22 August is the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief
Reflective religious believers often feel shame at the gap between the message of their founders and the behaviour of their followers. Their founders emphasise peace and harmony between peoples, but their followers often act violently in the name of their religion. We need think only of the Crusades in which the Christian knights had Christ’s cross on their shields, the killings of Muslims by Hindus, of one group of Muslims and Christians by other groups, and the naming and blessing of a United States warship as Corpus Christi. Religious beliefs are often co-opted to legitimate violence.
It is not surprising that acts of violence associated with religious belief have multiplied in the wars and disturbances of recent years. Wars in the Middle East have exacerbated conflict between different groups of Muslims and have led to Christians being driven from their homes and being killed in churches. Groups inspired by a violent version of Islam have also proliferated and tried to overthrow more moderate groups. These have also attacked Christians whom they identify with the United States. When faith and politics are joined, the result is often to corrupt faith and to make politics more violent.
It would be too simple, however, to conclude that religious beliefs cause violence. They are one of many factors, the most fundamental of which is the difference between different groups. Difference often leads to suspicion, hostility and ultimately, to violence. This difference can be expressed in divergent cultures, different races or tribes, different political or religious beliefs, and sometimes in gender difference.
When these differences are joined to divergent religions they can spark violence. In Nigeria, for example, Islamic groups have attacked Christian churches and particularly women in those churches. The root of difference and hostility, however, is not religious belief but the difference between a herder and a pastoralist way of life, in a world where the shrinking availability of suitable land brings them into conflict. Difference of religion can add fuel to this economic fire. Difference of race and culture in developed nations can also lead to violence and discrimination against Muslim people. Religious difference can intensify prejudice but is only one factor in it.
The heart of responding to religious-based violence is twofold. It is for people with religious faith to commend the noble version of their own belief that corresponds to their founder’s vision. It is also for them to attribute to the followers of other religions the most noble version of their belief that corresponds to the founder’s vision. This counteracts the natural prejudice by which we think the best of ourselves and the worst of others. This is the root of much violence. As we become aware of our own prejudices and free ourselves from them, we shall also become interested in difference rather than fearful of it. This will make us more inclined to seek and enjoy the company of people whose religious beliefs differ from our own and consequently to relate to them as friends, not enemies.
Jesuit Social Services inherits the Catholic tradition built on faith in Jesus. That tradition encourages respect and love for others. The people who work with us and those whom we accompany come from many religious traditions and none. Many have experienced violence for their religious beliefs. In our accompaniment of one another we respect each other’s beliefs and encourage a way of living in which we value one another and see our difference as as a gift.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.