Faith Beyond Factions

By Maire Collette, O.P. | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

Recently, while I was discussing something with an atheistic colleague at the CND office, the phone rang. I answered it with the normal phrase, "Hello, Christians here." The reply was "Hello, Muslim here! I just want to tell you, there is no problem in my doing a workshop at your Conference." When I had finished, my atheist friend expressed astonishment that two religious traditions which she considered mutually hostile were talking amicably terms, and working together in something as apparently irreligious as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

She is not the only person who thinks this way. For centuries faith traditions have been portrayed as hostile to each other and to the secular realm of political and social life. There is some truth in this: every group has its history of intolerance and violence. The differences integral to belief systems have been used by states to further nationalism and indeed create whole economic and social structures hostile to peace and justice.

To glance at history in this way is to ignore much of religion in its true sense. There are real differences within religious belief, but they are superficial when it comes to making peace.

In all religious tradition there is a conviction that any discipline or binding-the word religion comes from the Latin "to bind"-imposed by the God or gods, is ultimately for the liberation of the noblest aspect of human nature. To be thus liberated is to recognize oneself as mortal and fallible, and as dependent on the gift of life-or God-interdependent with all life forms on the planet and within the universe.

This recognition is only fully reached by the great mystics in all the traditions, and dictates a life of service, reconciliation and courage. While some withdrawal for contemplation is essential, the true religious person will be actively engaged with the structures of society to ensure they work for the just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human work. This lies at the heart of the scriptures of the three monotheistic faiths. It is little different among the polytheistic traditions. I have been deeply moved at the learning Christians have experienced in Western Europe from Native Americans or from tribal peoples of the Pacific who honor their environment by prayer to their localized deities and thus grow up with a sense of reverence which we so sadly have lost.

Practice as we know, leaves much to be desired: rituals become superstitions: hierarchies can and do become politicized in the worst sense of the word and become tools of the state, slaves of fear. But the true believer will not disappear.

Let me give you some examples of the positive gains for peace which religious traditions have made.

In spite of the Crusades and the wars of expansion, until around 1490 Judaism, Christianity and Islam actually had a strong tradition of joint scholarship and mutual tolerance and respect. It was known as a Golden Age. The world benefitted not only from exchanges of theology but from the science and medicine thus made available through joint study.

Many Jews honor the Just Goyim who worked to help them flee persecution in our times, who like them endured the camps by opposing the unjust regime of a tyrant.

In Iraq today professors of two great faiths mourn the loss of their co-operative friendship in terms of buildings and books, but the friendship abides. The test of this mutual respect was born out in the west during the war: neither Mr. Bush nor Saddam Hussein was able to hijack the war into a Crusade, a holy war, a jihad. Christians in England set up a Coalition to further peace through on-going aid and initiatives aimed at inter-racial dialogue. Dialogue with the Jewish community maintained a sensitivity to their loyalties and their very real fears of anti-semitism. A widening of peace issues has occurred as a result: that is why a Muslim is giving a workshop at the Christian CND Conference.

Another example of positive attitudes is in the Liberation struggles of Latin America and South Africa. In the former particularly, Biblical theology has been combined with Marxist politics. Communities are empowered by their faith to shake off enslavement to oppressive systems and to seek justice in community. There, not only governments but the church structures, which were often allied to the status quo, are challenged.

Northern Ireland is often portrayed as a place of religious violence. However those who know the province realize that the faith communities work with each other and provide refuge for those attempting to escape the terrorist factions and the effects of political malaise.

There are many who would say this is little different from a humanist approach. Perhaps they are right. But others, we believers, have little faith in humans alone: the history of betrayal is too long and bloody. The religious vision is one which integrates a desire to release and reveal that which is divine in other humans and integrates that vision with a love for creation, a passion for justice and a willingness to be part of the struggle for sane political life, even if necessary to die for it.

In building peace between East and West I think religion has a strength which mere politics cannot claim. The Soviet Union is in the process of reconstruction, of opening up. In many ways this has made life harder, because freedom and justice are hard work. You have to acknowledge the failures of the past, the injustices, and own them.

Here those faith communities can be of help. They have a tradition of acknowledgement, of repentance and of forgiveness. They will not forget the injustice, not because they are vindictive, but because we have to remember what we are capable of if we deny our true humanity.

Those same faith communities will need to learn from others outside the Soviet Union. They will have to learn not to reject all of Marxism, for if anyone thinks that Capitalism is the answer to human problems, let me assure your that it is not. Somehow we have to integrate the best of that theory with our religious traditions.

No one has a monopoly over truth. but I think that in the Soviet Union the life of the spirit was never destroyed. Their beautiful word "Dukhovnost", not yet well known in the West, means that individuals are not simply on a private trip to God but that their view of God and therefore humanity colors and inspires their whole public life. They have already, in the process of perestroika, created "political, spiritual and moral preconditions for economic reform." (Georgi Arbatov, quoted in the International Herald Tribune, June 30 1988). It is a triumph that spirituality is seen as valid in political and economic debate

Sister Maire-Colette heads Christian CND in England. Excerpted from her Moscow END Convention '91 presentation.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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