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M. Balcomb: Religion as an Obstacle to Peace?

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

My first visits to Israel were almost ten years ago. On two separate occasions in the fall of 2003, I spent about two months in Jerusalem working to help organize two large interfaith rallies that took place just across town in Independence Park, as well as a number of faith-based service projects around town and as far away as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

2003 was a tense time during the Second Intifada. On August 19 a suicide bomber killed 20 people on a Jerusalem bus, and in October a young woman walked into a Haifa restaurant and blew herself to pieces, killing 19 people including three children.

Despite this background of violence and terror, several thousand people came to Jerusalem to participate in the “Heart to Heart” interfaith conference and rally in December 2003. We met in conferences and symposia; held a peace march through the Old City, performed service in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and held a large rally, all without incident and, in my case at least, without the slightest sense of personal danger.

I came back to Israel in the summer of 2005 to facilitate an interfaith youth project that brought a teen dance group from Washington, DC to perform together with disadvantaged youth from the City of Jerusalem in an exchange program that later brought both groups back to the United States where they performed at the United Nations and in the US Congress. Later that same year, I helped facilitate a group of Israeli student leaders who flew to the United States to offer relief work and service in the American South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I mention these incidents not in an attempt to bolster my limited credibility to comment on the topic of religion and peace in the Middle East – or indeed anywhere else – but rather as a starting point to reflect on the progress, or rather lack of it, in the years that have passed. After all, after each of these admittedly small efforts, I allowed myself the happy thought that I had made some small but meaningful contribution to the peace process. I believe I was not alone in hoping that by the end of the decade there would be real and positive developments.

Today, it is frankly difficult to feel the same optimism. One by one, initiatives that seemed promising back then, such as the Oslo Accords, the “Roadmap” of the Quartet which endorsed a two-state solution, and even the Universal Peace Federation’s own “Middle East Peace Initiative” have all faltered. Outside of Israel and Palestine, the situation is no better, with violent clashes taking place between Islamic sects in Syria and Iraq, grave concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, and concerns about the future of the peace accords with Egypt, now under an Islamic government. We have Jewish lawmakers tearing up the New Testament, American pastors burning the Qur’an, suicide bombers in Bulgaria, and more.

Further afield, Muslim/Christian conflicts have left thousands dead in Africa, particularly in my country of birth, Nigeria. The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils came only after a hundred thousand deaths.

No wonder, then, that a significant number of people claim that religion itself is an obstacle to peace, and particular the religions of the Middle East. Richard Dawkins, the noted author and atheist, has said:

The human psyche has two great sicknesses: the urge to carry vendetta across generations, and the tendency to fasten group labels on people rather than see them as individuals. Abrahamic religion mixes explosively with (and gives strong sanction to) both. Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today. Without a doubt it is the prime aggravator of the Middle East.[1]

However, others, such as the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, have taken the opposite view that religion, and particularly religious leaders, have a crucial, a vital role to play if peace is to be reached:

There is nothing shameful about working to realize the highest values of religion – which God intended to serve as a blessing, and not a curse, to all of humanity. Although the obstacles to peace in the Holy Land may appear insurmountable, it is the responsibility of religious leaders on all sides to attempt the impossible and to accept the threats, slander and stigma that may follow.[2]

Is religion part of the problem, or part of the solution? The answer to that question will increasingly affect the future we create, for we are increasingly being brought into direct encounter with people of faiths, viewpoints, traditions, rituals, and cultures very different that our own.. The recently and successfully concluded Olympic Games in London have reminded us that we have become a “global village” as Marshall McLuhan predicted as long ago as 1964. But can that village remain peaceful if its residents continue to hold widely differing and perhaps incompatible views?

Three Responses to Diversity

I think it is important to acknowledge that there are significant and important differences between the world’s major faiths that do not lend themselves to easy resolution. For example, some faiths believe in God, and others do not. In general, Far Eastern traditions focus on self-improvement and the process of reaching human perfection through overcoming ignorance. Many also include a belief in some form of reincarnation. Although Hinduism acknowledges a supreme God (Brahman), Buddhism and Jainism do not.

In contrast, the Middle Eastern traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism) are all seriously monotheistic. All reject reincarnation and state that human beings have but one life to get right with God. The emphasis is on overcoming sin and separation from God, not overcoming human ignorance. Yet even though these faiths have many elements of belief in common, they find it even more difficult to unite than the Asian traditions, because each of them conceives that their own revelation is either exclusively right or, at the very least, more advanced than the others.

What about common ethics, rather than belief, as a ground for unity? All faiths share strong similarities in the positive behaviors they promote and the negative behaviors they prohibit, discourage, or condemn. In particular, the positive ethics of love, mercy, kindness, and benevolence–the Golden Rule–are strongly mirrored in the teachings and belief of all faiths, although not always demonstrated in practice.

