembly. Sometime before the women’s conference, six regional meetings had taken place in which women from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and North Africa had come together to develop content proposals from the perspective of women religious in preparation for the conference in Lindau. The results, presented in short lectures, reflected the particular needs and challenges of the respective regions of the world by formulating theoretical and practical approaches to solutions and very concrete next steps. Thus, along the path of organizationally establishing a women’s pre-conference, it was possible to give an appropriate voice to the perspective and rights of women in interreligious dialogue. Here it is fascinating to note differences in the choice of topics as well as in the communication behavior of interreligious women’s groups: More intensely than in male-represented rounds, ethical topics are discussed instead of dogmatic questions, but also everyday questions, questions of upbringing and education, as well as topics of peaceful social coexistence, as concretely as possible, in order to arrive at solutions that are close to life. Doris Strahm speaks of women’s interfaith dialogue projects as a ‘dialogue of life’ that is not primarily about debates of different theological concepts but about the process of dialogue itself and getting to know other religious traditions.


2. The role of youth in interreligious dialogue for the future of us all

I Quote: “Doing our best is no longer good enough. We must now do the seemingly impossible.

And that is up to you and me. Because no one else will do it for us.”!

With these words ends a radio speech by Greta Thunberg entitled ‘Hope’ 2020 in Stockholm. As the initiator of the Fridays for Future movement, a young person has succeeded in mobilizing the so-called young ‘fun generation’ and bringing it onto the streets as a huge environmental demonstration.

I am very moved by this:

– as a mother of three kids: I think about my children and possibly grandchildren and wonder how they will live in a world with an increasing climate crises.

And I am moved as a member of the Center for Climate Resilience (ZfK) of the university of Augsburg. Our aim is to develop scientific foundations and strategies at regional, national and international level that show adaptations to the unavoidable consequences of climate change.

Even if some deny it or try to ignore it ‘Our house is on fire’ – In the climate crisis, there is often talk of so-called tipping points. This refers to the fact that certain systems that make the earth habitable for humans’ cease to function at a certain level of change. Global warming, the extinction of species, the acidification of the oceans: according to researchers of the IPCC, these and many other changes will very likely make human life on earth impossible in certain regions.

And: I am very moved by this as a professor of religious education:

Looking at today’s youth in Germany and also in a wider European context, I see a growing irrelevance of religion, especially institutionalized religion. Disappointment and loss of relevance are hand in hand here. I’ll point out: if creation theology is such an important foundation of the faith of the Abrahamic religions: why does the world look the way it does? Why does ‘Mother Earth’ as our planet is affectionately called in indigenous theology, play only a minor role in theological environmental ethics? Why is a theological ethics of animals only now being developed? Why is religious education for sustainable development only now being advanced?

Time is running and we are late.

I would therefore like to emphasize the potential of religious communities and especially interreligious cooperation.

Currently, we often speak about climate crises as a global mega-crisis, which makes ecological transformation processes urgently necessary. In other words, the implementation of environmental policy goals depends crucially on the consideration of social systems. Environmental awareness research has been pointing out the necessary differentiation of environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior for an extremely long time.

Accordingly, the motive research of de Haan and Kuckartz offers an extremely complex interweaving of behavioral motives, such as personal well-being, lifestyles, cost-benefit considerations, and environmental protection motives. In their determined plea for (environmental) education, they refer to culturally conditioned (quote) “imaginations, lifestyles and thinking styles as well as prejudices (…), which determine environmental awareness and behavior.” (quote end) However, the fact that religious convictions, which can certainly be formative for lifestyles, also play a role here is disregarded.

So – concluding: as environmental awareness research shows, such ecological transformations are not possible without social changes to eventually lead to changes in attitudes as well as behavior.

Faith in the sense of religious affiliation determines mentality and thus also shapes environmental awareness. So: The starting point is therefore the interconnectedness of religion as a social system and its interaction with contextual ecological systems. This can and must be seen – comparable to the topics ‘war and peace’ – in ambivalent terms: Religions are not per se peace-promoting or consciousness-raising in environmental ethics. Rather, history repeatedly shows the opposite. Nevertheless, the so-called world religions have immense potential for the preservation of nature. In theology of creation in recourse to the texts regarded as holy (here especially concerning the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) or appreciation of nature in the sense of a nature-related spirituality (rather in the context of Far Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism).

