Why Religious Diversity Is the Pathway to Peace

Friends cheering together
Friends cheering together

On Christmas Eve, people across the United States and around the world gathered to watch "May Peace Prevail on Earth: An Interfaith Christmas Special" broadcast on CBS stations nationally and streamed online internationally by the United Religions Initiative who produced the program. At first glance, "an Interfaith Christmas" seems a strange contradiction. What in the world is that? Isn't Christmas a Christian holiday? In the current climate of politically-charged rhetoric around issues of religion and culture, one can imagine an avalanche of controversy.

Yet something very different happened this past week following the airing of the program. Overwhelmingly positive responses poured in online and through social media from people of all religions, spiritual traditions and humanistic perspectives. Viewers reported being deeply moved in witnessing a diverse community of people respecting the sacred tradition of a particular community, while also appreciating the broader ethical and humanitarian principles shared by people of all beliefs, and by seeing people of different religions around the world working together for peace. At a time when horrific violence in the name of religion dominates the news, and prejudice and intolerance threaten to undermine our diverse communities, this experience provides an alternative pathway through the polarizing rhetoric and fear-based divisions infecting American society and the world.

If America is beautiful "from sea to shining sea," it is because of our belief that "We the People of the United States..." refers to people of all nations, creeds, colors, beliefs, orientations and perspectives coming together as one society, one people whose strength comes from our diversity, not in spite of it. We are reminded of this in words emblazoned on the seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum -- "Out of Many, One." This global message is echoed in many places around the world like India ("Unity in Diversity"), and the European Union ("United in Diversity"), where the relationship between diversity and unity is championed as a crucial ingredient for a healthy society. Although often unrealized, this ideal remains a goal for which to strive.

Unity, however, does not imply unanimity. Diversity of any kind -- whether it be religious, cultural or ideological -- comes with a degree of disagreement and tension. The recognition that this tension and even resulting conflict are necessary and healthy parts of a diverse democracy seems to be particularly difficult for some who too often view difference as a threat to their own identity.

I grew up in a Christian family in which religious and cultural diversity was seen as a blessing not a curse -- a source of deeper understanding of the world, never a threat to the legitimacy of my own faith or beliefs. There is no denying that religion has been used for destructive purposes. Human history is replete with atrocities committed in the name of religion, and we all must continue to work against the violence that can result from its misuse. But this does not negate the fact that religion and spirituality are also sources of inspiration and wisdom that have contributed to the development of democratic societies and continue to urge us towards relationships of peace, justice and healing.

As I look out at the American political landscape and beyond at countries around the world struggling to embrace diversity, I am saddened at the ways in which the fear of human difference is too often used to divide people from one another -- bigotry in the guise of group solidarity. Isolationist groups around the world promote fear of "the other" as a means of galvanizing support for their own group's causes. This fear finds its way into political rhetoric that often ends up fueling acts of prejudice and violence in our communities. To stand together in community with those different from oneself, or with a person with whom one disagrees, even vehemently, may be the most essential ingredient of a democratic society. The unity in the context of diversity that we seek must include an affirmation of difference and an acceptance of disagreement.

Cultural and religious diversity are the threads that create the beautiful and strong fabric of our common life. Moments such as Diwali, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Solstice and so many other sacred and secular celebrations provide us with opportunities to learn about and appreciate the experiences of people of all traditions, and to identify the values inherent in these traditions that we share.

In the year ahead and for years to come, may we seek opportunities to learn from one another, practice respect for each other's traditions, and work together across lines of difference to create diverse, democratic and peaceful communities. In doing so, we invite others away from a fixation on the ignorant and violent actions of a few, and towards the reality that peace among people of all religions and cultures is possible in our communities, in our country and in our world.

The Rev. Victor H. Kazanjian, Jr. is the Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative, the world's largest grassroots interfaith peacebuilding organization, based in San Francisco and working in 93 countries. MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH: An Interfaith Christmas Special, produced by the United Religions Initiative, aired on CBS TV Network stations on Thursday, December 24 and is now available online at www.uri.org/cbs.