The Three Elements of Engagement

As it pertains to the Responsibility to Engage conference, and from my own experiences, I believe that engagement is to be understood as simultaneously a practical, ideological, and moral arrangement between two or more individuals, organizations, or communities, brought together to discuss issues of mutual concern. Additionally, I hold that the very idea of engagement possesses a sense of optimism, which under the correct circumstances, allows each stakeholder to act upon their shared interests in a way that can be both innovative and inspiring.

In order for the process of engagement to be productive, certain practical considerations must be taken into account, particularly when bringing together stakeholders from different political, social, or religious niches. It is the responsibility of organizers to ensure that they create a safe and positive space. Here, the site of gathering is open and welcoming, as well as equitable and accessible to individuals of all backgrounds. Specifically, there is to be no discrimination against any individual or institution for any reason of religion, race, or gender identity; different and even conflicting perspectives are to explored in a way that is respectful and curious, rather than antagonistic or dismissive; and finally, if circumstances permit, then a neutral arbiter is to be on hand to manage potential conflicts. Conveying these principles to participants allows engagement to be respectful, reciprocal, and responsible, while still being forward-looking and creative.

With mutual respect serving as the basis for engagement, it is then important to move on to ideological concerns. If engagement is about creating spaces where diverse parties come together to discuss the issues of our time, then it becomes necessary to recognize the impossibility of absolute consensus. Rather than aiming to change the hearts and minds of a portion of participants (which would be required to have full agreement), the focus of responsible and engaged discussions on common concerns should be centered on producing fruitful dialogue. As James Tully explains, the aim of bringing together disparate voices should not be absolute consensus, but rather to “initiate a critical conversation on how to conceptualize and take up the responsibilities of the formidable task we share in a cooperative way that respects and challenges our different approaches and thus embodies the ideals we argue over” (Tully, 2011). Of particular importance in Tully’s quotation is the emphasis placed on the important task of facilitating dialogue and collaboration in order to meet a common goal. Although an inevitability, ideological differences can, through dialogue and exchange, be re-imagined so that nonviolent, non-antagonistic, and more community-centered alternatives can be developed to address issues of religious and civic engagement and interfaith relationships.

Finally, engagement requires a steadfast commitment to the very morals and ideals that first prompted the coming together of each of the stakeholders, regardless of the challenges, complexities, or disagreements that might arise in the process. This responsibility to creating a shared sense of morality and a common good is both particularly needed, and particularly difficult, in our increasingly uncertain and undreamy times. With a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, particularly as it pertains to relationships within and between different religious groups, it remains vital to see beyond polemic, and the limitations and particularities of each of our ways. The responsibility to engage, now more than ever, requires a moral commitment from those individuals acting and speaking on behalf of different religious, political, and social forces to ensuring that no community gets left behind. This ethic of care, this moral element to engagement across community divides, deeply reflects the values at the core of Nostra Aetate.

These three elements – practical, ideological, and moral – in my view, are the scaffolding around which responsible engagement can emerge. By ensuring that dialogue takes place in a safe space, where the nuances of difference are respectfully discussed, and all participants work towards achieving a common goal, it can be possible to address controversial issues both emotionally and pragmatically.

– Ayesha Valliani



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