There are some 25,000 villages in Sri Lanka. What if OMNIA were to seriously consider the idea of building Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in each one, how would peace begin to grow? Following the horrendous Easter terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, this is what OMNIA has begun to do. Read how its working!
The following article appeared in the publication “Human Rights News” in Sri Lanka on August 14 2019. Remarks have been revised and expanded from original interview. Written by Shanika Madhavi. Photo by Sudesh De Silva
Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of the Omnia Contextual Leadership Institute in Chicago, USA, discussed matters of religious extremism spreading across the globe and its threat to human rights. Here are his comments.
Human rights are being developed at the international level. How have they affected individual development?
In 1948 many countries of the world came together and agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These principles were very important to all of us across the globe. If we want to measure how we address human rights, this declaration is the measurement. But human rights are violated in many countries and have been across time. Some governments do not particularly care about human rights because they think they can act with impunity. When they do, other countries should have a way of keeping them accountable. This declaration is the way.
Human rights are based on the primary affirmation that each individual person is of intrinsic worth, and that no one is more important or more valuable than another. But because society often assumes that some are more important, individual rights are often violated. Laws are meant to protect us from such violations, but some laws are also biased against those who are poor and marginalized such as women and those who have different sexual orientations. Religion also plays into this, giving legitimacy to social norms that discriminate.
There were occasions when some religious leaders in our country spoke of human rights as a Western project. Your opinion on it?
Anytime there is a “universal” agreement there are problems because the “contextual” may come into conflict with it. Can we have a universal agreement without violating local cultural and religious norms? So, there is always a tension between universal and contextual. We don't all think the same way. I recall the occasion there was an argument about women’s place in society. While many countries agreed that women should have equal status, there were objections from other traditionally religious countries, whose religions tend to give women a second-class status. When powerful groups or governments want to suppress the rights of some people, they pull out the argument that “universal” means “western.”
Torture and degrading treatment have sometimes been condoned by this society. What does it look like?
Torturing people is against universally accepted norms of human rights. We know that torturing people to get information is rarely, if ever, successful. Moreover, torture is usually an extra-judicial process. That is, people are tortured before their guilt or innocence is determined. We must ask, how I would feel if I were innocent, but someone tortures me to get information. I would feel thoroughly violated. That same principle must apply to other people. That is based on a religious principle that is common to most religions called the Golden Rule, which says, do unto others what you would have them do to you.
During the Second World War, a German pastor said, when they (Nazis) came for the Communists, he did not speak up because he was not a Communist. When they came for unions, he didn't say anything because wasn’t a union member. When they came for the homosexuals, he didn’t speak up, because he was not a homosexual. When they came for the Jews, he didn’t speak up because he wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for him. And there was no one left to speak up for him, because all those who would support him were now gone. We don't have to come to that situation. We can be good as a society if everyone's rights are upheld.
What is the role of religion?
Our human tendency is to violence. But religion teaches us to live ethically. It tells us that we must love our neighbor, which means that we must act non-violently. Sometimes there are internal and external influences on religion, and these ethical principles can be lost. Religious leaders must be particularly alert to uphold the ethical principles of religion.
Why is there religious extremism?
Every religion has a good side, but many have an extremist side. This may happen because of influences on politics or money. Religious leaders and scholars are not free from such biases when they interpret religious scripture or tradition. Slight changes in interpretation can take a religious tradition in a very different trajectory.
Ultra-conservative teachings appear to people as piety. While piety is not the problem, ultra-conservative teachings sometimes prepare the ground for violent extremism. This is, of course, very dangerous. Deranged individuals can take such teachings and use violence, such as bombings or shootings, usually against those in other religious traditions. Although ultra-conservatism seems like proper religious piety, it is often not authentic religion. In fact, religious leaders should be in the forefront in speaking out forcefully against teachings that lead to violent extremism.
What do you think about the extremism in Sri Lanka
All indications are that the events of April 21st were orchestrated by foreign influences, and that a local religious group was deceived into thinking that Jihadism is authentic Islam. As a result, several Christian communities were destroyed, as many were killed or injured.
Today, the interreligious tensions are high. Some Buddhists (including Buddhist monks) feel that they need to incite hatred and violence, particularly against the Muslim community. This is an unfortunate result.
The problem goes back to four and a half centuries of colonial rule – perhaps the longest in history -- during which time Buddhism was decimated. The conflation of identities as Sinhala-Buddhist arose as a response. Whenever there appears to be foreign influences, therefore, the old anxieties come to the fore-front. Unfortunately, some have decided to use violence to resolve this situation, even though, that completely contradicts the very Buddhism that they seek to preserve and protect. First, the reaction was against Tamils, then it was against Christians (as foreign mission agencies started sending missionaries again in the 1980s and 90s), and now it is against Muslims.
How should we respond to this extremism?
