What Can Religions Do?

Author: Paul R. Gallagher

What Can Religions Do?

Paul R. Gallagher

What exactly do we mean by a culture of peace? Perhaps, it is useful to recall that the principal peace movements of the 20th century were born from the horrors of two devastating world wars. Fortunately, most of us born since the end of the Second World War have not had to suffer directly the consequences of war. In my own family, I am the first not to have been in a war: my father fought in the Second World War and his father before him, my grandfather, fought in the First World War. Peace is certainly more than an absence of war, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, but it is a necessary starting point for the creation of a culture of peace. Unfortunately, this year, indeed in these past few days, we have recalled the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which has been the most destructive and devastating war of all human history. We consider the scale of that destruction, in terms of lives lost and lives destroyed, it bears recalling that it all happened within the short span of six years from 1939 to 1945. What is even more chilling to remember is that this most destructive war occurred within a generation of the conclusion of World War I, the so-called Great War, the War to end all wars. Indeed, not only did it fail to end all wars, many consider that the terms of its conclusion led inevitably to the Second World War. Last year marked the first centenary of the outbreak of that war, and in these years we are recalling, remembering all the tragic events of that war, condemned in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV as a “senseless slaughter”.

Even though Pope Benedict XV, in 1914, spoke of “the most awful weapons [of] modern military science” he surely could not have anticipated the cataclysmic destruction of the atomic bombs dropped from the skies in August 1945. The sheer scale of this destruction had ushered in the new age of modem warfare of nuclear weapons. And these are nothing compared with what we have today.

We rightly recall the horrors of war lest we forget the ‘senseless slaughter’ of millions, lest we forget that it could all so easily happen again, we rightly remember the dead, lest we forget their sacrifice, but above all, we remember so that present and future generations may be spared the horrors of war. Just a few weeks ago we remembered the centenary of the start of the Gallipoli campaign which claimed 100,000 lives from both sides and we also recalled the terrible tragedy that befell the Armenian people. This act of remembrance is a crucial part of creating a culture of peace; indeed, to put it in religious terms, it is a collective examination of conscience so that humanity’s sins may not repeated. In his Message to the participants of the International Peace Meeting at Antwerp, in September 2014, organised to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Pope Francis reminded the participants that “this anniversary can teach us that war is never a satisfactory means of redressing injustice... and it sets the scene for even greater injustices and conflicts.” Remembering the past atrocities of war, however, must also be about challenging the present. In this regard, Pope Francis has called upon men and women of good will everywhere not to remain passive in the face “of the countless conflicts and wars, declared and undeclared, which presently afflict our human family, blighting the lives of young and old alike, poisoning age-old relationships of coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups, and forcing families and entire communities into exile.” (cf. Message to the participants in the International Peace Meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, Ant- werp, 7-9 September 2014).

While it is important to look to the “mistakes of the past” we can also look to the successes of the past, and in particular, the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. The preamble of the Charter of the United Nations states that the principal reason for the establishment of the organisation is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” and the Nations of the world committed themselves “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” The Charter then goes on to state that its primary purpose and goal is “to maintain international peace and security”.

In discussing the role of religions in creating a culture of peace we should also bear in mind the oft repeated accusation that religions are the cause of war and conflict and the utopian assertion that a world without religion would be a world without conflict. Such assertions do not stand up to even the most cursory critique: to begin with, most conflicts, whether political or economic, have nothing to do with religion, and oftentimes they have been fought by co-religionists. Even when a conflict appears to be religious in nature, closer inspection usually confirms that there are other elements, whether ethnic or cultural, which are the primary causes. There remains, however, an important issue to be addressed: religion can be manipulated — and is — to justify extremism and violence. Where this occurs, religious leaders must be prompt and unequivocal in condemning the use of religion to justify violence and war. Pope Francis has been very clear on this point. During his visit to Albania in September 2014 he stated the following: “This means that all those forms [of religion and ethics] which present a distorted use of religion, must be firmly refuted as false since they are unworthy of God or humanity. Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence! No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman ... What unites us is the path of life, is starting from our own identity for the good of our brothers and sisters. To do good! And so, we walk together as brothers and sisters” (Meeting with the Leaders of Other Religions and Other Christian Denominations, Tirana, 21 September 2014).

On the basis of the religious statistics that I have quoted, religions have an immense potential to contribute to creating a culture of peace, indeed, the statistics would suggest that religions should be at the forefront of creating a culture of Peace, religions have an important role in promoting the values that are essential to creating a culture of peace. Thus, religious leaders have a particular responsibility to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to reject the misuse of religion as a justification for violence.

