Religion and Conflict in Recent International Events

UNA LECTURE – 20 November 2003

Your Chairman, with his disarming manner, caught me off guard at a recent meeting of a committee of the Church in Wales. “I would be delighted if you felt able to give the annual lecture this year for the United Nations Association – you can choose the topic and the time” he said. So here I am – but I am delighted to be here since I was the Founding Chairman of the United Nations Association in Bangor in the late 70’s/early 80’s, and it’s good to see people here from Bangor. The difficulty I faced was what would I speak about considering the distinguished speakers who have gone before me? I had not quite realised what a great succession of people I was following – a bit like the apostolic succession really. Aptly, I got my inspiration from reading David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham’s book,
not quite an autobiography entitled “The Calling of a Cuckoo”.
In it he writes: “all three monotheistic religions are locked
in a conflict which threatens what stability, peace and progress in
human life there are on this earth”. And as I thought about that
sentence, practically every book I came across seemed to be on the
subject of religion or faith in world conflicts e.g. Jack Nelson Pallmeyer’s
book “Is Religion Killing Us?” or Oliver McTernan’s
book “Violence in God’s Name”. A crucial question
is whether religions cause conflict, or whether they simply legitimise

But you may say that religions are not meant to do that at all. All
the world religions claim to believe in peace and the Christian religion
speaks of a loving God who created all things, cares for all things and
is the goal towards whom the universe is moving. All the faiths of our
world teach us to recognise our common humanity and respect for other
people. The three world faiths in particular – Judaism, Islam and
Christianity, teach about a God who is to be trusted. Why then do religious
beliefs cause violence or why are they a factor in the violent conflicts
of our age?

It is no good saying that there is no connection between religion and
violence. The fact of the matter is that religion has been used to justify
killing – perhaps precisely because there are issues of ultimate
meaning and significance at stake. Certainly in recent years you will
only have had to follow world events in a very cursory manner to know
that religion has been used to justify war, violence and death. Look
at events in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants; in Bosnia
and Croatia involving Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox; in Indonesia and
Nigeria between Christians and Muslims; as well as conflicts in Israel,
Palestine, India and Pakistan.

The crucial question is whether religions are the prime cause of violence
in our world, or just one among many factors. As you might expect, scholars
differ. Paul Collier argues, for example, that conflicts in our world
are caused more by economic competition and the chance to be rich than
any religious differences. Low incomes, and a slow rate of economic growth
lead to conflicts and dependence on primary commodities, be they diamonds,
oil or timber, lead to internal and bloody civil wars. These struggles
are exacerbated by sympathetic compatriots living abroad who support
from a distance, but who do not suffer the direct consequences of the
violence, and by countries, who for ideological or other political reasons,
are hostile towards the indigenous government. For Collier then, the
main motivation behind civil wars is greed. I quote “civil wars
create economic opportunities for a minority to get rich quick, and so
the main motivation is greed, even though they will talk of grievances”.
The difficulty lies in how does one judge motives? Does the chance to
seize resources motivate rebellion or simply give the finances to facilitate
other objectives?

Ted Gurr on the other hand, argues in favour of a strong link between
grievance and revolt. He says that: “discrimination and repression
against national and minority peoples are a pervasive source of poverty
and resentment and provide strong incentives for protest and rebellion”.
Thus economic and political discrimination, cultural restrictions and
government repression lead to ethnopolitical rebellion.

It is interesting that neither Gurr nor Collier regard religion as playing
any part in recent conflicts. In his book “The Clash of Civilisations”,
however, Samuel Huntington argues that religious differences are amongst
the main causes of conflict in the post Cold War era, since religion
is the most profound difference that can exist between people, and conflict
between civilisations can be enhanced by “beliefs in different
gods”. Huntington claims that as globalisation took root in the
second half of the 20th Century, so did religious revival, as people
sought to fill the vacuum in their cultural identity created by the effects
of globalisation, and the collapse of communist ideology. Western ideas
of individualism, liberalism, human rights, democracy, the free market
and the separation of Church and State have little resonance in Islamic,
Hindu, Buddhist and Orthodox cultures. For Huntington, Islam is especially
important here, since it recognises no separation between religion and
politics and is missionary in its nature.

