By Karen Van Loon
September 2001

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All major religious traditions affirm the ultimate value and dignity of each person. Yet we live in a world divided by poverty and inequality, where many continue to struggle daily to meet basic needs.

According to the 2001 Human Development Report, despite impressive gains in the last 30 years, there are still "unacceptable levels of deprivation in people's lives":

  • 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 per day;
  • 11 million children under age five die annually from preventable causes;
  • the richest 1% of the world's people receive as much income as the poorest 57%.

Statistics Canada's Survey of Financial Security released in March 2001 showed that the top 50% of Canadian family units held 94% of the country's wealth while the bottom 50% held only 6%.

What effect is this having on our communities, the Earth, our children's future? How does this challenge our faith? People of different faiths are gathering together, in local communities and at international events, to discuss and search for common ground upon which to act for the common good.

Canada's Christian Churches have almost a 30-year history of cooperating together on social justice issues through the inter-church coalitions and more recently the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative.

Interfaith cooperation on issues of the common good has a much shorter history, but the need grows as Canadian society continues to become more multifaith and multicultural. The Canadian census in May 2001 is expected once again to show dramatic increases in many non-Christian religions. Between 1981 and 1991, Statistics Canada showed that the number of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus more than doubled, while the number of Buddhists more than tripled. The number of Jews remained almost the same. Catholics remained a majority (45.7%) and are likely to continue so in 2001. Protestants moved from 41.2 % in 1981 to 36.2% in 1991. In Canada, there are now more Muslims than Presbyterians.

The World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), also known as Religions for Peace, has grown to be the largest interfaith organization in the world with a presence in over 100 countries. Canada has a national board as well as local chapters. WCRP promotes cooperation among the world's religions to build peace, while maintaining respect for religious differences. The organization seeks to actively engage religious communities in collaboration around issues of shared moral concern.

WCRP-Canada has recently begun sponsoring the Faith and the Common Good project in association with the Toronto School of Theology. Seeking common ground for the common good is the mission of this initiative. Through dialogue, research, networking, education and advocacy, the project organizers hope to develop a process that encourages faith groups to make their voices heard in shaping Canada's political and economic future. An interfaith leadership committee has been formed and the Atkinson Foundation has generously provided some initial funding.

Leading up to this project, the Toronto chapter of WCRP organized an interfaith gathering around the theme, "Paying/Praying for the Common Good." It proposed a conversation on the values underlying a just and caring Canadian society and how to pay for the services, benefits and democratic structures needed.

In June 2000, over 70 people of various faiths gathered to listen to different faith perspectives on this theme and then discuss some problems and strategies. While it was difficult to reach conclusions in a one-day event, it was possible to gain a greater awareness of values shared among various faiths-reverence for life, human dignity and responsibility for the well being of those in need.

This question of how to pay for the common good, particularly as it relates to faith, taxes and the redistribution of wealth, continues as a major theme in the Faith and the Common Good project.

Interfaith groups across Canada are gathering to dialogue and strategize on this and other issues affecting the common good in Canada and abroad.

As this interfaith network and the leadership group develop, there will be efforts to establish a regular national forum for dialogue with political and civil society leaders around budget time, beginning this fall. The hope is to influence the public policy agenda. A public event would follow in the spring, beginning in 2002. Also, education and action resources for religious and social justice groups are being developed.

The Faith and the Common Good project faces many challenges. It is easier to gather for interfaith dialogue than to get together to act. Some people are not aware of the positions taken by their own religious tradition on issues concerning the common good. This makes dialogue with people of other faiths more difficult. However, there is a need to build trust and solidarity and to step beyond the comfort of one's own faith community.

There is a hope-filled, rich diversity of perspectives and voices for the common good present within the different faith traditions. Finding common values that we desire to form our communities is easier. Finding common ground for action so that our communities reflect more those values is the greater challenge.

Karen Van Loon, a Scarboro lay missioner working in the Justice & Peace Office, currently serves on the Toronto and Canadian Chapters of WCRP and is on the interfaith steering committee of the Faith and the Common Good project.

In November 1999 over 1,000 religious, civil and political leaders from 70 countries gathered in Amman, Jordan, for the Seventh Assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), around the theme, "Global Action for Common Living". This intensive dialogue resulted in The Amman Declaration, excerpts of which follow:

WCRP affirms a common humanity in which men and women are recognized first as human beings with dignity and integrity, rights and responsibilities... The common ethical concerns embodied in all religious us to be individually and socially responsible for our neighbours and those in need. They help us draw on the sources of love, duty and responsibility as the foundations that undergird the establishment of justice.

WCRP recognizes that the peoples of the world are interdependent, existing within a web of economic and environmental realities, made more urgent by the dynamics of globalization with both its positive and negative impact. A concept of just and sustainable human development, holistic in its nature, is dependent on the development of equitable and fair systems of production and distribution, capable of providing for the material survival and needs of all persons and accessible to all. Such systems must enable the elimination of the poverty and powerlessness that characterizes the lives of a major proportion of the human family. Eradicating poverty in the first decades of the 21st century is feasible, affordable and a moral imperative for humanity.

WCRP's vision and hope are for common living in the 21st century. Hope because the vision of a just and peaceful world is attainable. Hope because we know both the challenges of the world and the possibilities for their solutions.

Hope because the resources for meeting humanity's basic needs are available if only we have the will to use them appropriately. Hope because all of our religious traditions claim commitment to peace and the achievement of the common good. Hope, however, must be manifest in action. WCRP therefore commits itself to work for the achievement of these common goals in the new millennium. WCRP calls upon all religious communities to bear witness through education, advocacy, and action for the common good.

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