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Religiously Fighting For Peace
Stuart Macdonald

If you ask a God-fearing, Dubya loving, American Conservative to name a dangerous race, they will quite likely respond "The Arabs" (that is unless they have endured a particularly nasty athletics incident)

"The cry of the soul for meaning and for God has been drowned out by the battle cry of those claiming to have God on their side"

- Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General.

As the old Labour preacher Roy Hattersley has recently pointed out, the Christian Bible justifies everything and anything from loving thy neighbour, to giving him a sound thrashing should he profess a predilection for other boys. It has been used as the justification for countless causes down the centuries, whether worthy or otherwise. For example, the case of the Crusades when Pope Urban II called upon the nobility of western Europe (the Franks) to flock to the assistance of the Byzantine people in their struggle against the Turkish-led Moors, in 1095. This inspired plea resulted in the deaths of several thousand men and women, over several centuries and is the principal reason why the Pope has just made what amounts to a peace-keeping trip to Greece. This is something of an over-simplification, yet Kofi Annan hit the nail right on the head in the above quotation - except he was, I suspect, taking a somewhat more contemporary view. The problem remains that people too often use religion to justify the use of extreme force to get what they want.

It is undoubtedly the case that the numerous religious wars which mankind has waged around the world are not so much cries of faith, as struggles for the supremacy of different religious paradigms. If you ask a God-fearing, Dubya loving, American Conservative to name a dangerous race, they will quite likely respond "The Arabs" (that is unless they have endured a particularly nasty athletics incident). The inverse applies to Muslims, who by now will have been thoroughly convinced that the Yanks have it in for them. Yet, why should people be condemned for holding different - although not necessarily opposing - religious beliefs?

Some careful research will reveal the startling conclusion that the welfare of followers and of their fellow humankind is given prominence in all of the world's most popular religions. For example, the Hindu principle of dharma - live righteously, do your duty; or the fact that one of the five pillars of Islam concerns the giving of alms. Then there is the path of Buddhism, which involves the avoidance of ill-will and hurt to living things. All would seem to preach tolerance and compassion as their main tenets and yet religion and war continue as uncomfortable bedfellows. In Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India and Pakistan - the list is a long and harrowing testament to where humankind continues to go awry.

The Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have only just buried a hatchet which has hung over their squabble for the last thousand years, since the Great Schism in 1054. Even by religion's often long-winded standards, this is an eternity. The reason for their differences - the sacking of Constantinople, the centre of the Orthodox faith, in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Then there was the four hundred year occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Muslims from neighbouring Turkey, which the Roman Catholic Church did nothing to prevent. It seems that for some in high places, the hatred of Catholics has finally gone on for long enough. Yet many of the Orthodox faithful turned out to protest at the welcome which was extended to the leader of their sister faction of Christianity. The Pope apologised unreservedly for the past actions of Catholics and still they booed. It seems there's just no pleasing some people.

However, this raises an interesting point - that of the concept of eternity. It is quite obvious that many Greeks still feel (with some justification) enraged about past injustices. In the spirit of a supposedly forgiving religion it is perhaps disappointing that they continue to harbour a grudge, yet at least they are conscious of the long-term. One of the great problems facing the human race today is a loss of the concept of the progression of time. We are all now following various new faiths, most of which are built around the principle of hedonism. Whether it be shopping or football, in our current live-for-the-moment society, the consequences of our actions are no longer considered to the extent that they once were.

The musician Brian Eno puts this quite nicely, stating that our lack of empathy across time means that future generations shall suffer from our short-termism. In terms of religion, we are no longer encouraged to live in fear of the power of our gods. Therefore, the sense of our minor role as tenants of the planet, preparing for the second coming or reincarnation, has been superseded by the realisation of our mortality. We live now not for the future but for the present and so seek to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, often at the expense of our great-grandchildren.

This feeling has manifested itself in the various hateful and destructive civil wars which have blighted so many countries. For example, the Balkans, Afghanistan and to a lesser degree Northern Ireland. There are obviously other issues such as oppression, which have led to tensions bubbling over, yet in each case, all parties claim to have God on their side. Would any god sanction such wilful violence? The last time people became so destructive, the Christian Bible states that God drowned everyone apart from those lucky enough to be on the Ark. The failure of the Americans to introduce anything in place of the abandoned Kyoto treaty, could well result in a global catastrophe of similarly devastating proportions.

The Crusades may have been over for many centuries, yet religious wars continue today as horrifically as ever before. When we consider the long-term and hope that our grievances will some day be resolved, we may all be watching from heaven or hell, or we may actually be present in some form or another, but by then it will probably be too late.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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