Sustainable development, religious freedom, and LGBTI rights

Oct. 5, 2018

During my visit to Buenos Aires, I found myself in a public conversation about religious freedom. This is a topic that I usually avoid, knowing that I get angry, especially at those Christians who reduce religious freedom to their own will to discriminate against others with whom they disagree or of whom they disapprove. To me, freedom of religion is like freedom of speech: to be upheld until it imposes itself on the rights of others to be who they are, or when it becomes a threat to our personal security.

For those of us who identify ourselves anywhere in the 2SLBGTIQ+ acronym, freedom from religious fundamentalism and specifically from promotion of homophobia and transphobia is vital. We live in a time when some politicians turn gender justice against women and sexual minorities to win support from religious fundamentalists.

I was attending an inter-faith forum on sustainable development, one of several events leading up to the meeting in Buenos Aires Nov. 30-Dec. 1 of the G20 group of countries.

Having sat through an hour of praise for religious freedom, vitality, and the role of religion in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—without any of the panelists saying anything about victims of religious fundamentalism—I rose to my feet. I was cautious, and tried to outline a different approach.Instead of blaming the speakers or making the issue about myself, I pointed to the creation in 2016 of Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion as a good example of a different approach.*

To me—and this is what I said to the panelists—the greatest value of the new office is that it places religious leaders in a space with people who are too often targeted because of their race, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. I asked how the panelists viewed religious freedom in the context of other freedoms and rights.

In response, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, said religious freedom cannot be upheld in ways that undermine the rights of others. He insisted on equality. Another panelist, Elder Todd Cristofferson of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Quorum of 12 Apostles, spoke in terms of “fairness to all”—a pleasant surprise to me. Rabbi David Silverstein—religious freedom ambassador under President Barack Obama—spoke of the rights of groups not to be discriminated against, and said limits on religious freedom are appropriate.

This exchange took place in the plenary of the interfaith summit. We then moved into four parallel sessions, and the one that I attended was on Human Rights, Faith and Sustainable Development. Many of those who had been in the plenary also attended this session, including Dr. Shaheed. And here I learned a few things.

Faith for Rights

Maybe everyone else already knows about the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on “Faith for Rights,” the Rabat Plan of Action and the Beirut Declaration, but I didn’t know. OHCHR staffer Michael Wiener walked us through them.

In 2012, section 36 of the Rabat Plan of Action laid out some of religious leaders’ core responsibilities against incitement to hatred:

  1. refrain from using messages of intolerance or expressions which may incite violence, hostility or discrimination
  2. speak out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech
  3. be clear that violence can never be tolerated as a response to incitement to hatred: there is no justification for violent retaliation.

This is not white-washing, insisted Mr. Wiener: faith-based actors can do good or bad. His role is to support faith leaders in positive action for rights. There are also 18 commitments adopted by faith-based actors in the 2017 Faith for Rights Beirut Declaration.

These include pledges to ensure non-discrimination and gender equality. They use religious texts and UN declarations to prohibit so-called honour crimes and female genital mutilation, and to call for an end to blasphemy laws and use of the notion of “state religion” to discriminate against individuals or groups. They set out to “de-mystify” or take away the impression that faith is against human rights. They re-affirm humanitarian aid principles of conduct, including that aid cannot be used to promote religion—which would be tantamount to coercion. Faith groups stand up for the rights of all minorities. Faith for Rights is an umbrella to bring them together, and proposes concrete projects to implement the commitments.

Mr. Wiener said that Dr. Shaheed (the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, sitting in the audience in this session), has described the Beirut commitments as “soft law standards.” They are not formally adopted by states (yet), but by using them, over time they become norms. Along with the official UN languages, nine other translations have been made: for example, Turkish and Greek for use in Cyprus; Serb and Albanian for use in the Balkan region, etc. They have been turned into tweets and given artistic expression in different places.

In our work to overcome religion-based homophobia and transphobia, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, blasphemy laws and anti-sodomy laws, we can use those publicly-stated commitments to remind those who would promote hatred and exclusion that other faith leaders have taken a different stance, and have UN backing.

* An example of how the government of Canada talks about religious freedom and LGBTI rights. Matt DeCourcey, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, at the Ministerial on Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018 in Washington: “We believe in fostering greater inclusion and equity for every person, including all faith and belief communities, women and children, Indigenous people, members of the LGBTI community, minority groups, and others who are often marginalized in society.… Since March 2017, Canada has been a member of the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development where we are working with others to harness the potential positive impact of religion in sustainable development and explore the critical intersections between religion, development and gender equality –in an effort to ensure that no one is left behind.”

More information about LGBTI rights globally:

Dignity Network Canada: Since 2016, The United Church of Canada and Affirm United/S’Affirmer Ensemble have participated in the Dignity Network of NGOs, human rights groups and others that are committed to defend LGBTI rights globally and to press the Canadian government to do more.

Rainbow Faith and Freedom is a global movement that confronts religious-based LGBTI discrimination and improves the human and equality rights of LGBTI people everywhere.

Ethics, economics, sustainable development – and impatience

Oct. 3, 2018

When faith leaders gathered with politicians and corporate leaders in Buenos Aires at the end of September, some expressed frustration with the slow response to urgent issues of climate change, migration, and economic justice.

“We live in a world that is insanely dismissive of its own future,” said Rowan Williams (at right in photo above), the former archbishop of Canterbury who is now the chair of Christian Aid.* “This is stupidity.”