However, even here, there are significant obstacles. All faiths have an unfortunate habit of over emphasizing existing or historical practices and giving them special or even divine status. In colloquial terms, “We’ve always done it this way” becomes “This is the divine will” and perhaps later “This is part of the structure of the universe.” Ethical practices that start off as benevolent, such as rules governing man/woman relationships and sexual morality, are later undermined by the overlay of such habits of history as male domination, paternalism, and the subservience of women and children.

If religious unity is an impractical ideal, how should we best respond to our differences? In a major US study on religious habits and beliefs Robert Wuthnow studied hundreds of members of many religions, with a particular focus on those relatively new to the United States. He found that although almost all shared the same concerns as mainstream American Christians: worries about the secularization of society, the decline in morals, and the problems of raising the second generation, just like the majority Christians, members of these newly arrived religious communities said they were not really interested in learning about faiths other than their own.[3]

Wuthnow indentified three distinct types of responses to the fact of diversity. The first is an embrace of pluralism, with an implicit recognition that diversity in itself is a good thing and to be encouraged. Champions of pluralism such as Diana Eck of the Harvard Pluralism Project see diversity as a worthy and sufficient goal in itself, emphasize the value of learning from different religions and faiths, and say there is no need to change anything about the status quo.

However, Wuthnow found that people who take their religion seriously are not at heart laissez-faire pluralists, but rather tend to orient themselves as either “inclusivist” or “exclusivist.” Inclusive believers are tolerant of other faiths, but are usually very confident that their religion is special, and quite possibly even the only true religion. Nevertheless they are willing to accept that there could be truth in other faiths, and under certain circumstances even be willing to learn from them. Yet generally such believers are happy in their own faith and tradition and see little need to engage with others.

Exclusivists form the third and the largest group. Examples of exclusivist believers certainly include born-again Christians who strongly believe that all other religions are false and only Jesus is the way; but there are similar hard liners in all faiths, including ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Islamic fundamentalism. Exclusive believers typically have no interest at all in engaging with other faiths, other than for aggressive evangelism.

Rising Fundamentalism

Exclusive religious viewpoints can be very dangerous because they create a fertile ground for another significant challenge to religious harmony: the recent rise of fundamentalism, one of the most significant developments in modern religion and a transforming force in all of the major traditions of the world. Dealing with fundamentalists is not just one among many challenges facing those who would bring about interreligious peace; it may be the issue after 9/11. [4]

In a Newsweek cover story, Fareed Zakaria has argued that radical Islam is a fact of life that the world has to learn to live with, and says that America’s attempts to curtail it by military force and economic sanctions are doomed to fail. Zakaria points to a parallel rise of fundamentalism in many different faiths and suggests that the only lasting solution “comes from providing a universal worldview that satisfies the aspirations of modern men and women.”[5]

The Hoover Institute scholar and author Dinesh D’Souza says that fundamentalism in many nations is being fueled by a “visceral reaction” against the threat of the worst of Western secular culture being imposed on them and their children through channels of mass communication. These Western “values” as portrayed by Hollywood or Madison Avenue are seen by conservative families in America and around the world as being just short of pornographic, says D’Souza. Yet these objectionable contents are being beamed by satellite and the Internet into their homes and families, and parents are powerless to stop it.

Faced with this deluge of unwanted stimuli, D’Souza says that Muslims and others are making the short but mistaken step to a conviction that America and the West are in fact perverted and immoral societies that deliberately exclude God from daily life and national governance and therefore should be opposed at all costs. This dire conclusion makes these societies especially susceptible to radical and fundamentalist impulses, D’Souza says.

Radical Muslims are going to the traditional Muslims and saying: “Look, this West that we are dealing with is really not a Christian society; it is not worthy of the traditional respect that the Qur’an extends toward Judaism and Christianity. This West is now a pagan society. It has gone through Christianity and come out on the other end. It is now a secular, atheist society. More than that, it is now the enemy of religion and moral values, and it is coming to your part of the world to threaten your values.”[6]

Still, D’Souza thinks a clash of civilizations is far from inevitable. He says the answer lies in recovering the founding principles of Western civilization, which were based in Christianity and are friendly to family values. For example, he thinks that the language and aspirations of the United States Constitution may yet prove to be the meeting ground between Islam and the West, just as in an earlier generation Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rallied the civil rights movement around a call that America fulfill the “promissory note” of its founding principles.

