Transcript: Religious Conflict: Can Humanitarian Aid Help?

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Religious Conflict: Can Humanitarian Aid Help?

UK Parliament, House of Lords - June 10, 2015

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Lords, ladies, and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to be with you in such a historic setting to discuss such an important subject. I was already sufficiently intimidated by this assignment when I happened to run across a comment made some time ago by Russell Brand: “In England,” he said, “we have such good manners that if someone says something impolite, the police will get involved.”[1] Breaking out in a cold sweat, I went back over my talk to check every word and phrase for politeness and found no offender. Nevertheless, please forgive me if I develop a nervous twitch should a commotion rise at the door with a crowd of bobbies shouting “Where is he?”

As mentioned, my name is Jeffrey Holland and I am one of the presiding officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly (but not quite accurately) known as the Mormon Church. I am a member of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, I have lived in England for five years of my life, and I am a wholehearted fan of Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne. Just as Caesar at the Battle of Zela, she came, she saw, and she conquered us “across the pond”—several times now.

Indeed, at our meetings in Salt Lake City,[2] we were all so smitten by Emma’s charm and winning ways that if she had been commanding George III’s troops at Concord and Lexington 240 years ago, I am confident the American colonies would still be part of the British Empire, with nary a shot having been fired! I make a very personal expression of gratitude to her today. I am pleased that I will be able to reciprocate on her hospitality next September, when it will be my privilege to introduce her at Brigham Young University, where I served as president for 10 years. Brigham Young University, one of the largest private universities in America,[3] will provide a most receptive audience for her message and her humanitarian service. Baroness, thank you again for the friendship we have and the courtesy of your invitation to us today.

Our theme for today is “Religious Conflict: Can Humanitarian Aid Help?” The short answer to that question is “Certainly,” but the long answer deserves some discussion. Unfortunately, it is a given that every era in the world’s history has seen to a greater or lesser degree conflict, violence, and discrimination against, by, and among religious groups. We all long for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,[4] but unfortunately religiously related violence is increasing, not decreasing, as we move into the 21st century. A recent report published by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D. C., indicated that such conflicts and confrontations have reached all-time highs in all regions of the world except the Americas—and there has been difficulty enough even in those nations.[5] Worldwide the last few years have seen the largest displacement of religious populations in memory.[6] In almost every corner of the globe tens of millions from a wide-ranging variety of faiths have been forced from their homes due to one form of religious conflict or another.[7] Indeed, religious extremism is now the driving force of terrorism worldwide.[8]

A concurrent phenomenon with these open conflicts—and not unrelated to them—is the less visible but equally hostile restriction on religious freedom and religious expression being faced by fully three-quarters of the human population. That is a staggering figure. Of the 185 nations of the world included in the Pew study begun nearly 10 years ago, religious repression of some kind was recorded in 151 of them.[9] The guilty include not only hostile private persons or parties, but entire governments which have subjected members of religious groups to restrictive policies, discriminatory laws, flagrant disenfranchisement, and, often enough, death.[10] These practices have included laws criminalizing religious activity and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and impossibly stringent registration requirements.[11]

Unfortunately, when governments or major populations within a nation choose not to combat these kinds of abuses against religious groups, they can unwittingly undermine the larger cohesion in the community and destabilize the primary influence of the family.[12] Turning a blind eye to religious discrimination can de facto breed an environment in which hostile groups are emboldened in other ways, leading to other kinds of crime, violent behavior, and social disintegration. That in turn leads to further unraveling of the moral fabric of society.[13]

It goes without saying that these conflicts have led to humanitarian crises of staggering proportions around the world. The need to help remains enormous. Not that anyone here needs a tutorial in the breadth of this problem, but we have the continuing crisis in Syria and the rise of ISIS for all that that means to the region and to the world, the related sectarian violence in Iraq, Kurdistan region, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen; the intensification of bloodletting in Nigeria and Somalia; increasing chaos in Libya and the Central African Republic; sectarian violence in Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh; to say nothing of the interminable Arab/Israel conflict and the religious restraints we see if only from a distance in China and North Korea. Casting a more general glance around the globe we have seen a dramatic increase in the persecution of Christians,[14] the vilification of Islam,[15] and the rise of anti-Semitism,[16] especially in Europe where one would have thought it could never rise again.