The two world wars of the 20th century left profound scars on humanity but they were also an impetus to create inter-governmental institutions to promote and safeguard peace. In his visit to the United Nations in 1965, Pope Paul VI paid tribute to its task as a builder of peace: “The United Nations is the great school where that education is imparted, and We are today in the Assembly Hall of that school. Everyone taking his place here becomes a pupil and also a teacher in the art of building peace. When you leave this hall, the world looks upon you as the architects and the builders of peace. Peace, as you know, is not built solely by means of politics and the balance of forces and of interests. It is constructed with the mind, with ideas, with works of peace. You labour in this great construction. But you are still at the beginning of your labours. Will the world ever succeed in changing that selfish and bellicose mentality which, up to now, has woven so much of its history: It is hard to foresee, but it is easy to affirm that it is toward that new history, a peaceful, a truly and fully human history, as promised by God to men of goodwill, that we must resolutely set out. The roads lie well .marked before you; the first one is that of disarmament” (Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 4 October 1965).

As Pope Paul VI noted peace is built not solely by means of politics but also with the mind, with ideas, with works of peace. With our minds and ideas, and in this activity religions have a particular role, we are called to reflect, and in the light of our religious traditions, develop appropriate ethics regarding war and peace. In this regard, a culture of peace should not be reduced to pacifism. As Pope Francis reminded us upon his return flight from Korea last year, in the face of evil, it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor. But to determine what is just and unjust, religion has a particular role in providing the moral and ethical framework for such reflection.

Another aspect of building peace, noted by Pope Paul VI, are the ‘works of peace’ which characterised the many religious peace movements that were founded in the immediate aftermath of World War II, founded on the need to promote reconciliation among nations and peoples as the path to peace.

One such movement, in the Catholic-Christian tradition, is Pax Christi which was founded in France in the months prior to the end of the Second World War by Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas, the Bishop of Montauban in the South of France, and a laywoman, Marthe Dortel-Claudot. How they came to found Pax Christi is a remarkable testimony of the positive role that religion can play in creating a culture of peace. Bishop Théas, imprisoned in 1944 for his protests against the deportation of French Jews, encouraged his fellow prisoners to pray for their gaolers. Not surprisingly his preaching of forgiveness and reconciliation was not easily accepted by his fellow prisoners. After his release, his time in a prison camp affected him profoundly and gave him a deep appreciation of how difficult it was for people to forgive their enemies. Marthe Dortel-Claudot, a housewife and mother, and a deeply devout Catholic, as Christmas 1944 approached, was moved to pray for the suffering of the German people. She wrote in her Journal: “Jesus died for everyone. Nobody should be excluded from one’s prayer.” With the encouragement of her parish priest she formed a small prayer group to pray for the' German people and for peace between Germany and France. In March 1945, she sought the support of Bishop Théas for her “Crusade of Prayer for Germany which would later adopt the name Pax Christi.

Both Bishop Théas and Marthe Dortel-Claudot were inspired by their religious conviction that peace comes through forgiveness, reconciliation and praying for one’s enemies. The prayer initiatives of Pax Christi groups, which quickly spread throughout France and Germany, in no small way contributed to Franco-German reconciliation in the post war years.

There are many other examples of movements and individuals who have been inspired by the values of religious faith to promote peace. The role of Marthe Dortel-Claudot in founding Pax Christi is a powerful reminder that individual believers have a role and a responsibility to create a culture of peace, within their families, within their work-places and communities. Her example, and of countless men and women of faith, is the answer to the question where should creating a culture of peace begin: it begins with each or us and it reaffirms that the personal witness and prayer of individual members of a faith community can be transformative.

The most important and specific contribution that religions can make to creating a culture of peace is the gift of prayer, especially that of praying for one’s enemies which is the ultimate act of charity that transforms hate to love and brings about reconciliation. Pope Francis has highlighted that “prayer and dialogue are profoundly interrelated and mutually enriching” (cf. Message to the participants in the International Peace Meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, Antwerp, 7-9 September 2014). Through the power of prayer and dialogue, the various religious traditions can make a specific contribution to peace, by reaching out to the ‘other’ in prayer, religious traditions promote respect and dialogue and are thus they are better able to foster the culture of encounter and peace, to cultivate just and peaceful relations between peoples and social groups, who are all brothers and sisters of the one human family.

Peace is a central concept to all religions. We pray for the blessing of peace, for the gift of peace. During the Easter season, Christians are conscious that the first gift bestowed by the Risen Christ was the gift of peace. He greeted the disciples with the gift of peace: “Peace be with you”. During this time of Easter we receive anew the gift of Christ’s peace, but it is a gift that is meant to transform our lives so that we may in turn be bearers of that gift of peace in the world in which we live, so that it too may be transformed by the gift of peace.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 June 2015, page 12

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