Ivan Freud from Dawson’s Religion Department calls on us to think about the potential of religion to promote peace in both the socio-political sphere and within ourselves. With references to six religious perspectives, he shows us the peaceful values within the world’s religions, highlighting the necessity for collaboration among religious leaders and followers of the world’s diverse religious and spiritual traditions.
By looking at the past relationship of peace and religion we will gain a better understanding of the potential future relationship between peace and religion and the role that each one of us may play in that future.
Before addressing the relationship between peace and religion, it is important to recognize both the constructive and destructive effects of political, economic, and social conditions on religious thought and action. It is important to note that throughout history and in all world religions, religious actors have been forces of both peace and violence.
Allow me to tell you a story…
A young First Nations Brave is distraught and goes to see the Chief, the Elder of his tribe, and tells him: “Chief, I am concerned, worried, I’ve got two wolves inside of me fighting, one is kind, compassionate, understanding, empathetic and peaceful, the other is mean, angry, vengeful, jealous and violent and I am concerned as to which one will win! To which the Chief answers: “Whichever one you feed.”
In other words, according to this story, the choices we make contribute to either more or less peace in the world, the choice being ours, hence Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In our consideration of what the relationship between peace and religion has been to date, let us first consider the relationship of religion to “outer peace”, peace in the socio-political sphere, then its relationship to “inner peace”, peace within the individual.
Outer Peace and Religion
In 2010, ten years after the first Millennium World Peace Summit of Spiritual and Religious Leaders was held at the United Nations, 6 religious scholars were invited to reflect on the background paper of the conference penned by David Little, entitled “Religion, World Order, and Peace.”
As an example of the past relationship between outer peace and religion, allow me to offer, though very briefly, the highlights of these 6 perspectives. Along with each insight, I’ll also ask you to consider which wolf would be fed by the insight provided.
Wande Ambimbola, writing on behalf of African religions, underlines the need for the United Nations to participate directly in upholding human rights, minority rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples as outlined in such legal statutes as the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1993), as well as the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994). These are to be upheld in the face of “coercive manipulation” and “shameful and violent” attempts at conversion.
1. In other words, do people have a right to not be subjected to violent proselityzation? Which wolf would be fed by protecting, through legal, non-violent means, those who are most vulnerable?
Varun Soni writing from the perspective of Hinduism stresses the importance of engaging a “hermeneutics of peace,” an interpretative framework, that, if peace by peaceful means is considered a sacred priority, would be a basis for selecting, accentuating, and coordinating, texts, doctrines, and practices from different religious traditions.
2. Seeing as there are both peaceful and violent elements in all world religions and considering the context of their composition, which wolf would be fed by promoting the nonviolent, peace-supporting interpretations of religious texts, doctrines and practices?
James Heft, writing from the Christian perspective, emphasizes that while recognizing the damage done in the past, we can nonetheless remain hopeful given that “… the non-violent dispositions of Christianity… are exerting a growing influence on Church teaching” stressing the importance of paying attention to the place of forgiveness, accountability, reconciliation and restorative justice in post-conflict settings.
3. When considering the relationship of Christianity and peace, which wolf would be fed by focusing on the peace-enhancing teachings of Christianity’s founder rather than the atrocities committed in his name?
In discussing the relationship of Judaism to peace, Jeff Israel brings forth a subject of broad importance, namely the connection between religious, non-religious, and ethnic beliefs to national identity as an international problem that needs urgent attention as it underlies many of the festering tensions found in cases of ethno-religious and ethno-national conflicts around the world.
4. Which wolf would be fed by endorsing the establishment and recognition of “just states” in bringing about and maintaining peace?
Commenting from the perspective of Islam, Abdulaziz Sachedina suggests that the challenge of achieving a reasonable balance between heartfelt religious conviction and commitment to a public sphere governed by human rights and the rule of law would best be addressed by highlighting the universal notions of democracy, pluralism, and human rights within Islamic scriptures and tradition. This would, in turn, form the foundations for a belief in a “functional secularity” which, being informed, if only in part, by moral and metaphysical beliefs would attract the support of both the liberal and conservative wings of Islam.
5.Which wolf would be fed by demonstrating respect in accommodating religious perspectives on socio-political matters?
In addressing Buddhism’s contribution to world peace, Donald K. Swearer explores the work of 4 socially engaged Asian Buddhists, namely Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, A.T. Ariyaratne, and Cheng Yen, in their efforts to promote environmental protection, poverty alleviation, economic development, and inclusive medical care for all.
6. Which wolf would be fed by not only encouraging but also actively participating in protecting the environment, alleviating poverty, promoting economic development and making inclusive medical care for all a reality?
In order to better understand how we may consider these six different past perspectives on outer peace and religion, allow me to tell you a second story, that of the “Six Blind People and the Thing in the Jungle”! Six blind people enter a jungle and come upon something unknown, the first, feeling it to be muscular and wriggling, says it is a snake; the second, feeling it to be hard and sharp, says it is a spear; the third, with her arms wrapped around it, calls it a tree; the fourth, sensing something moving in front of her and feeling a breeze on her face, says it is a fan; the fifth, arms wide and pushing with all of his might, says it is a wall; and the sixth, tying knots in it, says it is a rope. What they had come upon was an elephant! The elephant’s trunk was mistaken to be a snake, the tusk a spear, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, the side a wall, and the tail a rope.
The point of this story is to communicate the importance of stepping in the other’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective, listening and respecting one another’s views and in so doing coming to a more complete understanding of the whole!
