Address to the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Washington
Mar 21, 2005
Address to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations on the Occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, DC. March 11, 2001. By Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.
I am truly honored and privileged to be able to speak to you today. I am very conscious of the fact that there are gathered here some of the most important Rabbinic and lay leaders in the Jewish community of this country. You are a very important and influential force in American society and I am truly delighted to be able to speak to you.
You may not fully realize it, but your work is a model for many others who try to influence United States policy. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in strategy meetings with Catholic leaders when someone says, "Why can’t we mobilize around (fill in the blank) with as much sophistication and success as the Jewish community?" If anyone doubts that religion can be a positive force for justice and peace, they need look no further than the work you have done on religious freedom and other human rights, nuclear weapons, Third World debt and a host of other pressing issues. (I sometimes wish you could be a little less effective on the few issues where we do not see eye to eye, but we can talk about that later.)
I have been privileged to work with Rabbi David Saperstein on a number of issues over the years and, as you know, we are currently both members of the Commission on International Religious Freedom. I can say to you – what you already know – he truly personifies what I am talking about. He is as effective and persuasive a religious leader as you will find and, under his leadership, so much good has come out of this city which is not always synonymous with good things.
One reason that my friend, Rabbi David, the Religious Action Center and all of you are so respected and effective in working for justice here and abroad is that you have modeled a collaborative, interfaith approach to work for peace and justice. You have recognized that none of us can be credible and effective if we are off "doing our own thing," mired in a conviction that collaboration must always mean unacceptable compromise. We know that this is not true and history shows that we are right.
My association with the leadership of our nation’s Jewish community in the area of human rights and religious freedom has been twofold. Years ago, I became associated with the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, led so admirably by Rabbi Arthur Schneier. I traveled with him in Soviet Russia, Communist Romania, China and the Balkans. I was always struck by his concern not just for Jewish causes but for the religious freedom and human rights of all people. In Russia, for example, we were all concerned about the fate of the Jewish Refusniks and I was happy to be able to raise my voice as a Catholic bishop in their defense, but my Jewish colleagues were equally strong in defending the religious rights of Lithuanian Catholics or Orthodox Old Believers. In China, my Jewish friends achieved the wonderful result of the reopening of the historic synagogue in Shanghai, but they spoke with equal eloquence for the rights of the underground Catholic Church and the rights of the Protestant home churches.
I have seen Rabbi David just as forceful in defending Bahai believers in the Middle East as he strove for the protection of Jews in Iran and as he thoughtfully took up the cause of religious peace in Nazareth when it was threatened by fundamentalists on the one hand and political opportunism on the other. Rabbi David and so many others from the Jewish communities have been a wonderful example to me, indeed a learning experience for me as I have witnessed the goodness of good people reaching out to those whose rights are denied or thwarted, whatever their personal beliefs or their faith affiliation. I am constantly edified and encouraged by these brothers and sisters of mine in the Jewish community.
I doubt that there is any place on earth where Jews and Catholics work so closely as here in the United States. Much of this collaborative work has been on behalf of justice and peace. During the conflict in Bosnia, we worked together with Protestant and Muslim leaders on national days of prayer for peace and in support of the more serious efforts on the part of the international community to stop the genocide. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, if not for the collaboration between the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Religious Action Center, we would not now have a law on religious freedom abroad, or at least it would have been a very different kind of legislation. Similarly, our interfaith efforts have convinced our government to provide debt relief for the poorest countries of a magnitude no one would have thought imaginable only a few years ago. Moreover, our ongoing Jewish-Catholic dialogue has led to joint appeals for an end to the death penalty and greater protection for our children from toxic elements in the environment.
It is necessary for us always to know we have differences. We have different priorities, but it is important we always have dialogue. We will not be effective in our work for justice and peace and we will not be a leaven in the larger society if we cannot engage in serious and respectful dialogue. We can and should be as effective and influential as possible in working together on the many issues on which we agree. But, we truly demonstrate the maturity of our relationship and truly serve as a sign of hope for the wider society when we can engage in respectful dialogue even when we do not agree on matters about which we feel most deeply, such as abortion, school choice and some aspects of church and state. It is so important that we always try to speak the same language: the language of the heart and the language of total honesty. It is an honesty that is always fostered and enhanced by love, by understanding and by the deepest respect. The best sign of the health of our relationship is how we work together whenever possible and disagree respectfully where necessary.
Let us now for a few moments look at what is being accomplished on the stage of the world by the religious communities of our land. I believe we can look with some satisfaction at a few areas of real achievement. I do believe that the values we care about are really making a difference in the world and that the world is increasingly recognizing the central place of non-governmental organizations, especially religion and religious-based social mission, in addressing some of its most intractable problems. Truly, a new focus on religion and religious freedom is entering the diplomacy of our own country. I already alluded to the law passed in 1998 which established a Federal Commission on International Religious Freedom of which Rabbi Saperstein was the first elected chairman and on which I am also privileged to serve.
