The Ambivalence of the Sacred

by R. Scott Appleby

Excerpted from the introduction of R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000): 1-19. 
© 2000. Reprinted with permission
of the publisher and author. 

Assembled in the cavernous auditorium of the National Defense University were 200 officers representing the various branches of the U.S. armed forces, along with policy analysts from the State Department and a smattering of foreign diplomats and visitors. The officers, enrolled in a program of advanced studies in military leadership and strategic planning, were taking a course on contemporary foreign policy challenges. I opened my guest lecture, "Religious Militance and International Affairs," by taking an impromptu poll: "How many of you have prayed today?" Reluctantly, it seemed, slightly more than half the audience raised their hands. "Whether or not you raised your hand, how many think your prayer life is none of my business?" With what seemed greater enthusiasm, more than 150 hands shot into the air.

The exercise led to a discussion of a striking legacy of the United States and the modern West in general: the development and institutionalization of the "public" and "private" realms of life as separate cultural and social spaces. The public-private distinction informs the way many Americans understand and practice religion, among other modes of social behavior. The assumption prevails, not least among government officials, that religion is primarily a private—that is, nonpublic—matter and that the principle of church‑state separation dictates it remain so in the strictest sense. Corresponding legal interpretations of the U.S. Constitution argue that the First Amendment requires the government to refrain not only from favoring any religion but also from engaging or directly cooperating with U.S. religious bodies in domestic or foreign policy initiatives. While the debate among constitutional lawyers on the proper interpretation of the religion clause is by no means settled, many policymakers, legislators, and diplomats tend to adopt a minimalist attitude toward religion's possible roles vis-à-vis the state.

The minimalist approach survives in the United States despite the fact that religiously motivated individuals and communities make important contributions to the public debate about a range of contested issues, receive public funds to conduct nonprofit charitable and relief work at home and abroad, and have recently assumed a greater role in administering state and local welfare programs.

The dismal record of medieval and modern religions whose theocratic or missionary ambitions were advanced and magnified by state power lends powerful support to the minimalist argument. The core values of secularized Western societies, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, were elaborated in outraged response to inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, and wars conducted in the name of God.  Religion was "the burning motivation, the one that inspired fanatical devotion and the most vicious hatred" in the wars that plagued Europe from the 1560s to the 1650s.  Spanish Catholic conquistadors and English Puritan theocrats carried the crusading mentality to the New World, where the disestablishment of religion became a possibility only after the political leadership and government of the colonies passed into the hands of nonsectarian entrepreneurs, deists, and "Enlightened" Christians. The Catholic Church vehemently opposed the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century and condemned its offspring—liberalism, democracy, and secular nationalism—in the nineteenth. Religions, both foreign and domestic, were implicated in the imperial project—the colonial expansion of the British and French Empires, which between them controlled Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and large territories of Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The litany of religion's offenses inspired sustained and sometimes violent reaction. In parts of Latin America, Europe and Asia anticlericalism enjoyed a long if episodic history. Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideologies targeted religions as the cultural prop of oppressive regimes that exploited workers made passive by promises of a heavenly reward for injustices meekly borne; such atheistic propaganda inspired Communism's brutal repression of religion in twentieth-century Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere.  In recent decades, even as Christianity's direct political influence has waned, feminists have indicted it as a patriarchal religion that practices gender discrimination and provides broad cultural legitimation for the oppression of women. Few major religious traditions, in fact, have escaped damaging critical scrutiny on this question. "Secular humanism is deeply appealing for feminists," writes the American philosopher and ethicist Martha Nussbaum, "since there is no doubt that the world's major religions, in their real life historical form, have been unjust to women both theoretically and practically." Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, in addition to Christianity, have provided innumerable instances of religiously legitimated discrimination against women.

As a result of this prolonged backlash, Christianity suffered decline or loss of influence in Western nations where the churches had attempted to share or control state power. In the nations of Europe, where religious decline has been most pronounced, the minimalist merely invoked the bitter memory of absolutism during the period when throne and altar were united. Religion fared better in modern Ireland and Poland, Catholic countries that never had a caesaropapist state church and where the Catholic Church was able to legitimate and lend support to movements of resistance to state power. When the Church attempted to exploit the political gains it had helped to win, however, as it did in Poland following the demise of the communist state, it quickly lost credibility and influence. In the United States, where church and state have been separated and where religion thrives, the minimalist objects to the redefinition and expansion of religion's public role on the grounds that its penetration into previously secular realms might weaken Jefferson's metaphorical wall of separation.

To greater or lesser degrees, then, reflecting their different histories, the nations of North America and Europe came to observe the public-private distinction with the aim of containing religion's influence over public affairs. But this is to say less than meets the eye. "The West" represents less than one-sixth of the world's population, and millions of nonwesterners, as well as countless people living in the West, do not share broadly secularist assumptions about the place of religion in society.

