What can religion contribute to healing in the Middle East?


Thanks to organizers

The prevalent image of religion in the world today—and especially in the Middle East—is an image of extremism, of xenophobia and of violence.

It is difficult to argue that this image has no truth to it: in the name of religion, atrocities have been committed. Religion has, in many cases, fanned the flames of extremism. What is it about religion and religions that accounts for this unholy alliance between faith and extreme violence? Many people of faith seem to have absolute faith, that allows no questioning of authority and that makes no room for other truths. When we interpret present-day reality through ancient scriptures, we may lose touch with those around us and their human needs. And when we expect reward for our actions in the world-to-come, it may impel us to be violent to others in the world-that-is.

But, is this really the case? Might it not be more a question of the extremist, violent forms of our religions being given a great deal more exposure than the rest of us? After all, a bombing, an attack on worshippers, the language of incitement—these are more newsworthy than peaceful dialogue and coexistence. Harmony among groups doesn’t sell newspapers.

Our efforts to achieve peace could stand to learn a great deal from the various religious traditions. I’d like to suggest at least five areas in which this could take place:

  1. Religions provide people with a particular sense of identity, rootedness, community and ultimate meaning. American Rabbi Michael Lerner of TIKKUN Magazine has called this “the politics of meaning.” Particularism implies assumption of historical responsibility for an identifiable community. A morally responsible human being has to act within a particular context in which he or she assumes responsibility for particular people. It is rootedness in the historical experience of a particular group that can nurture moral behavior.
  2. Religions give us traditional cultures, which are the repository of the accumulated human wisdom of generations of people who may have faced dilemmas similar to our own. Wipe out “tribal” identities and you wipe out the cultural anchoring of moral imperatives. Without the stories different peoples have of their own suffering, what identification will they develop with the suffering of others? Without a sense of tribal honor, what motivation will they develop for decent behavior? Indeed, as philosopher Michael Walzer has suggested, “…the members of all the different societies, because they are human, can acknowledge each other’s different ways, respond to each other’s cries for help, learn from each other and march (sometimes) in each other’s parades.”
  3. It is precisely our monotheistic faiths that have given us the notion of a merciful and compassionate God Who expects us to emulate Him in our human behavior. We generally have, as well, stories of saintly individuals and groups from whom we can learn.
  4. At least two of our religious cultures are based on complex legal systems– Sharia within Islam and Halacha within Judaism. These systems take lofty ideals of peace and social justice and translate them into everyday, incremental actions. We, too, must learn to translate our dreams for peace and social justice into concrete steps we can take in our day-to-day lives.
  5. Perhaps the most basic thing we can learn from religion is the notion of hope. When we believe in some transcendent power that promotes the Good, we have a way of coping with the despair that almost inevitably arises from our apparent lack of success. And we have seen that despair breeds violence. One of my dear friends is Bishop Mounib Younan, the Palestinian Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem. Whenever I despair—and that is most of the time—Mounib reminds me, “As long as you believe in a Living God, you must have hope.”

I do not, of course, wish to ignore or even minimize the intense danger posed to world peace by many people who claim to be acting in the name of their religions and ethnic or national causes. But here, I believe, there are two salient points to be made: First, we must strive to emphasize within each of our cultures those elements which promote a more open and compassionate attitude to other human beings. For Jews, this may be an emphasis on the Abrahamic heritage and the Noachide Covenant. All of our religious traditions have resources that can inform a more peaceful approach. Secondly, sometimes it is precisely when people feel that their own identity is under attack that they respond violently. Again, I will bring a quotation from Walzer: “When my parochialism is threatened, then I am wholly, radically parochial…and nothing else…. Under conditions of security, I will acquire a more complex identity than the idea of tribalism suggests.”

Our goal, then, should not be the eradication of group identities but their empowerment through ensuring the safety and security of the different groups. And in this important task, inter-religious dialogue can help develop a grass-roots climate more conducive to peace.