group consultation on the theme: "Religion and violence"
- Hans Ucko -
The consultation "Religion and violence" follows two workshops, the first at the Ecumenical Institute Bossey, outside Geneva in April 1999, on the theme "What difference does religious plurality make?" and the second held in Malibu, California in November 2000. Both workshops sought to explore how we as people of different faiths and as people engaged in various professions, theologians, artists, liturgists, educators, etc. relate to religious plurality.
The meeting in Bossey sparked an interest to engage in a common process of thinking together on issues of common concern. We wanted to go a little deeper than just stating the ideals of our respective faiths or making grand scale declarations, as is sometimes the case in many interreligious gatherings. We wanted to see if, in each other's presence, we could wrestle together with some of the problems our faiths have to confront today. The workshop in Malibu raised some of the issues needing a focused interreligious reflection.
The group, "Thinking Together" is a small group of people of different faiths, with substantial experience of interreligious dialogue and therefore, doubtless, the openness to focus together on some of the basic issues of belief. One stirring question emerged as a consequence of our exposure to the interreligious exchange of ideas and realities: How can we, in the midst of our religious diversity, express common convictions and explore core issues present in all our religious traditions? As people committed to our different faiths, we are aware that we live in a world, which today deeply challenges our faiths in different ways. Religious plurality is one such challenge. How do our commitments as people of faith translate in our encounters with each other? Does the other in his or her otherness challenge my faith or religion? Does my religious tradition provide space for the integrity of the other in his or her otherness? Our discussions in Malibu dealt with some of the issues that religious plurality brings as a challenge to our faiths and religious traditions. We decided to take one issue at the time for our continued exchanges and dialogues (see Current Dialogue 37, http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd37-00.html).
Then came September 11. The world was stunned and very many of us felt that we as religious people could not but address this as a major challenge to all religious traditions. September 11 is a challenge to all religious traditions and not only to Islam. Let us not forget that words such as the "axis of evil" in parts of the world will be heard as a voice coming from the Christian West. Therefore more than one religion is solicited to respond to September 11. Religions are implicated.
Following September 11, there have been powerful demonstrations of people of all faiths coming together to manifest solidarity between people of different faiths, to do whatever could be done to make sure that the definition of religion is not violence and hatred. Jews, Christians and Muslims came together, in and outside the US, showing that they wanted to hold on to each other; they wanted to strengthen each other in mutual support. There were many expressions of interreligious prayer; there were demonstrations to counter the expressions of stereotypes and simplistic generalisations, of which there were quite a few, such as stories of indiscriminate harassment of Arabs and Muslims and people, who "looked like" Arabs or Muslims (sic!). In spite of the warnings against collectively blaming a religious or ethnic community or treating such communities as suspects, there were fears in the U.S. Islamic community. The Council of American-Islamic Relations suggested in a press release, "those who wear Islamic attire should consider staying out of public areas for the immediate future". Some media images seemed to nurture Islamophobia and opened up for simplistic stereotypes: "All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims."
Manifestations of interfaith solidarity are important but at the same time we need to probe deeper into the complexities of religious plurality. Many of us have been engaged in interreligious dialogue for quite a number of years. We have seen that in spite of all our talk about dialogue in community, religion is not an innocent bystander in conflicts. We know it but we may not have fully internalised it. In dialogue we have been looking more for the ideals of religion and have not really recognised the less peaceful dimension of religion. This may have been necessary in the days when we were about to build the dialogue, focusing on the finest characteristics of our religions to allow our counterpart to discover the depth and richness of our religious tradition.
September 11 brings the issue of religion and violence squarely on the table of religion. There are many who now expect an honest and open answer. They are not interested in people of religion now becoming apologetic, seeking to save the skin of religion but that they help people relate constructively to religion rather than estrange them even more from religion. They say: "Should not religion provide tranquillity andpeace? And what do we see, violence and terror?" People ask themselves questions of how they are to understand religion. Quite a number of people express the view that the greatest danger to world peace is in fact religion. A friend of mine at an interreligious meeting began his paper in the following way: "When I told a colleague that I was invited to a conference on World Religions responding to Global Threats, he feigned a hearing disability and said, "that's right; world religions are global threats!" For many, religion has acquired a frightening dimension. People are wondering about the link between religion and violence. The so-called return of religion is not entirely looked upon as a blessing. The title of one of Gilles Kepel's books La Revanche de Dieu, the Revenge of God, has acquired a sinister meaning. Some had thought that religion was dead. Now it is back with a vengeance and for quite a lot of people, it has become synonymous with everything that is negative and not at all constructive for our life together.
As Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, we are well aware of violent strands in our cultures and histories. Violence lurks as ashadowy presence. There is something dark and mysterious about violence in religion. Images of death are at the heart of religion and the way we relate to our own death and the death of others cannot be dissociated from the question of violence. We know it from Emile Durkheim and others. We may have studied violence and religion as a theoretical matter. We may have reflected on it in relation to our own faith. But have we ever reflected together on this strange connection between religion and violence? We can do it together because the question of religion and violence cannot be limited to one religion. We are all in it and need to deal with it. Maybe our wrestling together could provide an alternative to a negative understanding of religion, which seems to be the case in so many places. We have therefore an obligation to consider how religion is portrayed and how it is used. We should carefully address the whole complex interaction of religion and violence and their manifestations in our world today.
