Fr. Roger J. Landry
“The Role of Faith and Faith-Based Organizations in Promoting and Building Peace, Resolving Conflict, and Preventing Radicalism and Extreme Violence”
Event entitled “Focus on Faith: Promoting Peace and Reconciliation to Counter Violent Extremism”
Sponsored by the NGO Relations and Advocacy Section of the UN Department of Public Information
Conference Room 1, UN Headquarters, NY
February 4, 2016
The following intervention was given on a panel on Promoting Peace and Reconciliation to Counter Violent Extremism sponsored by the UN Department of Public Information.
To watch a video of the presentation, please click the link below (My intervention takes place between 3:33 and 13:20).
To read the program and documents of the conference, please click below.
This is the copy of the text prepared for the conference, which was at some points summarized for the sake of time.
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates and Panelists, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, I would like to thank the NGO Relations and Advocacy Section of the UN Department of Public Information for sponsoring this briefing on Promoting Peace and Reconciliation to Counter Violent Extremism.
I have been asked to address the role of faith and faith-based organizations in promoting and building peace, resolving conflict, preventing radicalism and extreme violence. It’s a lot to cover in seven minutes and if it were possible to crystallize the most important things to know in that short span of time, implementation of those thoughts would likely be so straightforward that we probably no longer need this panel!
Please, however, allow me to just sketch some of fundamental ideas. Before I do that, however, I would like to address two common objections.
The first is that the role of faith and faith-based organizations in promoting and building peace, resolving conflict and preventing extreme violence should be as bland a topic as the role of education in helping people get smarter. But we know it’s somewhat controversial because there are some who wonder whether religion is really a force for peace or for violence, who question whether religious faith inspires people toward good rather than evil, toward charity rather than carnage. They’ll cite the battles between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, at Lepanto, Vienna and elsewhere, the century long conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Wars of Religion, and the human sacrifices of the Aztecs and worshippers of Moloch as supposedly incontestable evidence that religious faith produces sadism rather than Good Samaritans. They’ll point to the Inquisition and ISIS as the poisonous fruit produced by the tree of faith. And they’ll refer to passages in religious scriptures that imply that God capriciously solicits, condones and celebrates the killing of the innocent along with the guilty as proof that that noxious fruit doesn’t fall far from what they deem the false and fictitious divine tree maker.
But this analysis needs to be challenged with the honest questions: Is the violence carried out by some in the name of a religion necessarily caused by that religion or only occasionally correlated with it? Were so-called religious wars based on genuinely religious principles, or has religion been used as a veneer by participants and historians both to mask what were at root political, economic, or ethnic motivations? Are the Scriptural citations properly interpreted by combatants and critics as part of a consistent message of barbarity and belligerence or are they, on the other hand, inconsistent misperceptions taken out of the context of a message that is overwhelming one of peace, charity, fraternity and personal sacrifice?
One of the principles of basic fairness is that we judge any religion not by those who don’t live according to its teachings but by those who do. Is a believer who thinks that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means a green light to do exactly the opposite an observant and obedient one? We must also note that those with no religion are not impervious to committing extreme violence either. Historians tell us that the twentieth century was quantitatively by far the most violent century in the history of humanity, with more people executed in that hundred year period than in all previous centuries combined. We know that that abhorrent bloodbath was not unleashed in the name of religion, but under the banner of various secularist, anti-religious, or explicitly atheistic regimes like we’ve seen under Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot and others. If the perversion of religion has occasionally led to violence, the prevention and persecution of religion has empirically been worse. While religion has not been successful in restraining every believer’s propensity for violence, the absence of religion — living practically as if God doesn’t exist — has been much less successful. And then we also have the cases of war and violence that have come from greed, power, family honor and many other false justifications that had little or nothing to do with combatants’ religion.
The second preliminary point or objection would be about why would many think this way about religion’s not being overall a force for good but for evil. It’s because if what they know about religion comes second hand, that second-hand knowledge is, frankly, disproportionately and misleadingly negative. In general, as the old journalistic aphorism attests, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Big storms get the headlines, not tranquil sunny days. Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred within their bones,” but that mainly one-sided story happens likewise in life. For seven years I ran a large Catholic newspaper and I was often tempted to have a huge above-the-fold front page article saying, “200 million people to assemble in Church this Sunday,” but such a story happens so frequently we take it for granted. The immense good done is not “new” and so often never makes the “news.” Sometimes five protestors outside a house of worship will get copy but 5,000 inside won’t. One fulminating cleric spewing hate violence will become regular footage whereas 10,000 rabbis, imams, priests and ministers preaching peace, justice and forgiveness won’t get any notice. With regard to faith and peace-building, the immense good being done by people and organizations motivated by faith seldom gets the attention it deserves. That’s why it’s so promising to have an event like today’s, not only to address the distortion of disproportion but to tell the good news.
So let’s get to the good news. What do faith and faith-based groups do to promote peace, resolve conflict, prevent radicalism and counter extreme violence? Permit me please to list a baker’s dozen of activities with minimal development. Faith and faith-based groups:
- Preach and practice forgiveness and reconciliation, which when faithfully followed ends the downward spiral of vengeful retaliation.
- Inculcate a respect for the dignity of every person as loved by God, not matter how small, handicapped, vulnerable, no matter the sex, race or nationality. The strength of religions and faith-based organizations does not lie in economic or political power, material resources or scientific expertise, but in their being a spiritual force and a moral compass, helping individuals and societies recognize and respect the inherent dignity of each and every human person.
