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Religion and Peace II

from the archive, 2017

Institutions can pay lip service to Peace. Religions can espouse it as an ideal, but fall far short of it in practice. Every religion that has assumed temporal power, like political states, inevitably justifies coercive force, usually through the right to self-defence.

It is worth mentioning that some religious traditions take the practice of non-violence very seriously.

Jainism, for example, upholds the principle of Ahimsa - harmlessness to all sentient beings. Mahatma Gandhi famously applied Ahimsa in his non-violent civil disobedience that won independence for India. Jesus’ non-violent reform was an inspiration to Gandhi who, in turn, inspired Christians like Martin Luther King Junior to effect social change without resort to arms. King and others (along with much reflection in prison) influenced Nelson Mandela also to conclude that the way to bring justice and reform society involved renouncing coercive means and following the path of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Christian groups that trace their origin to the ‘Great Awakening’ in 19th century America, and before that to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century and the Anabaptists, have genuine pacificist credentials.

Groups practising today like Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists etc. show a genuine commitment.

These outright pacifist denominations have helped inspire peace movements within more mainstream branches of Christianity. A lot of these groups have banded together, through their shared non-violent ethic, in an organisation called the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rather than pursue the validity of pacificism via historical surveys, it is possible to enquire into the philosophical foundation. The problems associated with the belief in attack and the consequent need for self-defence have been discussed in depth in a blog from last year.

When we get into the nuanced area of faith-based pacificism interfacing with harsh, political reality, we note that the great exponents of non-violent social change are not shrinking violets, and are sustained by something invisible.

The Churches of God (7th day) draw upon the Bible to justify why conventional, “carnal” warfare is insupportable. Yet “spiritual warfare” is where the real and permissible action is. This resonates with Hindu interfaith luminary, Mahatma Gandhi, in his application of not one, but two principles from the Jainism of his native Gujurat. Going hand-in-hand with Ahimsa (non-violence) is Satyagraha (spiritual force). Satyagraha is the moral force of truth brought to bear to improve a situation.

The blog on Gandhi makes the point that, although pacificists like Jesus, Gandhi and King confine themselves to “spiritual force” - the power of truth - their provocation of established interests leads to their assassination. Ironically, although they lift not a finger to harm, they become viewed as more threatening than leaders of armies! There is a Hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) along the lines that the most perfect jihad is a word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler - which has no doubt shaped the catch phrase, “speaking truth to power”.

The division between the spiritual and the temporal, between religious and political authority, is not as emphasised in Islam as it is in Christianity generally. Yet jihad is primarily and essentially a spiritual struggle, and only derivatively an armed struggle. In the primary sense, jihad can be related to the spiritual battle of powers mentioned in Christianity and to Satyagraha from the Jain and Hindu tradition. The ‘truth force’ is like a purifying and revolutionary fire; it may also be a revelationary fire, in that it confronts the status quo with the next phase of humanity’s progress.

In the Hindu classic, the Mahabharata, is included the ‘divine song’, the Bhagavad Gita, which tells how Lord Krishna, appearing as the charioteer in the war chariot of prince Arjuna, teaches him the way of dispassionately discharging one’s duty, even when that involves fighting to the death other relatives of one’s clan. He does this in the teeth of Arjuna's looking for every excuse not to fight. The nuance to be grasped here is Krishna’s assertion that virtue has more to do with how something is done than with what is done.

The Dalai Lama, although habitually associated with a non-violent ethic, has actually made a similarly nuanced point as the chief exponent of Tibetan Buddhism.

A blogger in the Guardian wrote : ‘"Sweet words" can be violent, [the Dalai Lama] explains, when they intend harm. Conversely, "harsh and tough action" can be non-violent when it aims at the wellbeing of others. In short, violence – "harsh and tough action" – can be attitudinally non-violent. So what should we make of that?’

Yes, what should we make of that?

There is evidently a spectrum of views concerning religion’s role of achieving peace in the world. No-one is preaching wars of aggression. But, beyond that, it is understandable that the student may find the area quite fluid or blurry.

* There is the position of the right to self-defence, of communities as of individuals.

* There is the argument that the moral status of violent action depends upon the motivation with which it is conducted.

* There is the position of spiritual warfare and the application of “truth force” which would accept being killed but not killing, in the name of achieving a higher good - and, in practice, can prove quite provocative.

* Finally, there is the radical position that questions whether belief in attack is warranted, so that there is nothing to defend, or react to, or overhaul, because the resistances and barriers to reform in the world are a reflection of the fragmentation of self, and there is consequently nothing to fight against outside oneself.

These are some of the matters covered in ICR's teaching on Religion and Peace.

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