PEACE in Action

Religion, Violence and the Ethics of Peace

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Policies for International Peace
Religion, Violence and the Ethics of Peace

The resurgence of religious conflict on a global basis from the late 1970's onward has been one of the great surprises of the modern era. Some analysts portray the rise of religiously-motivated violence as a barbaric "throwback" fated to disappear as capitalism and democracy become worldwide. Others, yielding to pessimism, portray it as a feature of an essentially irresolvable "clash of civilizations." In contrast to both views, I believe that violent religious conflicts may be resolved, but the assumption that Western-style modernization is the cure is untenable. It is only by reconstructing our relationships with those subjected to our power that we in the West can end the current plague of religious violence.

However, to do this, we must recognize some common misconceptions about religion and violent conflict. "Religious conflict" is a phrase that begs the question of how religion is associated with other factors in generating, maintaining, escalating, or resolving social conflict. At one extreme, religious identification can function as a mere badge of ethnicity, class, or caste ­ as in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's warring Catholics and Protestants did not do battle over differing interpretations of the Eucharist or disagreements about Papal infallibility. Their struggle was rooted in bitter social inequalities and political insecurities afflicting their communities over the course of three centuries. The salient issues were jobs, dignity, and group identity, not religious beliefs.

On the other hand, certain violent struggles do appear to be motivated by specific religious beliefs, e.g., Iran's "revolution of the mullahs" and al Qaeda's persistent efforts to cleanse the Islamic world of "Jews and Crusaders," etc. Because religious ideology clearly plays an important role in such cases, some explain them primarily as the product of theological commitments or attitudes while others attribute responsibility to "religious fanaticism" ­ a phrase frequently used to describe the excessive zealotry of others, as opposed to our own intense beliefs. However, such explanations ignore the fact that each religious faith possesses texts and traditions that can be used to justify war or peace, violence or nonviolence, intolerance or tolerance.

Moreover, virtually all cases of religiously-motivated violence are "mixed" in the sense that they involve superimposed conflicts in which issues of social inequality, political repression, and unsatisfied psychological needs are also present.

To work for a culture of peace, we need to understand the relationship between social situations and religious traditions in the production of violent conflict. Which social environments are most likely to provoke intense religious mobilizations? Which religious beliefs and sentiments are most likely to be politicized, or to lend themselves to violent mobilizations? From this analysis, we may be able to say how to prevent or resolve violent religious conflicts.

The Sacralization of Conflict

An important phenomenon that needs to be studied is the transformation of some initially secular social struggles into religious conflicts ­ what one might call the sacralization of conflict. In a number of recent conflict arenas, including Israel-Palestine, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and, to some extent, India, where ethnic or national conflict was initiated, organized, and fought out by secular leaders wielding secular ideologies, one witnessed at a certain point a rapid shift toward religious leadership, ideology, and mobilization. Four conditions seem necessary for this sort of sacralization to occur:

  • the conflict becomes protracted, so that no quick victory or defeat is possible;
  • the secular leadership is discredited by lack of military success, political corruption, and inability to maintain morale;
  • military or political reverses compel the group to choose between surrender, agreeing to a disadvantageous or shameful compromise, or "keeping the faith;" and
  • religious allies elsewhere produce much-needed financial, logistical, and moral support for the struggle.

This leads to a more general question: Under what conditions are social conflicts likely to become violent and protracted? Confronted by serious challenges to their authority, many states and non-state elites respond either by attempting to suppress the rebels violently, bargaining with them, or combining coercion with negotiation in some measure. However, employing direct coercion and "bargaining from strength" are but two sides of the same power-based coin. Neither technique identifies the underlying causes of the conflict or generates mutually agreeable methods of eliminating or mitigating them.

A key distinction is the difference between interest-based and needs-based conflicts. Disputes based on clashing interests (commercial disputes, for example, or political struggles within the context of a consensually accepted political system) may often be settled either by threatening or applying coercive force or through hard bargaining. Conflicts based on clashing core values or unsatisfied basic needs are not deterrable or bargainable because they involve drives for identity, recognition, justice, coherent meaning, and autonomous development which are deeply rooted in human personality. When a persons identity is defined at least in part by religious affiliation, threats to this identity can make the religious component more salient or even "total."

Furthermore, the failure to satisfy needs of this sort is likely to be systemic, implicating existing social structures. Resolving religiously-motivated conflicts, therefore, means moving beyond bargaining and coercion to an analysis that identifies these deeper sources of conflict and a re-visioning that generates new methods of reconstructing collapsed or failing systems.

