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Religion and violence--an inter-religious exploration: introduction to a multifaith consultation.

Inter-religious dialogue is about to become a household name, championed not only by faith communities themselves but also by other actors in society, politicians, industrialists, individuals and organizations. There is a growing interest today in inter-religious approaches to issues of common concern, and there is a proliferation of different inter-religious initiatives.

The numerous inter-religious initiatives are varied in respect to scope, impact and the actors they involve. They seek to promote and stimulate debate and exchange of ideas, facilitate the recognition of shared values, and foster respect and tolerance for diversity. Many initiatives are concerned with world peace and with religions as peacemakers. Religions are solicited to foster peace as an alternative to the use of religion to fuel conflicts. Inter-religious organizations have been created to foster cooperation for global good among people of the world's religions, seeking to promote the realization of each religious tradition's potential for peace-building, engaging religious communities in cooperation around issues of shared moral concerns.

Another emphasis is to support the work of the UN from an inter-religious perspective, establishing institutions, similar to the UN, where representatives of world religions address conflicts from a religious, moral or ethical perspective. There are visions of religions setting up inter-religious emergency teams ready to intervene whenever a crisis unfolds.

There are multifaith initiatives formulating declarations of global ethics, human responsibilities, or guidelines for inter-religious interaction and commitments. They are in different ways highlighting the importance of values and hence of ethics, emphasizing that the present globalization process not only encompasses economic, financial and technological aspects, but also focuses on human, cultural, spiritual dimensions and on the interdependence of humankind and its rich diversity.

Other inter-religious initiatives are expressed in conjunction with societal and global issues, injustice, physical poverty, violence and environmental destruction. Religions are requested not to shirk their responsibility towards the planet on whose life our lives depend. Alliances are called for between the religions and economic, societal or issue-oriented institutions or organizations on the subjects of poverty, development or environment, to mention but a few.

Exchanges between religious leaders and political and economic leaders are sought to improve the state of the world, creating global partnerships of business, political, intellectual, religious and other leaders of society to define and discuss key issues on the global agenda. Religious leaders are invited, through dialogue with their political counterparts, to bring the moral authority of religion to help solve the problems dividing communities and nations. Promoting peace, reconciliation and human progress are goals shared by all.

Statements of principles resulting from encounters between religious leaders and different expressions of world governance are seen to make the world's great religions relevant to the challenges faced by people everywhere. Those involved welcome the creation of frameworks that integrate leaders of religion, business, politics and civil society.

The inter-religious work of the WCC, from its beginning, has been carried out in relation to and cooperation with partners of other faiths, stimulating the thinking and opening spaces both for an intra-Christian and inter-religious reflection which tries to be at the cutting edge of the public discourse. The last years have in so many different ways documented that religion, far from becoming obsolete, in many places is an essential force for the moral fibre of society but, alas, may also serve as a tool for disruption and conflict.

The articles presented here, written by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist participants at a WCC multifaith consultation, address the problematic relationship between religion and violence. The consultation was held in February 2002 in St Petersburg, Florida, and brought together some fifteen participants of the major world religions. Most of the participants already knew each other. Dealing openly and honestly with a theme as sensitive as religion and violence requires an open space, where trust and confidence has been well established and is truly present. The participants had already met several times and had agreed upon establishing a forum where in the presence of each other they could wrestle together with some of the problems our faiths have to confront today. How do we as people of different faiths relate to religious plurality? How can we 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 inter-religious gatherings.

The group brings together people of different faiths, with substantial experience of inter-religious dialogue and therefore, doubtless, the openness to focus together on some of the basic issues of belief. Throughout previous encounters, one stirring question emerged as a consequence of the exposure to the inter-religious 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 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 a time for our continued exchanges and dialogues (for many of the papers here, see Current Dialogue 37,