Indeed, literally billions of people structure their daily routines around the spiritual practices enjoined by a religious tradition, and they often do so quite "publicly." Dress, eating habits, gender relations, negotiations of time, space, and social calendar—all unfold beneath a sacred canopy. Around much of the world, politics and civil society are suffused with religion. In regions of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, for example, it is not uncommon for political leaders and government officials to demonstrate (and sometimes exaggerate) the depth of their formal religious commitment. That tests of moral character can be conducted apart from religious norms, however they are construed, is a highly contested notion in Islamic societies. Secularists, by contrast, tend to reject arguments and claims drawn exclusively from religious doctrines or sacred scripture—sources properly confined, in their view, to the environs of church, synagogue, and mosque. The discomfort secularists feel when overtly religious discourse makes its way into public debate reflects how deeply they have internalized the privatization of belief. It also suggests how easy it is for secular politicians of the realist school of international relations to overlook or underestimate the complex, multiple roles and functions of religion in societies populated by believers who reserve final obedience to a sovereign deity or by adherents of a spiritual order like the Buddhist sangha.

Public religion, it turns out, is neither the bane of modernity nor its victim. The secularization theory, held in one form or another by the founders of the modern social sciences from Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Auguste Comte to Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud, predicted that one powerful consequence of modernity would be the institutional differentiation of the religious and secular spheres, accompanied not only by the privatization of religion but also by its marginalization and decline. Since the 1960s, however, that theory has come under serious attack, both as the result of inconsistencies and incoherences within the theory itself and as evidence of "religious resurgence" has steadily accumulated. If the core of the secularization thesis remains intact, its corollaries require revision. On the one hand, modern science, capitalist markets, and modern state bureaucracies do indeed function as if God did not exist, and modern religion has become deeply privatized in some quarters. On the other hand, cracks continue to appear in the Enlightenment's wall of separation between church and state, religious institutions increasingly assume prominent public roles, and religion and politics keep forming symbiotic relations: "The New Christian Right," "political Islam," "Jewish fundamentalism," and "Hindu nationalism" are among the noteworthy hybrids. It has become clear, in other words, that religion in many cultures remains largely unaffected by the public‑private distinction, while in others religion has been significantly "deprivatized" and could hardly be said to be in decline.

In recent scholarship on the subject, furthermore, the relationship between "the secular" and "the religious" is seen to be more intimate, overlapping, and mutually transformative than previously understood. Seldom does "the secular" eliminate "the religious" in society; rather, secularization shifts the social location of religion, influences the structures it assumes and the way people perform their religious functions, or forces religion to redefine the nature, grounds, and scope of its authority. Even in secularized or secularizing societies where people come to interpret the world without constant reference to religious symbols, some theorists argue, religion is displaced rather than destroyed, as believers transfer religious loyalties to the nation, "the people," or other objects of unconditional devotion.

A second objection to those who would recast or expand religion's role in public affairs is the persistence of religiously motivated intolerance and violence among some movements and groups operating apart from (and sometimes in rebellion against) the state. Relocating religion's public expressions to the nongovernmental realm of civil society, in short, did not eliminate the problem of religious violence, even though such violence has been more prevalent in societies lacking strong civic institutions and social traditions of pluralism and tolerance.  In recent decades, violent radicalism in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iran, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and other nations has been cloaked, in whole or in part, in religious garb. Secular militants who fear little else fear religious extremism as a particularly ruthless and unpredictable destabilizing force. Religion's ability to sustain cycles of violence beyond the point of rational calculation and enlightened self‑interest was not lost on Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yassir Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for example. During the final fury of the intifada, as the death toll on both sides mounted from massacres, suicide bombings, and other acts of religious violence, erstwhile bitter enemies chose to attempt reconciliation in the face of the. unrelenting threat posed by religious extremism, the one anarchic political force that neither side seemed able to contain.

Meanwhile, new technologically enhanced acts of religious terrorism have achieved a prominence and political salience disproportionate to the actual number of perpetrators or their sympathizers. Today a tiny minority of violent religious actors might command the attention of an entire nation and its security apparatus, as was the case in the United States following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City by Muslim extremists.

In light of militant religion's reputation as a disruptive and intolerant force, whether allied with the state or operating apart from it, the officers and diplomats at the National Defense University held certain assumptions about global religious militance. I began my lecture in that vein, by describing episodes of extremist intolerance and violence that have divided communities from Pensacola, Florida, to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Such accounts can be accurate in their details and nonetheless prove terribly misleading if presented as the dominant motif in a global portrait of "militant religion.” Even when reporters and educators take care to avoid sensationalism and slander, the sheer mass of incidents and reports of undeniably dramatic events and misdeeds by religious actors reinforces the conventional wisdom that religious fervor—unrestrained religious commitment—inevitably expresses itself in violence and intolerance.

