The contemporary Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, has developed a compositional system that—reduced to its sparest minimum—consists of the dynamic interplay of two musical lines in a field of silence.
The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn’t fall.
This simple, but elegant musical metaphor can be helpful when we struggle to think of how religion can be a force for peace. It invites us to ponder two fundamental contributions. One, referring to the way we find ourselves concretely in the present, invites us to think of how religious actors can contribute their assets, skills, and comparative advantages to the emerging field of conflict transformation. Viewed from a modern secular paradigm of peacemaking, these religious assets are seen as “instrumental” to resolving conflicts, even if the religious actors themselves retain their intrinsic religious motivations. The other contribution is more foundational in religious terms, and refers quite directly to visions of peace, rooted in religious experience, which go beyond contemporary secular models of reality. For many religious people, these two modes are complementary even if at times in tension.
Let me focus first on the second musical line noted above, the one that is “holding and taking care of us,” and let me call it the “Gift of Peace.” As a religious believer and in my capacity as the Secretary General of Religions for Peace, I have grown ever more convinced that it is precisely religious communities’ respective experiences of Transcendent Mystery—the Holy; the Supremely True, Good, and Beautiful; the Supremely Merciful—that is at the heart of their capacities to build peace. To speak of these respective religious experiences requires sensitivity, solid principles, and care in our use of words, as I—like the religious leaders with whom I work—am firmly committed to respecting the genuine differences of belief that are present among our respective traditions.
Nevertheless, in place after place, I have seen people turn to their faith and find strength when everything seems at an impasse. Ordinary people in the midst of conflicts and gross injustices often show us that—despite their sufferings, despite injustices that cry out to be addressed—they are not separated from what might be termed by each of our religious traditions in its own way as the Gift of Peace. Often, it is a dark night of affliction, gross injustices, or withering losses that—like an x-ray—disclose the hidden strengths of spiritualities. This is worth pondering deeply by each believer in the terms of his or her respective religious tradition.
And what a mysterious Gift: in Sierra Leone, I worked with Muslim and Christian amputees, victims whose limbs had been chopped off, but who also said they were willing to forgive. During the formal peace talks in Lomé, Togo, I spoke with a man who lost his beloved wife and daughter, his house, his job. His loved ones could not be returned to him. Yet, he ended his story with the words: “Thank God for peace. I forgive them all.”
To acknowledge that the living link with Transcendent Mystery remains in the midst of social brokenness is not a license to exonerate us from our moral responsibilities. It does, however, help center our attention on what is uniquely religious. It can invite each to open to his or her tradition’s most original religious experience of the Gift of Peace. A Gift that is—however mysteriously—positive, holistic, harmonious, compassionate and a summons for justice. The Gift of Peace is alluded to in various religious traditions by fecund words such as Shanti, the Pure Land, Shalom, the Kingdom of God, Dar el-Salam and others.
Today, in my own organization, Religions for Peace, religious leaders are working together from over 100 countries to transpose their basic symbols of peace into a public notion of “Shared Security” that tries to give modest public expression to what is shared among diverse religious communities’ visions of peace. This notion of Shared Security recognizes the profound reciprocity of all of existence, its fundamental vulnerability and the moral imperative to care for the other. Perhaps it can be understood as an invitation for collective creativity to forge a new public political paradigm resonant with the deepest shared wisdom of religious traditions. Such religious creativity can extend contemporary secular discussions of peace by focusing on its positive, inter-related, and normative characteristics. It is work for the long haul.
But we live in the rapidly changing present, so let me return to the musical metaphor, shifting attention away from “the one who is holding us,” the Gift of Peace, to the toddler, to us as a fragile and collectively “battered” child trying to go forward. This pole of the musical metaphor calls us to face squarely the extremely difficult concrete situations that confront us and the challenge of taking next steps. It calls us to clarify for ourselves how religious people can contribute concretely to the emerging field of conflict transformation.
The fact that religious intolerance and extremism are real factors in some conflicts, including those in fragile states, makes it all the more important to identify genuine religious potentials for helping to transform conflict. How, then, can religious people, contribute to the emerging field of conflict transformation?