In my understanding religions and interreligious cooperation have the potential to assume their eco-social responsibility more strongly than before for the preservation of the natural resources of life and thus to make an evident contribution to securing peace. The urgent task is to profile the competencies of religious communities based on their theological foundations for environmental and climate protection and to make them visible for the environmental discourse, especially concerning interreligious cooperation in a transnational context.

So concluding:

As the largest transnational civil society institutions, religions offer immense potential for ecological consciousness-raising based on the creation and nature spiritualities that unite all the world’s major religions, but which have so far been given far too little public attention as a potential for the responsibility that is shared in terms of environmental ethics.

Why is religious education so important?

Each religious’ community is to be considered here in the horizon of its intentional description of religious education. However, special synergy effects are expected in the interreligious cooperation of environmental-ethical concepts – in short: In the process of learning together, the goal should be achieved to motivate, encourage, correct, and thus constructively and critically learn from each other.

The interdependence of climate change, climate resilience, and climate justice, therefore, plays a major role. So environmental ethical education should be accompanied by formal education to establish coping structures for already existing and growing climate-related damage, and at the same time by sensitization to social structures of disadvantage (like handling migration movements and inclusion).

By promoting interreligious cooperation for nature and climate protection on the educational level, it can be said that environmental ethics go hand in hand with peace education intentions.

Since the European perspective – especially concerning the topic of climate justice – should not be seen without the global context.

We (Joan from Spain, Genti from Albania and some colleagues from Austria and Malaysia) have applied for a cooperation project Erasmus Plus for a teaching program for teachers in universities: The cooperation project aims to raise awareness and motivate future multipliers for schools of all grades and types through the training and further education of teachers. The idea is to start the concept by training the trainers: It has been proven that only that which has already been trained for in the course of studies can be implemented in the educational systems.

Last but not least I want to assume my hope for interreligious cooperation for this topic:

As member of the Standing Commission on Nurturing a sustainable environment of RfP International.

I can point to the successful cooperation of large interreligious organizations for the protection of the worldwide rainforest. The most effective way of implementing climate protection goals can succeed in the cooperation of strong partners as you can see….

It is now important to strengthen these initiatives of interfaith cooperation at the regional, national and local levels as well. For example, we have established an environmental project group of RfP Europe, which has worked on the Manresa Pact. But there is also an initiative at the German level as well as at the local level to realize the transfer to society.

Finally, I would like to refer to the opportunity of an expansion of interreligious perspectives, which I would like to call inter-intentionality.

So far, the literature on inter-religious competence formation has very strongly emphasized difference sensitivity – in short, difference competence. Rightly so, in my opinion: If one enters this keyword in the Ecosia search, only religious education titles regarding interdenominational and interreligious topics appear.

I would like to add another dimension that I have not found so far: the promotion of interreligious competence for inter-intentionality.

What is meant is the promotion of a ‘we-consciousness’ that capitalizes on the opportunities for collective intentionality. I would like to put it in a nutshell for our value-forming topic of environmental ethics:

When the house is on fire, it is anachronistic to foreground sibling disputes among family members in the home and attempt to mediate before reaching for the fire extinguisher. Rather, these differences are put on the back burner in favor of acting together with the intention of saving themselves and the house they share. You understand the point I am trying to make:

Our earth is literally on fire, and now it is up to us to put the commonalities first and move into common environmental ethical action.

By inter-intentionality as the new buzzword for competence promotion of interreligious learning, I mean this vision, which is due to the urgency, individually as well as politically oriented, that in addition to the ability for dialogue and plurality, a cooperative ability of religions and interreligious education in favor of common values such as environmental protection, nature conservation and sustainability are to be seen.

* Conclusion at International & Interfaith Forum at Bedër University, Tirana 30.9.2023.

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