The dreadful record of religiously inspired violence and intolerance notwithstanding, history paints a more complicated picture of religious agency. Religious radicals of the Christian Reformation condemned coercion in matters of religion and were prominent among the early modern proponents of religious liberty and freedom of speech; Baptists, original advocates of religious autonomy, were champions of church-state separation.  In the twentieth century Hindu and Christian religious leaders, including martyrs for peace such as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were the most influential pioneers of nonviolence as both a spiritual practice and a political strategy. Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism have produced their own nonviolent militants and peacemakers.

The legacy of religious peacemaking grows more complex in our time. It includes Christian ethicists who are refining just war and pacifist traditions in light of contemporary military and political circumstances; Muslim jurists and theologians who are upholding the integrity and priority of Islamic law while demonstrating its adaptability in the building of just and stable Muslim societies; Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucian scholars who are studying and "translating" into second-order, accessible language the insights and values of their respective traditions, especially as they address the question of human rights; courageous religious officials who join cross-cultural and interreligious dialogues, often in the face of internal opposition from their co-religionists; transnational religious movements, such as the Community of Sant’Egidio, that are engaging in conflict transformation through the provision of good offices, mediation, and social services in nations gripped by civil or regional wars; and local religious leaders who work for genuine reconciliation among aggrieved parties.

Related to these efforts and operating on a global level are a host of religious and secular‑humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), some hailing from the early years of the United Nations and working within its auspices, others active as independent agents of peace and development. Such organizations and agencies as the Mennonite Central Committee, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Society of Engaged Buddhists, and Catholic Relief Services foster ecumenical cooperation in communities riven by ethnic and religious violence, conduct workshops and courses in religious resources for conflict transformation, and facilitate communication and dialogue between communities historically divided over competing ethnic and/or religious claims. Other NGOs, such as the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, depend on the international status of individual religious leaders whose personal prestige and integrity gain them access to high government officials.

Finally, the major religious traditions of the world themselves continue to evolve; one finds evidence, for example, of the internal transformation of international religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church, which has in recent decades reevaluated the purposes and methods of its missions and relief work in light of the imperatives of dialogue and inculturation rather than proselytism. In the 1990s several denominations and religious or multireligious bodies prepared themselves for and assumed proactive peacemaking roles. The expanded range of institutionally affiliated religious actors include lay and clerical human rights advocates, development and relief workers, missioners, denominational structures, ad hoc commissions and delegations, and interdenominational and multireligious bodies such as the World Council of Churches.

In light of these developments I sought to balance my lecture with a description of nonviolent religious militants who serve in increasing numbers as peacemakers in conflict zones around the world. That story is less familiar than the exploits of holy warriors armed to the teeth in Lebanon, Israel, Algeria, Egypt, India, and elsewhere. It tells of believers inspired by "sacred rage" against racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination; unjust economic policies; unnecessary shortages of food, clean water, and basic education for the poor; corruption and hypocrisy in government; state or corporate policies that cause environmental pollution and deforestation; the presence of millions of land mines in the soil of developing nations; and the systematic or collateral violations of human rights, whether by state security forces or by religious or secular combatants. Rather than demonize their opponents, however, these militant believers hope to be reconciled to them and seek to prevent the familiar slide from conflict into violence. Thus they focus rage at execrable acts and policies, not at "peoples" as a class or tribe or community. They plumb their respective religious traditions for spiritual and theological insights and practices useful in preventing deadly conflict or limiting its spread. In greater numbers since the end of the Cold War, these religious peacemakers have been shaping indigenous and culturally appropriate processes of conflict management and transformation by adopting and adapting concepts and vocabularies from universal rights discourse and from the NGOs with whom they increasingly collaborate.

Militant religion, in short, produces a broad spectrum of religious actors with differing attitudes toward the pursuit of political power and the use of violence. Even within those religious protest groups and oppositional movements dedicated to obtaining political power and exercising it to enforce conformity to religious law or moral codes, researchers have identified several different strategies and patterns of violent and nonviolent activism.

My contention that the new breed of religious peacemakers presents a plausible opportunity to advance the cause of peace and stability in many troubled regions and therefore deserve greater recognition and support proved less compelling to the officers, policy analysts, and diplomats than the guided tour of violent religious movements. As the audience filed out of the auditorium, one of the officers remarked that my presentation had confirmed his previous opinions about the topic. "Religion is powerful medicine,”  he offered, "and it should be administered in small doses, if at all.”

