In the United States recently, I attended a couple of deeply inspiring interfaith services that, for me, were unexpectedly ruffled by a request from one individual for prayers for American service people currently serving in Iraq. I am aware that the United States is not only the most powerful nation on earth but also among the most unselfconsciously patriotic. Even so, in an interfaith setting, the request was troubling.
Years ago Professor Hans Kung, a leading Catholic theologian, predicted that there could be no peace on earth until there is peace between religions. The growing interest in interfaith – tiny ballast to religious isolationism and divisiveness – is an explicit acknowledgment of this. Interfaith doesn’t demand a dilution of anyone’s individual religious beliefs. It does, however, practically demonstrate that people from different faiths can come together in mutual “good faith” to support and learn from one another. They may – or may not – learn something about God in the process. They will certainly learn something about the universality of humankind’s longing for God. The “patriotism” of their individual faith backgrounds does not preclude this.
At the second of those services, in one of New York’s largest cathedrals, we received sacred teachings, readings and music from most faith traditions. This rich feast was a fearless celebration of diversity. So the request to pray for American service people came as quite a shock.
Clearly I found it irritating that American patriotism was refusing to lie down. But I was more seriously troubled by the fact that even in this interfaith context – with its explicit commitment to healing divisions – there was an acceptance at least by one person taking part in the service that going to war might be a reasonable “solution” to human problems. And that the service people fighting that war, or any other, might be more deserving of prayer and concern than, say, those out there “fighting” to bring relief to the victims of war, injustice or poverty.
Oddly enough, just days earlier I had come back from an interfaith retreat in a former Catholic monastery that sits on the shores of the Hudson River opposite West Point, one of the world’s richest military institutions. Looking out towards West Point’s lavish buildings, it was impossible not to wonder aloud what kind of world we would live in if we dared to fund “peace-readiness” on anything like the scale that we fund “war-readiness”; or if our most prestigious public institutions were those that researched and promoted peace; or if our “best and bravest” dreamed of getting into peace studies courses because we, as a society, valued peace-making above all else.
Peace-making is a complex and demanding human activity. It is far more complex and demanding than using force and state-sanctioned violence to “solve” human problems. It is so demanding, in fact, that we can barely imagine it. Yet without imagining it, we will never achieve it.
Peace-making is not about ending all conflict or even the likelihood of it. We are constantly in conflict even within our own minds; conflict will always exist outside ourselves also. The crucial challenge is learning ways to deal with conflict intelligently while constantly examining everything that contributes to it.
In the US, and in Australia, there are currently institutes for peace. That they are small and poorly funded is not just because war so significantly fires up the global economy, it’s also because to the general public, in Australia as well as in the United States, the idea of war, even the ideals of war, remains acceptable.
Peace-making requires a profound and uncomfortable re-working of our old allegiances. We can’t work effectively for peace as long as the “final solution” of war remains an option. Those two ideas are not compatible. Nor can we talk with any degree of honesty about “one humanity” or the potential benefits of interfaith study and dialogue while also assuming it’s okay to kill the people with whom our government currently disagrees. The facts are stark. But I fear millions more lives will be lost before we see them.
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