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Religion and Society

Shared Commitment, Distant Identities

Universal Aspirations /1. Christians and Muslims place their own religion at the foundation of human rights and believe that faith and justice are intimately connected. A terrain of encounter that fosters shared work and respect for diversity.

When we speak about fundamental rights we spontaneously think about human rights as defined by the declarations of the United Nations, texts which began in 1948. And in large measure this is correct because these declarations well express what most contemporary human societies think are the most important rights for man as man, in particular the right to life and to a worthy life, the right to justice, to freedom of thought and to freedom of expression etc. At the same time these declarations do not necessarily coincide with everything that Christian and Muslim beliefs place under the heading 'fundamental rights'. On the one hand, some people have reservations about the rights mentioned in these declarations, most obviously the right to religious freedom (understood as the right to adopt a religion or beliefs of one's own choice) or the unconditional and unlimited right to freedom of choice as regards a marriage partner. On the other hand, some people would like to see these rights extended to include other types of rights, and in particular would like the rights of communities to be included.

 

When we address the field of human rights, various Christians and Muslims argue that their religion provides the deepest foundation for human rights. And yet, when we take into consideration modern history, when various declarations on human rights have been progressively drawn up, one cannot deny that the acceptance of these declarations was not immediate for the Christian religion, in all its sectors, or for the Muslim religion either.

 

All of this does not take away the fact that for the great majority of our contemporaries human rights are a privileged and growing expression of fundamental rights and the requirements of justice. Now for all of us, both Christians and Muslims alike, a fundamental tie exists between faith and justice. Man cannot give true place to God in his life if he does not give a real and just place to the other. To believe in God pre-supposes a profound sense of otherness; this is the belief of Islam as it is the belief of Christianity. Thus for Christian and Muslim believers faith and justice are intimately connected: there is no real faith in God without justice, with radical respect for the human being who for everyone is the apex of the creatures of God. This human being is called by the Koran 'the lieutenant of God on the earth' and is declared by the Bible to be 'created in the image and likeness of God' (which is also proclaimed by certain hadîth, certain traditions attributed to the Prophet of Islam).

 

This belief, which is specific to the believers of Islam and Christianity, has a profound connection with what is called the golden rule

 

 

of the Gospel: 'whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them' [Mt 7:12]. And this 'golden rule' has a parallel in one of the traditions of the Prophet of Islam (which are obligatory to the extent that they are known to be authentic). The reference here is to hadîth number 13 in the collection of The Forty Hadîth of An-Nawawî: 'You are not really a believer until you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself'. A discussion arose to know who this 'brother' was. What matters is what An-Nawawî the person who made this collection of hadîth says in his explanation of this tradition: 'the most probable interpretation' is that the 'brother' considered here includes equally well the non-Muslim (literally 'the infidel') and the Muslim ('the believer').

 

For Islam, the profession of the uniqueness of God (tawhîd) includes the unity and the brotherhood of all men, the privileged creatures of God, as a reflection of the monotheistic profession. In Christianity, St. John tells us that one cannot seek to love God, who is not to be seen, if one does not love one's brother, who can be seen [1 Jn 4:20-21].

 

For the Christian faith, we can say that these fundamental rights derive from the Ten Commandments and that because of this very fact they are not subject to prescriptions and conditions. The commandment of charity is inseparable from the first commandment of love for God. Equally, the Muslim faith holds that these human rights are bestowed by God Himself, and that from this fact descends once again the consequence that they cannot be prescribed and cannot be left to the will of men.

 

In evident fashion, the sacred character of human life is upheld in the Koran itself when it says that when someone unjustly kills a man it is as though he had killed the whole of mankind, and this means that he did not respect the human being as such in his victim. And equally positive is the statement: 'and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether' [V:32].

 

Thus for both religions, the respect due to God and the respect due to man, the summit of the creation of God, are intimately connected, even though the way in which Christian theology and spirituality and Muslim theology and spirituality understand and found the meaning of otherness is not at all the same. Despite this, for both religions one is dealing with the sacred character of the relationship with the other. It is here that we touch from close at hand on how the spiritual life, the life of faith, is a terrain of encounter between Muslims and Christians. I specifically say 'terrain of encounter' and certainly not 'identity, absence of differences' because in each religion the spiritual life, the life of faith, has its own structure and sources and specific bases; however, this is a terrain of encounter, a terrain in which each person can move, can take steps forward steps towards God, the living God, and also steps towards other people. This is a dynamic reality that excludes every fixed approach, every turning in on oneself. In this logic, respect for fundamental rights is based upon faith in God, begins with this faith and is directed towards this faith. 'God' is the point that makes the difference.

 

This is very different from a shared 'ideology'. That God is the 'point of reference' means that God is He towards whom we all tend and whom we all are searching for, living in relations with other human beings, because He is He whom we all worship [cf. Lumen Gentium, 16]. God is not at all a shared 'idea'. He is not, for that matter, in any way an 'idea'. For all of us God is He who transcends and infinitely goes beyond our ideas and our words: the 'Totally Other' and thus the 'Infinitely Neighbour'. In this sense He is the One Who Cannot be Spoken: a sort of 'emptiness', a 'place of the deepest silence'. And it is He who takes the initiative in this mysterious way to place us in relations with each other, to put us together, not only despite our differences but even in our differences.

 

God as a 'point of reference', as a 'place of silence', is not a comfortable 'means' to make us agree about fundamental rights. Thus this does not at all dispense us from detailed research about the precise needs of every situation, and also about the real meaning of our respective heritages, which are different, never forgetting, however, that we are not alone and that, in contrary fashion, we must respect and analyse these fundamental rights, with the whole of mankind, both believers in all their diversity and non-believers. Our approach of faith will lead us, Christians and Muslims alike, to always experience research into the subject of rights with radical respect and profound listening, knowing that our listening to others to everyone is based in definitive terms on our listening to God, the 'Totally Other', the 'Infinitely Neighbour'.

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