Huntington predicts that future wars will be clashes between civilisations
rather than between states, as in the past. By civilisations, he means
cultural groupings extending more widely than regions or nations. He
recognises that religion has a central place in creating particular cultural
identities. To quote him: “Religion is a central, the central,
force that motivates and mobilises people ….. faith and family,
blood and belief are what people identify with, and what they will fight
and die for”.

There can be no doubt that religion, even if it is not the major cause
of strife, contributes greatly to world conflicts. Admittedly, mixed
up in many conflicts are ethnic and cultural tensions, national identity
and territorial and economic claims, but religion intensifies matters.

As one writer puts it “our scriptures are full of wars, great
bloody conflicts between those whom God has elected and those he has
rejected. To this day, Jews, Christians and Muslims refer to the Scriptures
for archetypal conflicts which guide their discernment when they meet
a threatening situation. Archetypal hostilities are ingrained in our
cultures”. As if to prove that point, here are some words of Osama
bin Laden:

Our encouragement and call to Muslims to enter Jihad against the American
and the Israeli occupiers, are actions which we are engaging in as
religious obligations. Allah Most High has commanded us, in many verses
of the
Qu’ran, to fight in his path and to urge believers to do so. We have
given an oath to Allah, to continue in the struggle as long as we have
blood pumping in our veins or a seeing eye, and we beg of Allah to
accept, and to grant, a good ending for us and for all the Muslims.

Alongside those words, place those of President George W. Bush:

As long as the United States of America is determined and strong,
this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here
across the world… Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark
threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the
world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire,
we will not falter, and we will not fail….. The course of this
conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear,
justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is
not neutral between them. Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence
with patient justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident
of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us
wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.

I shall be dealing mainly in this lecture with Christianity, Islam and
Judaism, but we must not forget that Hinduism and Buddhism also have
a history of violence.


Violence and non-violence have co-existed uneasily for centuries.
Hinduism extols the divine qualities of forgiveness, compassion, the
absence of anger and malice, peace and harmlessness, and at the same
time, sanctions the use of violence under specific conditions. Violence
can never be justified for the promotion of self-interest or to terrorise,
but it is seen as a sacred duty in situations of self-defence and the
protection of the world from evil and injustice. In looking at examples
from India’s history, Mahatma Gandhi stands as the exception rather
than the norm in his insistence that followers adhere strictly to the
Hindu principle of non-violence [ahimsa] in their struggle for independence.


Alone among the world religions, Buddhism stands out for its
unambiguous commitment, at least as an idea, to the promotion of peace
and pacifism as a way of life. But not all Buddhists would rule out the
use of military force in certain circumstances – the Mahayana tradition
argues that the Buddhist obligation to end suffering, stop harm, foster
compassion and promote peace requires violence provided that it is the
only way one can prevent further harm – it must be driven by a
deep sense of compassion. In ‘Ethics for the New Millennium’ the
Dalai Lama argues that violence is like a fire which spreads. It can
only ever achieve short term objectives, but he recognises that because
there will always be troublemakers, it is necessary to have ways to deal
with them.


