The first part of this article (without the questions and answers) was published in The Word, September 2001, pp.12-13 under the title “Peace by Peace”.
War and Peace in a troubled world
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, representatives of the nations of the world gathered in San Francisco to draw up a Charter for the newly-founded United Nations Organization. They began the Charter with the words, ‘In order to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…’ and went on to set out their hopes for peace. Looking back on that occasion, the delegates seem sadly naïve. According to the UN itself, the number of wars fought between 1945 and 2000 was 240.
When we think of the trouble-spots of the world – the Middle East, Chechnya, Indonesia, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, Sudan, Nigeria, the Balkans and others – we see religious differences adding fuel to political, ethnic, social or cultural fires. Pope John Paul II, speaking in Assisi, Italy, on 24 January 2002, said, ‘These tragic conflicts … often result from an unjustified association of religion with nationalistic, political and economic interests or concerns of other kinds’. This is like what Terence O’Neill, the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, said thirty years ago. What had happened in Northern Ireland, he said, was that instead of using religion to elevate politics, people had used politics to degrade religion. It is not uncommon for politicians to hijack religion to serve political purposes: two hundred years ago, Napoleon said, ‘I regard religion, not as the mystery of the Incarnation, but as the secret of the social order’.
Religions and peace
Religions and religious leaders have always spoken of peace but, in practice, religions have fomented horrendous and bloody wars. They have been used – misused – to provide the moral ammunition for Crusades and Jihads, for Cromwellian ethnic cleansing and for the darkest deeds of apartheid. Professor Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard University, in a much-quoted statement about a conflict of civilizations, said ‘Religious fault-lines have come to replace those of ideology and nationality’.
But the greatest mass killers in human history, between them responsible for about 100 million deaths in the twentieth century – Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot – were militant atheists.
The three monotheistic religions
Jews, Christians and Muslims share a belief in one personal creator God who revealed himself to humanity through prophets, and whose message is received and interpreted by a community of faith. They share a belief in submission to God, in many moral values, and in judgment followed by reward or punishment. They believe also in the possibility of conversion through repentance, and in a loving and forgiving God. They practise prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
Despite this, relations between believers in the three faiths are often characterized by ignorance and arrogance, fear, mistrust and suspicion. Even though we live in one world, and the name of the survival game is interdependence, humanity is often still imprisoned in narrow loyalties.
Does religion necessarily divide people?
Does religion foster division between people? A recent survey in Spain showed that practising Catholics felt they had moral values in common with Muslims, while non-practising Catholics showed hostility to them. It seems to make the point that those have most to contribute in this area are those who understand and live their own tradition, and, at the same time, respect others’, despite the differences between them. The challenge is to live intelligently and creatively with difference, and not try to impose a unity which is not there. Pope John Paul II said at the gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi in 1986, ‘The challenge of peace transcends religion.’ That is a statement worth reflecting on.
Knowledge or ignorance?
Which is better – knowledge or ignorance? The answer is surely obvious. Take some examples. What does the word jihad mean? A holy war undertaken by Muslims against unbelievers? That is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. But for Muslims, it primarily means the spiritual struggle against evil in oneself.
Or another example – the phrase ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Does that give permission to take revenge, or even command it? In its original context it was about setting a limit to vengeance, a limit determined by law.
What about Ireland? We have some 18,000 Muslims and 2,000 Jews. About 75% of the Muslims are students and 10% asylum-seekers. We are happy to be treated in hospital by an African or an Arab doctor, or to have the Pakistani owner of a convenience store sell to us late at night, but are we happy to have them as neighbours?
Adolf Hitler’s intention of killing the Jews of Europe was announced in January 1939 and reported then in The Irish Times. To how many Jews did Ireland give refuge from then until 1945 after representations by Jewish leaders to the government? Seven. Given the far from generous welcome of many Irish people to those in our towns of a different colour, culture or religion, will this attitude soon assume a quasi-religious mantle, where, especially at election time, Irish culture is portrayed as a Christian civilization under siege from other faiths? The choice is not between an Irish Ireland and a multi-racial Ireland, but between a racist Ireland and a pluralist one.
The wider picture
The great twentieth-century international political institutions, such as the UN, have failed to stem the tide of war. Can religions succeed where politics failed? Can they build on the common ground, especially their common respect for the person, and make that a bulwark against poverty, injustice and war?
In the New Testament the key conditions for entering the Kingdom of God are submission to God and love of the poor (see Matthew 25. 31–46). Jews, with their ethical tradition of care for the widow and orphan, and Muslims, with their tax for the care of the poor, would not argue against that. And Jesus said, ‘He who is not against you is for you’. (Luke 9.50)
There are 2 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims in the world – more than half its population. Working together on the basis of what is already agreed, without overlooking the areas of difference, might we not be able to make the world a better and a safer place, a more truly human home for all our children, a world where shalom, salaam and síocháin – peace – has a breathing space?
Test your knowledge
Would you like to test your knowledge of the world’s three great monotheistic religions? Willing? Ready? Have a go! Who said the following?
- ‘We [Christians and Muslims] believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world’.
- ‘What race deserves honour? The human race. What race deserves honour? Those who fear the Lord’.
- ‘A man came to him and said, “Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?” The messenger of God replied, “Your mother.” The man said, “Then who?” The messenger replied again, “Then your mother.” The man further asked, “Then who?” The messenger replied, “Then your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The messenger replied again: “Then your father.”’
- “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
- ‘Why did God create a single human being, Adam, from whom all mankind is descended? So that no-one could stand up and claim, “My ancestor is superior to yours”’.
- ‘A man walking along a path felt very thirsty. Reaching a well, he descended into it, drank his fill, and came up. Then he saw a dog with its tongue hanging out, trying to lick up mud to quench its thirst. The man said, “This dog is feeling the same thirst that I felt.” So he went down into the well again, filled his shoe with water, and gave the dog a drink. So, God thanked him and forgave his sins. The question was asked, “Messenger of God, are we rewarded for kindness towards animals?” He said, “There is a reward for kindness to every animal or human.”’
- ‘God gives to all mortals life and breath. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they should live, so that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being.”’
- ‘If you are righteous and do what is lawful and right, if you do not oppress anyone, but restore to debtors their pledge, if you commit no robbery, give bread to the hungry, and cover the naked with a garment, if you take no advance or accrued interest, if you withhold your hand from injustice, executing true justice between contending parties, follow my statutes, and are careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully – then you are righteous; you shall surely live, says the Lord God.’
- ‘The least of your duties to God is that you do not use God’s blessings to help you to do wrong.’
- Finally, a different type of question: Most Muslims are Arabs – true or false?
Answers to the Questions
- From a letter of Pope Gregory VII to Nacir, King of Mauritania, in 1076 AD.
- From Jewish tradition, in the Old Testament book of Sirach 10.19, Jerusalem Bible.
- A saying attributed to Muhammad, in a collection called Saheeh Muslim, no.2548.
- Saint Peter in Acts 10.34–35, in the New Testament.
- From Jewish rabbinic tradition.
- A saying attributed to Muhammad, in the Saheeh Muslim collection, no.2244.
- Saint Paul in Acts 17.25-28, in the New Testament.
- From the Old Testament book of Ezekiel 18.5-9.
- Hadrat Ali, a Sufi (Muslim) mystic.
- False. Only about 20% of Muslims are Arab. The four largest Muslim countries in terms of population are Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh; all are non-Arab.