Yesterday the Global Freedom Network was launched – a groundbreaking initiative to combat 21st-century slavery in its many forms, including forced labour and sexual trafficking.
It has a five-year business plan and clear objectives, including seeking commitments from 50 major corporations to remove slavery from their supply chains and gaining endorsement from the G20 and over 160 governments for anti-slavery programs.
Brokered by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, the network is backed by the highest authorities in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, and extends to interfaith co-operation through the participation of the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh al-Tayyeb.
The arrangements announced yesterday are remarkable for three reasons.
First, and most obviously, political cooperation between religious leaders in the pursuit of justice is sadly all too rare. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have only been meeting formally since 1966, some 400 years after the Reformation divided them. While formal dialogue has progressed a long way in the last 50 years, joint initiatives such as the one announced yesterday have been less common.
What is truly extraordinary is the participation of Sheikh al-Tayyeb as a world authority within Sunni Islam. This brings a whole new dimension to the cause of ending slavery. Not only are two Christian churches decrying slavery, but they are doing so in partnership with one of the world’s most significant Islamic leaders, drawing together billions of adherents worldwide.
The ecumenical and interfaith nature of the Global Freedom Network removes yet another excuse for slavery: it’s the other side’s fault.
A second remarkable element is the vision of Andrew Forrest and others behind this initiative to think about religion at all. While faith-based organisations can take credit for doing enormous good around the world, from intervening in famine, improving health and education, and working with ostracised minorities, the default assumption in western societies at least appears to be that many global problems would be more readily solved if religions were to get out of the way altogether.
After all, it is religious belief or religious identity that has so often been used to justify violence and oppression. This new initiative recognises that, if the world is to be changed, then religions need to be part of the picture.
The third element is the extraordinary risk these three religious leaders have taken. By participation in this venture, each has acknowledged the inconvenient truth that sacred texts are difficult to interpret, hard to apply, and easily misused to oppress others.
There is no dodging the fact that in the Christian New Testament, for example, Paul writes to the Ephesians:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.
A plain reading of this verse has provided a ready justification for Christians to enforce slavery on others as God’s will, even for well-disposed masters who read on a few verses to the exhortation:
Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
The interfaith cooperation underpinning the Global Freedom Network cannot and should not be reduced to the belief that a common anthropology underpins all religions, or that some “super-faith” will emerge. Fundamental differences of belief about divinity and humanity have endured for thousands of years. The point of this initiative is quite different. It is to acknowledge that sacred texts and religious principles are readily misused, and that this misuse is not the sole prerogative of any one religion or any one branch of a religion.
Back in the early days of the Reformation, the Catholic church opposed the Protestant push for the translation of the scriptures into vernacular languages not only because the sacred text was a source of power but also because the church’s leaders recognised how sacred texts could be misunderstood leading humanity into grave danger. This new initiative recognises afresh that with acts of faith comes responsibility.
Christians and Muslims – indeed, all people of faith – are called not to leave their brains at the door when attending church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Interpretation of scripture, working out what ancient texts mean for contemporary humanity, requires critical thought and great humility.
The risk taken by these Catholic, Anglican and Muslim leaders is this. If people of faith acknowledge that sacred texts on slavery continue to be widely used as justifications for great evil, must we also require a further acknowledgement, that sacred texts on many other topics require careful, critical interpretation to avoid other great evils?
Could it be that the Genesis narrative of creation, with the divine command to the first humans -
Be fruitful and multiple, and fill the earth and subdue it
could it be that this scripture needs a similar approach in the light of the perils of climate change and the reticence of western nations such as Australia to face up to their responsibilities?
What about sacred texts used to justify war, ethnic cleansing, rape, sexism? And let’s not mention the criminalisation of homosexuality.
There is a two-fold truth here. First, contrary to popular belief, faith is not easy or simple but makes great demands on human desire and human intellect. Second is that religious leaders can only do so much. Setting a strong example, one that takes seriously the power that faith exercises, is the best possible start. For ultimately it is incumbent on all people of faith to avoid the trap of self-serving religion and to take responsibility for their beliefs and behaviours, individually and collectively.
In the meantime, I’m off to encourage some other faith leaders to join the network, and to subject my own investments and those of my church to some serious ethical scrutiny. I hope you will join me.