My organizations builds Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. These are teams of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy and lay people who come together to learn how to relate to each other across religions, and how to build power, so they can act together on issues that are urgent, relevant and winnable in their village or town. As these teams win small victories, they build more power, so they can build greater victories. When people in the town or village see that religious people can come together and do something right, they build a fresh appreciation of the possibility for peace. Our intention is to build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in all the villages of Sri Lanka over the next ten years.
by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of OMNIA Institute
I write this from Sri Lanka where OMNIA is conducting four leadership training events aimed at building Interfaith Peacemaker Teams designed to stem the religion-based violence that has shaken this country. You can imagine, then, how devastating it was to hear about the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, while training religious leaders and people of faith in peacebuilding. One of the main differences in the white supremacist violence that took place in the U.S. and what’s going on in Sri Lanka is that Sri Lankan citizens don’t have access to assault rifles, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and guns are scarce. But the commonality in both circumstances and in similar situations around the world, is that violent racism is supported and legitimized by supremacist religion.
Following the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan who is one of the world’s leading terrorism experts (one who rarely speaks about religion) in an interview with The Financial Times said that Sri Lankan leaders should spearhead a zero tolerance approach to (religious) exclusivism, in order to prevent it from turning to extremism.
This problem has rarely been acknowledged. Just as much as the Easter Sunday bombings were a result of Islamic exclusivism turning to extremism, and the current hate speech and violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka is Buddhist superiority turning to extremism, the El Paso and Dayton shooters (as well as the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Christchurch, New Zealand shooters) have a direct link to Christian exclusivism and superiority turning to extremism.
OMNIA’s primary training goal is to deconstruct “received” theologies that have exclusivism and superiority as their key attributes, and to reconstruct “contextual” theologies that have pluralism as its key attribute, which results in people learning to love their neighbor as themselves.
We have formed a working group of theological experts and practitioners to think through how we should address Christian supremacy, and its impact on extremist violence.
Our Trainings in Sri Lanka
We just completed an Advanced Training for 16 leaders who committed to build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka, and a Training of Trainers for 15 leaders who committed to conduct Basic Trainings in their towns and villages. Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, our national coordinator, in a public address, declared that the answer to the problem of interreligious tension is to build IPTs in every village in Sri Lanka.
Today, we are in Jaffna and next week to Batticaloa, areas where ten years after the 26 year-long war ended, devastation lingers. The level of talent, enthusiasm and commitment we saw in these leaders makes me hopeful that we are well on our way to making the Bishop’s goal a reality. We currently have 14 IPTs in Sri Lanka. Within a year, I expect that number to more than double.
Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
In July, Abare Kallah, OMNIA’s lead organizer in Nigeria, and I were among 1000 religious leaders invited from around the world, by the U.S. State Department, for its second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, in July. Organized by the office of ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, the event focused on many countries around the world where religious extremism and government-based repression has hindered people’s freedom to practice their faith.
However, religious freedom is a contested concept. It is often used as code word for “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and Christian supremacy” wrote Marty Castro in 2016. Castro, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Obama administration is friend and supporter of OMNIA. He traveled with us on our Sri Lanka immersion two years ago.
At our recent Advisory Board meeting, Bishop Munib Younan (Retired Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem) reminded us that religion is often manipulated by governments to legitimize their own political goals. Indeed, the plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims was not on the agenda at the ministerial.
Yet, religious persecution is real. Christianity Today ran an exhaustive report of the stories we heard at the Ministerial. Starting with testimonies from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a mosque in Christchurch, and a Sri Lankan Christian, throughout the event, we heard from Nigerians, Afghans, Uigher Muslims of China, Tibetan Buddhists, Yazidis of Iraq and many more. A Pew Research Center report issued the day before the Ministerial, notes that religious persecution increased across the board during the decade of their study, 2007 to 2017.
Shootings like what happened at El Paso and Dayton, may not be counted by researchers or media as events related to “religious freedom.” However, I contend that they are events related to religion-based oppression, domination and violence. Since white supremacy is based on Christian supremacy, until we dismantle Christian supremacy, we won’t be able to address white supremacy.
This is our most urgent task.
 Christianity Today, July 17, 2019. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/july/survivors-of-persecution-religious-freedom-ministerial-dc.html
This podcast comes courtesy of our friends at Things Not Seen Radio. Produced by Rev. David Dault
OMNIA’s Head of Interfaith Peacemaker Teams Initiative in Sri Lanka is Anglican Bishop Emeritus Kumara Illangasinghe. In this episode of “THINGS NOT SEEN RADIO,” the Rev. David Dault talks with Bishop Kumara about the religious and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and how OMNIA is working to address religious extremism through the establishing of Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. This conversation was recorded prior to the Easter morning terrorist attacks on hotels and churches in Sri Lanka.
First thought to be the work of a small group of terrorists retaliating for the earlier mosque shootings in New Zealand, evidence now suggests that ISIS played a major role in the April 21st terrorist attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. This development, along with the long and complicated history of religious, ethnic, and political strife in Sri Lanka, creates a complex problem for peacemakers. This article by OMNIA President Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, unpacks some of that complex history, and suggests a way forward.
Our enthusiastic celebrations of the growth and progress of our Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka have recently been tempered by the tragic news of Easter morning terrorists attacks on churches and hotels. We mourn the crushing loss of life and extend our heartfelt love and abiding support. We are especially mindful that our work, however difficult, is needed now more than ever. Even in the midst of suffering, joy may be found and a higher purpose made clear. It is in the spirit of that higher purpose that we offer to you our report on Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka and invite you to join us in answering the call to peacebuilding.