September 11 made us realize that we as religious people could not but address this as a major challenge to all religious traditions. September 11 remains a challenge to all religious traditions and not only to Islam. The times we live in now are thick with the rhetoric of evil. Words such as the "axis of evil", a simplistic division into good and evil without any space for the grey zones of complexity, are in many parts of the world perceived as expressing the voice coming from not only the White House but the Christian West. The war with Iraq, portrayed in the US as "war with evil", those marching in peace protests denounced as "seriously misguided ... or evil", should make us realize how such rhetorical usage causes the word evil to lose its meaning. We should see the writing on the wall: religion is mixed with deeply charged emotions and the words develop legs and begin walking out of their own context. 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 inter-religious prayer; there were demonstrations to counter the expressions of stereotypes and simplistic generalizations, 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 US Islamic community. The Council of American-Islamic Relations suggested in a press release that "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 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 inter-religious 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 internalized it. In dialogue, we have been looking more for the ideals of religion and have not really recognized 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 own religions to allow our counterparts to discover the depth and richness of our religious tradition.

September 11 brings the issue of religion and violence squarely onto the table of religious dialogue. There are many who now expect an honest and open response. They are not interested in people of religion now becoming defensive, seeking to save the skin of religion, but wish them to help people relate constructively to religion rather than to estrange them even more from religion. They say: "Should not religion provide tranquillity and peace? And what do we see, violence and terror?" People ask themselves questions about 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 inter-religious 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 a shadowy 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 the negative understanding of religion which seems to be prominent in so many places. We have 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 civilizations impossible. We must ask ourselves where these civilizations are. The Muslim world is not somewhere else, nor is the Christian. We live in interpenetration. "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 a 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 often, and more than often, related to the powers that be, which seem to provide the legitimization 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 penetrating questions about the role of religion in violence. Religions are no innocent bystanders.

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 other forms of 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 civilizations" and the role that religions could have in it. How should we relate to this as persons of faith?

We are as people of different faiths in different ways challenged by the ambiguous role of religion in our world. It is a challenge we could meet, engaging 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 inter-religious reality: "That which we can do together, we should not do separately." This principle would be given new life if we were to look upon it as a challenge for a concerted effort by people of different faiths to overcome the spirit and logic of violence.

In 2001, the World Council of Churches launched the Decade to Overcome Violence, which is an invitation to member churches and others to join 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 people of different faiths. It offers the time to analyze and expose different forms of violence and their interconnection, towards the end of practising solidarity with victims of violence.

Announcing a decade to overcome violence signals a willingness among churches to deal with the question of violence, yet 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 as well as the reality of violence itself. At the same time, we are well aware 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 realizing that we have accepted violence as unavoidable for too long. Christian churches, as well as institutions of other faiths, often are 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 presents first of all a challenge to the churches to see how much they 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 this saying has proved right more than once: "Those who tried riding the tiger often end up inside." Those who tried to overcome violence often became involved in violence themselves. There are plenty of stories and lessons from history to illustrate this sad experience. While such bitter conclusions should not deter 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, an 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, belief systems and cultures provide the needed legitimization.

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 thrive 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 peoples, races, communities and religious affiliation in every place, all over the world.

There is the assumption that violence is a divine attribute which, judging from history, seems to have justified acts of aggression for the sake and on behalf of good and morality. The doctrines of redemptive violence, the theories of just war and holy war and the legacies of the crusades and colonization have their roots in such assumptions. Today, military actions, whether under the banner of humanitarian interventions or on behalf of the "civilized world", display streaks of self-righteous arrogance that arise out of lopsided self-understandings and world-views.

Religious interpretations are often used to justify and legitimate violence. The question of the role of power in all manifestations of violence must definitely be acknowledged here. What alternatives are at hand to provide other readings that do not serve violence in the form of exclusion and denigration? The whole question of our relation to religious plurality plays into this particular aspect of relations to the other, and the otherness of the other.

The thrust of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence could be a framework also for inter-religious exploration. Violence is part of our human existence, it is part of our religious traditions and it is therefore an issue that, more than many others, is central to inter-religious cooperation and reflection. The struggle against the spirit, logic and praxis of violence is a moral and spiritual struggle in which religious communities must lead the way. Such a struggle against violence must begin with a self-critical assessment of the involvement of religion.

* Hans Ucko is the editor of Current Dialogue and a staff member of the World Council of Churches' Office on Inter-religious Relations.
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Author:Ucko, Hans
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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