Religion as a Force for Conflict Resolution?

Are conflicts involving groups mobilized under the banner of religious faith resolvable? What role might religion itself play in resolving them? My response focuses on the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but similar principles apply, it seems to me, in the case of other "universalistic" religions, including Buddhism and the great secular faiths of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras.

From the time of the Hebrew prophets onward, it has been religion's historic task not only to define the identities of particular peoples, but also to suggest a road forward towards the moral unification of humanity. Isaiah and his successors understood that the great empires arising during their lifetimes aspired to "erase the frontiers of peoples" and to create a universal world order subject to their rule. However, the assumption of imperial superiority doomed any attempt to found a world order on the principles of human unity and the equality of nations. This is why Isaiah insisted that only when Gods authority was recognized as superior to that of any human ruler would war give way to peaceful dispute resolution and the nations would "hammer their swords into plowshares, their spears into sickles."

The same contradiction dooms all modern attempts to create a peaceful and just world order on the basis of any nations or multi-national coalitions hegemonic power. One watches with grief and anger as the United States and other great powers proclaim the rule of law, political democracy, human rights, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons as universal principles, and then proceed to qualify these principles to the extent needed to reward those who uphold their power and to punish those who defy it.

President Bush, for example, has defined "Islamic radicalism" as a malicious, totalitarian force that can be countered only by violent suppression. But the answer to violent fundamentalism is not a violent attempt to defend the empire against these new rebels ­ it is a global reformation that moves toward realization of the prophetic idea that one God means One Humanity. The goal, made clear by Isaiah, is a world community politically diverse, composed of equal, autonomous nations, freed of war, and united in the spirit. In the future that he envisions, all nations recognizing the primary values of justice, righteousness, and peace will be blessed.

The great question is how do we move from a world in which violent mobilizations based on religious affiliation are the last line of defense for groups struggling for their identity to one in which religion rediscovers its historic peacemaking and world-unifying role?

First, we need to develop analytically sound, imaginative, and practical alternatives to neoimperial models of world order. We need to consider, for example, how to create and foster autonomous regional organizations capable of standing up to the U.S. and other great powers, how to adjudicate competing claims to precious natural and human resources, and how to bring the processes of globalization under popular control. With governments avoiding such issues, the responsibility to recognize and explore them falls on civil society, including the universities, the creative media, popular organizations, and the churches.

Second, social groups and nations need to practice analytical conflict resolution, not just the suppression of dissidents. Conflict resolution is not a method of bargaining or compromising ­ it is an attempt to imagine feasible ways of reconstructing systems that threaten peoples identities and generate violence in their communities. The key is to assist parties in conflict to identify the sources of the violence and to envision, evaluate, and implement mutually acceptable ways of dealing with them. My colleagues in the field of conflict resolution have already made progress in adapting and applying methods of peacemaking that have been used successfully in cases of ethnic, racial, and national violence to religiously-motivated struggles. We need to intensify our efforts to convince policymakers that coercive responses merely inflame such conflicts—and that creative, practical alternatives are available.

Ploughshares sculpture

"Let Us Beat Our Swords Into Ploughshares" is a gift from the Soviet Union to the United Nations, installed in the UN north garden in 1959. Sculptor Evgeniy Vuchetich created the nine-foot bronze statue.

The most serious obstacle to making use of these alternatives is the addiction to power by those who wield it. This is where religion has a particularly important role to play, because its prophets insist on the primacy of ethics over power. The most significant movement of our time is the process by virtue of which former strangers around the globe have become neighbors. Those formerly isolated now talk to each other, visit each other, contract each others diseases, marry each others children, do business with each other, work in each others factories, and sing each others songs. What are our ethical obligations toward these new neighbors? Is there an ethical core, shared by all major religions, whose identification and elaboration could help make the "human family" more than a hopeful metaphor?

I think so. Although there is a danger in attempting to impose a false universalism on the diverse components of a world society in the making, it seems clear that some agreement on fundamental principles is possible. Surely, a new global ethic, arrived at through inter-religious dialogue, would help to create a genuinely human community. On the day that ethical consensus is achieved, says a traditional Jewish prayer, "the Lord shall be one and his Name shall be one." Perhaps, in pursuing this globalization of the spirit, religions East and West will rediscover their world-transformative role.

Richard Rubenstein is Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. His latest book is Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah, to be published in October by Harcourt. His other recent books include When Jesus became God (1999) and Aristotle's Children (2003).

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