If a “clash of civilizations” can be averted, what does the future hold? For any of us hoping for a breakthrough in the Middle East, it may be instructive to think about what, in chess terms, the “end game” might actually look like. What will the world of 2020 or 2030 look like? American author Thomas McFaul invites us to consider three possible futures based on three differing religious perspectives: exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism. As a mental exercise he suggests looking back from the viewpoint of an observer in 2050 summarizing developments in the first 50 years of the 21st century.[7]

The most pessimistic observer recounts an increase in violence, prejudice, and persecution based on each religion’s persistence in a “We are right and everyone else is wrong” philosophy. In this account, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center turned out to be just the opening salvos of subsequent decades of religious strife. Ugly though this perspective may be, McFaul says our recent history shows it to be a highly possible outcome.

A second, less pessimistic observer speaks of a pluralist and highly divided world that emerged. It is maintaining a fragile peace based on legislated tolerance and a restricted role for religion in public life. However, everyone believes that the situation is unstable and will eventually break down.

McFaul’s third and most optimistic observer speaks of a “Look, we are one family” world that emerged in the second and third decades of the twenty-first century, an outcome that is clearly in line with Unificationist expectations. It took a real triumph of humility and reason, with leaders of the world’s faiths accepting that there are indeed many paths and that they each possess but part of the truth.

If this is the most desirable outcome, what can we do to also make it the most likely? I believe the real reasons that interfaith engagement has proved so difficult is that it requires internal change, not just in institutions but also in individuals. And most of us, whether we want to admit it or not, are very resistant to change. In that case is the UPF ideal of “One Family under God” just a quixotic dream, or are there realistic prospects for change and development?

In one of his Peace Messages from 2007, UPF Founder Dr. Sun Myung Moon makes a bold statement about the future prospects of peace in the Middle East:

In the Middle East, one of the world’s tinderboxes, Jews, Christians and Muslims have found the resources in my philosophy of peace to engage in a new dimension of dialogue.[8]

How are we doing in that quest for a “new dimension of interreligious dialogue,” a process that really can break down the barriers between faiths that are already in conflict in many parts of the world, and that can present solutions for apparently incompatible religious views as well as resolve real differences in social matters such as ethics and justice?

Five Preconditions for Transformation

Catholic theologian and writer Catherine Cornille of Boston College has identified five preconditions for any meaningful interfaith dialogue: humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and most importantly hospitability, “the openness to the possibility of truth in another tradition.” [9]

Humility is a virtue praised in all traditions. We recognize the common attributes of the saint in many faiths. Unfortunately, humility towards one’s own tradition and values can lead to an unexpected and unwelcome side effect, which is a lack of doctrinal humility about the possible limitation of one’s own belief, scriptures, and traditions. Logically, believers who recognize the limitations and finitude of all human knowledge ought not to find it so difficult to acknowledge that even their own traditions and beliefs should be subject to the same limitation. In reality, however, most if not all faiths claim for themselves a position of absolute superiority to all others, such that even the act of acknowledging the validity of other faiths is sometimes hard.

A second precondition for meaningful dialogue is commitment. A commitment to one’s own faith is in fact a necessary condition for genuine dialogue to occur. If one of the parties in dialogue is not committed to their own tradition, the other party may well feel that they are not in an interreligious dialogue at all, but merely in a personal conversation. At the same time, the type of commitment to one’s own faith that a priori rejects all other faiths as false, wrong, incomplete or obsolete is obviously not helpful.

Unfortunately, commitment to dialogue can be seen by one’s home community as a sign of a lack of commitment to the “true faith.” So it is that many who are engaged in interreligious dialogue find that cultivating the requisite attitude of openness to other faiths can place them on the fringes of their own tradition. As Cornille puts it:

The history of religions seems to indicate that – exceptions notwithstanding – strong religious commitment coincides with religious intolerance, while attitudes of openness toward the truth of other religions somehow go together with a looser relationship to the truth of one’s own tradition. Interreligious dialogue has often come to be conducted by individuals who find themselves on the margins of their own traditions, whether by necessity or by choice.[10]

A third pre-condition for successful dialogue is common ground or “interconnection,” the recognition that believers of all faiths face similar realities. Examples of interconnection could be common challenges such as the secularization of society, drug, or gang problems in an inner city, and the breakdown of the families and communities. Faced with problems that affect all faiths and seem to cry out for a spiritual as well as a practical solution: can’t religions more easily find ways to work together, especially in times of crisis?

A fourth condition of dialogue is empathy. It is not enough to simply know the facts about another faith or religious practice, or to observe their rites and rituals. It is necessary, as a Native American proverb puts it, to “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” Real dialogue means opening up your heart as well as your mind to sense what it really means to be a Palestinian in Gaza, a Christian in Egypt, a Sunni in Syria, and so on.

The fifth and perhaps most important precondition for successful dialogue is hospitability, defined as a basic openness and predisposition to the possibility of discovering truth in other religions. Simple though this seems, hospitability is a big step because it indirectly implies recognition that one’s own faith may not, after all, be the ultimate and absolute truth. Recognizing the possibility of truth in others requires going beyond the level of polite interest to a posture of inquiry and learning. All too often, the reverse happens: we close the doors of our hearts and minds to those outside of our own communities.