While no two conflicts progress in the same way, there is an emerging method of multi-religious conflict transformation. At its simplest, this method involves assisting religious communities to join in a multi-stakeholder dynamic analysis of a given conflict to identify the needed roles (education, advocacy, mediation, reconciliation) essential to the resolution of that conflict. In a second step, religious communities inventory themselves to discover if they have assets—at least potential assets—to serve the roles identified as essential to resolving the conflict or a dynamic aspect of it. In a third step, the potential religious assets are mobilized, equipped, and engaged in the needed conflict transformation roles.
The engagement of the method often takes place in a multi-religious context, which can align different communities around similar goals, capture the complementary strengths of such communities, and provide efficiencies in training and facilitate multi-stakeholder partnerships between the religious communities and other essential actors. This is difficult, hard work, and it is typically chronically underfunded. It can often work best when it is carefully aligned, and sometimes softly linked, with governmental and or United Nations peacemaking processes.
But what, then, are the assets that religious communities can bring to resolving conflicts? The first class of religious assets might be called “spiritualities.” People do find hope when there appear to be no grounds for ordinary hopes. People do sacrifice themselves out of care for others. And people do forgive the unforgivable. Spiritual strengths, such as these are cultivated in each religious tradition in its own way. These spiritualities can provide the strength to engage in roles essential to conflict transformation such as countering messages of hate and calls for violence, and advancing reconciliation and healing among and between conflicted persons and communities.
Building on the power of spiritualities, there are the related moral heritages of each tradition that can provide to their believers a compass for dealing with the extremely complex situations encountered in conflicts. Our moral heritages are not simply catalogs of “do's” and “don'ts,” although these are important. They are shapers of character and conscience and cultivators of virtue.
Think for example of the great Emir Abd el-Kader, who won the praise of fellow 19th-century luminaries as diverse as President Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX. Abd el-Kader, you may recall, mounted military resistance against the bungled French occupation of Algeria in 1830. During the time that he led the resistance, he was known for his courage and tenacity, but equally for his exacting moral standards. He demanded, for example, that prisoners receive humane care— indeed, exactly the same rations as his own soldiers. He surrendered to French generals in 1847, lived under house arrest in France, and was exiled to Damascus in 1852. There he saved thousands of imperiled Christians. He had a moral compass, and struggled to use it consistently, most tellingly in his comportment with those with whom he differed. When he died in 1883, the New York Times hailed him as “one of the few great men of the century.”
Finally, religious communities have unique social assets. Hundreds of thousands of mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples dot the four corners of the earth. These local congregations are linked by districts, and organized on national and often regional and global levels. They constitute a tissue of connection that unites each congregation with the others associated within the same tradition. Every local congregation in the vast webs of religious networks is potentially a local center for advancing peace.
In short, we have spiritual, moral, and social assets that can be engaged in today’s emerging field of conflict transformation. It is these assets that can concretely be harnessed for the needed roles of education, advocacy, mediation, and reconciliation essential to transforming conflicts.
In pragmatic terms, we can see the added value of multi-religious cooperation in situations that are extremely difficult for nation states or the United Nations to manage. Increasingly we are forced to recognize the link between religion, conflict, and failed or fragile states. One in four countries is defined as a “fragile state,” according to a Foreign Policy focus issue (August 2010). Fragile states often cannot provide even the most basic of services for their citizens, including minimum security for their inhabitants. These fragile states can too easily become breeding grounds for radicalization and a refuge for extremist groups, compounding the miseries of innocent civilians and multiplying instability. The international community faces difficulties in addressing violent conflict in these places not least because it does not know with whom to engage to set things on the right track. Religious communities provide an important entry point. For example, even an extremely difficult situation such as Somalia makes clear that religious channels can remain open when diplomatic ones are blocked.
In this special edition of the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, you are invited to ponder how religious assets need to be engaged to create an environment of trust in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, to be deployed in efforts to protect women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to support youth with a healthy alternative to the callings of radical groups. These, and the other fine examples in this edition, point to an ever fuller engagement of religious people in peacebuilding.
As more and more religious people around the world work together for peace—cooperating with one another as they work to marshal their spiritualities, moralities, and the living networks of their faith communities in concrete peacemaking roles—we can also take heart in the chord that arises out of silence and supports every tentative step forward. People hear it and interpret it in different ways. Yet, they find in their hearings comfort in the hardest of times, hope when nothing seems clear, and acceptance of one another as part of the Gift of Peace.
Dr. William F. Vendley
Religions for Peace
 See John W. Kiser, Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader (Monkfish Book Pub. Co, Rhinebeck, NY, 2008).