Because considerable portions of these situations are caused by those espousing one kind of religious belief or another (as tragically misapplied as that belief may be), then it only seems right that others of equal but more constructive religious conviction ought to help remedy these situations and set right what has gone wrong. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees its efforts at humanitarian aid in that light. There are several advantages that religious groups have in such an effort.

For one thing, in a chaotic situation, people find meaning in their faith, find consolation in their religion, and routinely search for safe ground and comfort, for courage and constancy through their religious practices. Furthermore, religious organizations are often able to establish trust and open conversations that are not always available to secular groups. That may be because religious leaders can—and should—be viewed as nonpartisan participants in these conflicts. This sometimes allows them to mobilize peace-building efforts not otherwise possible because religion, as a basis for identity and commitment, can transcend even national boundaries and unite very disparate constituencies.

In like manner religious organizations can function as powerful agents for tolerance, for pluralism, and for conflict management. They are, by definition, peace-builders and peacemakers—or should be. As such they should also be experienced in developing cooperation. In many cases they can empower people by providing them with theological strength against social, political, or economic injustice.

If they retain their integrity, religious organizations can invoke moral legitimacy in what may be very immoral circumstances. Because of their spiritual and moral commission, religious leaders have a legitimate stake, indeed an obligation, in trying to relieve conflict. They can also sometimes touch world opinion through their network of information and contacts, a network which may be outside conventional diplomatic channels.

Finally, by appealing to one’s deepest values, religions and religious organizations have a unique capacity to motivate people and, at the same time, cultivate attitudes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and a willingness to strive yet again for the ideal in their personal lives and in society. To miss this positive influence of religion where there is conflict would be to miss much—I would say too much. In that I agree with Wilfred Mlay, who wrote:

“All major conflicts have a complex, multifaceted political economy that goes far beyond any single issue, such as faith; but, in conflicts that are openly defined by religious differences, having an ear for religion is preferable to being religiously tone deaf.”[17]

But whether it is from faith-based help or any honorable humanitarian agency, it is a fact that humanitarian aid can help reduce the damage of conflict, even if it cannot entirely prevent or eliminate it. Providing food, water, education, sanitation, housing, health supplies, and medical treatment not only brings immediate relief and comfort in an emergency, but it helps with intangibles such as the reduction of fear, the cohesiveness of families, the belief that there are good forces in the world as well as bad, that with such angels of mercy as humanitarian workers are there is reason to keep living, to keep believing, to trust that life will be peaceful and stable again. It is my considered opinion that there is one thing people cannot live without. Unfortunately, they may live without love, they may live without limbs, they may live without income, they may live without law. For a brief time they may even live without food or clothing, but they cannot live long without hope. And that is what humanitarian aid gives at least as much as it gives actual commodities and relief.

Faith. Hope. Charity. The three great Christian imperatives are also found in most religions and indeed in virtually all humanitarian efforts worthy of the name. So in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we would hope that along with our much needed temporal services, something of the spiritual would also obtain, that integrity would be rewarded, that the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind would be remembered, that character would be built both in the providers and in the recipients of such aid. We tell our workers—virtually all of them volunteers—that even though it can get covered with dust in a refugee camp, the long-term objective of our humanitarian effort is not only to provide temporal relief but also to remember and rescue all that is noble and divine within every human soul, to bring to flower and fruition the latent richness of the human spirit in which our religion and surely all religions believe.

David Brooks, popular columnist for the New York Times, sensed a need for something more than temporal relief when he wrote:

“Poverty is rarely about just money. It is partly about money but not just money. It is about behavior, character, self-control, security. It is [for example] about a child … not [so] stressed with fear … [that] it [cannot] perceive the world accurately, [a child] who can form secure attachments, because people have talked to them in the language of morality.”[18]

That is a prosaic variation on something James T. White, inspired by the great medieval Persian poet Sa’di, suggested in his poem “Not by Bread Alone”:

“If thou of fortune be bereft,

And in thy store there be but left

Two loaves—sell one, and with the dole

Buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul.”[19]

Let me conclude. Because of our religious convictions—convictions grounded in the command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves—we sponsor humanitarian relief programs. These projects pursued around the world benefit those primarily not of our faith and include emergency relief assistance in times of crisis and disaster. Last year LDS Charities responded to 132 disasters of one kind or another in 60 nations of the world,[20] including a major typhoon in the Philippines,[21] a destructive cyclone in the Kingdom of Tonga,[22] the Ebola outbreak in West Africa,[23] and extensive refugee assistance for Syria and Iraq.[24] In addition to such emergency relief, we found calmer circumstances along the way which allowed us to provide wheelchairs in 48 countries, maternal and newborn care in 42 countries, vision care in 34 countries, clean water and sanitation projects in 26 countries, gardening projects in 17 countries, and medical immunizations in 9 countries.[25]

In doing what we can, we take seriously this injunction from a Book of Mormon prophet:

“That ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”[26]

In our religious practice we are to pray over all our endeavors and for all of God’s people. When we are not praying aloud we are, as yet another Book of Mormon prophet taught, to:

“Let [our] hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for [our] welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around [us].

