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F. Kaufmann: A Place for Religion at the Peace Table

All religions teach peace, just as surely as all people desire peace. Yet people from time immemorial have legitimated war, oppression, and occupation with sacred scripture and with reference to religious obligation. Is there something in religion that is inherently antithetical to peace, or there is something in us that baffles our own efforts to bring about peace – even though it is patently in our own interest?

There are people who say that human beings would be fine (and perfectly capable of peace) if they were spared the burden of fear, guilt, and superstition caused by religion, and instead released to enjoy the calm glories of reason. These are the statists, humanists, enlightenment rationalists, and so forth.

This view is widespread in modern society (commonly conceded at the United Nations, universities, elite media professionals, and so forth).

The other possibility is that the problem lies not in religion but in ourselves. Religion is fine (in fact, good), and it is human beings who cannot live in peace because they are racked by contradiction. Was Paul right, and speaking for us all, when decrying this inner battle? (Romans 2:24-25: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?…on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.") In fact, it is this condition of being war with the higher self that is the raison d'etre for religion in the first place.

Religion, as revealed by God, is meant by its very nature to "do battle" with evil, most especially against the evil within our own selves. This conflict side accounts for the close relationship between religion and war in history. However, these religions also point the way to the end of struggle over evil and the loving embrace of the former enemy. Peace, harmony, goodness, and embrace — and their attendant freedoms — are the goal of religion, not a tireless attachment to struggle.

Battles rage between the higher part of each religion, which says the religion must exist for the whole world and for every person, and the impulse within each religion that says it exists only for its own sake, and the sake of its own believers. Some people may say, "Our only concern is with Catholics, we have no compassion or concern for any other sort of religions believer. They are not our problems." (Or only Jews, or only Buddhists, and so forth.) This impulse to devote oneself only to self interest at the expense of the greater whole contradicts the higher truth in all religions to serve the whole world and every person.

The human contradiction is identical. There is a natural aspect of our make-up that is altruistic, and conversely a part that is oriented to our own habits, traditions, self-preservation and self-promotion. As with religions, these parts of the self must be harmonized so that the higher self takes the lead as the primary force guiding our existence.

So is there a way religions can or should contribute to peace? Yes, there is. Enlightened leaders in each tradition must analyze the root revelation and sacred origins and development of each religious tradition.

They must determine which aspects of their tradition call for serving the whole world and every person and which go in the direction of greater parochialism, self-preservation, and self-promotion. These leaders must harmonize the contradiction into a seamless and unified whole in such a way that the narrow parochial elements support and fuel the Divine indwelling, which calls believers to love the whole world and every person.

The extent to which each tradition can accomplish this is the extent to which religious difference will cease to be a casus belli and instead become an indispensable voice and contributor to peace on earth.