Divided by more than a common language

Published: February 21, 2011

My days in court were easier.  At least there, participants generally spoke a common language.  Mostly they shared common assumptions.  Exchanges followed a generally predictable course.  Laws and traditions identified the boundaries for disagreement.  Compromise, or at least resolution, was normally achievable.  And when it was not, there was a general understanding of the other point of view; sometimes even a grudging respect for it. 

In the big world, outside the courtroom, progress is often much more difficult.  Sometimes it is nearly impossible.  Take three international bodies on which I am serving and events in which I have been engaged over the past year. 

One of them is a group advising UNAIDS, the joint UN agency that co-ordinates the worldwide efforts to reduce the spread of the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.  In early 2010, I went to a conference in the Netherlands with religious leaders from around the world, aimed at promoting dialogue between experts engaged in reducing the incidence of HIV infections.  A Catholic archbishop from Africa rubbed shoulders with a Hindu swami from India.  A stern Lutheran bishop from Scandinavia swapped stories with the Coptic Pope.  Pentecostalists from the Caribbean conversed in a corner with a Buddhist monk, dressed in orange saffron robes, from Cambodia.  The Archbishop of Canterbury sent a video message.  Mullahs from Iran and Egypt listened quietly to a rabbi from Israel.  As the head of UNAIDS (Dr. Michel Sidibé from Mali) opened the proceedings, I was full of hope. 

The three days of exchanges were far from useless.  Returning to our homes in the four corners of the earth, we took away ideas and memories of human faces to connect to the explanations of where we were all coming from.  But the going really got tough towards the end of the meeting when the generalities were dropped.  And when we were asked to agree on a statement that urged religious leaders worldwide to become part of the solution to this epidemic, rather than part of the problem.

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