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Religion and Peace I

from the archive, 2017

The conflicts that rage in the world, and the commentary upon them, can be confusing and dispiriting.

So much energy is given to justifying why one side should distrust the other; why it should prepare to do the other side harm - even mortal harm on a large scale. This keeps the fear vibe and the polarisation firmly in place. We do not live up to the description of civilised human beings. There is numbing of our heart, and blunting of our basic human empathy when we sanction and normalise this polarising and fearful cultural milieu.

Why would any group threaten to “nuke” another group, if it could not and would not follow through with something so unthinkable?

Real victims died in Nagasaki 72 years ago this week in the many tens of thousands when this option was last tried. In Cuba, nearly 55 years ago, two superpowers backed away from this option on the premise that it was mutually repugnant. What prevailed was a universally shared human value to abhor fiery annihilation of vast numbers of human lives.

There must be a limit to the number of times states have to test that brink to re-convince themselves that - regardless of whether you’re Russian or American or North Korean or Iranian or Australian - nobody wants to be nuked. Pardon the pun, but it’s not rocket science! Then we need ask why is it all right to threaten another state with something we would not want them to threaten us with. If it’s only bluffing, it means that a state wants to induce terror in a population without the bother and mess of following through. The constant appeal is to motivation by fear.

Action begets reaction, and karma can be a bitch or a blessing. An advantage pursued through fear repeatedly returns and amplifies this motivation until there is no room left for any fostering of trust, mutual self-interest, or love. Only abandoning the motivator - which takes precisely one moment - and switching to the alternative motivator, can break the vicious circle.

Buddhist teaching is that each moment we are free to choose peace or war.

And it’s individual decisions that shape collective ones. Each faith contains wisdom about peace and peacemaking. Sure, it is possible to find justification for war in any holy book or tradition, but this is silly for two reasons. First, by not duly considering the whole tenor and purpose of the tradition, it is too easy to quote and act on things out of context. Second, our intention will govern how we use or abuse religion.

Religion can inspire peace. It’s supposed to inspire peace. So let it light the way that directs our steps towards peace.

Yes, we are formed by religion (and non-religion) and serve its purposes. Before we know it we can become its missionary. But the obverse is also true. We apply and misapply religious teachings and practices. We turn religion (and non-religion) to our own purpose. Two people can say they follow the same religion, but their practices may be worlds apart. One may be kind, the other cruel; one tolerant, the other bigoted; one trusting, the other suspicious. It is too easy to blame religion in the abstract for the turmoil and trouble. It deflects awareness away from ourselves. Then we stop delving into our own hearts, and sorting the jarring contradictions between our own thoughts.

In general, peace should be fostered by “re-ligio”, which means reconnecting with the source of our existence. Whatever reconciles and unifies is supposed to entail peace.

So the Hindu seeks the union of Atman (individual spirit) with Brahman (the Universal Spirit). The Christian seeks to ‘rest in the Lord’ or be in God’s Presence. The Muslim aims to be one with Allah. The Buddhist extinguishes the illusion of the separate warring, suffering self. Pagans find peace when they are one with nature.

In addition to this generality, each religion has specific, complementary insights to contribute to the compendium of peace : like colours in a rainbow.

The word for peace in Judaism is “shalom”. The root meaning of the word is wholeness. Peace is not possible without wholeness, completeness and integrity. All our bits working together. There is also the sense of not carrying things over, like psychological baggage : of not being “unfinished”. Jesus said “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. We must be finished with our anxiety about the future - what we shall wear, eat, go, do or say - if we are to have peace. The New Testament mentions ‘the peace that passes understanding’ - a transcendental grace that comes not from this world but from beyond this world.

The Sanskrit word for peace - Shanti - suggests the Shalom of Judaism. The Jew’s “shalom aleichem” is echoed by the Muslim’s “salaam alaikum” : peace be upon you. The Arabic ‘salaam’ is related to ‘Islam’, meaning submission (to Allah). So peace involves submission or obedience to God’s will. The equivalent for a non-believer might be peace of mind through conformity to reality. However it is sliced or diced, peace requires us humans to square up to the existential truth.

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