There are some terrible conflicts in the world today, and many of them are described as religious. There are the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Boko Haram and the Christians in Nigeria, the Coptic Christians and the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, and, of course, the Jews and the Arabs in Israel.
There used to be terrible conflicts between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland and among the Serbian Orthodox and the Croatian Catholics and the Bosnian Muslims in former Yugoslavia. Some say that the genocides in Darfur, in Rwanda and in Uganda were also religious, in that Muslims were on one side and Christians on the other.
This leads many non-religious people to say that religion is one of the greatest dangers in the world. Others try to be more positive and urge the religions to get along. There is even that bumper sticker where different religions’ symbols are arranged into the words “Co-exist.”
I wonder, however, whether these terrible conflicts are really religious.
The warring parties may be members of different religions, but are there not other important factors such as ethnicity, politics and nationalism in play? Were the Catholics in Northern Ireland angry at the Protestants over whether the Eucharistic host becomes the body and blood of Jesus or reminds worshippers of the body and blood of Jesus? Were the Croatian Catholics furious with the Serbian Orthodox over the propriety of icons in worship — or the language of the mass? And, in the conflict with which I am most familiar, are the Palestinians dedicated to the destruction of Israel because of the Jewish refusal to accept Mohammed as the last and greatest prophet? I do not think so. These fights are ethnic or tribal or political, and not religious.
This can be seen by paying close attention to the names of the groups. Notice how the conflict in Israel is described as being between the Jews and the Arabs or the Jews and the Palestinians. Neither Arab nor Palestinian is a religious term — and those considered Arab or Palestinian may be Muslim, Christian, Druse or even Jewish. (Note the way Paul Newman’s character introduces himself in the 1960 film “Exodus” — a Jew born in Palestine/Israel, he is a Palestinian.) And, when it comes to the term Jew, the meaning can vary greatly — referring to religion or ethnicity or nationality. There are many levels of the conflict, but differences in theology or practice are not the reasons for the hostility or its intensity.
So, while there are obvious religious differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims, the violence and tragedy we see in the world is generally not about religion.
To teach this, professor Ellis Rivkin used to ask the question: If destroying Judaism is a tenet of Christianity, why did not all of Christendom ever unite to get the job done? His answer: Destroying Judaism is not a tenet of Christianity. While a European Christian kingdom was treating its Jews badly, another was welcoming Jews or treating them with some degree of tolerance. Significant episodes of anti-Semitic violence only occurred in the context of economic or political crisis. When one group needed to take the power or resources of another group, that was the moment when “religious” issues arose, and pogroms or massacres or expulsions happened.
In other words, the conflicts were not about religion but rather about using religious differences to mask economic or political motivations.
This analysis does not solve the violence we witness all too often around the world, but it can help to clarify our thinking. Religion is not the cause of violence, but religion can be misused to justify some very non-religious and ungodly behavior. Let those of us who try to live the religious life — to live in relationship with God — be very careful. Let us not appropriate God into less than godly activities.