Autumn 2007 issue cover

Recommitting to Principles of Peace

Cover illustration by Anna Bhushan. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Donald K. Swearer

This issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, focused on peace building, comes at a time when the world’s religions are castigated by vocal critics as instigators of divisive exclusivism, promoters of hatred, and perpetuators of violence. These critics cite the examples of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Buddhist-inspired nationalistic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, the legacy of Roman Catholic–Protestant animosities in northern Ireland, Roman Catholic–Orthodox–Muslim conflict in Bosnia, and the rise of religious fundamentalisms in the United States and globally. Weekly, if not daily, print and television media carry reports about the religious factor in situations of violence and conflict. Recently, Christiane Amanpour’s compelling CNN documentary series God’s Warriors commanded a worldwide audience of millions. Meanwhile, several high-profile books arguing that religion is a “poison,” including Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (reviewed in this issue by Todd Shy), have generated a great deal of press and sold like hotcakes. A spate of scholarly monographs about religious fundamentalism, religion and violence, and related subjects crowds academic publisher’s lists. Martin Marty’s five-volume series on religious fundamentalism, Michael Sells’s monograph on religion and genocide in Bosnia, and Mark Juergensmeyer’s study of the global rise of religious violence come to mind.

At the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at HDS, these issues have demanded our thoughtful attention and influenced our programming. Beginning with the academic year 2004–05, the CSWR instigated an ambitious scheme to organize a portion of its programming around a theme. That year, seminar speakers addressed “Religion and Politics: Complexity and Conflict,” culminating in a conference on religion and nationalism that brought 30 scholars to the CSWR to consider the explosive mix of religion, ethnicity, communal identity, and nationalism in Iraq, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. A volume was produced from that conference, Religion and Nationalism in Iraq: A Comparative Perspective, which is one of the books discussed in David Little’s thoughtful essay in these pages on the complex relationship between religion and civic and ethnic nationalism. In 2006–07, the CSWR’s theme was intrareligious conflict and authority. Simeon Ilesanmi’s essay from this series on the rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Africa is included in this issue. Ilesanmi situates his astute, compelling analysis of African Pentecostalism within the broader context of globalization, which, he argues, has abetted more conflict than cooperation, and created situations in which religion has been a major factor in a vicious circle of social integration and disintegration. Jacob Olupona’s response to Ilesanmi’s essay points out that if religious organizations serve as a check for falling states, what serves to check them? He argues that the Pentecostal and evangelical demand for a radical divorce from traditional African worldviews does violence to African societies.

But, as Little and others ask here, has not religion been a major force for peace as well as a factor in conflict? Do not the world’s religions uphold universal principles of love, peace, and nonviolence? Major rabbinic texts from late antiquity extol gadol hashalom, peace as the highest of values; the traditional benediction for the name of the Prophet is, in Arabic, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam (“May God bless him and grant him peace”); Hinduism upholds the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence); and in Buddhism, non-killing is the first of the silas (ethical precepts). Are the principles of peace, justice, compassion, and nonviolence uplifted by the world’s religions largely vacuous or, as often seems to be the case, shunted aside before the onslaught of political exigencies? Can these universal ideals counter communal hatred, inspire nonviolent resolution to conflict, and empower people to persevere in struggles for peace?

To take up these questions, the CSWR explored religion and peacemaking in 2006–07 and concluded its thematic programming with a symposium last May 15 that brought together more than 25 scholars and scholar-activists to consider the theme “Visions of Peace and Reconciliation in Religious Traditions.”1

A synopsis of the symposium papers will appear later as a CSWR publication, but the fortuitous interest of the Bulletin provided the opportunity to include symposium presentations here on contemporary peacemaking in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Readers will be encouraged and perhaps surprised to learn from Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana of an active peace movement in Islam composed of local religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations working to resolve conflict and promote interfaith dialogue. From Lisa Schirch, you will learn that Mennonite peace builders are not only active in local, grassroots situations but engaged in building relationships with foreign policy strategists in Washington to influence their decisions.

Other contributions to this issue go at the topic of peace building from refreshingly original angles. One of these is Will Van Wagenen’s personal narrative of being kidnapped while working as a Christian peacemaker in Iraq, and continuing to hold up the Christian commandment not only to “love thy neighbor” but also to “love your enemies.”

This issue begins with Marc Gopin’s personal story of his “shuttle diplomacy” with a Syrian mufti, but Gopin’s moving account also serves as a fitting concluding note. His account is not one of striving for an imagined harmony where it does not exist, but of bridging differences through building personal relationships. For Gopin, it is nothing less than a duty to pursue peace; an active practice related to saving life that embraces both a measured self-defense and an active offensive to care for the other.


  1. The symposium began with a panel discussion on the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding’s collection of 13 case studies, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles in Religion in Conflict Resolution, and the rest of the event was also built around historical and contemporary studies.

Donald K. Swearer is one of the magazine’s faculty advisers. He is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

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