By Katherine Marshall, G20 Interfaith Association Vice President, World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), Berkley Center.
This blog is based on Prof. Marshall’s closing comments at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Abu Dhabi, UAE on Dec. 13, 2022.
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The ancient Greeks saw time in different ways. Chronos time passes inexorably, with rules, relentless rhythms, and inevitabilities. But Kairos time symbolizes special moments, times of challenge, opportunity, and grace. Kairos moments conjure urgency and alliances, in the face of momentous challenges, like Apartheid or other deep divisions and injustice.
Why speak of a Kairos moment now and why here? A summons to collective action, now, aptly reflects the spirit that inspired the G20 Interfaith Forum (IF20) gathering in Abu Dhabi in December 2022. It underscored that this is a time when Kairos commitments and prophetic voices are sorely needed – voices that bring bold long-term visions, cut through platitudes and conventional wisdom, and call us to action.
Prophetic voices come in many forms, but they are central to religious traditions that work alongside extensive global and local networks and teach deeply-held mores that offer insights and a capacity to translate ideals to action. The IF20 hope and determination is that drawing on the best, the better angels, of religious communities can enrich and advance the global agendas for which the G20 leaders and processes are responsible.
Most of us carry vivid memories of March, 2020 when the COVID-19 emergency intruded forcibly into our lives. We had little sense then of the massive disruptions in store for us and for the world. With related and unrelated problems beside the global pandemic: conflicts, debt, rising prices, humanitarian crises, and looming climate change, many speak now of a polycrisis where multiple threats intersect, or a permacrisis, hinting at a relentless and continuing pattern looking ahead.
It is a time when, as is often said – if seldom applied fully in practice, the wisdom and action of all sectors working together is vitally needed. Religious voices can and must play active, fully integrated roles.
The Four C’s
During the Abu Dhabi Forum, IF20 networks, like the leaders of the G20 itself, focused on the full panoply of the intersecting facets of the polycrisis, but four “Cs” that dominate both the 2022 and 2023 agendas were central concerns: COVID-19, climate, conflicts, and children.
The COVID emergency is still with us. Religious communities have large (if often partially perceived) roles, and thus material ideas and counsel to offer to the G20 agendas. Sustaining and expanding the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and addressing what people aptly call the moral catastrophe of unequal vaccination and well beyond to health care and systems is vital; IF20 work aims to help identify and address inequalities within these systems and paths towards decent health care for all. Dealing with matters like drug patent issues and, more broadly, pandemic preparedness should draw on religious experience. Communities can support efforts to ensure that the right to health becomes something that is real.
The COVID-19 emergency spills over into a much broader agenda that we call social protection: recognizing the needs of people who face particular threats. Among leading topics of discussion was the global food crisis, another area where religious communities have a long history of engaging to end hunger.
Concern for the most vulnerable: a “preferential option for the poor”, was a recurring theme of the Forum, as it has been through the life of the G20 Interfaith Forum.
The climate crisis drew on the recent COP-27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, where religious voices were quite prominent, and the IF20 Forum benefitted from the living inspiration of Patriarch Bartholomew (sometimes termed “the Green Pope”). The importance of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’was highlighted often. Among specific religious initiatives are the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, which has worked in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and in Southeast Asia to link indigenous voices and religious leaders to address the crisis of the rainforests, Faith for Earth, an initiative that engages widely diverse faiths, support for scientifically grounded measures by faith communities, and countless others. Young people from all over the world are increasingly driving the efforts on climate, and we see that as a continuing and important theme for the IF20.
Conflicts underlie G20 agendas increasingly as they affect economies and societies, and it is an area where religious communities have deep roots. Many religious communities work to resolve the conflicts within societies (including but not limited to those with religious dimensions). Wise leaders and actors are working to address poisonous nationalism and extremism that aggravate tensions.
For many reasons, the welfare and protection of children was a central theme during the Forum. It is the central focus of the partner organization that co-hosted the Forum, the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities. Abuse and suffering of children is a leading concern and the extraordinary loss of educational opportunities during the pandemic as well as mental health issues are of deep concern. As many as ten million children have lost caregivers. Children suffer acutely with the increase in forcible displacement of people and humanitarian crises. Hearing children’s voices and keeping a sharp eye on their welfare was a central theme of the conference. In many youth meetings, comments that “youth are the future” meet ardent objections, because youth never hesitate to remind leaders that they are the here and now. Similar comments apply to children. The Arigatou network is determined to bring children’s voices in meaningful ways into the policy discussion. Religious leaders and communities have distinctive experience and capacities to address issues such as child marriage. A leading idea emerging from the Forum is that children’s welfare belongs front and center in G20 agendas.
The Loss of Illusion
It would be disingenuous to blame the full contemporary crisis on COVID-19, but the pandemic has stripped away many illusions, for example that epidemic disease can be contained behind national borders. It made inequalities starkly visible, and brought home complex linkages among sectors and problems, for example between refugee challenges and the climate crisis. The nagging and recurring metaphor of humanity “in one boat” is belied by widely different “COVID-19 stories”, even if indeed all passengers share “a common home”.
The crisis has made both inequalities and the acute vulnerabilities of many groups starkly apparent. Worse, the noble global plans embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to address the issues have lost momentum. It is all too clear today that, with 2030 in sight, the SDGs will not be achieved without extraordinary effort.
A “Network of Networks”
A vital aspect of the IF20 is its focus on a religiously linked “network of networks”. We see tremendous strengths in an expanding number of networks and partnerships, and many played central roles in the Forum. Examples include the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, leaders from global interreligious networks-Religions for Peace and United Religions Initiative–the International Partnership for Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), KAICIID, Arigatou, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, Jubilee USA, the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and other partnerships and collaborative efforts. The Religions for Peace Women of Faith Network was well represented. The long-standing faith office in the US Agency for International Development plays central roles. The networks offer extraordinary opportunities for collaboration and action, with each group actively involved on policy and programmatic issues. An objective of the IF20 is to bring these groups closer together.
The G20’s Power
The IF20 is focused on the G20 process and thus needs to focus on their agenda. The G20 was created to deal with economic crises, and has the power to make a large difference, in an immediate future, to make the world a better place, or to fall short.
The G20 agenda has expanded, but its core functions relate to economic affairs, whether debt relief, climate finance, support for humanitarian action, or funding of education and health at a global level. As the IF20 moves ahead, engaging on these issues is vital. Appreciating linkages among the G7, G24, United Nations General Assembly, and other global platforms is essential, alongside the multiple interreligious forums that address global policy issues. This global “network of networks” has the potential to transform disarticulated measures into concerted action worthy a Kairos moment, using our collective and individual power to do all we can to move forward.
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Professor Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as the vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, tackling development issues in the world’s poorest countries.