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THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN CONFLICT SITUATIONS

 

There has long been a belief that religion is responsible for most of the conflict in today’s world.  Recent events and conflicts including the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, the emergence of Al Quaeda and the violence perpetrated by religious groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, India and parts of south-east Asia, all lend weight to this belief.  In recent months books by several authors, including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, have explored the role of religion and found religion or some form of religious belief to be the single greatest common denominator in most of the world’s conflicts. The secularist mindset that has shaped what now passes for western political thinking finds it difficult to understand that belief can form some people’s political judgements and actions.  That is why politicians prefer to attribute the atrocities to a political creed, a perverse ideology that has appropriated religious language and sentiments to further its goals. 

 

However, to see religion as no more that a passive agent waiting to be manipulated by political agitators is seriously to underestimate its destructive potential.  It is essential that we understand that terrorism fired by religious convictions, misguided as these may be, requires a more nuanced and multilevel response than the enactment of tougher surveillance laws.

 

Today, in different parts of the world, adherents of all the major world faiths can be found justifying atrocities on the grounds that their cause is righteous.  From Indonesia to the Balkans, the Middle East to Kashmir, India to Nigeria, to Sri Lanka, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs justify the use of violence on the grounds that they are protecting their religious identity and interests.  Until very recently some would have added Northern Ireland to this list.  However, Northern Ireland does not fit easily into this category.  The conflict there was never about religion.  It was about active discrimination against a minority population and the denial of basic civil rights in housing, employment and local government to that minority.

 

Like many young Catholics in the late 1960’s I took part in civil rights marches.  There were resonances of Martin Luther King’s freedom dream in our singing of the American civil rights song: ‘We shall overcome’.  It was our understanding that the kernel of the Northern Ireland problem, both political and moral, was the failure of governmental institutions to recognise the civil rights of Catholics leading to grave social problems.  The marches were exciting – the emotional exhilaration of a marching crowd, the solidarity of comradeship, the almost carnival atmosphere.  There was also the conviction of having right on one’s side.  In the 1960’s there was the justified expectation that reform in housing allocation, employment, promotion, electoral and voting fairness should be granted – and granted quickly.  Unfortunately, reforms came too slowly and were sometimes so weak as to be spurious.  The bubble burst.  Violence spiralled for a generation.  Insurgents, defenders and state forces resorted to physical violence and Martin Luther King’s clarion cry for dignity and discipline was forgotten.  In the end we all emerged as the guilty people of Ulster.  Now we must gather our forces and face the sectarian foe, this time bearing our peace banners and thirsting for reconciliation. 

 

It is a simplistic notion to think that the recent thirty years’ conflict in Northern Ireland was based on doctrinal differences – a ‘war’ between Catholics and Protestants.  Over the years we tried to explain to foreign journalists and media people as well as state representatives that this was not the case.  Nonetheless, what generally prevailed was the media sound-bite of a ‘religious war’.  Admittedly, the political divide since the partition of Ireland in 1920 fell more or less along denominational lines.  Religious cultural denomination then entered politics in the North as never before, so much so that people forgot that there had ever been another world – a world in which before partition there were Catholics who were unionists and Protestants who were nationalists.   

 

In some ways the conflict in Northern Ireland is a microcosm of the pain and fragility of the modern world.  But who would have thought that what began as a civil rights movement would descend into cascades of blood?

 

Now after thirty years, we can rejoice in relative peace.  Good structures have been set up in both in local government and in an overall assembly.  There are still many problems to be dealt with, especially the healing of hurts and memories and how best to absorb the wounds of the past.  This may well take a generation or two to achieve.  We are still in a very fragile situation and have at present what I would call a vulnerable peace. 

 

The legacy of the conflict is all about us; it is even in our churches.  It is with us and in us.  It is visible in the graffiti, in murals, in plaques in our churches and public buildings, and on graveyard headstones.  Before us now lies a shared future or a shared failure, a shared conflict or shared good relations. 

 

The instant, worldwide communication makes the world a small place.  Northern Ireland now has defined values and experiences.  It is near enough to both wealth and poverty to be able to empathise with most developing countries.  It should allow itself to be an example to other conflict situations throughout the world.  Many of the conflicts in our modern world are within states.  We could warn them against party domination and triumphalism and implore them to lean over backwards to protect the poor and give rights to any minority of race, religion and language.

 

Now that the conflict has ended, some people in Northern Ireland are asking what it was all about and why some 3,600 had to die and thousands more suffer injuries, many for life.  Alongside the euphoria of politicians from warring backgrounds now sharing power, there is a very real questioning among many people about why this couldn’t have happened earlier.  But hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is always a mistake to judge the past by the conditions and wisdom of the present.  Some people are wondering too if the churches could have played a more positive role in the conflict.

 

The period after a prolonged conflict might be a good time to ask a few important questions about the value of Christianity and what it has to offer in situations of conflict.  In particular, we need to ask whether Christians themselves are responsible for much of the violence and misery which has afflicted the world and whether they must change or be changed if they are not to continue damaging God’s creation. 

 

Christians as a body after two thousand years of experience must have something of value to offer the world.  They have dealt with all kinds of regimes, all kinds of virtues, all kinds of deviance.  They have learned how to make compromises and have evolved a set of principles which enabled people to keep the highest moral standards and yet make allowances for human weaknesses.

