Practicing What We Preach: Interreligious Dialogue and Futurism in Environmental Peacebuilding

Author: Elsa Barron

Elsa Barron 1

When I was living at Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the outskirts of Jerusalem, very close to Bethlehem, I took up the composting responsibilities of the institute. Each evening, occasionally as the call to prayer rang out from down the hill and across the separation wall, I would carry out a small bucket of waste and return it to the land that was deeply meaningful to people of many faith traditions. The short walk became a spiritual practice for me as I wondered at the natural world- be it the slight shift in the moon’s phase each night, or the invisible microbial ecosystem that would eventually break down the load that I carried. It also became a time to reflect on the visibility of conflict and oppression as I carried out my composting freely on lands that were walled off from many Palestinian families who had previously cultivated them for generations. This experience, though simple and small, became a reminder of the many connections between the environment, peace (or lack thereof), and spirituality.

I drew on this reflection while introducing a recent series on faith-based approaches to environmental peacebuilding, a project I developed with the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. The series revolved around three major themes: interfaith dialogue, decolonization, and futurism. After panels covering the first two themes within faith-based environmental initiatives, we entered into an interactive conversation about how to translate our dialogues into imagination and action. 

An initial reflection on the practice of futurism provided by sociology and peace studies PhD student Amaryst Parks encouraged us to “collectively build futures that work for all of us, especially when that all includes folks whose communities have been marginalized by white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism, etc.” and futures that, “include all beings and our generous Mother Earth in that “all” as well.” As she spoke about such incredible visions, I became increasingly nervous about the task ahead. How would such a diverse group dialogue about the future? How would we reflect on different faith traditions and worldviews? How might we actually build alternative universes? Ready or not, we set out to the task. 

In order to engage in the active practice of dialogue, we split into groups to read a set of creation stories including narratives drawing from Native American, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, and Muslim traditions. To help us imagine different kinds of futures, we asked ourselves to fill in the blanks to statements like “In a decolonized future world, our relationships would be ______.” or “In a sustainable future world, our stewardship of resources might look like ______.”

“Many fruitful observations came from our analysis of different creation stories, which acknowledged critical differences between the accounts but also helped to build up shared understanding and values.”

Many fruitful observations came from our analysis of different creation stories, which acknowledged critical differences between the accounts and their associated worldview, but also helped to build up shared understanding and values. Each of the stories highlighted the importance of relationships, including the relationship between humans and other life forms, between humans and G/god, or gender relationships. Different traditions had different ways to perceive hierarchy and responsibility. “Skywoman Falling”, a Native American account told by Robin Wall Kimmerer, highlighted a world lacking hierarchy and inspired by mutual sacrifice and interconnectedness. Similarly, participants noted that the Hindu account of Viraj implies that humans and non-humans came out of the same process, creating a sense of equality. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian account from Genesis framed the relationship in terms of a human-centric hierarchy, yet one that also implied a strong responsibility on behalf of humanity to steward and protect the world that they had been provided. Finally, The Muslim story from Fussilat (Sura 41) illustrated the immense power of God over all of creation with creation coming into being consensual to the command of God.

Parallel to these conversations, our dialogue groups were beginning to paint visions of a better world through the practice of futurism. In a decolonized future world, we imagined that our relationships would be filled with curiosity, acknowledge interconnectedness, and reject hierarchy. In a sustainable future world, we noted that our stewardship of resources would move away from commodification and towards intrinsic worth, would be less linked to ownership, and would acknowledge the interconnectedness of life and resources. In a peaceful future world, we imagined that faith communities would practice inclusivity (of people, cultures, language), deep listening, and exchange of tradition and practice between communities. Finally, we envisioned a form of work and education that would include multiple languages, would avoid conformity and embrace diversity, and would practice many different forms of listening and knowing.

“In a diverse group, we discovered a surprising degree of shared values thanks to our practice of dialogue.”

In a diverse group that included students, parents and grandparents, journalists, educators, activists, and NGO leadership coming from South Bend, Washington, DC, Pakistan, Germany, Kenya, and elsewhere, it was clear that translating dialogue into action would take different forms for different people. However, we discovered a surprising degree of shared values amongst the group thanks to our practice of dialogue. These values included the sharing of resources for the good of the community, protecting (and listening to) the people and planet around us, and creating education systems and social structures that open up spaces for further diversity and dialogue outside of hierarchies. In creatively imagining together, we hope to spark the beginnings of new worlds, or alternate universes, that we can begin to shape into a reality for our shared planet.

Elsa Barron is a Senior at the University Notre Dame studying Biology and Peace Studies with a minor in Sustainability.