Making the religions work for peace
The 31st of October 2017 was the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Ninety Five Theses by Martin Luther. As Reformation Day, the birthday of Protestantism, it was a public holiday in many countries. Religion and conflict are a conceptual pair, but what about religion and peace? Here we’re sounding out the potential for the religions to work for peace in the world. Thus, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a point of the examination of the impact of the Reformation on society around the world.
Every religion is committed to peace, yet everyday there is conflict, war and terror in the name of religion. We hear very little of the peace making potential of religion, a competence that politics could make much stronger use of. The best selling British author Ian McEwan dreams of a world without religion. According to McEwan, it would be “a world full of humility before the sanctity of life.” The religions on the other hand, are “at the centre of the great conflicts of our time,” he once wrote in a newspaper.
Definitively agreeing with him is the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her book: The Mighty and the Almighty, in which she says that the religions have always been “a source of hatred and conflict” in politics. However, she does not wish to abolish religion. Consequently, she suggests deploying theologians and experts on religion as political advisers. But we are all spellbound by the potential of religion for violence and conflict.
And indeed, everyday the news of violence and conflict is delivered by the press, radio and television. They come as holy war, terror, blood and thunder in religious guise all over the world. Without doubt religion has been a dangerous and destructive weapon in conflicts around the globe. What is not reported in the media is the potential of religion for peace making. Perhaps the ability of religion to work for peace isn’t there. But the leaders and believers of the religions are known to be committed to peace making and peace building.
Are they only paying lip service? If there is such a potential for peace, what does it look like? Or does the commitment to peace by the religionists have any political relevance, both concrete and practical, in internal and international conflicts, in wars and civil wars? Hardly has anyone examined the constructive potential of the religions. This is all the more surprising because the most famous of non-violence, global icons of peace – Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were political actors but deeply religious figures. And they believe that both religion and politics of peace belonged together.
Moreover, Gandhi and King have countless brothers and sisters, religious actors who have made significant and successful contributions to the de-escalation of conflicts and the prevention of violence. Examples of such peace makers range from Albania to Burma, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In those areas, religious people have reduced violence in which they contributed to peace and reconciliation. Though it is true in history that people have had to face suffering and death in the name of religion. It is also true that immeasurable comfort has been given, peace made and violence rejected in the name of religion.
However, would the world be more peaceful without religion? Perhaps, the world could not do without religion since if you want to wage war or aggravate a conflict you would not need religion as the reason. Like in Nigeria, you can only use religion as a cover for ethnic and cultural domination. All ideologies have a tendency towards exclusivity, segregation and to despoil in other to enslave others. Which was why the vast majority of the war dead in the 29th century were victims of secular ideologies, not religion.
And now too, contrary to the popular impression, only a minority of today’s violence has genuine religious causes. More certain is the fact that many conflicts and wars would have been far bloodier without the influence of religion. Indeed, a religious motivation to make peace awakens trust from the people as against politicians. This is why religious peace actors are reminded of their responsibility; that they are encouraged to be actively involved in peace efforts.
Religious leaders around the world have close contact with their populations. That is why in Nigeria, government should increase support and cooperation with bishops, imams and traditional rulers. It is customary in West Africa to take leave of your relations by touching them on their death bed. During the Ebola crisis, however, this tradition proved to be a deadly ritual. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, more than half of Ebola infections could be traced to funeral practices of this kind.
It was only the religious leaders that were able to appeal to the people to stop the deadly ritual. More so, it was the clerics who developed new funeral rituals that avoided the risks of the age old tradition of the people. Thus, the religions must ask themselves whether they contribute to or foment conflicts. A critique of violence abounds in the Bible. But the church has not always acted accordingly in history. It has to learn to profess the truth of the Christian faith without asserting it by force.
Today, the ecumenical movement is gaining momentum from the commemoration of the birth of their churches on Reformation Day throughout the world. In Abuja, Protestants lined up the streets last Sunday to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of their churches. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther is supposed to have said. This is just one of many legends attributed to the reformer that merrily passes on without references.
What is important is that such legends show how much he has influenced society. Five hundred years after the publication of his 95 Theses, it is time again to examine and show how Luther’s life and work still influence us. Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483. He entered St Augustine’s monastery in Erfurt in 1505. Luther was a devout Christian and an erudite theologian. However, he had increasing doubts about the teachings of the church. Why should people buy spiritual salvation with money? Why did the word of the Pope count more than that of the Bible? After becoming professor of theology, on 31 October 1517, Luther published his Ninety Five Theses criticizing the church.
In 1521 he was expelled from the church and his professorship revoked. He became a bestselling author while hiding at Warburg Castle, translating the Bible into German. A special point about Luther was his attitude towards the Jews. At first he hoped to convert them; later he became a virulent anti-Semite. In 1525 he married the nun, Katharina von Bora. He died in Eisleben in 1546.
What did the Reformation bequeath to us through Luther? The Reformation was a movement to revitalise the church. It divided Christianity into Protestants and Catholics. Thereafter, Luther’s ideas became dominant in the Western world. All Protestants shared a rejection of the Papal church. They stood by the Bible with its concept of grace, that the human being achieves salvation through the grace of God, not through good works. Grace is obtained through repentance, not in buying indulgence from the Pope. Historians assert that Protestantism encouraged the scientific method and technology.
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