peace - love - reason

Jill Of All Trades

How does religion promote war and/or peace, if at all?

18.11.07 by literaghost

(Musings for another Peace Studies assignment.)


These are my scattered musings on the role of religion in fostering war and peace, and on religious in/tolerance more generally (as I see the two to be linked). I'm not sure if they'll all make sense, because I have a lot of different thoughts on this topic running around screaming simultaneously in my head. Take a deep breath...

...Here goes.


What first comes to mind is an experience/revelation I had at an academic conference/"camp"/thingus this past summer. My roommate of the five weeks was the daughter of a Christian preacher, and worked at a Christian radio station. She told me she had only gone to one church - her dad's - for her entire life. While she was at the "camp," she and her group of friends made an effort to visit a different kind of church every week - going to a Catholic church and one with a different racial base, among others. For a little while, I thought, "Great! They're actually learning to accept...

...Other...forms of Christianity."

And then I realized how far we have to go.

And that's when I got depressed again.

So here's the first of my thoughts: organized religion seems to be inherently exclusive. Some may be exclusive on greater or lesser levels, but they still are.

Take "interdenominational" efforts. The premise seems to be, "We're accepting, all right! We accept all forms of Christianity!" Translation: If you're Buddhist, get out.

Then take the "interfaith" efforts. "As long as you believe in God/some sort of higher power, you're all right by us!" Tough luck, atheists and agnostics.

Organized religion - like so many other organized social constructs - can be used to unite people (for many purposes). But at the same time, they divide them against "The Other" - whether that be people of a different religion, people of no religion, or people who don't interpret their religion in the same way. With these divisions often (not necessarily, but often enough) come conflict. There's conflict, for example, between those who interpret their religion "for peace" and those who interpret it "for war."


Which brings me to thought part two: try as we might, there is just no way to determine that a peace-promoting interpretation of religious doctrine is any more "right" or "valid" than a war-promoting one, much as we cannot determine the opposite. We can agree with one more than the other, sure; we can argue that one is more beneficial, or useful, or practical, or just. But we cannot argue that one is more legitimate - at least not based on that doctrine. Doctrine can support almost anything, if you know where to look.

Let's take that old favorite standby of religious arguments for an example - the Bible. Many will argue, "Oh, all that weird 'stoning and vengeance' stuff is just in the Old Testament. Jesus didn't actually say any of it (he, naturally, only said peaceful hippie stuff), so we shouldn't pay attention to it."

At this point, I should admit the influence of Marvin Harris, controversial anthropologist. In his book "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture" (chapter: The Secret of the Prince of Peace), he includes this table:

Blessed are the peacemakers. (Matthew 5:9)Think not that I am come to send peace on earth, I come not to send peace but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)Suppose ye that I come to give peace on earth? I will tell you nay, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)
All that take the sword shall perish with the sword. (Matthew 26:52)He that hath no sword, let him sell his garments and buy one. (Luke 22:36)
Love thine enemies; do good to them that hate you. (Luke 6:27)And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them out of the temple...and poured out the changer's money and overthrew the tables. (John 2:15)

Needless to say, it's difficult to assimilate the attitudes of the two columns simultaneously (although many apologists have made a living using rhetorical and/or logical and/or historical contortions to do so). Thus, many who try to follow its teachings focus on either one column's perspective or the other's.

I think this stems from an inherent difficulty of using any one document - written by many people, over many time periods, whether divinely inspired or not - as the sole basis for one's life choices. It's like the joke about George Washington's axe - "This is the original he used to cut down the cherry tree. The handle's been replaced six times, and the head only five." After all that, can you really say it's the same axe? The same "essence" may be there, but we'll never really know, having only fragments of (what we think are) the originals. In this case, even the original axe's head was made at a different time, by a different person, than its handle - and they possibly never fitted together very well in the first place.


And so, thought the third: what are religious groups working for peace doing, anyway? To me, it seems a little like a knitting club deciding to join the peace effort. Perhaps their reasoning is "It's harder for people to knit when they're worried about being bombed, so we should try to stop the bombing so more people can concentrate on their knitting." Sure, okay, whatever. Their heart's in the right place, I suppose, and we could certainly use whatever help we can get. But I have trouble seeing the connection - or, at least, I have trouble seeing how the connection's any stronger than, say, that of an underwater basket weaver's guild.

Perhaps the connection lies in the sort of poetic justice that comes when religious groups come together to solve a conflict instead of causing one, especially when it was the cause in the first place. "You started it - you end it." In that case, treaty agreements between groups of different philosophies or politics that have been in conflict are on the same level. It's just one more tool, or one more cultural classification method to get around. Lyrics from John Lennon's "Imagine" come to mind: "Imagine there's no countries./It isn't hard to do./Nothing to kill or die for,/and no religion, too." Here, and in the rest of the song, I think Lennon's referencing some of the things that divide us - Christian or Muslim, Capitalist or Socialist, Rich or Poor, Saved or Sinner ("Imagine there's no heaven..."). While some can unite within those labels, most of the time they're just obstacles to be worked around in order to really reach other people.


Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to thought number four: why religious contributions, and what differentiates between theirs and those of any other philosophy? To me, religion is mostly "Philosophy + Supernatural [beliefs]." So, what distinguishes "religious contributions" (or detractions) from simply "philosophical" ones might be the "supernatural" part - which, by definition, we can't verify. Not very useful.

Perhaps the importance lies in sheer numbers, or power. Given the clout many religions have (if only because they're "divinely backed"), getting them on the side of peace would be immensely beneficial to the peace movement - at least in the short run. Much like making a peace alliance with the former USSR might have been, or one with North Korea might today. However, at least to me, it would have similar problems in the long run. Say you've got a major world power on your side, working for peace (or at least for disarmament). What do you do when you find out about its humanitarian crises, about the critics getting silenced and the women getting beaten? It makes for a careful compromise, especially when in negotiating a positive peace.


So that's the end of my Sunday-night thoughts about Religion and War and Peace. Might have to come back later if any more get shaken out of the tangle.

Made it to the end? Congratulations! Have a cookie. If you're brain's hurting by now, go relax.

- [Miz L.]

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