- Foster a culture of encounter, solidarity, and brotherhood that help people to transcend selfishness, lest brothers and sisters recapitulate the story of Cain and Abel. At the United Nations last September Pope Francis stated that one of the root causes of so many difficulties in today’s world is a “growing and steady social fragmentation” that is endangering the “foundations of social life” and engendering “battles over conflicting interests.” That diagnosis implicitly contains a prescription: the constant, persevering work to help people encounter each other not at a superficial level but at the depth of their humanity. It’s to foster genuine solidarity. It’s to help people to learn how to talk with each other, and then to each other, so that they might begin to understand each other, appreciate each other, and support each other. In Turkey in November 2014 Pope Francis declared, “Fanaticism and fundamentalism…need to be countered by…solidarity.” Faith and faith-based organizations are crucial in that effort.
- Open and run schools that form the head and the heart, that gives people the ability critically to assess the claims and appeals of demagogues pushing for violence and war, and gives them the confidence to proclaim and live a different message.
- Teach people to use the “arms” of prayer as a weapon to respond to suffering rather than resorting to violence.
- Train people to leave vengeance to the justice of God who will right wrongs, bring good of evil, and have the last word.
- Preach as a moral minimum the Silver Rule, “Don’t treat others as you would not want them to treat you,” or the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” I call it a moral minimum common to most major religions, but some far surpass it. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example, all feature something more: they call us to love our neighbor because in faith we recognize God loves our neighbor. Christianity goes even beyond that, summoning us to love enemies, pray for persecutors, turn the other cheek, and love others as Christ has loved us, which doesn’t mean “share his sentiments,” but share his willingness to die for the good of others. When faithfully followed, this moral formation changes people profoundly.
- Categorically condemn evil. Part of this condemnation must extend to messages of hate in the name of religion.
- Get adherents to focus on their own sins and the roots of those sins — such as envy, greed, pride, anger — and seek mercy from God, which is something that can help root out the interior cancers that metastasize to violence. When one observes the schoolyard skirmishes of kindergarteners or the way infant siblings fight with each other over household toys to grasp the central point, one grasps that the tendency to violence temporally precedes rather than follows religious faith and practice. Faith curbs rather than catalyzes this propensity to violence. It’s a medicine to remedy this tendency to violence rather than fire to inflame it.
- Promote integral development — personal, social, economic and environment — since social, economic and environmental injustices often provide a lot of fuel for outbursts of violence.
- Think through with great seriousness the ethical criteria for self-defense — typically called a “just war doctrine” — as well as the “responsibility to protect,” the duty to intervene to defend those who cannot defend themselves from atrocities. These ethical criteria not only limit the downward spiral of violence but also gets those in responsibility to act to ensure to defend the rights of victims and speed the process of peace.
- Engage in interreligious dialogue, showing the way toward a much greater understanding so that, first, others cannot manipulate religion to incite hatred and violence, and second, give a paradigm for all groups and peoples of the path toward reconciliation. Pope Francis affirms that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world” and that such “a dialogue that seeks social peace and justice is in itself, beyond all merely practical considerations, an ethical commitment that brings about a new social situation” (Evangelii Gaudium 250).
- Explicitly and intentionally form peacemakers. So many of the greatest agents of peace in the world are motivated precisely by faith. We can look at the work, for example of the Quakers, the San Egidio Community, Pax Christi and so many others present in this room. Christians believe, according to the words of Jesus, that the true children of God are not peace-wishers but peacemakers (Mt 5:9), those who actively work toward communion and harmony.
But faith and faith-based groups to produce these fruits, two things are needed.
First, the conception of God being worshipped must be peaceful. If one’s notion of God is that of Ares or Mars, the ancient Greco-Roman god of war, it’s obviously going to influence the way believers in that god approach the subject of war and peace. If there’s a sense among adherents that God condones, wishes and even occasionally does violence against others, then it’s logical and theological that believers in that God may conclude that doing violence against others may be doing God’s will. We need to be honest about this and make sure we seek to educate people out of false conceptions of God.
As part of this, the conception of God must be rational. If the God in whom one believes is not capricious but consistent, then one can see readily that violence against innocents is incompatible with the nature of God and with the nature of the person created by that God. Sadly we witness what happens in the dark side of pseudo-religious passion divorced from reason, of zeal for one’s belief at the expense of fundamental human rights. Last January Pope Francis met with the diplomatic representatives of the world and stressed this connection between the God we worship and the way we strive to live. “Sincere faith in God,” he says, “makes one open to others, generates dialogue and works for the good, whereas violence is always the product of a falsification of religion, its use as a pretext for ideological schemes whose only goal is power over others.”
Second, it’s not enough just to have a right conception of God. Even if the God being worshipped is conceived as a loving God, a God who is a Father of all, a God who seeks peace, there’s also the phenomenon of people not following that God, giving into the tendency toward violence rather than aligning one’s will toward God. This points to the crucial importance of a proper education that includes adequate religious instruction, so that people will be trained in the school of the virtues that make for peace.
The first place of this religious schooling is the home, but the future of peace in society is too important for nations not to supplement this education outside of the home. The secularist ideal of making schools “religious free zones” — as if religion is superstitious or an opiate of the people and we just have to “say no to drugs” — does not truly advance the cause of peace. Depriving kids of this basic human formation, something that meets their need for transcendence and commitment, something that counteracts the human tendency toward violence, is negligent not only of their good but the good of society. It leaves the young disoriented, alienated, feeling unwanted, marginalized or excluded, and prone to the message of extremist groups, which is something we’ve all been seeing in the recruitment strategies by ISIS. It should also go without saying that schools that actively form children in hatred, terrorism and violence under the guise of religion, though rare, are a real problem, one that only emphasizes the importance of an adequate formation in the virtues that lead to people of character who seek and strive for peace.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.