Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religions and Violence: An Analytical Synthesis

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religions and Violence: An Analytical Synthesis

Article excerpt

In the first generation of inter-religious dialogue, which aimed to promote mutual appreciation and understanding, religious thinkers defined religions by their ideals, by their cherished visions of a perfect alternative universe of peace, truth and justice for all. Violence was dismissed as a distortion of religious teaching or as an indication of the absence of tree religious spirit. Such beliefs have grown increasingly untenable, as the public voices of the world's conflicts have clothed themselves ever more with religious language. Religion has become linked with violence in the public mind, and it is time to confront all aspects of the religious involvement against, in and for violence. This was the avowed mission of the 2002 meeting of "thinking together".

Hans Ucko, who ran the meeting, set two immediate goals. For the first, he challenged the group: What can a group of religious thinkers say together about the role of religion in violence? What are the causes of violence, what are the possible legitimate occasions for violence? And what might religions do to help overcome violence? The joint statement "Religion and Violence" (see p. 173) is our group attempt to nuance these questions and to begin to answer them.

The second goal of the meeting was to share insights into these questions from our individual traditions, and the other essays in this issue are the papers prepared for this meeting and discussed together. They do not follow a set format or even analyze the same set of questions, as each presenter selected what she or he would present. Each one provides insight into various aspects of this very complicated issue; read together, they contribute to a large set of questions that can provide a fuller picture of violence and religion. No one paper answers or even asks all the questions: assembling them provides us with a guide to our understanding as we "fill in the blanks" for each religion in further study and analysis.

The contemporary situation

Religions find themselves actively engaged in violence. Islam confronts the rise of militant extremism and the world's perception of Islam as a violent religion. Judaism is coping with the challenges of having military power and with the national struggle with the Palestinians and the immediate threat of suicide bombing, Hinduism faces the issue of the violent confrontations between Hindus and Muslims in North India. Buddhism must deal with the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the genocide in Cambodia and its aftermath. Even Christianity, which has a past of violent conflict, now must reevaluate its concepts of just war, now that technology makes limited war very difficult and the issue arises of whether to intervene militarily in order to prevent genocide or other atrocities.


Many of our presenters introduce terms of their own traditions. Perhaps the most famous term today is jihad, often wrongly translated as "holy war". But, Rashied Omar points out, war is never holy in Islam. Jihad is "effort" in pursuit of a commendable aim, and includes peaceful persuasion and passive resistance; to the Sufis, the greatest jihad is spiritual. He also introduces another important term, sulh, which indicates effort to ending conflict, including restorative justice and peace-making. As for Judaism, Hans Ucko points out the importance of shalom, a combination of peace and well-being, and Deborah Weissman shows that the word for violence, alimut, is related to the word for "mute" (elem), an understanding that people resort to violence when they have no other outlet. Both Anantanand Rambachan and Mahinda Deegalle call attention to the term ahimsa, "non-violence", important in both Hinduism and Buddhism; Rambachan further discusses the dharma yuddha, the term for wars fought in defense of dharma and for the security and well being of the community.

Text and context

The sacred texts of our religions present "mixed messages". …

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