“And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

“Therefore, if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, which the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden under foot of men.”[27]

So, “Religious Conflict: Can Humanitarian Aid Help?” Short answer: “Certainly.” So we must not get discouraged just because the numbers are large and the problems overwhelming. As the iconic and unparalleled Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill once said:

“What is the use of living if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal? And I avow my faith that we are marching towards better days. Humanity will not be cast down. We are going on—swinging bravely forward along the grand high road—and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun.”[28]

A world war would rage only a few years after Mr. Churchill spoke those words, and we are fighting no less a global war—morally speaking—now. As an apostolic representative of God I testify that He will help us. He is helping us now. And our success rate will skyrocket if the whole world would embrace the simple, pure morality conveyed in a single line from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, an unequivocal morality upon which it would be almost impossible to improve: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”[29] To the best of our ability and with the limited resources we have, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to respond to human suffering in that way and in that spirit. Thank you for your kind and generous attention.

 

NOTES

[2] Jason Swensen, “LDS Charities Hosts Conference to Discuss Help for Refugees,” Church News, Feb. 26, 2015, https://www.lds.org/church/news/lds-charities-hosts-conference-to-discuss-help-for-refugees?lang=eng.

[5] Pew Research Center, January 2014, “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 7.

[7] “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 12, 13–14, 78, 84, 87.

[8] “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 13, 86.

[9] “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 22.

[10] “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 17–20, 23–32, 78.

[11] “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” 9, 14, 19, 23–32, 43, 90.

[12] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Faith, Family, and Religious Freedom,” (remarks at Chapman University, Feb. 26, 2015), http://www.iclrs.org/content/blurb/files/Faith%20Family%20and%20Religious%20Freedom-Chapman%20University%202%2026%2015.pdf. See also Carle C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, ed. by James Kurth (2008).

[13] See Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God. A New Theory of Secularization (2013).

[14] Elliot Abrams, “The Persecution of Christians as a Worldwide Phenomenon,” U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission Testimony for the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Feb. 11, 2014.

[15] Pew Research, “Five Facts about Religious Hostilities in Europe,” by Angelina Theodorou, Feb. 27, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/27/5-facts-about-religious-hostilities-in-europe/. See also Tareq Y. Ismael and Andrew Rippin, Islam in the Eyes of the West: Images and Realities in an Age of Terror (2010).

[16] “Anti-Semitism in Europe: Fear of a New Darkness,” The Economist, Feb. 21, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21644242-copenhagen-shootings-paris-terror-attacks-are-raising-new-worries-about-jew-hatred. See also Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed. Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (2013).

[17] Wilfred Mlay, “Some Myths about Faith-Based Humanitarian Aid,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 27 (July 2004): 50.

[18] David Brooks, “How to Be Religious in the Public Square,” speech given at The Gathering 2014, online transcript published Oct. 2, 2014: http://thegathering.com/e-updates/transcript-david-brooks-gathering-2014/.

[19] James Terry White, In Saadi’s Rose Garden (1907), http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924022210672#page/n11/mode/2up%3E.

[22] “Mormons Mobilise After Devastating Cyclone Hits Tonga,” Jan. 13, 2014, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org.nz/article/mormons-mobilise-after-devastating-cyclone-hits-tonga.

[23] LDS Charities Updates, “LDS Charities Sends Help During West Africa Ebola Crisis,” Jan. 9, 2015, http://ldscharities.org/news/ebola-aid?lang=eng.

[24] Sarah Jane Weaver, “LDS Charities Partners to Help Women in Iraq,” Church News, Oct. 28, 2014, https://www.lds.org/church/news/lds-charities-partners-to-help-women-in-iraq?lang=eng.

[28] Sir Martin Gilbert, ed., Churchill. The Power of Words: His Remarkable Life Recounted through His Writings and Speeches (2012), 63–64.

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