This [essay] is a rejoinder to that statement and to the broader sensibilities and opinions it represents. Specifically, I refute the notion that religion, having so often inspired, legitimated, and exacerbated deadly conflicts, cannot be expected to contribute consistently to their peaceful resolution. I argue, to the contrary, that a new form of conflict transformation—"religious peacebuilding"—is taking shape on the ground, in and across local communities plagued by violence. This is a promising development, but it remains inchoate and fragile, uncoordinated and in need of greater numbers of adequately trained practitioners, more study and testing, and theoretical elaboration.

It would be self-defeating to exaggerate the peacebuilding potential of religious actors and religious communities, to see them in isolation from other contributors, or to present them as uncomplicated, ready-made resources for peacemaking. Nor do I wish to suggest the existence of consensus about religious peacebuilding among its practitioners; no such consensus yet exists, and it will take sustained and coordinated efforts, on the ground and in the classroom, to bring its fundamental concepts and methods together in a coherent presentation that orients trainees to a core set of skills and concepts that can be applied with sensitivity to specific cultural situations. At present, the number of ideas and proposals for building peace within each major religious tradition and across religious traditions far exceeds their application and testing. Finally, it would be ludicrous to minimize the recurrent threat of religious violence. I have devoted two chapters to its various patterns and justifications, both because conceptually it deserves study alongside nonviolent religious militance and because religious violence, as well as state-sponsored or structural violence, is a major threat to religious peacebuilders themselves.

If it would be shortsighted to downplay the difficulties associated with promoting religious peacebuilding, it is equally myopic to overlook what Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson have called "the missing dimension of statecraft." The unique social location, institutional configuration, cultural power, and remarkable persistence of religions commend the cultivation of elements within them that foster harmonious and just relations among peoples and nurture the seeds of reconciliation when conflict threatens or after it occurs. Their daily contact with the masses, long record of charitable service, and reputation for integrity have earned religious leaders and institutions a privileged status and an unparalleled legitimacy, especially in societies where religion enjoys a measure of independence from the state. In an era when so many violent conflicts occur among people living in close proximity to one another, such virtues give local religious actors a decided advantage in conflict management over most governments and their remote bureaucracies.  Operating from within religious communities or as members of transnational social movements, religious actors offer irreplaceable and effective remedies to the ills that beset societies mired in social inequalities and vulnerable to systemic or random violence.

Religion is indeed powerful medicine; it should be administered prudently, selectively, and deliberately.

Definition of Terms

But who counts as a "religious actor"? That depends, of course, on how one defines religion. We begin with a simple definition. Religion is the human response to a reality perceived as sacred… At this point, suffice it to say that religion, as interpreter of the sacred, discloses and celebrates the transcendent source and significance of human existence. So ambitious an enterprise requires a formidable array of symbolic, moral, and organizational resources. In a common formula: religion embraces a creed, a cult, a code of conduct, and a confessional community. A creed defines the standard of beliefs and values concerning the ultimate origin, meaning, and purpose of life. It develops from myths—symbol-laden narratives of sacred encounters—and finds official expression in doctrines and dogmas. Cult encompasses the prayers, devotions, spiritual disciplines, and patterns of communal worship that give richly suggestive ritual expression to the creed. A code of conduct defines the explicit moral norms governing the behavior of those who belong to the confessional community. Thus religion constitutes an integral culture, capable of forming personal and social identity and influencing subsequent experience and behavior in profound ways.

Cultural pluralism rests in no small part on the multiple interpretations people give to experiences they understand to be religious. The combinations of creed, code, cult, and type of religious community in the late twentieth century are as numerous and diverse as the social identities, political parties, and legal claims that they underwrite. As a community of response to the sacred, a religion can be world affirming or world renouncing, intricately structured or loosely organized, nontheistic, polytheistic, or monotheistic. Thus it is hardly surprising that "the statutes, cases, and regulations of many countries embrace a bewildering array of definitions of ‘religion,’ which neither local officials nor commentators have been able to integrate."

To complicate the matter further, in common parlance the word religion may be used to refer not only to the formally organized community of faith but also to the beliefs and spirituality of individual members, subgroups, or movements operating at various psychological and social distances from the institution and the official custodians of the tradition. Individuals and subgroups adapt the sacred stories, laws, and rituals of their host tradition to specific purposes. Religious actors may thereby deviate from the strictures of the host religion, even though they inherited specific spiritual practices from that religion and consider themselves to be acting on its behalf. Other spiritually motivated actors act independently from, or even in conscious defiance of, organized religion.