What is formed on the basis of hospitality operates in terms of hostility. Members of a religious community become conditioned to be hostile, overtly or covertly, to those outside its privileged circle. Given the current understanding and practice of religiosity, a religious community tends to be marked by hospitality to its members and hostility to non-members.[11]

Thampu claims that hospitability between religions is unlikely given that even within single religious traditions there is a trend to disagreement and schism. It is a fact of fallen human nature that the very love that is practiced between members of a particular faith may have an unfortunate side-effect. Religions start to focus more and more on their members and to harden into hostility or at best indifference towards those not in the group, who may start to be referred to as “outside” people.

This inward focus is the underlying reason why for most of the last 50 years, interfaith dialogue has been little more than a reluctant attempt by different religions to go beyond the “dismissiveness, antagonism, and intolerance” that in the past characterized almost every religion’s attitudes toward other religious communities, regarding them either as inferior or as a threat. If we can recognize and change this fundamental disposition progress may be possible.

The Status Quo Isn’t What It Used to Be

But how likely is that? Just as physical barriers like the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain were coming down at the end of the twentieth century, barriers between cultures and traditions are also being swept away by the Internet, television, advances in travel, and an increasingly global culture. Unfortunately, many faiths are even now trying to put up new barriers to protect themselves from what they see as a threat to their traditional values. Harry Buck laments:

Despite increasing interaction and confrontation among the world’s varied religions, walls and fences position these establishments among the most divisive forces in our society, fostering hatreds and condemnations along with their love and compassion. We insist in a dialogue situation that there be mutual respect for each other and for positions quite at variance with our own … but let it never be thought that such dialogue should weaken our own faith or confuse our identity.[12]

If we are to be successful in our modest efforts here, we must be able to introduce a commonly accepted language and framework of dialogue and encounter that leaves behind the “baggage” of historical conflict and disagreement and breaks down these walls of suspicion. In his address announcing the launch of the Universal Peace Federation at Lincoln Center in New York in September 2005, Rev. Sun Myung Moon spoke exactly of this need to break down the barriers between religions, saying plainly that all and any such divisions are not God’s will:

Will you join me as I rise and gain strength in accordance with heavenly fortune? Or will you remain captive behind the same old walls, all of them Satan’s handiwork: the wall of your religion, the wall of your culture, the wall of your nationality and the wall of your race, and spend the remainder of your time on earth in agony and regret? Heaven is summoning you to be the wise leaders who will set aright this world of evil and establish a new heaven and new earth, a new culture and an ideal kingdom.[13]

As he emphasized, this is a task that calls us to “come out from behind the walls of our own faiths” – which we may not even recognize as walls or obstacles – and walk together in vulnerability and trust. If we can do that, then perhaps the future can be bright.

As we are here in Jerusalem, perhaps it is fitting that the final metaphor or symbol for hospitality could be the reopening of “The Tent of Abraham.”[14] Just as according to Jewish legend Abraham and Sara pitched their tent on a crossroads and kept it open on all four sides as an indication of hospitality to all comers, may our efforts here construct a new tent of welcome!

Dr. Michael Balcomb is the Communications Director of the Universal Peace Federation, and teaches courses on Interfaith and Ecumenical Dialogue at the Unification Theological Seminary, Barrytown, NY.

[1] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

[2] Abdurrahman Wahid and Abdul A’la, “The Obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2008.

[3] Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenge of Religious Diversity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[4] Peter Huff, “The Challenge of Fundamentalism for Interreligious Dialogue,” Cross Currents, 2000, pp. 94-102.

[5]Fareed Zakaria, “Learning to Live with Radical Islam,” Newsweek, March 9, 2009, pp. 24-28.

[6] Dinesh D’Souza, “A Global Perspective on the Culture Wars,” in Vision and Leadership in a Time of Global Crisis, ed. Michael Balcomb and Joy Pople, New York: Universal Peace Federation, 2007, p. 53.

[7] Thomas McFaul, The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.

[8] Sun Myung Moon, “God’s Ideal Family and the Kingdom of the Peaceful Ideal World,” New York, UPF, 2007.

[9] Catherine Cornille: The m-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Crossroads Publishing Company, 2008.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Valson Thampu, “Building Communities of Peace for All,” The Ecumenical Review 57, No. 2, April 2005, pp. 147-58.

[12] Harry M. Buck, “Beyond Walls, Fences and Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 1997, pp. 521-30.

[13] Sun Myung Moon, God’s Ideal Family, p. 28.

[14] See Arthur Waskow and Joan Chittister, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2007.