Turning to Islam, the Muslims who flew into the World Trade towers believed
they were doing so for the sake of Allah. They saw themselves as his
servants – agents of divine justice against the evil enemy. They
believed that everything they did was in accord with what Allah wanted.
Papers left behind in a package of Mohammed Atta, the alleged ringleader
of the 9/11 atrocity, show the depth of their religious feelings, and
they saw what they were doing as a sacred duty, giving glory to God.
One letter, encouraging his co-conspirators to prepare themselves for
the attack on the Trade Towers, reads like this:

Tame your soul, purify it, convince it, make it understand and
incite it. Bless your body with some verses of the Qu’ran. This
is done by rubbing verses into one’s hands, and then rubbing
the hands over whatever is to be blessed – the luggage, clothes,
the knife, your personal effects, your ID, your passport. The rest
is left to
God, the best one to depend on. We will all meet in the highest
heaven, God

They saw themselves as martyrs – God’s agents ushering in
God’s kingdom. They quoted war chapters from the Qu’ran:

Strike terror into the enemy of God and your enemy, arrest,
besiege them and lie in ambush for them, and trust that those who
fight for God’s
cause, have been promised gardens of eternal bliss, where they
will dwell forever.

Moreover, Christian fundamentalists in America, such as the Rev Jeremy
Fordwell and Pat Robertson, wrote to The New York Times after these attacks
and interpreted them as deserved punishment from God. An angry God had
allowed the terrorists to succeed in their deadly mission because the
USA had become a nation of abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and
courts. To quote from them: “
God allows the enemies of America to give us what we deserve”.

Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford, a militant atheist, accuses religion
of devaluing life, and by teaching that death is not the end, allowing
people to treat life lightly:

If death is final, a rational agent will be expected to value his own
life highly and be reluctant to lose it. This makes the world a safe
place. But those highjackers in the planes were filled with an insane
courage, fuelled by their religion and the belief that they would enter
into a wonderful paradise. To fill the world with religion, is like
littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they
are used.


Dawkins is no less savage in his attack on Christianity. One
cannot, therefore, deny that religion lends itself to violence. Osama
bin Laden
proclaimed that there was a Judo-Christian campaign against the Muslim
world which Muslims had to repel by asking Allah to give Muslims “guidance
to exalt the people who obey him and humiliate those who disobey him”.
Christian religious leaders gave their blessing to the United States
war against terror. Andrew Sullivan writing in the New York Times magazine
said that “the religious dimension of the conflict is central
to its meaning. The words of Osama bin Laden are saturated with religious
arguments and theological language”. He went on to say:

use of religion for extreme repression and even terror is not restricted
to Islam. For most of its history, Christianity has had a worse record
with the Crusades, Inquisition, bloody religious wars of the 16th
and 17th Century which meant that Europe saw far more blood spilt
for religion’s
sake than the Muslim world did. Christians have persecuted Jews,
attacked Muslims and declared a holy war against all manner of people.
The crusades
were an attempt to claim the Holy Land for the church and get rid
of infidels, that is Muslims and Jews. As Pope Urban II put it in
1095 “wrest
the land from the wicked race”.

So Sullivan says “there
is something in religious monotheism that lends itself to this kind
of terrorist temptation. So Oliver McTernan writes:

Numerous conflicts
in all parts of the world in which adherents of all major world faiths
can be found justify atrocities on the grounds that their cause is
righteous. All of them hold in common the belief that those who died
defending their
faith will be immortalised. From Indonesia to Northern Ireland, the
Middle East to Kashmir, India to Nigeria, the Balkans to Sri Lanka, Christians,
Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs justify the use of violence
on the grounds that they are protecting their religious identity and

If we look at the foundation documents of Judaism, Christianity and
Islam, we find incitement to war and violence. In the Hebrew Scriptures,
there is one strand which sees God as an omnipotent, coercive, punishing
and threatening God. Particularly in their conquest of Canaan, the
Israelites are commanded to defeat, and even to destroy, the inhabitants
of the
land. Later in the days of the Kingdom, they are urged to show no pity,
but to massacre their enemies. These Scriptures eventually were adopted
by Christians as the first part of their Bible – the Old Testament – and
were used to justify actions that would not be condoned in the second
part of their Bible, namely the New Testament.

