Warning of 'empathy gap,' Ban urges faith leaders to speak up against injustice and brutality

By Bruce Knotts

A recent UN press release informed us that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged faith leaders gathered in the General Assembly on April 22, 2015 to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding. He warned against an “empathy gap” that causes people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities. “At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond,” the Secretary-General said on the second day of a gathering at Headquarters in New York of leaders representing diverse faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, as well as ministers, academics, and spiritual teachers. Mr. Ban said that he was deeply concerned as today communities rushed to point out an affront against themselves, but ignored or dismissed the legitimate grievances of others. “I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity,” he said. “Religion does not cause violence, people do,” the Secretary-General continued. “Today we turn to what you as men and women can and must do in this vital endeavour,” he told the High-Level Assembly meeting on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation, Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism. “The dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women, tolerance and living together in harmony…these principles are our bedrock and they are what this organization defends,” he emphasized. But those values are held in contempt by violent extremists and “bankrupt ideologies.” Migrants are among the most vulnerable targets, Mr. Ban said, adding that there is a “direct line” between prejudice and extremism, racism and genocide. After the Holocaust, and with the establishment of the UN, “the world vowed never again…but we have seen injustices over and over again.” The human contradiction is that “we are capable of utmost brutality but also compassion, tolerance and reconciliation,” the Secretary-General pointed out, adding that “today, I ask for your wisdom and leadership.” “We need you to promote dialogue as an antidote to intolerance. Your voices will be critical in countering hate speech and finding common ground,” Mr. Ban told the meeting. “Faith leaders are on the frontlines of your community and many of you see the forces of radicalization. Use your influence to stand up for moderation and mutual understanding.” Equally important is addressing the root causes of extremism. Abuses and indignities make individuals ripe for recruitment for sectarian and violent groups, the UN chief said, calling on leaders to ensure another way, a better way, which includes equality, and promoting opportunity and upholding human rights. He also announced that later this year, he would present a UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Meanwhile, faith leaders must raise their voices to counter the narrative of extremists. The UU-UNO is very much part of this initiative working closely with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York City. “Missiles may kill terrorists, but I am convinced that good governance is what kills terrorism,” Mr. Ban said, urging the gathering to speak out against human rights breaches and social injustice wherever they were encountered. “I ask you, too, to do more to amplify the voice of the moderate majority so we may drown out those who preach violence and hatred.” The UU-UNO has been a reliable partner with the United Nations in building interfaith coalitions to work for community and to end all forms of bigotry and intolerance. In 2009, we were called by Human Rights Watch to build a faith-based coalition to counter religiously-based bigotry based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Uganda. We have expanded this coalition to address all forms of bigotry, homophobia, transphobia and intolerance everywhere including racism, gender inequality, oppression of indigenous peoples, abuse of migrant workers and members of their families, religious intolerance including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We have brought clergy and scholars to the UN to examine the fundamentals of their faiths to find in their holy books and spiritual writings a universal call to empathy and compassion for everyone everywhere. These teachings call us to see everyone everywhere as our neighbor worthy of our help and support. April 9-11, 2015 we extended this message of humanity and compassion to examine global criminal justice systems at our annual Spring Seminar. We got to meet speakers who have been imprisoned in solitary confinement; defined by the United Nations as torture when it lasts more than 15 days. Both these speakers benefited from college programs in prison that changed their lives. We also had activists speak against the death penalty and for programs which end the root causes of crime through education and economic opportunity. By seeing people in our prisons as people with inherent worth and dignity, we can move from punitive to restorative justice. We have had other similar programs bringing our faith and values to bear to promote the equal inherent worth and dignity of indigenous peoples, women, LGBTI people, migrants, people of color and everyone else no matter how vulnerable or marginalized society may make them. The international community must protect the rights of people to think, speak and worship freely. Faith leaders have a vast audience, great influence and an immense responsibility. “Together, we can rise to the call of the UN Charter to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm human rights, and promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” Mr. Ban concluded. “That is why I wanted people from many faiths to come together at the United Nations to express our shared abhorrence at such violence,” the UN chief said, pledging to form an advisory panel of faith leaders to guide the global community.” “When governments respect human rights and provide opportunities for people to voice their grievances…the attraction to violent extremism will wither and peace and prosperity will grow,” Mr. Ban added. The UU-UNO is part this movement at the United Nations to build a world where no one is neglected or oppressed. The UU-UNO has been a vital part of the UN’s mission to ensure that the promise of the Universal Declaration Human Rights is available to everyone everywhere. We are all born “free and equal in dignity and rights.” There are no exceptions and we work for a world where this truth is upheld everywhere every day.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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UN Secretary General with Faith Leaders at the April 22, 2015 Session of the UN General Assembly

Speakers at the United Nations Session of the UU-UNO 2015 Spring Seminar on Criminal Justice

UU-UNO Workshop on women's equality at the 2015 Commission on the Status of Women