This view is reflected in David Little’s conclusion to his overview of the six religious perspectives cited above: “It is hard to see how initiatives in the field of peace and development undertaken by religious and spiritual leaders can be fully effective or sustained without continuing interaction and cooperation with the work of international agencies such as the U.N.” According to the Spiritual and Religious leaders assembled,
Humanity stands at a critical juncture in history, one that calls for strong moral and spiritual leadership to help set a new direction for society. We, as religious and spiritual leaders, recognise our special responsibility for the well-being of the human family and peace on earth. [We] pledge our commitment to work together to promote the inner and outer conditions that foster peace and the nonviolent management and resolution of conflict. We appeal to the followers of all religious traditions and to the human community as a whole to cooperate in building peaceful societies, to seek mutual understanding through dialogue where there are differences, to refrain from violence, to practice compassion, and to uphold the dignity of all life.
7. Which wolf would be fed by the continued interaction and cooperation among religious and spiritual leaders with international agencies such as the U.N.?
Inner Peace and Religion
Having considered the relationship of “outer peace”, that of the socio-political sphere and religion, let us turn our attention, if only briefly, to the relationship between “inner peace”, peace within the individual, and religion.
Said simply, inner peace is cultivated through such practices as prayer and meditation. The idea being to turn inwards, thereby calming mind and body, and cultivating peace within, for, as Mark Twain said: “I’ve lived through a lot of horrible things in my life and some of them actually happened!” What Twain is saying is that we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering, compound our suffering, with our minds; as Abraham Maslow said: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, you see all problems as nails!”
Through practices such as meditation, we gain a greater objectivity in regards to our mind stuff, our monkey mind, and so become better able to manage our mind stuff thereby engendering a greater inner peace.
The importance of inner peace in promoting peace is intrinsically linked to the idea that although we may appear to be separate beings, in fact we are actually One!
This is the idea behind former prime-minister of India, Sarvanpalli Radhakrishnan’s statement to “love your neighbour as yourself; because you are your neighbour, it is illusion that has you believing that you are separate!”
This conception is well-explained by the Buddhist notion of Emptiness which stipulates that Life is empty of self-existence, svabhava… In other words, ‘no man is an island’ and ‘nothing exists in a vacuum’. The Buddhist definition of Emptiness states clearly that we are not separate but are rather inter-dependently co-arising.
A notion potentially echoed in Existential Philosophy when Jean-Paul Sartre offers: “The other is hell.” If we were to remove the category of otherness, if we dropped the notion of us vs. them in favour of only us would we then, not also do away with the notion of hell? Maybe?
Scientifically speaking, Albert Einstein offers his view that: “There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.”
I remember being at a weekend workshop given by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he told us the story of “The Missed Nail” – holding a nail with the left hand, and hammering with the right, the right hand misses the nail and hammers the left thumb instead – does the left thumb damn the right hand for its mistake? No. What happens? Immediately, the right hand drops the hammer and hugs the left thumb.
For this reason, our inherent inter-connectivity, developing inner peace is seen as an essential component in developing peace in our world, on this our humble globe.
Before concluding, it is important to mention a third type of peace, one that embraces both the inner and outer dimensions, and that is Peace with the Earth – to see the Earth as Sacred – an idea elucidated by indigenous traditions, as well as Gaia and Goddess religions.
It is also the idea elucidated by the renowned Canadian Scientist and Environmentalist David Suzuki who urges each of us to pressure our representatives to make declarations recognizing a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, then to use these declarations in pressuring provincial governments to pass an environmental bill of rights, and finally to amend the Charter of Rights to recognise the fundamental human right to a healthy environment. If interested, do check out bluedot.ca!
Speaking of David Suzuki, I remember attending a talk given by Mr. Suzuki at McGill a number of years back where he offered this insight: “The air in my lungs is the same air that is in your lungs and it is the same air that is in the lungs of all breathing creatures on this planet!” Through each and every breath, we are intimately connected to one another.
8. Which wolf, then, is fed by extending our empathy to embrace the entire world and all peoples?
Having considered the past relationships between religion and “inner peace”, “outer peace” and “Peace with the Earth”, we are left to consider Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” or, as understood through the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Peace in oneself, Peace in the world.”
A friend of mine told me a story many years back, he said that there are two kinds of people in the world, now I believe that there are as many kinds of people as there are people, but for the sake of the story, the first type of person is walking down the road of life and almost falls into a deep hole, he pulls back, thinks “Lucky Me!” and walks on. The second type of person is walking down the road of life, almost falls in the hole, thinks “Lucky Me!” AND recognizes that others may not be as fortunate as he, and so he plugs the hole and puts a sign saying: “Danger: There is a hole here!”
9. Which wolf is being fed by the second type of person? Which type of person do you want to be?
What then, might be our future?
Living in Montreal, where we have near free education, free medical services, water and food a plenty, an incredible mix of all the cultures of the world, and an unparalleled freedom of expression, offers us an incredible opportunity. As I tell my students, look around, your greatest resource is one another!
If we are genuinely committed to bringing about a lasting peace in our world, and accept Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to be the change we wish to see in the world, then the future relationship between peace and religion may well be in our hands; and so I leave you with the words of Margaret Mead and a few final questions:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If not now, then when?
If not here, then where?
If not us, then whom?
Selected Works Cited
Little, David. “’Religion, World Order and Peace’ – The Years Later.” Cross Currents 60. 3 (September 2010): 297-306.
Dawson College. Religion
For an inspiring movement to unite the world’s religions and each of us on a project to create a more peaceful world, have a look at the Charter for Compassion, initiated in 2008 by religious historian Karen Armstrong. Become a member, read some poignant stories on the power of compassion, and be the change you wish to see.