Similarly in the Qu’ran, the Sacred Book of Islam, violence is
legitimised “slay the pagans wherever you find them and seize them
and beleaguer them” 9:5 “fight those who believe not in Allah” 9:29.
Muslims are to worship no one but Allah and ordered not to be associated
with unbelievers. “Take not your intimacy with those outside your
ranks. They will not fail to corrupt you” 3:11 and 18. War is to
be waged against unbelievers. “Those who fight and die for Allah
are promised paradise “say not of those who are slain in the way
of Allah, they are dead nay they are living for we perceive it not”” 2:154 “and
if they are slain or die in the day of Allah forgiveness and mercy from
Allah are far better than all they could amass. And if they die, lo it
is unto Allah that they are brought together” 3: 157-158. Whereas
some Islamic scholars condemn suicide bombings and say that this has
nothing to do with Jihad, Sheik Ahmed Iassim of Hamas says they are very
relevant to Jihad: “everyone who dies in war, or is killed by the
enemy, is considered a martyr”.

In all these sacred texts, religious sanction is given to violence by
God. God’s violence, or human violence as a means of serving God,
is often seen as the way to justice at the end of time. Good behaviour
is urged under the threat of punishment. One writer puts it like this “religious
violence prevalent among the followers of monotheistic faith traditions
is not primarily a problem of believers distorting those sacred texts.
Rather it is a problem rooted in the violence of God traditions that
lie at the heart of those sacred texts”. The sacred texts of Jews,
Christians and Muslims cause problems because people often see their
religion as part of their very identity, and it can motivate people to
commit terrible acts because they believe they are doing so in the name
of God. Founding stories can be used to justify the worst aspects of
many of the world’s conflicts, and if they see their foundational
texts as being the word of God and not open to interpretation, that just
compounds the problem. And those of us who are Anglicans have seen in
recent months how a literal interpretation of scripture can lead to all
kinds of uncharitableness and bigotry. People can be very selective in
their choice of texts and can focus on passages which underscore their
exclusive claim to truth and superiority, whilst ignoring passages that
stress the universal nature of divine love and compassion.

I would like to look very briefly at 3 conflicts – Northern Ireland,
Israel/Palestine and the recent so called war against terrorism, since
these conflicts give contemporary examples of Christians, Muslims and
Jews as protagonists and perpetrators of violence. These three conflicts
show how competing truth claims linked to land, lead to violence and
any peace process has to acknowledge the religious component. In Northern
Ireland and Israel/ Palestine, the majority community [Protestants in
Ulster, Israelis in the Middle East] are near large numbers of their
opponents – the Republic of Ireland in one case and the Arab States
in the other. In these three cases, religion is not the primary or sole
cause of conflict – there is an interplay of nationalistic, economic,
social and political factors. But religion is part of the problem, and
needs to be addressed if a solution is to be found.

Northern Ireland

The English colonised Northern Ireland in the 16th
and 17th Centuries, and encouraged English companies and settlers from
Scotland to migrate to Ulster, so that by 1703 the native Irish owned
less that 5% of the land there. When Irish nationals wanted an independent
Irish state embracing all of Ireland, the colonisers of Ulster objected
and so the 6 counties in Northern Ireland formed a new state where
there was a Protestant majority. The current troubles began in 1968,
when the
Catholic minority in Ulster wanted equal rights, and this led to British
troops being sent there, and since they were seen as on the side of
the Protestants, it led to the rebirth of the IRA. From 1968 onwards,
have died. John Whyte, who has written a definitive book on Northern
Ireland, explains it in four main ways:

  1. Britain v Ireland
  2. Southern Ireland v Northern Ireland
  3. Capitalist v Worker
  4. Protestant v Catholic in Northern Ireland.

