Moving Mountains by Sala Sihombing

Sala Sihombing

In late November, representatives from the Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, gathered at the University of Hong Kong to discuss ‘Religion and Human Rights’[1].  Whilst most speakers highlighted their religions prescience in proclaiming rights later to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2], they were also keen to point out that the Declaration was a modern invention, a product of human ingenuity rather than divine inspiration.

The panel discussion happened in the same week as the latest round of Gaza bombings. As the panellists warmed to their task and the audience began to participate, the temperature in the room began to climb. Quickly statements from one representative were misinterpreted by others and people struggled to tell the ‘Truth” of what was occurring thousands of miles away from bustling Hong Kong.

In some ways this may seem like a failure of these men of God to seek within their own faith traditions for peaceful words.  However, it is also of note, that despite the heated nature of the exchanges and the depth of feeling evident in the words, the only result was a discussion.  There were no blows, no need for the body guard (brought by one of the panellists) to step in, and no-one left the room rather than talk.

The ability of mankind to use his verbal ability to make an argument rather than exert power has been a major step in our development as a species. Cloke explains that as societies move from power based problem solving we cease using force and start asserting rights based solutions[3].  He also views ADR techniques as a move away from rights to interest-based processes[4].  By uncovering interests and discussing options, mediators seek to help parties move through conflict to resolution and self-awareness.

But what exists within the world of faith that can assist an angry panellist confronting an opposing viewpoint?  Goldberg and Blancke assert that ‘religion can be harnessed to bring people together as effectively as it is used to divide them’[5]. From a cursory glance at the news highlights on any given day this statement seems the height of folly.  What are the principles within each of these three faiths that should have provided a source of concord rather than discord on that night in November?

At base in many of the world’s great religions is a formulation of what Christians call the Golden Rule.  In essence, Christians are reminded to ‘do to others are you would have them do to you’[6], whilst Jews are instructed to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’[7] and Muslims are advised to ‘do good to..the neighbour who is near (in kinship, location, faith), the neighbour who is distant (in kinship and faith)’[8]. All three religions use this concept of neighbour or other and encourage proponents to treat each other with love.

If there is discord, then all three religions support the importance of the peacemaker. In Islam, Muslims are guided to make peace if the other side seeks peace[9]. For Judaism, ‘all that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace’[10]. Whereas for Christians, peacemaking is a requirement of faith[11].

With these two pillars of faith present in all three Abrahamic faiths, there is the basis for a peaceable discussion. However, as I saw on that night in November, it can be difficult for mere humans, even religious leaders to step back from their pain and anger and turn to the hope and light within their faith.

Without doubt, the participants can shape the nature of a dialogue.  But mediation theory and practice, teach us also the value of the third party mediator who brings process wisdom to a discussion. If the dialogue is being conducted by people of faith then how much more meaningful is a process informed by and structured in reliance on the tenets of faith.  The mediator can act not only as a guide through the discussion, but also as a true ‘angel of reality’[12] reminding people of their own beliefs.

A heated discussion about deeply held beliefs underscored by historical wounds is a first step away from power towards rights.  But if we are to move to real problem-solving then we need to understand how interests and faith can be used to move mountains to Mohammed[13].  

[1] Inter-faith Dialogue: Religion and Human Rights, 19 November 2012 (

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights available at:

[3] Kenneth Cloke, Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict (1st ed. 2001) Chapter 12, generally

[4] Id.

[5] Rachel Goldberg and Brian Blancke, God in the process: is there a place for religion in conflict resolution?, 28 Conflict Resol. Q. 377, at 384 (Summer 2011)

[6] Matthew 7:12

[7] Leviticus 19:18

[8] Surat An-nisa’ 4:36

[9] Qu’ran 8:61

[10] Tanhuma Shoftim 18

[11] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s promise and our response, Pastoral letter, at para. 333 (1983)

[12] with thanks to Professor Jim Craven, Straus Institute, Pepperdine University

[13] with apologies to Francis Bacon

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014