When I refer … to "religious actors," I mean to include people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts. The spiritual freedom of individual religious actors notwithstanding, the term religion (from the Latin religare, "to bind together") suggests a communal orientation and common purpose, and conflict analysts tend to be concerned with collectives—movements, groups, organizations, militias, and denominations—about whose behavior reasonable generalizations can be made. Religious NGOs and other voluntary associations that operate outside formal denominational structures fall within my definition of a religious collective: religiously motivated, they have officers, leaders, established procedures, membership requirements, material resources, and vested interests, not least of which is self-preservation. Most find their religious bearings and spiritual resources in a multigenerational religious community grounded in a distinctive and encompassing tradition ("that which has been passed down from our forebears" [from the Latin traditio, "to pass along or hand over"]).

Notwithstanding the contemporary diversity of religions and spiritualities, it remains meaningful to speak of the world's major or "great" religious traditions, those centuries-old families of believers that spawned or sacralized civilizations, and within whose broad and sometimes fluid boundaries one still finds the vast majority of the world's population. At the same time, these great traditions are changing in social composition, theological profile, ideology, and institutional structure.

Religious Militants: Extremists and Peacemakers

Recent debates about the roles of religion in deadly conflict find analysts gravitating toward one of two extremes. Some follow in the tradition of religion's cultured despisers, pointing to incidents of religious terrorism or to the religiously inspired atrocities in conflict settings like the Balkans as evidence that religion is inherently opposed to progress, threatening a return of the Dark Ages. Others, including secularists who are friendlier to organized religion, as well as many religious officials themselves, expect it to uphold the humanist credo, including the proposition that human life is the highest good, the one inviolable reality. These proponents of enlightened religion tend to explain away acts of terrorism, murder, and sabotage committed in the name of religion. This is not Islam, this is not Christianity, this is not Sikhism, they contend, precisely because the act and agents in question violate the sanctity and dignity of human life.

The either/or method of analyzing religion—built on the assumption that one must decide whether religion is essentially a creative and "civilizing" force or a destructive and inhumane specter from a benighted past—is no less prevalent for being patently absurd. Both positions on religion smack of reductionism. The cynics fail to appreciate the profoundly humane and humanizing attributes of religion and the moral constraints it imposes on intolerant and violent behavior. The advocates of "liberalized" religion fail to consider that an authentic religious precept—a sincere response to the sacred—may end in subordinating human life to a higher good (e.g., unconditional obedience to God's law). The Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas argues that the members of the People's Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana, erred not in the decision to sacrifice their lives for their religious convictions—martyrdom is, after all, perhaps the most hallowed form of Christian witness—but only in the particular content of their beliefs, including the doctrine that suicide is an acceptable form of martyrdom. They sacrificed themselves in the wrong cause, for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong manner. But they were not wrong in their willingness to die for their faith.

If religions have legitimated certain acts of violence, they have also attempted to limit the frequency and scope of those acts. This ambivalent attitude reflects the utility of violence as an instrument of self-defense and enforcement of religious norms on the one hand but also acknowledges its potential for uncontrollable destructiveness on the other. In most religions one finds a deep tension between the use and the sublimation of violence and a valorization of "holy martyrs" who sacrificed their lives that others might live.

Finding the proper language to convey this ambivalence is tricky business. In common parlance the nouns "militant; "extremist," 'radical;' "zealot," and "fundamentalist" are used loosely and interchangeably. To confuse matters further, they are loaded words, often functioning as synonyms for "terrorist." We need to designate a term for believers who reject violence as a means for settling disputes but who are "radical" and "go to extremes"—including risking their lives—in pursuit of justice and peace.

In choosing terminology I have attempted to be precise and consistent. Given the inherently subjective character of these categories, no terminological scheme will satisfy everyone. The best one can do is to explain why a certain word has been chosen (e.g., extremist), what the author means by it ("one who employs violence as a privileged means of purifying the community and waging war against threatening outsiders"), and why it applies to some religious actors rather than others (whereas the extremist sees physical violence against his enemies as a sacred duty, the peacemaker strives to sublimate violence, resisting efforts to legitimate it on religious grounds). Both the extremist and the peacemaker are militants. Both types "go to extremes" of self-sacrifice in devotion to the sacred; both claim to be "radical," or rooted in and renewing the fundamental truths of their religious traditions. In these ways they distinguish themselves from people not motivated by religious commitments—and from the vast middle ground of believers. Yet the peacemaker renounces violence as an acceptable extreme and restricts the war against oppressors and injustice to noncoercive means. The extremist, by contrast, exalts violence as a religious prerogative or even as a spiritual imperative in the quest for justice.