There is residential and educational segregation between Protestants
and Catholics in Northern Ireland, encouraged by the religious authorities.
The correlation between partisanship and religion is high, that is, nationalist
parties and republican paramilitaries are supported almost exclusively
by Catholics, whilst Unionist parties and loyalist paramilitaries get
their support overwhelmingly from Protestants. Religion then, although
it may not be the prime source of the conflict, is a potent component
of a conflict that is part social, historical, political, cultural and
economical. As Whyte puts it:

It can be a basis for segregating the population into two communities
largely ignorant of each other, and susceptible to prejudice and stereotyping,
and it can also cause conflict because of a clash of values and interests related
to religion.

It has to be added, however, that there is a strong tendency to use
the religions as convenient labels to affirm the identity, or distinctiveness,
of these separate communities. They do not always indicate a serious
religious commitment, as evidenced by the old joke that non believers
in Northern Ireland insist that they are Catholic or Protestant atheists.


When Theodore Herzl, wrote a pamphlet in 1896 entitled “The
Jewish State”, he advocated the return of Jews scattered throughout
the world to Palestine to create a Jewish National State of Israel. He
saw this as happening over a long period of time so that “Jews
would live as freemen on our own soil”. He saw this as benefiting
Arabs as well since their living conditions would be improved. The trouble
was the Arabs opposed this movement. The Holocaust increased the Zionist
belief of the need for a Jewish state. Palestinian Arabs would be able
to go either to existing Arab nations so that Palestine could be opened
up to Jewish settlers or settle alongside the Jews. This was the policy
of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel after the establishment
of the state of Israel in 1948. He wrote in 1954 “England belongs
to the English, Egypt to the Egyptians and Judea to the Jews. In our
country there is room only for Jews. We will say to the Arabs move over.
If they resist, we will push them by force”.

Zionism initially was a secular movement, and at first, religious Jews
were hostile towards the creation of this new state. Orthodox Jews relied
on an act of God to restore their fortunes not the machinations of the
secular Zionists. But after 1948 these religious Jews began to reconsider
their opposition to this movement. Perhaps the hand of God was in all
of this after all. Messianic Zionism came to the fore after the Six Day
War in 1967 when “biblical territories were reconquered” and
so began a policy of cleansing the Promised Land of all Arabs and non-Jews
rather than co-existing with them. The Religious Right began to argue
for the return of the biblically defined landmass of Israel especially
the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and so began the policy of illegally
squatting on Palestinian properties and encouraging Jews in the diaspora
to come back to Israel – actions which led to violence. The intifada
was the Arab response to these activities. For religious Zionists, Joshua
was seen as the prototype of the powerful Jew bringing redemption with
the sword, and taking back what was rightfully theirs. Present day Arabs
were seen as the modern descendants of the enemies of Israel described
in the Bible. So the biblical account of ancient Israel’s conquering
of Canaan provided the script for the present. They saw themselves enjoined
by God to occupy the sacred land and to create as far as possible a pure
Jewish culture based on the Torah.


Islamists have argued that the USA meddles in the governments
of the Islamic world often on the side of tyrants, and United States
globalisation is seen as destabilising traditional societies. In 1998
Osama bin Laden put it like this:

They rob us of our wealth, our
resources and oil. Our religion is under attack. They kill and
murder our brothers. If we utter a single word of protest against
we are called terrorists. We are a nation whose sacred symbols
have been looted, and whose wealth and resources have been plundered.
It is normal
for us to react against forces that invade our land and occupy it.

Americans have been seen as defenders of the cause of Israel against
Arab nations, and according to Osama bin Laden, what America really wants
is the reconquering of the entire Arabian Peninsula. In other words Israel,
for America in Bin Laden’s view, is the first stop and radical
Islamists believe that what is really going to happen is a full scale
war against Islam and its values, so that there is great hatred of the
USA and even greater hatred of the Jews. Radical Islamists see it all
as a continuation of what happened when Jewish tribes attacked Muslims
in the Arabian Peninsula during the time of Mohammed and trace it back
to the ancient hatred of Jews against Islam. Osama bin Laden again “the
enmity between us and the Jews goes far back in time and is deep rooted”.
The religious right in America of course aligns itself with Israel’s
policy because it believes in the God given Promised Land paradigm.

