Pope Francis recently denounced the use of religion to justify war, in comments addressed to faith leaders and victims of the conflicts in the Middle East, who are assembled for this year’s World Day of Prayer in Assisi in Italy. During this assembly, participants prayed for peace in the world and an end to the use of religious justifications for persecuting people who belong to religious minorities around the world. Similarly, President Obama in his final address to the current General Assembly of the UN spoke about the need to stop persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, especially by repressive governments in the region as well as by groups such as ISIS and others. Both of these calls to action speak to the need to reject intolerant interpretations of religious texts that call for violence against others and instead emphasize ever more strongly the calls for acceptance of the Other found in the religious texts.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism possess strains that utilize religious rhetoric to advocate violence against others. We know all too well the history of Christian and Islamic violence against those who are deemed deserving. In the case of the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (aka Burma), the monk Ashin Wirathu leads the incitement of violence against the Rohingya by the majority Buddhist population. Hinduism has been used by the inter-communal violence in India, Kashmir and Pakistan. Judaism is used to justify violence, in the case of the murders and violence perpetrated by members of the settler community in Israel who adhere to ideas that all Palestinians must be cleansed from the land, as well as the group Lehava that contends against intermarriage and dating between Jewish women and Palestinian men. The examples of Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism show that even as these traditions like to emphasis that they are committed to peace, such legitimizing of violence does of course exist in them as well.
The calls to end this use of religion for violent ends by two of the most important people in the world today–especially on the same day–shows me that there are committed people of faith in positions of great power who want to use this power to make the world a more peaceful and equitable place. Of course, these pronouncements can be seen as mere words with no real application to them, but I see such strident remarks as incredibly important, as they continue to show that religion is not only about fomenting violence and hatred. The issue is whether or not people will heed the call to forgo such violence in the name of religion and rather emphasize the many peaceful teachings and aspects of the religious traditions around the world. Sadly, history shows that even though these calls have made throughout the many centuries since the foundings of all of these traditions, these ideals are supplanted by other interpretations that justify violence against those who do not believe as the group believes. To me, this shows that human nature has not changed, and no matter the clerical and political statements, hatred and suspicion of those not like “us” continue to rule the hour.
As President Obama stated in his speech,
“The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed…But I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts, and our international community must continue to work with those who seek to build rather than to destroy….We all have to do better as leaders in tamping down, rather than encouraging, a notion of identity that leads us to diminish others.”
His comments show that the political leaders are too often directly implicated in this cycle of violence, as they seek to use those groups who encourage identity-based violence for their own purposes. One’s identity as a member of a certain religious tradition or denomination in that tradition is incredibly important, but that must not be used to dehumanize those who do not practice the same way, or do not practice at all. As humans sharing the world together, we are all affected when such violence is carried out under the influence of any religious tradition.
I like to think of a comment that my fellow contributor Abigail made when we both attended the State of Formation workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC: religion should be a force for hope, not fear. Using it to instill fear in people for any reason is a misuse of the sacred quality that religion is supposed to bring into one’s life. This comment has been in the back of my mind since that day, when I think about how all the various religious traditions have multiple interpretations that can lead one either to peace or destruction. This trajectory depends on which each person chooses to ally themselves with. I can only hope that all of these pronouncements by all of these figures I mentioned instill in those who heard and will hear and read them in the future the desire to create peace rather than violence.
Image Source: Deror Avi via Wikimedia Commons