This group is a careful observer of what is going on in the countries around the world and seeks to ensure that our diplomacy and foreign policy is sensitive to these questions of religious liberty. This new law, and in a special way the work of the Commission, is also having a special influence on changing the kind of preparation for foreign service in our country. Now, men and women who will serve in posts around the world as representatives of our nation must also become familiar with the religious situation in those countries and be conscious of the important role of religion in the life of that nation and in the relations which that nation will have with the United States. We are helping to shape the public debate on justice and peace issues relative to religious freedom and we are able to make policy recommendations in areas of social injustice and conflict.
Let me mention a few other areas where our religious communities have been active and where I believe we have made some progress. Landmines have long been silent killers, but within five years from the start of an international campaign to highlight this humanitarian nightmare, more than 100 countries agreed to ban anti-personnel landmines. This landmark treaty was not primarily the work of diplomats but of peace and human rights groups, especially including religious groups. Many of you in this room helped to make this possible.
Human rights is another area in which we can take some small satisfaction. It is worth remembering that religious groups were in the forefront of the effort in the 1970’s to make human rights considerations an integral part of United States foreign policy. Jewish religious and lay leaders, in particular, are leaders of many of the most well-known and effective human rights efforts in this country and around the world. What a tremendous tribute to you, to your faith and to your courage.
Another development which should give us hope is the extraordinary and unexpected success we have had in convincing our government and the international financial institutions to provide debt relief for the poorest countries. Five years ago, people thought we were naïve and quixotic to think that the biblical call for debt forgiveness, which used to be a concern only of scripture scholars, could become the basis for a global movement to relive the debilitating burden of debt on the poor countries. But, much as the landmines campaign, this largely religious-based movement succeeded in moving the most powerful economic institutions of the world to act on behalf of the poorest people and nations in ways that everyone said was impossible. We knew we were making progress when members of the House Banking Committee began quoting Leviticus as they considered legislation that religious groups helped to draft.
There is another sign of hope, but one which begins with sadness. I refer to the terrible legacy and reality of anti-Semitism in the world and my own community of faith. Pope John Paul II has done many wonderful things over the past two decades, but among the most important has been his call to Catholics all over the world to face and repudiate the evil of anti-Semitism in all its forms and in every place, especially in our own community. No leader has done more to acknowledge our failings and to reach out for understanding and in solidarity than the present Holy Father.
Today, there is a lot of vigorous debate about faith-based initiatives. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of revising the relationship between government and religious programs, we should be encouraged that this country may be rediscovering the role of faith communities in dealing with some of the most intractable problems of our society.
Of course, there are still challenges on the road ahead and our American religious communities cannot relax in their struggle for a just and peaceful world. Our world has always been divided between "haves" and "have nots," but today the world is increasingly divided between zones of peace and prosperity and zones of violence and deprivation. What is particularly worrisome is that this division is increasingly defined by winners and losers in a global economic system where lives are lost, dignity is denied and hope is gone. Too often, those in the zones of peace and prosperity are friends, partners and objects of our admiration and envy, while those in the zones of violence and deprivation are mostly objects of pity or studied indifference.
What could make this divide permanent is that it is based increasingly on a gap between the technologically sophisticated winners and the technologically illiterate losers. It is no accident that in 1960 the world’s richest twenty percent had incomes thirty times higher than the world’s poorest twenty percent. Today, the richest twenty percent have almost ninety times the income of the poorest fifth of the world’s population. It is no accident that the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least developed countries. The United Nations estimates that for $40 billion a year, the poor of the world could have adequate water, food, sanitation, health care and education. This would require the world’s 225 richest people to contribute just four percent of their wealth. This disparity in income is a moral scandal and the fear is it is only likely to get worse.
We suffer from a failure of solidarity. A failure of solidarity is due, in part, to a preoccupation with the United States’ self interest in foreign policy and an individualistic and materialistic cultural libertarianism at home. Even when we care, in an intellectual and even emotional way, about those in the zones of violence and deprivation, too many have long since given up hope that anything can be done. So many remain indifferent or we seek to wall ourselves off from them — whether in gated communities or in neo-isolationist policies.
As believers whose faith is grounded in the fundamental dignity of every human person and the fundamental unity of the human family, the cultural challenge is to combat excessive individualism and rampant consumerism while we face the political challenge of helping our nation rediscover the common good. We cannot rest content with the success of the American experiment while a fifth of our own children grow up in poverty. We cannot be content with exercising preeminent United States’ power in the world if our country fails to exercise its responsibility to use that power for the global common good. We Catholic bishops said back in 1993, "liberty and justice for all is not only a profound national pledge; it is a worthy goal for a world leader." I subscribe to that and I suspect that you do too.
I truly believe that in this complex modern world, there is an increased interest in the role of religion in solving our nation’s and the world’s problems. Done properly and with respect for our traditions of pluralism, this is an opportunity to further civil society and recognize the importance of religion in any social order; however, "faith-based" programs, with their indispensable roles must not just be another way to privatize public obligations, an excuse for government to abandon its own responsibilities for the poor. I welcome the assurances from our Administration that this effort seeks to build up religious and community efforts and not to discharge government from its responsibilities. Religious overseas relief and development agencies should play major roles in post-conflict reconstruction, but its work cannot be a substitute for building up the capacity of the United Nations and other international organizations to fill their mandate in these areas.