Just as Zionist settlers have found in the story of ancient Israel’s
conquest of Israel their corroborative sacred narrative, so too radical
Islamists have found passages in the Qu’ran for their hostilities
against Jews, of alleged insults and counter insults going back to the
time of Mohammed, when Jews conspired against Mohammed and breached treaties.
There are lots of passages in the Qu’ran which warn faithful Muslims
against untrustworthy Jews. For Islam, Jews could be tolerated up until
1948, but with the establishment of the state of Israel on land possessed
by Muslims for the most part since the 7th Century, they were forced
to reassess their position against the Jews, and so stories of the prophet
Mohammed’s dealings with untrustworthy Jews were resurrected.

In the examples I have given, violence has sought support in religion,
and founding myths have intensified the resolve of those committing violence.
As one person puts it: “messianic Zionists discovered in their
scriptures a justification for their claim on the Promised Land cleansed
of all non-Jewish elements. Radical Islamists discovered in their scriptures
a justification for their suspicion that the Jews were behind the attacks
on them. They are violent narratives, sanctioning deportation and genocide
and have now found an audience prepared to use them as weapons”.
So although religion may not be the driving force behind the violence
of these particular movements, it is fair to say that genuine and dangerous
elements in Judaism and Islam have been appropriated to justify the wars
these groups are waging.

The recent war with Iraq has further aroused Islamic hostility against
the West; the failure to control the present aggressive policies of Israel
towards the Palestinians will have increased the suspicion that the United
States, in particular, is uncritically supportive of Israel.

You will recall that I mentioned earlier the argument of Samuel Huntington
regarding the clash of civilisations. He gives particular attention to
the clash between Muslims and non-Muslims. He examines what he calls ‘fault-line’ conflicts
which he defines as conflicts between states or groups from different
civilisations. These can escalate into wars. Of the 28 ‘fault-line’ conflicts
of the 1990’s between Muslims and non-Muslims, 19 were between
Muslims and Christians, eleven were with Orthodox Christians and seven
with adherents of Western Christianity. Only one of these conflicts occurred
directly on a major frontier between Islam and the West, namely that
between Croats and Bosnians. On the whole, there are few places where
the Western and Islamic communities directly border on each other, so
that conflicts between the West and Islam focus less on territory than
on broader issues such as weapons proliferation, human rights and democracy,
control of aid, migration, Islamist terrorism and Western intervention.
But underlying all, there is the historical rivalry between Christendom
and Islam, and the antipathy of Islam towards the secular values of Western

In examining the ‘fault-lines’ conflicts, he highlights
4 factors:

  1. the growth in Muslim population has generated large numbers
    of unemployed and disaffected young people, who become recruits to
    Islamic causes;
  2. Islamic resurgence has given Muslims renewed confidence
    in its civilisation;
  3. the West’s simultaneous efforts to universalise
    its values, to maintain its military and economic superiority, and
    to intervene
    in conflicts in the Muslim world, generates intense resentment among
  4. the collapse of Communism removed a common enemy of the
    West and Islam, and left each the perceived threat to the other.

Huntington argues that the many conflicts between what can be labelled
Christian and Muslim communities constitutes something very much like
a war. He looks at recent and contemporary clashes in Bosnia, Croatia,
Kosovo, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, the Philippines and East Timor.

Critics argue that he is mistaken, and that Islam does not pose the
threat he fears, and that he fails to take into account the wide range
of opinions, interpretations and traditions within Islam [especially
with regard to the links between religion and the state].

