Religion and Peacebuilding

Religion and Peacebuilding


By Heather Dubois

• Religion, after all, is a powerful constituent of cultural norms and values, and because it addresses the most profound existential issues of human life (e.g., freedom and inevitability, fear and faith, security and insecurity, right and wrong, sacred and profane), religion is deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions of peace.

Scott Appleby explains that the ambivalence of religion lies in the interpretation of the sacred, in imperfect human perception: “At any given moment any two religious actors, each possessed of unimpeachable devotion and integrity, might reach diametrically opposed conclusions about the will of God and the path to follow.”

In other words, religion can underwrite both conflict and peace on its own terms. It is an intervening variable that sometimes escalates, sometimes de-escalates conflict behavior.

Via Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace

As Appleby notes, “Religious leaders and their followers make choices as to the meaning of the sacred and the content of their faith. These choices, in turn, determine their attitudes toward conflict and violence.”

The ambiguity of religion’s relationship to conflict is better understood when religion is recognized as a type of living tradition, “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute the tradition.”

Even in cases where the mainstream advocates bettering the world through nonviolent means, religions are not monolithic entities. This deserves emphasis here because they are often presented as such, distorting or stalling debate that genuinely engages questions surrounding religion’s role in violent conflict. Violent and nonviolent actors alike claim monolithic authority to justify and advocate as well as to deflect criticism. For instance, religious leaders who condemn violence often seek to distance their religion from co-religionists who have committed acts of terror or provoked violent conflict. While this is an understandable impulse, labeling a religious actor or a religious movement unauthentic is ultimately misleading and unhelpful.

As Marc Gopin writes, “The fact is that while I agree that there are great untapped resources for peacemaking and conflict resolution in the world’s religions, there is also a vast reservoir of texts and traditions ready and waiting to be used to justify the most barbaric acts by modern standards of human rights.”

The heterogeneity of the world’s largest religions means that at any time or in any territory, these living traditions might be a source of violence. Yet, it also means that within each of these religions there is room for the normative tasks of conflict resolution. There are existing and developing spiritual practices and theological and ethical resources for hermeneutics of peace. These can be harnessed for engaging the vast majority of the world’s religious peoples – who are not, by the way, violent extremists – in prevention and de-escalation of conflict.

They can also play an important role in countering the violent extremism of minority religious movements. In sum, religion can be a source of peace or violent conflict, and its importance and potential strength lies in this ambiguity.

Western modernity, especially as understood through the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, has heavily influenced conflict resolution and international relations. As such, these academic disciplines and their practical applications have incorporated elements of secularization theory and marginalized the influence of religion in their analysis of world affairs. The roots of this tendency can be traced to the development of the modern western understanding of religion, which is markedly different from pre-modern and some non-Western understandings

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Religious peacebuilding is a relatively new focus for scholarly research and reflection. Nevertheless, numerous authors from the conflict resolution field note the considerable spiritual and theological resources for peacebuilding that can be drawn from the major religions. Correspondingly, each of these traditions has its own examples of religious peacebuilding. One might consider Quaker conciliation during the Nigerian Civil War or the Buddhist dhammayietra movement in Cambodia.

Some of the most creative and effective religious peacebuilding is done by inter-religious groups, which are surprisingly great in number.

For example, Muslim and Christian leaders of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone brokered negotiations between the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and the ousted president Ahmed Tajan Kabbah and then played a key mediating role in the summer 1999 peace negotiations.

In Bosnia, local Catholic and Muslim clerics enabled their communities to pursue and sustain local cease-fires. In the Middle East, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian women works on dialogue, education, and advocacy through ongoing community projects and large programs such as the five-day event “Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States.”

Despite numerous success stories, religious peacebuilding is still asserting its validity amidst religious violence and in a largely secular culture of academia and policymaking. The task of this essay is to acknowledge the ambivalence of religion while asserting, nonetheless, its socio-political importance.

The process and effects of secularization have been halting and mixed, yet the persisting relevance of religion has not been matched by sufficient religious literacy in Western international relations and conflict resolution.

Current academic and policy definitions of peacebuilding emphasize a determination to be non-prescriptive and long-term oriented. As defined here, religious peacebuilding is well suited to enact such designs—in its capacity for multi-layered, long-term work based in permanent and semi-permanent relationships with people in conflict zones.

Though there are substantial challenges that must be addressed, religion can offer considerable contributions to peacebuilding efforts. At least, religion should be included in matters of conflict and peace because its adherents represent numerically significant portions of society. At most, its inclusion increases the possibility of further contextualizing and internationalizing peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Religious traditions are vehicles for this in their existing networks, through which peacebuilders can share best practices, and in religious education, which takes daily form in preaching and school teaching.

The ambivalence of religion, among other factors, dictates that the latter may problematic. However, to the extent that local manifestations of religion accept and teach the peaceful doctrines of their traditions, they can contribute to the development of indigenous peacebuilding or what Appleby calls the saturation mode of peacebuilding. Herein lies the greatest potential of religious peacebuilding: the capacity to transcend the boundary of peacebuilding as a field of external expertise.

Heather DuBois is the program associate for the Religion and Conflict Resolution Program at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. She has conducted independent research while volunteering with Catholic Relief Services and other peacebuilding NGOs in Mindanao, Philippines. DuBois was a researcher, writer and editor at the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and also served two years with AmeriCorps VISTA managing the Louisiana Violence Prevention Alliance. Heather holds a masters degree in conflict resolution from the University of Bradford in England.

Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace. Copyright © 2013. Published by Plowshares: a Peace Studies Collaborative of Earlham and Goshen Colleges and Manchester University. Supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. Readers may duplicate articles and quote from the journal without permission, provided no changes are made in the text and full credit is given to the author.

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