I have visited around the world at refugee camps and the development projects run by Catholic Relief Services. I am always impressed by what these young Americans who work in the projects have accomplished. They can truly make us proud, but as you look at the problems they face, it is evident that they cannot do it alone; that they need the continuing support of government together with all our efforts in order to accomplish the things that they do best. Similarly at home, Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations are and should be providing and playing a major role in providing social services, but they cannot be a surrogate or substitute for government policies which must also promote decent work and just wages, health care and an adequate safety net. I do want to say, on the other hand, in the toughest communities and on the toughest problems, we need to be more open to the roles and results of faith-based institutions helping people overcome addiction, poverty and violence.
Another challenge that we, as people of faith, have a special responsibility for addressing is the religious dimensions of ethnic, nationalist conflicts. I have spent a lot of time in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor and the Middle East. If I have learned one thing from these visits and the time I have spent on these conflicts, it is that they are terribly complicated. It really is true that the more you know about these places, the more you know how little you know. My own sense is that secular experts often exaggerate the role that religious differences play in these conflicts while they often underestimate the positive role that religion can and does play in resolving or at least mitigating the deep gulf that often exists between different ethnic and national groups.
As religious leaders, we need to constantly remind the experts that religion is not mostly a problem to be solved by marginalizing or privatizing it. At the same time, we need to do everything we can to make sure that we do nothing to exacerbate religious tensions in these areas of conflict and that we do everything we can to support those religious leaders who are trying to promote peace and reconciliation.
Nowhere is this more true than the Middle East. The events of the last seven months have shattered many of the hopes for a just peace that had seemed so very near. At a time marked by so much hatred, violence, pain and disillusionment, it is up to the communities of faith to insist that the season of peace in the Middle East has not passed, that Israelis and Palestinians are not inevitably destined for yet more years of conflict. But our insistence that peace is possible will ring hollow unless we are able to reach beyond our own people and bridge the deep communal divide. I think Pope John Paul modeled this kind of witness for peace during his historic visit to the Holy Land one year ago. To be sure, he defended the role and importance of the Christian presence, whose future is so precarious. Yet he did much more than that. He also stood with the Israeli Jews in affirming Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and he stood with Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike in their claim to an independent homeland in which they can live in dignity and freedom.
If there is a silver lining in the events of the past seven months it is that those who would have liked to turn this conflict into a religious war have failed. It is our job to make sure that they continue to fail, and the best way we do that is to avoid being simply chaplains to our own communities by standing in solidarity with each other and with religious and national groups whose rights and legitimate aspirations deserve support.
This is not easy when threats and attacks are made on innocent people on an almost daily basis. This moment requires Jewish leaders who should not only continue to passionately defen Israel and her people, but to also to advocate for the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians to live in their own place with dignity. This moment requires Palestinian leaders who not only advocate a state of their own, but also are far more clear about Israel’s right to peace and security and the imperative to end all violence. And we need Christians who are working not just to defend their place in the Middle East, but to bring about a future of dignity, security and peace for both their neighbors.
These are not good days. The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority apparently at this time cannot find the path towards a just peace. We have new governments in the United States and Israel, but all of us must have one message. Non-violence, dialogue and negotiation are the only ways forward. I believe the path is clear — real security for the state of Israel, a genuine state for Palestinians, an agreement on Jerusalem which protects the rights of all God’s people — Jews, Muslims and Christians alike — and a future of cooperation and accommodation, instead of terrorism and occupation. We must all pray for better days ahead, for solutions based on human rights and human dignity, on justice and on peace.
Finally, if I might mention one other challenge which is much less familiar than the Middle East to most of us, but at this point in our lives, it is in need of much more attention than we currently give it. I want to speak for just a moment about Africa. Africa is a wonderful part of a world; there is much to be hopeful about in terms of economic and political progress, not to mention religious vibrancy. Yet, from the HIV/AIDS pandemic and endemic underdevelopment to deadly conflict in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Congo, Africa also faces problems of a magnitude not seen in other parts of the world. Many Americans know little about the human tragedy taking place in parts of Africa and too many seem to care even less. As religious bodies and as a nation, we need to put Africa back on the map. We need to do more to stop genocide in Sudan, to combat AIDS and other diseases that are destroying tens of millions of lives, and to rectify scandalously low support for development. As religious leaders, we must do more to overcome the widespread ignorance and apathy about Africa, and make Africa a higher priority in our nation’s foreign policy.
People like me, who are the products of a strong and vibrant Judeo-Christian tradition, tend to see religion as a necessary force for good in the world. We are the children of the prophets and the rabbis, of the scholars and the saints. We learned years ago in the words of the psalmist that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it and that only in Him can we find our peace. We believe that this is true, not only for us as individuals but also as members of a global world community. I thank God for the presence, in this national and international struggle for religious freedom and human rights, of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism and of so many other faith-based Jewish organizations. Your role is essential and your accomplishments are legion. May God continue to bless you all and may He help us continue to work together for a better world and a better future.