SCMP Saturday, December 23, 2000

Religions can promote peace


When most people think about the role of religion in international and sub-national conflict, they almost always see a force for division, intolerance and brutality. This should come as little surprise, given the sorry state of affairs in the world today: Buddhists are fighting Hindus in Sri Lanka, Hindus are fighting Muslims in Kashmir, Muslims are fighting Christians and Animists in Sudan.
Elsewhere, a fragile peace hangs in the balance. Tension remains high in Bosnia among Serb Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims; in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants; and hostilities have broken out once again in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews.
What most people might not be aware of, however, is the positive role religion can and often does play in helping resolve and prevent conflict.
In a variety of religious initiatives - including Quaker mediation in the Nigerian civil war; independent efforts by Quakers, Catholics and the Moral Re-Armament Movement to help facilitate a peaceful transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe; the admittedly belated repudiation of Apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa; and the decision by the Philippine Catholic Church during the 1986 revolution to throw its moral weight behind Ferdinand Marcos' opponents, helping the country avoid an all-out civil war - religion has proven time and again to be an asset to conflict resolution.
It seems only appropriate, therefore, that as we prepare to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth, we should also take a moment to reflect upon one of his key admonitions - blessed are the peacemakers - and consider how people of faith might draw upon that divine spark within all of us to help humankind overcome the "us-versus-them" paradigm that has haunted us from the beginning and is the ultimate source of all conflict.
Peacemaking is unique among human activities. It challenges us to confront our most violent tendencies at the moment of their greatest intensity and replace them with our most gentle ones, or in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "the angels of our better nature". Making peace requires not only a change of deeds but also a change of heart.
Peacemakers must do more than just identify where the cycle of violence can be broken; they must help the combatants break out of that cycle and create an entirely new cognitive reality - one with a shared context for peaceful interaction.
This requires transforming the notion of "you or me", which underlies violence, into a new realisation that "you are me". This becomes the first step towards mutual forgiveness. Without such forgiveness, reconciliation is inconceivable.
Although this approach might seem simplistic, or even naive, it has already been employed with considerable success in, of all places, war-torn Bosnia. These ongoing grassroots efforts are led by religious clerics and laity in conjunction with trained international mediators, and began even as the war was still raging.
They bring together small groups of ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims for what might be best described as a spiritually centred form of family therapy.
Encounters that typically begin with traded accusations, such as "you murdered my father" and "you burned my village", almost always end up at a moment of shared epiphany - people tearfully realising that, rather than looking into the eyes of some sort of monster, they're actually looking into the eyes of someone much like themselves.
This approach to conflict resolution will prove increasingly vital to international diplomacy in the 21st century, since most conflicts in the post-Cold War era will derive from clashes of communal identity.
As Douglas Johnston points out in his pathbreaking book Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, "these are the most intractable sources of conflict, and they are the sources with which conventional diplomacy is least suited to deal". Fortunately, they are also the sources for which religious and spiritual diplomacy are best suited.
Dr Johnston, who last year launched the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy to promote religious and spiritually-based peacemaking, has just returned from his fourth mission to Sudan, where he is helping the warring parties address the religious aspects of their conflict in order to remove them as obstacles for peace.
Efforts such as this, though often just the first step on a long road to peace, should fill us with hope and a renewed sense of personal dedication.
As the global era continues to unfold and we set out to build an international system based not on our differences but on our commonalities, let us remember the only way to get past the "us-versus-them" trap is to keep enlarging our concept of "us" until there is no "them" left. Only then will it be truly possible for the meek to inherit the earth.
Brett Wagner is president of the California Centre for Strategic Studies and serves as an adjunct fellow at the International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington.