Before I touch on the Church’s leadership, let me say that the needs of the world may or may not be greater than ever before. But because we know about them, thanks to the revolution in information and communications technologies, wherever they exist, whether in our homes or communities, our nation or distant lands, we are responsible. As I see it, in the context of 21st-century realities, we are morally responsible for the world – for each other, for the physical environment, the socio-political and economic environment, and indeed, for the future. That is especially true for those of us, individuals and institutions, that are viable – possessing the power to be agents for change. We who possess the most basic needs of food and shelter, have access to education and training, and carry the values that connect all Abrahamic religions – treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves – have a global obligation to enable others to have that same viability as we do.  It is both a moral and a pragmatic imperative. As we know or should know, inequity begets hatred; helplessness and hopelessness beget violence. Need I say more on that score?
As for the power to lead in this 21st-century context, I hold that we take it from wherever we can get it. The Church can be a source of power as a spiritual and moral enabler. At the same time, it can disable if it puts obstacles in the way of universal values. One’s own inner sense of justice can work, too. What I think we can – and must – foster in all people is a sense of civic obligation, and the civic power they can wield to offer the hope of liberty and justice to all the world’s people.
In short, I say that the very nature and breadth of our leadership – individual and institutional – require that we acknowledge and accommodate to 21st-century realities, and enhance our capacity to see more and do more to heal the world. We must learn to transcend the boundaries that limit us in our capacities to live together – with all our differences – on this planet. We must learn to be what a colleague of mine calls “citizens without borders”.
With that in mind, I can only say what kind of leadership I believe religious institutions should take at this time of greater knowledge of the “other,” greater interdependence with one another, and, as I see it, greater capacities to improve the lives of people all over the world. Religious institutions should be cognizant of and celebrate their interdependence with others. Whatever the particularities of religions may be – their tenets, their articles of faith, etc. – I have no business there. I accept that people believe what they believe. What I care most passionately about is what we can do at the margins – at the interstices – among peoples of all religions and of no religion. We are inextricably connected to each other. I believe that the inevitability of our interdependence obliges us as individuals, and our religious institutions as well, to act accordingly. We are all part of the whole organism of this world.
Religion has turned out to be front and center, against all odds – or at least against all expectations. In these times, it is for its institutions to take leadership in meeting the challenge of reducing the tensions among people of different faiths, minimizing the inequalities that are nothing short of “weapons of mass destruction,” accepting and respecting differences and adapting our institutions to meet the needs of our time.
Originally published in MercyWords
Leadership in the Church for the World in 2010 and Beyond: An Outsider’s View