The following remarks were delivered by His Excellency Michael Moussa-Adamo, ambassador of the Gabonese Republic to the United States, on February 19, 2015, at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) and The Washington Times Foundation. The topic was “On Common Ground: Love of God and the Neighbor and Love of Good and the Neighbor” and the occasion was World Interfaith Harmony Week.
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Thank you for that kind introduction. I am honored by the invitation to join everyone here today to mark World Interfaith Harmony Week.
Somewhere deep in the back of my brain, the title of today’s program, “On Common Ground: Love of God and the Neighbor and Love of Good and the Neighbor,” reminded me of that old song from the 1970s, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”
In the context of Elvis Costello’s lyrics, “funny” doesn’t mean “laugh-laugh funny” but rather “odd-funny” or “unusual-funny.” He is asking why peace and love and understanding are remarkable concepts rather than mundane ones.
Indeed, if one picks up a daily newspaper, the front page headlines do not talk about peace or love or understanding. Instead, we read about war and terrorism and murder and sexual assault. We read about human beings performing inhumane acts against other human beings.
The daily newspaper gives us cause for pessimism.
Yet, if we look beyond the headlines, we have solid reasons to be optimistic.
The research of Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University reveals that today, we live in the most peaceful era of human history. Not only are there fewer wars now than there were even in the recent, 20th-century past, but there are fewer violent crimes such as assault and murder.
This is true all around the world, not just in so-called “developed” countries.
I will admit, however, that a statistical analysis showing the world to be a more peaceful place is small consolation to a family whose village has been destroyed by Boko Haram or to the parishioners of a church burned to the ground by the self-described Islamic State.
The victim of sexual assault or armed robbery will not feel compensated knowing that Professor Pinker has said we live in a peaceful world.
In other words, we cannot be complacent simply because the arc of history is moving toward universal justice. We may be moving toward it but we are not yet arrived at that destination.
What can we do to promote interfaith harmony and the triplet: peace, love, and understanding?
First, we must learn how to agree to disagree.
For too long and in too many places, disagreements about politics and religion have led to violent encounters. We must learn to tolerate thoughts and words that have no effect on our own lives. We can believe one thing and our neighbors can believe another with no adverse consequences for either one of us.
As the third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, once said:
“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Second, we must sit down and reason together. We must break bread together and talk about our lives, our families, our philosophies, and our ambitions. We must reveal to each other our shared humanity.
The Latin root of the word “companion” refers to the sharing of bread. Two people who eat a meal together are more likely to cooperate with each other, to travel a common path, to work for a common goal.
Whether we are sharing naan in Delhi, a baguette in Paris, or injera in Addis Ababa, the act of breaking bread together solidifies our sense of shared values and de-emphasizes our divisions.
Think, for a moment, of the Christmas truce at the beginning of World War I. German and British soldiers sang songs, played football, and shared food across the lines, and for a short time – barely 24 hours – the slaughter came to a halt.
Though that Christmas truce was a real, historical event, it seems like a dream.
That brings me to my third point: We must not be afraid to dream. We should dream about peace and love and understanding in such a way that the dream becomes – and remains – reality.
Nearly 45 years ago, in one of his first hit songs since leaving the Beatles, a young John Lennon wrote about what he “imagined.” Just 30 years old at the time he wrote the song, “Imagine,” Lennon revealed much of the idealism of youth but his words resonate today so that both young and old can appreciate them.
“Imagine all the people / Living life in peace,” he wrote. “No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.”
As we dream of a world without greed or hunger, we must look at practical means for achieving that goal.
We need economic growth so that poor and hungry people can earn the money they need for food and shelter. Governments must, through the predictable rule of law and not the arbitrary and capricious rule of men, create the conditions for job creation and innovation. We must encourage entrepreneurship and investment.
What is that old proverb? “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
We must invest in education, especially but not exclusively in education for girls. It is proven that, in societies where girls and women are able to learn in school, their societies are healthier, more affluent, and more peaceful. Those who oppose education for girls oppose progress for everyone, including themselves.
In my own country, President Ali Bongo Ondimba has set out a vision for economic expansion that is called “Gabon Emergent,” or “emerging Gabon.” Its basic point is that Gabon must move beyond its reliance on a few natural resources – mostly oil, timber, and minerals – and create the conditions for a diversified economy that includes services like banking and insurance, high technology, and green industries.
The concept of “Gabon Emergent” is meant to promote job growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship. It is designed to boost trade with our neighboring countries and across Africa. It looks toward our overseas partners in Europe and North America and is not narrowly inward looking.
Imagine if every national leader shared President Bongo’s expansive vision for the future. Imagine how fast we could move toward a world where peace, love, and understanding were not seen as “funny” but rather as natural and expected.
Earlier this month, at a gathering much like this one in New York, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, shared his thoughts about interfaith harmony.
“As intolerance, bigotry and hatred continue to fuel conflicts, violence and extremism in many corners of the world, we need to strengthen our efforts to foster respect and mutual understanding between cultures, religions and ethnic groups,” said Mr. Kutesa, who is also the foreign minister of Uganda. “Every time we chose dialogue and reconciliation over confrontation, we take a step forward on our collective path to lasting peace.”
Sometimes, I know, when we talk about dialogue and reconciliation, when we imagine a world of peace and love and understanding, it seems like we are talking to a wall. (Sometimes it may seem like we are banging our heads against a wall.) When our talk seems ineffective, our natural inclination is to stop talking, to give up.
I say, “Never give up.” We must continue to pursue justice and peace through interfaith dialogue. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists – even agnostics and atheists – must continue to talk to each other, to share what we have in common, to analyze what divides us, and work toward a world dominated not by conflict and pain but by peace, love, and understanding.
Thank you for your time and attention today. Let us go forth in harmony to make the world a better place.