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Mideast peace talks resume this week, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveling to Egypt and Israel for negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Is religion helping or hurting the attempt to forge peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinians?
Enduring peace in Israel/Palestine has ever been elusive. Jesus himself laments over Jerusalem and the violence the city has visited upon the prophets. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…” he cries, looking down at the city and mourning the violence that has been done there. Jesus reveals he has longed to “gather your children together,” but, he weeps, “you were not willing!” Even Jesus, the “prince of peace” could not make eternal peace in this land. This holy city, this “navel of the world” and cradle to the three great “Abrahamic” religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has also been a crucible for violence.
And yet, at the same time, it is not. Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together in this region for centuries without all-out war. People of these three faiths have been neighbors with roots in culture, religion and even race. Yet, it must also be said that an absence of overt violence has not always meant the presence of justice. From before Jesus’ time and the Roman occupation until the present, struggles in this land for both justice and peace have been more the norm than the exception. War and more war, including “World Wars,” have desecrated the land.
Is religion helping or hurting the current attempt to forge peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinians? Yes, is the answer. Yes religion is hurting the peace process; and yes, it is helping for without the engagement of religion, no enduring peace can be made.
Not one of these three great religions is all about “peace,” nor all about violence and the justification of war. The tradition of Just War is alive in the Abrahamic faiths, as is the even more problematic concept of “Crusade.” So too are scriptural supports for pacifism.
What is needed now is a breakthrough concept, one that does not talk about either war or peace in the abstract, but proposes “practice norms,” that is, practical steps that have a proven historical track record of reducing conflict, and increasing the presence of justice and peace. Some of us, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, call this new concept Just Peace.
The first step in practical peacemaking, however, is to acknowledge that each of the Abrahamic religions has within itself, and in its most sacred texts, explicit support for violence and for war. As a team of Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars and religious leaders, including myself, write in Abrahamic Alternatives to War: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Just Peacemaking:
Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sacred texts all contain sections that support violence and justify warfare as a means to achieve certain goals. In particular historical circumstances, these texts have served as the basis to legitimate violent campaigns, oftentimes against other faith communities.
Yet, we also argue:
Many of the passages from sacred texts in all three religious traditions that are misused in contemporary situations to support violence and war are taken out of context, interpreted in historically inaccurate ways, or can be better translated. Finally, all of these passages need to be understood within (and constrained by) the primary spiritual aims of the individual faith.
The good news for peacemaking not only in the Middle East, but also in the whole world today is that:
There are also a great many teachings and ethical imperatives within Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures that promote peace and present the means to achieve it. These include mandates to strive for political, social, and economic justice; tolerant intercommunal coexistence; and nonviolent conflict resolution.
The emerging paradigm of Just Peace, meant to offer a practical and workable alternative to both Just War theory and Pacifism (“Crusade” should never be regarded as acceptable), is a set of ten practices that have a proven track record of increasing the conditions that allow for more justice, and greater peace to emerge in local communities, in nations and in whole regions of the world. Currently, the religious leaders and scholars who produced Abrahamic Alternatives to War, with some additional members, are nearly finished with an Interfaith Just Peacemaking book that shows the Muslim, Jewish and Christian rational and support for such a set of practices.
Peace in Israel/Palestine, or elsewhere in the world, will not come about without a religious commitment to practice these ethical teachings in ways that actually do something practical to increase the likelihood that an enduring peace with justice will come. It is not only Israel/Palestine that needs this commitment, but indeed to so many parts of the world torn with heart-rending violence and seemingly intractable warfare.