In this usage I am following the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of militant as an individual who is "engaged in warfare" or a social organization "in which efficiency in war is the primary object aimed at.”  It may seem counterintuitive to describe the peacemaker as one engaged in warfare; in fact, this is a common theme in religious history. Military imagery is deeply rooted in the Christian consciousness, for example, with warrior kings, valorous knights, and soldier-saints prominent in church lore and legend. Nonviolent believers tend to spiritualize rather than entirely reject the ideal of the knight/warrior. Contemporary denominations (the Salvation Army), fraternal organizations (the Knights of Columbus), devotional societies (the Legion of Mary, the Blue Army, and the Legionnaires of Christ), and popular hymns ("Onward Christian Soldiers") participate in the transformation. Its premodern exemplars are the great Christian saints of the "church militant;" such as Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish soldier who, following his religious conversion after the Battle of Pamplona (1521), transformed his military background into a vocabulary, a worldview, a spiritual discipline, and a set of precepts for organizing the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus). The quintessential Christian spiritual warrior is St. Francis, who fought with his fellow citizens of Assisi in the 1202 battle against the Perugians. After his conversion Francis borrowed the language of the Christian knight and the motifs of chivalric literature, even as he strove to transcend those ideals according to his newfound vision of Christian peace and reconciliation.

The figure of the militant peacemaker is found in most religious traditions. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "the Muslim St. Francis" who led the Pathans of the Khyber Pass in a remarkable nonviolent protest against the British army, gained renown as the "Nonviolent Soldier of Islam."  In the Buddhist and Hindu traditions spiritual warfare relies on the cultivation of religious discipline through various "extreme" practices—fasting and other forms of self-denial, such as celibacy, constant prayer and meditation, a regimen of moral self-scrutiny, the overcoming of desire, and the examination of conscience. Physical violence in self‑defense may be necessary but is usually discredited as a sign of spiritual weakness. Among the greatest of the advocates of nonviolence, one finds expressions of ambivalence about—rather than absolute rejection of—physical warfare. Gandhi spoke of his continuing "spiritual battle” but he also said that "where there is a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence .... But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence.”

The concept of jihad in Islam captures the subtlety of spiritual warfare. "Holy war" is waged constantly against oneself (the "internal jihad")—against one's own uncontrollable passions, lack of spiritual discipline, and tendencies toward illegitimate violence—but only situationally against others. Within and across Islam, a debate rages about the proper justifications for situational warfare, its means and purposes. The great challenge facing Muslim peacemakers is to sustain a religious culture that rejects retaliatory violence as a means of redressing grievances or defending the rights of aggrieved minorities.

The challenge is not unique to Islam. South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu reluctantly accepted the selective use of revolutionary violence by his fellow Christians in the struggle against a repressive state. To treat persons as if they were less than creatures of God, to oppress them, to trample their dignity underfoot, is not only evil, he wrote, but "positively blasphemous, for it is tantamount to spitting in the face of God. That is why we have been so passionate in our opposition to the evil of apartheid.”

Passionate opposition to evil is a hallmark of "people of faith," who must take responsibility for the conditions of life in their villages, towns, and cities. They must, when necessary, fight for the establishment of laws and social conditions commensurate with human dignity."  Any person of faith has no real option," Tutu writes. "In the face of injustice and oppression it is to disobey God not to stand up in opposition to that injustice and oppression. Any violation of the rights of God's stand-in cries out to be condemned and to be redressed, and all people of good will must willy-nilly be engaged in upholding and preserving those rights as a religious duty. Such a discussion as this one should therefore not be merely an academic exercise in the most pejorative sense. It must be able to galvanize participants with a zeal to be active protectors of the rights of persons." Militant defenders of human dignity may resort to violent resistance to evil—but they resort to violence, under strictly limited conditions, Tutu insists, rather than embrace violence as the privilege of the righteous or as a divinely sanctioned means of achieving political goals. Religious peacemakers exercise "dominion, not in an authoritarian and destructive manner, but to hold sway as God would hold sway—compassionately, gently, caringly, enabling each part of creation to come fully into its own and to realize its potential for the good of the whole, contributing to the harmony and unity which was God's intention for the whole of creation."

To summarize, the salient difference between these two broadly sketched expressions of religious militance is found not in the use of violence per se but in the religious actor's attitude toward violence and his understanding of its role in conflict. The religious peacemaker is committed primarily to the cessation of violence and the resolution of conflict: reconciliation or peaceful coexistence with the enemy is the ultimate goal. By contrast the extremist is committed primarily to victory over the enemy, whether by gradual means or by the direct and frequent use of violence.

By this reckoning neither religion nor religious militancy per se is a source of deadly conflict: the problem is extremism. Yet the nonviolent "warrior for peace" could be more influential in the long run than the religious extremist. The militant peacemaker attempts at great cost to avoid physical violence; employs it only sparingly, in self-defense, and as a matter of last resort; and, most important, sees and seeks reconciliation with the opponent as an integral part of the act of resistance. Thus it should be clear that the peacemaker is no less passionate, no less "radical;" than the extremist; indeed, one could argue that the militant peacemaker's rejection of violence as a means of achieving political goals is the more strenuous and radical path.