Those of us who are Christians have to face the terrible truth that
we, along with others, are partly responsible for situations of tension
and violence, economic injustice and social exclusion, because we have
allowed certain paradigms in our faith history to be used in these ways.
I have already referred to the Crusades of the 11th to the 13th Centuries.
They are still seen by different faiths, including the Orthodox Christians
of the east, as a cause of enormous damage to the relationship between
the East and West. The Crusader knights now lying in our cathedrals in
their marble horizontal effigies saw their cause as holy – it was
for them a pilgrimage. For the recipients of that invasion it was military
conquest, pillage and rape. Go into any cathedral and see the battle
trophies and memorials to generals, and one begins to have questions
about the nature of this kind of Christianity. The legacy of such actions
are all about us. Some people still see the West as acting consistently
with the Crusades. For some Buddhists in Japan, the nature of Christianity
is typified by Hiroshima and the cluster bombing of Dresden. It was America,
a Christian democratic country, that dropped the first atomic bomb. The
Christian faith has at times increased the potential for human conflict
rather than reduced it.

People were killing in God’s name before the coming of modernity,
secularism and globalisation. Religiously motivated terrorism is not
a new phenomenon. But, as has been argued, there has been a resurgence
of religious faith in the latter part of the 20th Century. In a world
that has excluded God, and so with an absence of values, people have
sought to make religion the foundation of a new social order. A new breed
of terrorists has therefore emerged – educated, affluent, sophisticated,
who are concerned about the erosion of religion’s role in society
and who want to reshape it according to their own creedal and ethical
beliefs. As McTernan puts it:

Religion is rarely the sole cause
of conflict but it is too central to the meaning of too many conflicts
to be ignored, or to be regarded as irrelevant in the analysis and
search for solutions.

One also has to remember that other than those
who follow a distinctive Protestant individualistic concept of religion,
most religious people do not understand faith to be a private affair.
Political power is indispensable to the establishment of Islamic society,
and therefore political action in Islam has a religious goal. Whilst
groups who legitimise violence on the grounds of religious duty may
be small, the development of weaponry and technology means that a small
group can have a devastating effect on a regional and global level.

I have painted a fairly bleak picture of things. Is there anything to
be said on the other side? I believe there is.

  1. I have said that it is possible to see God as a God of violence
    in the scriptures of the three monotheistic religions. It is no good
    all this. We have to say, those of us who are Christians, that the
    image of a God of violence and power that we have, is a distortion
    of God as
    he really is. We have to accept human authorship of the Bible, and
    the inevitable distortions of God that accompany all human efforts
    to interpret
    religious experience. We have, therefore, to challenge the violence
    of God traditions in the Bible.
  2. Indeed, these are challenged by
    other strands within the Bible itself, for there is in the Scriptures
    another stream, that depicts
    war and
    violence as being against the purposes and the will of God. There
    are plenty of
    passages in the Bible where God is revealed and presented as loving,
    forgiving and compassionate who demands righteousness and justice.
    The Ten Commandments prohibit killing, and the prophets railed against
    and economic violence and advocated justice especially for the poor
    and the oppressed. All the prophets looked forward to the end of
    time, when
    there would be an end of violence, and reconciliation between nations
    and between God and human beings. As Isaiah puts it:

    The wolf
    shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
    the cow and the bear shall graze their young and lie down together,
    and the
    lion shall eat straw like the ox. They will not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountains.

    Faith in God is faith in a God
    who is non violent and peaceful and full of goodwill. Jesus is
    as the teacher of peace ‘par
    excellence’. He refused to engage in violence against the
    Roman occupying power. The sayings of Jesus:

    You have heard
    that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a
    tooth, but I say
    to you
    love your enemies, and if anyone strikes you on the right
    cheek turn the other also. Love your enemies and pray for those
    persecute you.

