The G8 Religious Leaders Summit began this morning, but with three introductory addresses.

Dr Lloyd Axworthy runs the University of Winnipeg, but is a former Foreign Minister of Canada. He spoke about the need for religious leaders to have a common witness in matters of human concern (I think).

Justice Murray Sinclair has been chairing the recent Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrestled with the historic abuse and injustices instigated against the indigenous (aboriginal) communities of Canada. He rooted our thinking in the more local (Canadian) experience of (a) state legal oppression of indigenous people and (b) the loss of credibility of churches for most indigenous people. Interestingly (and contentiously, given the language involved), he observed that the greatest oppressors of the indigenous communities are now what he called ‘fundamentalist aborigines’ – those who ‘converted’ away from their indigenous roots and now evangelise their fellows.

However, the third speaker was the most powerful and arresting. Senator Lt. General Romeo Dallaire (Retd) is famous for having been given command of UN forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In a serious, passionate and informed presentation, he questioned whether politicians are now offering leadership in the world or merely reacting to crises. He stated that leadership by crisis management does not offer leadership in shaping the future.

He cited George Bush’s ‘New World Order’ and changed it to a ‘New World Disorder’ in which the sheer complexity of a world undergoing technological (and other) revolution is being reacted to by politicians who are overwhelmed by panic and finding it difficult to live with ambiguity. For example, he wanted to know what were the criteria for deciding to send 400 UN troops to Rwanda in 1994 while allocating 67,000 to the former Yugoslavia: who set the priorities and according to which criteria?

The lack of an answer to that question represents the most serious challenge to the ability of politicians to lead: which world view (rooted in which assumptions and according to which moral base?) will be thought through and owned by those making decisions to shape the future rather than simply keep reacting to events/crises? Dallaire thinks that our political masters are waiting for citizens to give them the authority to lead.

This raises the most fundamental questions facing us all. It is not enough to make policy without doing the hard work of working through and owning the philosophical (or theological) assumptions/world view that will subsequently and consequently direct and shape specific policies that take a long-term view of the future and are not simply shaped to ensure electoral success in the short term.

Dallaire put it bluntly: are all human beings human or are others more human than others?

This was a very humane articulation of Justice Murray Sinclair’s conclusion that four fundamental questions need to be addressed by all peoples and communities:

  1. Where have we come from?
  2. Where do we go after here (that is, after death)?
  3. Why are we here (ethics)?
  4. Who am I / are we? (identity)

The implication offered here is that religious leaders might have to drive this sort of thinking in order to hold political leaders to a more informed account in a complex world that allows those political leaders little time for thinking, learning or reflecting before either reacting … or shaping the future.

These speakers were followed by Dr Andre Karamaga (General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches) – who asked for Africa to be partners in alleviation of poverty rather than simply recipients of others’ aid:

Don’t speak of doing it for us, but with us.

He was followed by Jim Wallis from Washington who stressed the need for a vision to drive politics and the rest of us. He noted that our faith traditions began not as institutions, but as movements – and that the difference is in the capacity of the latter for sacrifice. He called for religious leaders to “announce the impossible and then work to make it happen”.

And here lies the fundamental problem for conferences such as this one: despite the challenges by Dallaire and Wallis, responses from the delegates resorted to “telling the politicians that poverty is unacceptable”. I will be arguing later that statements like that need to be read through the eyes of those who will receive them – and I can’t see any politician responding with anything constructive. It is like being told that we must support human beings in staying alive: no one will disagree with the sentiment, but it doesn’t help the decision-makers to know any more clearly how this should be done in a complex world of competing priorities and expectations.

Sitting here, it is hard not to hear successive contributions as worthy recitations of what we all already know (for example, about environmental disasters, the power of capital and the global problems of blind materialism). If we are to make any impact, we will have to be sharper and more savvy than this about the intended audience and the language of our discourse.