‘Towards a Shared Sustainable Future’: the role of religion, values & ethics

Theresa Carino is a Research Consultant working on the intersection of religion, faith and development with a specific focus on the Chinese context. She has published widely on this topic with particular reference to her work with The Amity Foundation. In this piece, she provides an introduction to a new publication – ‘Toward a Shared Sustainable Future: the role of Religion, Values and Ethics’ – and the events that led up to it.

The articles in this volume were the result of the December 2016 international conference held in Nanjing to discuss the theme “Religion, Values, Ethics and Development”. It was one of the few in China to bring together both scholars of religion and leading faith-based development practitioners. Co-organized and hosted by the Amity Foundation and the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the conference aimed at providing a platform for the discussion of how religion can nurture sustainable development given the urgent issues confronting humanity today. It provided a golden opportunity to involve scholars and leaders from different religious backgrounds in China, including those from Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong. Overseas participants came from 15 countries in four continents. The gathering of more than 250 participants focused on religion’s positive role and the need for religions to be engaged in attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030.

The theme of religion and development was not entirely new in China as there had been a series of conferences on the role of religion in society in various universities since 2010. What set this conference apart was that it attracted participation from the academe, from religious organizations, the government and faith-based organizations from China and around the world.

What was different about the 2016 conference was the urgency of some of the issues that were discussed. It brought into question the sustainability of the kind of social and economic development that is being promoted around the world and the crises in values and ethics that such development generates as more and more countries become enmeshed in the global growth-oriented economy. It highlights the rising concern that drastic measures need to be taken to contain climate change, for instance, before the damage to the planet becomes totally irreversible. The conference highlighted the urgency for countries and peoples to work together in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In his keynote address, Institute of World Religions Director, Zhuo Xinping, stressed the necessity of joint, international, inter-faith efforts towards sustainability in achieving “the common future shared by a community of humankind”.

He observed that, throughout its lengthy history, religious development in China has constituted “a participating and contributing force to the continuity of the Chinese nation and the sustenance of Chinese society. Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, the three major Chinese religions, have all played constructive roles in the formation of the Chinese national spirit and embody core Chinese values.” More attention should thus be paid to the reinvigorating and motivating aspects of religions, to their close connections to human sustainable development not simply as a passive reflection of society, but as a driving force.

Today, China has earned the unique distinction of lifting 400 million farmers out of poverty over a relatively short period of thirty years. This has been a phenomenal achievement and apparently has emboldened the UN to set goals of Zero Hunger and Zero Poverty in the SDGs 2030. These goals would have been considered utopian had China not made the point that with a strong political will, it is possible in the 21stcentury to lift all people out of hunger and extreme poverty. Several authors highlight the long history of faith involvement and positive contributions in the social, political and economic arenas on a global scale whether it is in Europe, the Americas, Asia or in sub-Saharan Africa where it is estimated that 50% of schools are run by faith-related organizations. Historically, the impact and extent of faith-based organizations’ engagement in social, economic and political affairs has been enormous but not necessarily well documented.

Articles in a special section of the book brings to light the engagement and social contributions of women in development but also the gap between goals of gender justice and equality and the existing realities in Asia. The role of women missionaries in establishing schools for girls was a major but often forgotten contribution to radical social change in the region. By the end of the 19thcentury, more than 60 percent of all missionaries were women. They powerfully advocated and made possible schooling for girls which transformed women in Chinese society, sowing the seeds of a revolution against gender oppression that continues to reverberate around the world. In China, women’s education, especially in mission schools, contributed to the movement for the eradication of arranged child marriages, foot binding and concubinage.

The book emphasizes the importance and necessity of inter-faith collaboration and approaches in achieving the SDGs not only in the context of multi-religious and multi-cultural China but also in the rest of Asia. There was a passionate plea among speakers for peacebuilding in the region, in the light of violence related to religions in Southeast Asian contexts. Mutual understanding and knowledge is essential and inter or multi-religious “literacy” should be emphasized in educational institutions.

The papers in this collection have been eye opening for many participants, especially those from China, who had not realized the collective strength of religions around the world and the tremendous positive impact this has had and can continue to have in a world divided and ravaged by local and international conflicts, aggressive development, mindless exploitation and wastage of limited natural resources and the irreversible damage these have wrought on the planet.

2016 was not the first time that the Amity Foundation, a Chinese faith-based organization founded in 1985 by Chinese Christian leaders led by Bishop K. H. Ting, had organized a conference to discuss the critical intersection between religion and development. In 1994, it had co-organized with the Institute of World Religions an international conference on “Christianity and Modernization” and in 2012, Amity had successfully co-organized with Nanjing University the first Catholic-Protestant international conference in China on the theme “Christianity and Social Development”.

In 1994, Chinese Christians were still at the stage of church restoration and rapid church growth in the rural areas. It was then difficult for them to contemplate how Chinese Christians and churches could even begin to contribute to social development. The social and political environment then was not conducive to such a discussion and neither did faith believers in China have the necessary resources to make significant contributions. The contrast in mood of the 2012 international conference on “Christianity and social development” that brought together Chinese Protestant and Catholic participants was palpable. By then, it was obvious that Chinese FBOs had already accumulated experience and wisdom in social work and humanitarian relief and were eager to share their experiences. The discussion on the contributions made by FBOs to disaster and humanitarian relief and the shift from service to development goals had already begun. By the time of the 2016 conference that resulted in this book, Chinese FBOs were already trending towards advocacy work rather than simply providing services. Conversations had shifted to include the role of entrepreneurs motivated by their faith backgrounds and the importance of values and ethics in a globalized world dominated by materialism and profit-making. There was a sensitivity and openness to the need for more inter-faith dialogue and cooperation in order to enhance the social and political contributions of faith-based organizations.

The challenge for China today is to make the paradigmatic shift from “modernity” to “sustainability”. The normative elements in religions can provide an important critique of the extremes of modernization and the market economy that drive unsustainable growth. The papers contained in this volume confirm in no uncertain terms that the shift from rapid economic growth to sustainable development cannot take place without the active participation of religious organizations and faith communities. Most important is the necessary collaboration between government, academe, business and religions in facing common threats of climate change, poverty, economic and gender inequality and conflicts fuelled by competition and religious misunderstanding.

Click here for an e-copy of this volume.

Written By: Theresa Carino

Image Credit: Gu Jie 顾洁

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