 

On the other hand, the Christians have often waged war.  They have founded empires in which cruelty of an appalling kind was commonplace.  They invented exploitative systems of commerce and supported cruel dictatorships. 

It comes as something of a shock to discover that during the 30 years of the conflict in Northern Ireland not one single work of major theological significance was produced by Christian leaders and theologians.  And this in spite of the fact that Christians there controlled most of the schools and largest political parties, and had a sympathetic press as well and therefore had the freedom to create a modern theology if they wanted to, a freedom denied Christians in many other parts of the world.  To put it bluntly:  the example of Christian witness as it is generally perceived today, based upon books in the Bible some of which presume and often condone violence, and upon a history of violence against fellow human beings, is not good enough or idealistic enough for our future.

 

So while Church leaders say that the evils of the world result from the world refusing to live up to the standards proposed by Christians, one can also say that Christian leaders do not present the modern world with an idealism sufficiently worthy of the world’s hopes, aspirations and potential.  In other words, far from the world being unworthy of the Christian message, the Christian message as it is presented today is simply not good enough for the world in its present and future stages of intellectual and moral development.

 

Some Christians might say that even to make such a statement is to insult Jesus.  It is not.  Jesus asked exactly the same questions of the religious leaders of his time by challenging the religious beliefs and practices of his own day on earth.  He concluded that the attempted religious belief and practice of his day was not good enough.  The human race needed and deserved something better.  We now know that Jesus did indeed offer the world something better and what he gave was definitive.  There was to be no further revelation about it.  Others would grant that there was some further revelation but that with the death of the last of the apostles the revelation was then definitive.  

 

Still others argue that as Christian history progressed there was no new revelation but that there was a developing explanation and understanding of what had been revealed.  And still others maintain that the meaning of the Christian faith, like the meaning of any faith, is being revealed day by day with enlightenment and freshness and that this revelation of meaning is coming to us from each other, from world events, from personal and community enlightenment given by God freely and also in response to our seeking for it in various ways.  Finally, there are those who say that the revelation is over, that all that is to be said by God has been said and that it is now for the leaders of the church helped by theologians and experts to make out what the revelation means.  It is surely a sign of the decadence of church leadership that it has come to believe that its own interpretation of the Jesus message, supported by paid experts, is superior to any enlightenment the Holy Spirit may give to the people who are neither leaders nor experts. 

 

The failure of church leaders and their experts in Northern Ireland to produce a single significant major work of theology which would help to enlighten the world is a sign of the barrenness of this approach.  It is like a rich field being worked over again and again by the same people with the same tools and the same methods in order to make sure they produce only the same crop every time.  In the end they produce nothing and the field remains barren.

 

For too long the Christian churches in many parts of the world have operated as though there was nothing they could do about the social and political situations in which people found themselves.  They concentrated their energies in keeping their adherents faithful to the tenets of the faith, keeping control, keeping everyone in line.  In some situations they thought that they were above such concerns even when this meant supporting corrupt and oppressive regimes.  And here there are particular lessons for the various orthodox churches throughout the world, including those of the Balkans, many of which are still mired in nationalistic politics.  There needs to be a complete re-examination of the role of the churches in modern society.  Instead of debating the language in which the deity should be addressed in the liturgy, church leaders should be re-examining interpretations of the biblical texts and revelation in a way that addresses the social, political and spiritual reality in which people today find themselves. 

 

And here the late 19th century concept of biblical criticism – based on the belief that scriptural texts are ‘culturally conditioned’ and thus need to be scrutinised and analysed to understand their contemporary relevance – should form the basis of any attempt to interpret the gospel message in the light of today’s concerns.  In practice this means placing a greater emphasis on the issues of peace, justice and reconciliation with a view to helping people live together in some sort of harmony and understanding.  In short, what is needed is a major programme of re-education aimed at enabling people to live with human difference and the social and political diversity to be found everywhere in today’s world.

 

Church leaders and others who exercise influence in the churches need to be challenged and encouraged to be more decisive in working to eradicate the influence of the extremist groups that frequently use the anonymity of the larger faith community to disguise their distorted intentions and murderous activities.  At the height of the conflict in Bosnia, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, spoke of the need ‘to restore religion to its rightful role as ‘peacemaker and pacifier’. 

 

I believe that the Christian faith can be a force for peace and harmony in the world.   But so much depends on the willingness of church leaders and others to interpret the Christian Gospel in the light of the pressing issues facing us today.  The churches should have something important to say about the issues being discussed here this weekend.  It is not good enough to say that these matters are only for the politicians and experts to deal with.  They are too important for that.  They concern us all and the future of our planet.  Christians should have something very different to offer the world instead of merely blessing the tired rhetoric of politicians and militarists.  We should be looking at these problems from a different perspective and with a different set of values.  The whole point of being a Christian is to have a different mindset and way of living to offer the world.        

 

They need to take note of the most fundamental insight in the anthropology of religion – namely, that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred.  And they need to believe too that, properly understood and lived out, religion, far from being the cause of so much of the violence in our world, may well be the best solution to it.

 

Fr Gerry McFlynn

 

27 August 2007