Religions are dynamic; they are more verbs than nouns. They have a history, moving from place to place, from nation to nation. There is a new geo-religious reality, which makes a clash of civilisations impossible. We must ask ourselves, where these civilisations are. The Muslim world is not somewhere else, nor is the Christian. We live in inter-penetration. "The time for not getting to know each other is over". We inter-are, we are in inter-being. Religions are complex and multi-vocal. There is not one tonality. To miss this diversity is to give the most vocal the right to define what religion is. We should involve the voices that seek relations and not the voices amplified by media.
We should address the question of religion and violence, but from a particular angle. We should not do so from a defensive perspective and above all not lift our banners or slogans with the ideals of our religions. It is true that Islam is literally the religion of peace. It is true that Om Shanti, shantihi is the emphatic Vedic blessing. It is true that Jesus greeted people with the gift of peace, "Peace be upon you". It is true that there is an absolute emphasis on compassion and ahimsa in Buddhism. It is true that Judaism has given the world the word and concept shalom. It is true that in many cases, based on their ideals, religions seek to contribute to building peace. However, we know that they are also involved in situations of violent confrontation. There is, in the religious field, a surprising coexistence of love and violence, of affirmation of inclusiveness and practices of regrettable exclusion. Religions are more than often related to the powers that be, which seem to provide the legitimisation for violence. There are groups within our religious families who seem to need violence to affirm their own beliefs. We cannot run away from the effect of religious language such as "Onward Christian soldiers", and acts such as the Crusades, the Holocaust or apartheid. We cannot run away from the role of religion in the caste system. We cannot run away from the blasphemy law in Pakistan or Baruch Goldstein in Israel. We have to ask the penetrating question about the role of religion in violence. Religions are no innocent bystanders between Scylla and Charybdis.
Thus our objective is not in the first place to affirm our common goal for peace, which certainly is there. We need to reflect on the ambivalent function of religions in our world, to make an effort to clarify the different roles of religions in relation to violence. This needs to be done before embarking on a reflection on how religious communities can work together for the construction of peace. How do we understand the relationship between religion and violence? How is it that religions so often end up in violence? Is there a "justified violence" (if there is a "just war", could violence also be justified)? If so, when would violence be "just"? Are religions involved in violent action and violent conflict because they are close to the powers that lead the people? For the last few years, there has been a debate on the "clash of civilisations" and the role that religions could have in it. How should we relate to this as persons of faith?
Let us then in an interreligious manner engage ourselves in some collective thinking about how to confront the logic of violence in the construction of peace. We should do this together. I believe that the time has come to call forth an old ecumenical principle and apply it to our interreligious reality: "That which we can do together, we should not do separately". This principle would be given new life, when we look upon it as a challenge for a concerted effort by people of different faiths to overcome the spirit and logic of violence.
Last year the World Council of Churches launched the Decade to Overcome Violence, which is an invitation to member churches and others to join in a transformation of the culture of violence into a culture of peace. There are already those, who think that this sounds at best idealistic and utopian, at worst like a mouthful. It is certainly easier said than done.
The Decade to Overcome Violence has in itself the thrust to discover afresh the meaning of sharing a common humanity. Its aim is to articulate a call to repentance for our own complicity in violence, and explore, from within our faith traditions, ways to overcome the spirit, logic and practice of violence. It is intended to be a forum in which to work together for a world of peace with local communities, secular movements, and with people of different faiths. It offers the time to analyse and expose different forms of violence and their interconnection, towards solidarity with victims of violence.
Announcing a Decade to Overcome Violence signals a willingness among churches to deal with the question of violence but I do not think I am unfair in saying that the churches do so without really knowing how to address it. There is a concern and a good will to address the different manifestations of violence and the reality of violence itself. At the same time, we are well aware of that we ourselves are part of the very violence we try to overcome. It is inherently a part of our own being. Well into this Decade, which serves as a constant reminder of the many different issues of violence, we are increasingly realising that we have accepted violence as unavoidable for too long. Christian churches, as well as institutions of other faiths, are more than often themselves part of the problem and only rarely part of the solution. The Decade to Overcome Violence is therefore not preaching to the world to do something about violence but has first of all an address to the churches to see how much the churches themselves are part of the problem. I think such recognition could be relevant for other faith communities as well.
Violence has a demonic attraction and the saying has been proved right more than once: Those who tried riding the tiger often ended up inside. Those who tried to overcome violence often became involved in violence themselves. There are plenty of stories and lessons from history to substantiate this sad experience. While such bitter conclusions should not desist us from addressing concrete cases of violence or a particular dimension of violence, the World Council of Churches has an overarching objective in mind: a cultural transformation, to attempt to build a counter-culture to the culture of violence. The Decade to Overcome Violence wants to address the spirit, logic and practice of violence. Violence does not fall down from heaven. It takes place, where norms, values and belief systems and cultures provide the needed legitimisation.
There are some issues in relation to violence, which from the perspective
of religion are particularly pertinent. There is the anthropological and
cultural dimension, which involves a view of the human condition and our
image of God. The spirit, logic and practice of violence thrives on assumptions
in relation to how religions look upon man and woman. The assumption that
human beings are by nature evil and have the propensity to be violent
has justified the creation and continuation of repressive traditions.
Another assumption that some human beings are inferior to others has justified
and continues to justify violence against some people, races, communities,
and religious affiliation, in every place, all over the world.