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a Jewish leader who works in the Argentinian government, said he was fed up with the way the world talks about climate change. Policy-makers debate emissions standards and refuse to answer ethical questions about care for the planet and those who live here.

“It’s like holding a conference on thermometers to (measure) people’s fevers,” he said. “Come on! The problem is we’re ill.”

Inside and outside strategies

They were speaking at the G20 Interfaith Forum that was held in Buenos Aires in the last days of September. 

Sometimes in our movements for social justice we talk of “inside” and “outside” strategies. You go “inside” to talk to government or corporate officials. You join a demonstration “outside” when dialogue strategies aren’t working or when you need to engage more people in an effort for change. As I get older and less patient with official processes, I confess I prefer the outside option. But once in a while I go in.

And that in a sense is what I was doing at the G20 forum. One of the United Church’s partners, CREAS (the Regional Ecumenical Centre for Advice and Service) has developed good working relationships with the United Nations Development Program, various inter-faith groups, and several parts of government in Argentina. Together they have hammered out some useful ways to collaborate on programs that improve livelihoods and education, all under the banner of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Having gone “inside,” they found some interesting allies—among them the network of people run the G20 Interfaith Forum. The one held in Buenos Aires Sept. 26-28 was the fifth such forum. (I had forgotten, but one was held in Winnipeg in 2010, just ahead of the infamous G8/G20 summit in Toronto.) This was one of several sectoral consultations that are leading up to the summit that will be held in Buenos Aires Nov. 30-Dec. 1 of the G20 (made up of the European Union and leaders of the richest seven countries plus the next tier of a dozen-plus countries that together make up 85 per cent of the global economy).

Ethics and economics

A permanent feature of CREAS work is on the theme “Ethics and Economy.” This work has built from previous work on Faith, Economy and Society in the Latin American Council of Churches and on work in global ecumenical organizations towards a new international financial architecture. Working within the framework of the G20 Interfaith Forum, CREAS was able to build in two half-days of dialogue—a “high-level forum”—to advance discussion toward “an economy of life and sustainable development.”CREAS was born in the excitement of the early World Social Forums that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001. There, social movements connected their different struggles under the banner, “Another World is Possible.”

It was a time when it seemed progressive parties could take power (beginning with Venezuela in 1998 and Brazil in 2001), and that a new more democratic left might be born in the wake of the movements from Canada to Argentina came together to overcome the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, a struggle we won in 2005. 

By going “inside,” CREAS and its allies carry those messages to decision-makers. They help people of faith become more accustomed to advocacy roles and engagement with political and corporate people who have different frameworks and institutional demands. They explore the potential and limits of corporate social responsibility strategies. They challenge the politicians on climate migration and inequality.Having learned language that the political and corporate leaders understand, they speak out when economics overcome ethics, and when new financial architecture looks too much like old architecture.

* Interview with Archbishop Rowan Williams (in Spanish).

Partnership, passion, religion and development

Oct. 5, 2017

Around a table: friends and colleagues from around the world

Tension between our passion for justice and having patience enough to work on framework concepts for work on religion and development seemed to increase through the second and third days of our encounter.

I knew I would have three minutes on Wednesday morning to say to the full plenary everything that I was thinking about diakonia and development, so I prepared my speaking points. 

Then the facilitator asked me about the United Church’s role in development. I offered my briefest possible description of the United Church’s approach to global partnership—a long-term contribution to the ecumenical sharing of resourcesprocess, and a commitment to lift up the voices of partners in all possible spaces. And then I moved on to my points.

I encouraged the people at the Ecumenical Strategic Forum to be daring in their advocacy for gender justice, climate justice, and justice for Indigenous peoples. I expressed my concerns about the Sustainable Development Goals, especially No. 8 which seems to re-introduce the developmentalist concepts of economic growth that we have been criticising since the late 60s. (See chapter 2 of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.) And I shared the debate in my table group about “rights-based” approaches to development, which tend to be individualist and leave insufficient space for minority rights or collective rights.

Then others started speaking. One of my Latin American friends expressed his sadness at the political games that conservative Christians play: support for Trump, opposition to the peace accords in Colombia. 

A German friend talked about the value of liberation theology in its emphasis on the subjects of action—that we not treat beneficiaries of development aid as objects.

Another of my Latin American friends recalled Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara, who said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” This friend went on to say that we’re living now in a world of emergencies—just recently, the three devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, and the two earthquakes in Mexico—so much so that there is hardly enough time to catch up to development. “We have to think about development not just in Western terms, but in Indigenous terms.” Live into that cosmovision, I thought.

We shifted into a series of conversations about peace-building, justice (gender, health, economic, migrant, etc.), globalization, and work in multi-sector partnerships (interfaith, secular, government, UN agencies, etc.)—and what they have to do with SDGs.

In a sense, those conversations opened space to talk about our passion for our work. We talked about how gender equality globally (#5) is actually receding in many contexts: women are losing ground. We found space to raise concerns about issues that are submerged in the SDGs: #10, which is about reducing inequality, has no mention of race, but racism is an issue that must continue to be addressed if inequality is to be reduced.

Similarly, #8 revives notions of economic growth that are simply unrealistic if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced. Ecumenical advocacy must continue to uphold climate justice goals while sustaining the vision and policy recommendations contained in documents like Economy of Life for All Now.

For this work, the alliances being built across divisions of religious practice and secular spaces, as envisioned in this Forum, are essential as we find better ways to live together within planetary and social boundaries.