    When Peter draws a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,
    Jesus tells him to put his sword away, for all who use the sword
    will perish by the sword. An equally powerful case, therefore,
    can be made
    for a Jesus who was against violence. At the centre of Jesus’ vision
    and hope is the Kingdom of God on earth, since Christianity isn’t
    focussed on another world, but the transformation of this one,
    and at the heart of this earthly religion is the calling and nature
    given to us in the self giving of its central figure Jesus. This
    speaks of a human life and society being transformed by self-giving.
    It says
    that the source and purpose of tolerance and respect are the virtues
    and values, visions and hopes of love – the love of the
    other, the enemy and the stranger. It argues that the only way
    to solve
    my own personal needs is for us to address the needs of the other.
    love of neighbour and condemned pride, selfishness and the unforgiving
    spirit. He was concerned for the marginalized and those who are
    despised by his own society.

So, too, the Qu’ran has passages arguing for non violence, the
importance of respecting others, giving alms, respecting other faiths,
and virtually all mainstream Muslims have condemned the attack of September
11th as violating one of the cardinal principles of Islam, that is avoiding
injury or harm to non combatants, especially women and children.

Thus the various religious faiths at their best advocate peace, justice
and compassion. Those of us who belong to these traditions need to emphasise
the importance, indeed the pre-eminence, of these elements in them.

It also has to be remembered, of course, that people like Adolph Hitler,
Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot have been responsible for a 100 million
deaths in the last century, and this had nothing to do with religion,
for they were non religious leaders. In other words, there was mass slaughter
of civilians in concentration camps and elsewhere carried out by secular
regimes presided over by such dictators. These atrocities could not be
attributed to religion.

In 1993, 8,000 delegates from the various faiths met in Chicago to advocate
the adoption of a religious global ethic. This global ethic was based
on the premise that there could be no peace among nations without peace,
dialogue and mutual understanding among adherents of the different religions
of the world. Towards that end, the declaration formulated ethical commitments
that could be supported by members of any faith:

  1. commitment to a culture
    of non violence and respect for life;
  2. commitment to a culture of
    solidarity and a just economic order;
  3. commitment to a culture of
    tolerance and a life of truthfulness;
  4. commitment to a culture of
    equal rights and partnership between men and women.

These commitments were, therefore, directed towards achieving
a better world order, and the religions were encouraged to
look towards
world and humanity rather than just be concerned with themselves.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, says that faith communities
help to shape societies and cultures through the core values they proclaim.
An ethical framework that includes tolerance and forbearance, repentance
and forgiveness is shared and sustained by many faith communities. So,
too, Oliver McTernan writes that tolerance, as a virtue, ought not to
be undervalued. He writes:

To uphold and to defend actively the
right of others to make truth claims, different from our own, and to
act upon them, provided that these are not detrimental to the right
and well being of others, would be an important first step that take
beyond ‘the sectarian milieu’ in which their own convictions
have been formed.

Religious communities can start there.

Coupled with that, he argues that the affirmation of human life as a
sacred experience or gift, should take priority over what name we give
to God, or how we define our understanding of the divine. As he puts
it: “when others are prevented from bearing witness as they see
it, there is a real danger of closing one’s ears to an authentic
source of revelation or truth”. In other words, a change of mindset
is required. We need to recognise that other faiths may have something
to teach us, and we need to examine some of our own fundamental beliefs.
Pluralism exists and is only a threat to those whose faith has not developed
beyond the ethnic or cultural levels.

We are reminded by Archbishop Carey that:

Religion and faith
communities do not just exert influence through the resonance of an ethical
framework, they also seek to serve as examples and agents of those values – the
immense humanitarian work of organisations of Christian Aid, Muslim Aid
and similar bodies in Hindu and Sikh communities around the world.

In other words, religious organisations help in compassionate work and
try to secure peace and prevent relapse into violence. Faith communities
can act as ambassadors of positive values and good practice and as
mediators and conciliators as did Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King
and Desmond

At their best, the world’s religions have a great deal to offer
that world. In the words of a recent writer: “religions have the
capacity of inspiring heroic self sacrifice, and community wide commitment
to the long term work of stabilising war torn societies, and reconciling
potential or actual enemies”. All of us who are religious believers
have to work to ensure that it is the positive aspect of religion that
prevails rather than the destructive.