Distinguishing Types of Militants: Tolerance as a Religious Value

Let us begin to nuance our typology by citing Diana Eck's description of three broad orientations to religious and ethnic diversity. The exclusivist is an enclave builder—one who insists that there is only one way of understanding reality and interpreting the sacred. The inclusivist, by contrast, holds that while there are many viable religious traditions, communities, and truths, one particular tradition is the culmination of the others and is superior to the others or comprehensive enough to include the others in a subordinate position. Finally, the pluralist holds that truth is not the exclusive possession of any one tradition or community; rather, a diversity of communities and traditions is seen not as an obstacle to be overcome but as an opportunity for energetic engagement and dialogue with others. In the pluralist's view, Eck writes, "God is our way of speaking of a Reality that cannot be encompassed by any one religious tradition including our own. " The pluralist does not give up particular commitments but risks their transformation by participating in a dialogue that could lead to mutual discovery.

These three orientations correspond to types of behavior toward the outsider, a category encompassing the "insufficiently orthodox" coreligionist, the apostate, the adherent of a "false religion;' the indifferent, the agnostic, and the nonbeliever. The comparative ethicist David Little contends that the best way to locate actors on the religious spectrum is to determine the degree of tolerance they exhibit toward outsiders. "To be tolerant is, at a minimum, to respond to a set of beliefs and practices initially regarded as deviant or objectionable without forcible interference,” he writes. "Conversely, to be intolerant is not to practice such forbearance under the same circumstances.” To be tolerant, then, is to resist the temptation to use violence, or forcible action, against an individual or group of which one disapproves. Tolerance in its strongest form, however, extends beyond disapproval and even beyond a benign indifference or disregard; it is, rather, an attitude bespeaking respect for and defense of the rights of others. Proponents of tolerance in its strongest form believe that they benefit procedurally from the process of open give-and-take and mutual criticism, and substantively from the new insights and knowledge gained in the dialogue. To return to Eck's language, the pluralist practices the strong form of tolerance, while the inclusivist adopts its weaker form (allowing but not affirming the differences). For the exclusivist, by contrast, tolerance is an interim attitude and behavior required by law (or by weakness of arms) rather than embraced as a good in itself…

Thinking Correctly about Religion

Establishing basic distinctions between extremism and nonviolent militance is the first step in defending the argument that religious actors represent a potentially powerful source of peace and political stability in the post-Cold War world. Greater familiarity with the dynamics of religious activism would enable educators, relief workers, diplomats, and policymakers to recognize and support nonviolent militants who serve as agents of peacebuilding. By integrating the entire truth about religion into our thinking about conflict, we might better be able to imagine and work toward peace, realized as "sustainable reconciliation" in societies divided along ethnic and religious lines." I am calling not merely for more attention to religion's compassionate side—its charitable endeavors and humanitarian relief work—although certainly that is needed. We need, in addition, a keener appreciation of how effective religion and religious actors already are, and how much more effective they can become, in preventing and managing deadly conflict, protecting human rights, and promoting more open and participatory forms of government around the world.

Contrary to the misconceptions popular in some academic and political circles, religious actors play this critical and positive role in world affairs not when they moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs in a higher order of love and justice. Religious actors make a difference when they remain religious actors. The skeptic immediately answers, Yes, they make a difference when they are religious—they kill, extort, take hostages, and oppress women. This is an inadequate response to a complex reality, however, and not merely because it fails to appreciate the fact that religious extremists, despite the recruiting boost they receive from unjust social and political conditions in many states, are a minority within every major religious tradition. It is also important to understand why they are a minority. The purveyors of violence may come to control a particular regional or local religious community, but they fail to attract a majority of believers precisely because they transgress against core precepts of the religious tradition.

The religious tradition is a vast and complex body of wisdom built up over many generations. Its foundational sources—sacred scriptures and/or codified oral teachings and commentaries—express and interpret the experiences of the sacred that led to the formation of the religious community. A religious tradition is no less than these sources, but it is always more. The deeper meaning and significance of the sources continues to be revealed throughout history. In each of the major religious traditions of the world, prophets, theologians, sages, scholars, and simple believers, exalted by the holy lives they led, refined and deepened the tradition's spiritual practices and theological and ethical teachings in support of peacemaking rather than war, reconciliation rather than retaliation. To be traditional, then, is to take seriously those developments that achieved authoritative status because they probed, clarified, and developed the insights and teachings contained in the foundational sources.

