Peace By Peace?

(New Beginnings, No. 31)


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 it 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: the five permanent members of the Security Council are the world’s five biggest arms producers. And according to the UN itself, the number of wars fought between 1945 and the year 2000 was 240.

When we think of the trouble-spots of the world – the Middle East, Chechnya, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, Sudan, Nigeria, the Balkans and others – we see religious differences adding fuel to political, ethnic, social or cultural fires. The late 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 the late Terence O’Neill, 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 their politics, people had used politics to degrade their religion. It is not uncommon for politicians to hijack religion to serve political purposes: two hundred years ago, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte 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 sometimes fomented 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. In his Christmas sermon of 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, ‘Religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as… intolerant of difference… a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare.’ 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 50 million deaths in the twentieth century – Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot – were militant atheists. And Hitler, responsible for about another 50 million deaths, was no friend of religion either.

The three monotheistic religions

Jews, Christians, and Muslims share a belief in one personal creator God who self-revealed 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 often lets itself be imprisoned by narrow loyalties.

Does religion necessarily divide people?

Does religion foster division between people? A 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 they have most to contribute in this area 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 demands of peace transcend those of religion.’

Knowledge or ignorance?

Which is better – knowledge or ignorance? The answer is obvious. Take some examples. What does the word jihad mean? ‘A holy war undertaken by Muslims against unbelievers’ – is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. But for Muslims, it primarily means the spiritual struggle against evil in oneself.

Or another – the phrase ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. (Exodus 21.24) Does that permit revenge, or even command it? In its original context, that of a tribal society, it was about limiting vengeance, with the limit determined by law.


What about Ireland? We have about 18,000 Muslims and 2,000 Jews. Some 75% of the Muslims are students, and 10% asylum-seekers. We are happy to be treated in hospital by an Arab doctor, or to have the Pakistani owner of a convenience store sell to us late at night, but do we accept 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 1939 to 1945, after representations to the government by Jewish leaders? Seven. Given the ambiguous welcome by some Irish people to those of a different colour, culture, or religion, will this attitude 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 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 their 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 care for the poor (see Matthew 25. 31-46). Jews, with their tradition of care for the widow and orphan, and Muslims, with their tax for the poor (zakat), 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 – together more than half its population. Working on the basis of what is already agreed, without overlooking the areas of difference, might we not together be able to make the world a better and a safer place, a more human home for all our children, a world where shalom, salaam and síocháin – peace – has a breathing space?