Exploring justice and compassion on World Religion Day in Victoria, B.C.

Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford, a member of the Victoria Baha'i community, was a panelist at the World Religion Day conference. © Linda Coyne Victoria, British Columbia, 31 January 2013 (CBNS) — “Justice and Compassion: Where is the Balance?” was the title chosen for the popular multi-faith conference held on World Religion Day in Victoria. The event attracted more than 150 people including academics, students, and members of various faiths.

The Baha’i community of Victoria and the University of Victoria Multifaith Services, in collaboration with the Victoria Multifaith Society, the Inter-Cultural Association, and Restorative Justice Victoria, organized the conference to mark World Religion Day, which has been celebrated in various parts of the world on the third Sunday of January since 1949. It aims to promote “interfaith understanding and harmony by emphasizing the common denominators underlying all religions.”

Panel discussions featured women and men from different faith traditions: Aboriginal spirituality, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and the Baha’i Faith.

The representatives of the eight faiths were divided between two panels, and each gave an initial five-minute presentation on justice and compassion, followed by comments and questions from other panelists and the audience. The tone was respectful, humorous, thoughtful and candid.

A recurrent theme was the need for true justice to be both restorative and compassionate. Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford of the Victoria Baha’i community said that boundless compassion and generosity towards one’s fellow human beings were important for establishing justice.

Buddhist panel member Eshu Martin briefly explained the concept of the oneness of all reality, which may be expressed in an infinite variety of forms that we perceive as separate, but which are ultimately part of the same underlying spiritual whole. Therefore, any form of uncompassionate behavior is futile and self-destructive, since the ultimate victim is oneself. The same concept was expressed by other panelists as integral to their own faiths.

The threads of reparation and reconciliation were elements of another common theme, concerning the integrity of the community and the importance of each of its members.

Sabrina Williams spoke of Aboriginal spirituality, of which the concept of restorative justice is a foundational tradition. She told the story of community elders visiting the homes of drug dealers, bringing them back to being contributing members of the community by telling them: “We know your family, we know your history, we know your lineage,” and reminding them of their nobility as human beings.

A story by Rabbi Harry Brechner illustrated a lesson humanity learned long ago, when the weakest members of the group, trailing at the back of a long march, were attacked and killed. The lesson drawn was to surround and protect the most fragile in the centre of the group, supported physically and morally by the strongest. This, he suggested, has strong implications when dealing with urgent issues such as homelessness and mental health.

When asked about justice and Shariah law, Sheikh Afraz Baksh explained that the original Islamic laws were brought to an Arabian population steeped in barbarism. It was their strong concepts of justice and fairness, including the revolutionary idea of allowing women to possess their own wealth, which transformed and united the backward tribes into one of the most advanced civilizations of its time.

Questions following the discussions mirrored the spirit of unity that pervaded the event, and the last question conceivably presented the basis for an entirely new exploration: With such beautiful concord between where we all come from and where we now need to go, how do we get there from here?