Ironically, extremists—who often claim to be upholding the "fundamentals" of the religion—tend to be highly selective in choosing which subtraditions to embrace and honor. It is true that some extremist leaders cite sacred scriptures and doctrines with authority, possess charismatic appeal, and represent an established school of theology or jurisprudence within the larger religious tradition. In order to gain support beyond their small cadres of followers, however, such figures must convince ordinary believers that the historically developed teachings that condemn violence and give the highest priority to peacemaking must be suspended. If the believers in question are well formed spiritually and informed theologically, such arguments may find little hearing.

Unfortunately, as we will see, ordinary believers are not always sufficiently grounded in the teachings and practices of their own tradition to counter arguments based on scriptures and doctrines carefully chosen for their seeming endorsement of violence or ambivalence about its use. Thus, despite their limited ability to mobilize the orthodox, religious extremists prey on the young and untutored, whom they recruit to form the inner core of larger and more powerful movements of aggressors inspired by ethnic and political hatreds.

Although the conventional wisdom holds that religions have fared poorly in their efforts to stem the tide of religious violence, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu religious leaders have spoken out courageously against their extremist opponents. While the religious extremist is often integrated into a well-organized movement, armed to the teeth, expertly trained, lavishly funded, ideologically disciplined, and involved in a kind of "ecumenical" collaboration with other violence-prone organizations, the religious peacemaker is, with some promising and notable exceptions, relatively isolated, underfunded, unskilled in the techniques of conflict transformation, and overlooked.

The success stories mostly celebrate heroic personalities who have relied on their own inner strength, charisma, and courage in opposing dominative violence and state-sponsored or other forms of oppression. What possibilities for peacebuilding might result from more organized, adequately funded programs of education and training of the "militants for peace" found in every religious tradition?

The potentially decisive impact of local religious leaders becomes clear when we recall the fact that about two-thirds of contemporary wars turn on issues of religious, ethnic, or national identity. Less than 10 percent begin as interstate conflicts. They become internationalized when combatants, particularly opposition movements, inhabit neighboring countries and engage in international weapons trading and supply and when displaced refugee populations cross immediate and distant borders. In the ensuing regional or interstate conflicts, numerous groups and alliances compete for power, decision making is diffuse, and the state becomes one among several actors. Issues of substance, such as territory or governance, are interwoven with cultural and psychological elements driving and sustaining each group's fight to achieve collective "rights" over and against their ethnic or religious rivals. A sociological dynamic of "reciprocal causation" takes hold, writes the conflict resolution specialist John Paul Lederach, in which "the response mechanism within the cycle of violence and counterviolence becomes the cause for perpetuating the conflict ."

In order to break the cycle of violence, peacemakers "must take into account the long-term horizon of protracted intermediate conflicts and wars, and develop a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy for ending the violence and for achieving and sustaining reconciliation."' Lederach advocates the "nested paradigm" of conflict transformation, whereby local actors, people already embedded, or "nested," in the conflicted community, collaborate in a wide range of activities and functions that precede and follow formal peace accords. Respected midlevel educational, business, health, and religious leaders who control primary networks of groups and institutions serve as advocates and mediators. Leaders at the grassroots level, in villages, neighborhoods, and borderlands where the conflict is played out on a daily basis, work to defuse face-to-face tensions and nurture efforts to promote reconciliation or nonviolent coexistence. In most settings religious actors are prominent at both levels of community leadership. They contribute not only to resolving the immediate crisis but also to reforming the long-term social conditions that fostered and perpetuated the religious hatred or racism at the root of the conflict.

The new fractious geopolitical situation, in short, lends a particular urgency to the familiar plea for long-term strategies for fostering and sustaining a workable peace in these societies.

A workable peace is not the absence of conflict but the condition of structural civility that obtains when a society has developed culturally appropriate and effective ways of adjudicating and resolving conflict nonviolently. Sustainable peace, Lederach argues, requires that long-time antagonists not merely lay down their arms but that they work toward genuine reconciliation—socially defined relationships that thrive by means of a society-wide network of relationships and mechanisms that promote justice and address the root causes of enmity before they can regenerate destabilizing tensions. Building on relevant aspects of conflict resolution theories," Lederach and his colleagues in conflict resolution at Eastern Mennonite University are calling for a paradigm shift away from the traditional framework and activities that make up statist diplomacy—“away from a concern with the resolution of issues and toward a frame of reference that provides a focus on the restoration and rebuilding of relationships." Building peace in today's conflicts, they insist, "calls for long-term commitment to establishing an infrastructure across the levels of a society, an infrastructure that empowers the resources for reconciliation from within that society and maximizes the contribution from outside." Certain kinds of religious actors, I … argue, are particularly well suited to this task.


R. Scott Appleby is Professor of History and the John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2000 Rowman & Littlefield.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author. 
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