From Paris to Pakistan, Orlando to Myanmar, Iraq to Nigeria, each day witnesses conflict and violence perpetrated in the name of religion or committed against persons because of their religious identity.
What is there about religion that often leads to violence? How can we understand and address that lethal combination, whether in religiously inspired violence, violence against religious persons or violence among religious groups?
Addressing these questions, a plenary session of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee met on 26 June 2016 in Trondheim, Norway. Entitled “Religion: Way of War or Path to Peace?” the session featured analyses of geopolitical, interreligious and theological aspects of religion and violence with a mind to policy development.
Moderator Bishop Mark McDonald of the Anglican Church of Canada and the WCC President for North America asked participants to listen for a constructive ecumenical way to address the issue programmatically in its pilgrimage of justice and peace.
The roots of violence
Dr Sathianathan Clarke of the Church of South India, who is professor of Theology, Culture and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., spoke forcefully to the consternation and theological struggle posed by the phenomenon of religion and violence.
“The connection between religion and violence is not new for those who look back through history. But the magnitude and intensity of violence with which religions are associated is already seriously affecting our common wellbeing. Religious fundamentalisms or religious extremisms are operating dangerously across key global locations, maturing into an assortment of violent local expressions,” said Clarke.
“Violence in the name of God may not be God’s intention or doing. Yet its curse surrounds us; and we who know and serve God have to do something about confronting its propensity for destruction and curtailing its promotion of death.”
Geopolitics and self-critical consciousness
Ambassador Knut Volleback, former Foreign Minister of Norway and a member of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, reminded of Christianity’s own origins in the violent maelstrom of the ancient world, and cautioned, “although it is gratifying today to learn that international organizations and the United Nations are more interested to work with faith-based organizations, this new interest does not come out of a long-term experience in how helpful religious leaders have been in solving conflicts and curtailing violence in world politics, but on the contrary, because religion is used as a cover for terrorism that haunts the world today.”
In fact, said Volleback, “In a forum like this it is fundamental to do some soul searching among ourselves rather than point fingers at others. How can we avoid a repetition in Central Africa of what happened in Rwanda where churches were scenes of massacres, and priests and pastors participated in the genocide?... What can the churches do to prevent conflict, to build bridges and tell the authorities to stop abusing power?”
Vollebeck urged vigilance and clarity. Defend others’ rights to their convictions, even when they do not coincide with one’s own. Oppose discrimination and exclusion of minorities, the breeding ground of violence. Support freedom of religion in unqualified ways, oppose capital punishment, and confront authorities when they cross these lines. “Discrimination, exclusion and violence in the name of religion can never be the will of God.”
Closer to home
Another self-critical Christian perspective came from Berit Hagen Agøy, General Secretary of the Council on Ecumenical and International Relations of the Church of Norway, and a member of the WCC’s reference group of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. Speaking to the frequently lethal intersection of religion and violence on women, she urged the Central Committee to look first at the intimate relations of family for the roots of violent extremism.
“Dehumanization leads to authorizing violence,” she said, and perhaps the primordial instance of dehumanization is the othering of persons one loves. Agøy singled out “the misuse of religious traditions to legitimize violence in the family” and so asked her listeners to “start with gender justice and then address violence” in the larger societal and geopolitical spheres.
A call to interreligious dialogue
Rabbi David Sandmel, a longstanding partner in interreligious dialogue and a member of the reference group of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, offered a Jewish perspective on the issue of interreligious violence, particularly the still-frequent violence of anti-Semitism.
Sandmel praised the role that the ecumenical movement has played in recognizing and repudiating anti-Semitism. “In 1948, long before the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate, the WCC acknowledged a special relationship between Judaism and Christianity and repudiated anti-Semitism as ‘sin against God and man.’
“The WCC seeks positive relations with the Jewish community, encourages dialogue and rejects anti-Semitism,” he said. “But it has not explored, let alone resolved, all aspects of the Jewish-Christian relationship, nor has it always internalized in practice what it has preached.”
“These are complex moral, theological and political challenges,” Sandmel acknowledged. “They will only be resolved by continuing to address them among yourselves and in conversation with us. You have been on this pilgrimage of justice and peace to and with the Jewish people since 1948. I pray that you will continue to pursue it,” said Sandmel.
Probing problematic passages
After Central Committee members had looked at problematic biblical passages that valorize violence, Dr Mohamed Elsanousi of the Islamic Society of North America and Finn Church Aid spoke to the same hermeneutical issues in the Qur`an and Muslim societies.
Elsanousi described the remarkable process that led to the “Marrakesh Declaration,” the January 2016 statement of more than 300 Muslim scholars, activists and politicians affirming rights of minorities and condemning religious justifications of violence.
The Declaration, he said, is “a self-described call to action grounded in reference to the historic Charter of Medina, forged by the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as a form of contractual citizenship ensuring equal treatment of all in a multi-cultural society.”
“The Marrakesh Declaration has the potential for significant impact in addressing a pressing human rights issue,” Elsanousi concluded.
An example of what might be done was offered by Rev. Dr Yusuf Ibrahim Wushishi, who is General Secretary of the Christian Council of Nigeria and a board member of the new interreligious initiative against religious violence, the International Centre for Interfaith Peace and Harmony, in Kaduna, Nigeria, which is a direct fruit of a joint interreligious visit to Nigeria made in 2012 by delegations from the WCC and the Royal Jordanian Aal Al Bayt Institute. Given the violence and displacement caused by the conflict in Nigeria, addressing its interreligious dimensions is crucial. The centre, which will open formally in August, will not only be a monitoring centre, devoid of political interference, but also a neutral space for sharing stories and hope.
An ongoing quest for understanding
The WCC Central Committee has also been reviewing a study document, “Religion and Violence,” that probes the phenomena of religiously inspired violence, violence against religion and interreligious violence, along with related factors of religious extremism and affronts to religious freedom. The document analyzes the meaning of religion, violence, fundamentalism and spirituality before exploring complex examples, reasons for the frequent conjunction of religion and violence, and biblical and theological insights that might inform Christian response to the phenomenon in the course of the ecumenical movement’s pursuing its pilgrimage of justice and peace. The document also offers specific suggestions for conversations with adherents of Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions and an intra-Christian conversation in these areas.