Paradox of World Religions—Conflict and Peacemaking:
How religions might foster more peacemaking and less conflict

I gave this presentation at the New Perspectives on Faith gathering, at College Mennonite Church, Goshen, on June 7, 2009.

Thanks to New Perspectives on Faith planners for inviting me to think with you tonight. Thanks also to Judith Davis and Gretchen Nyce for commenting on early drafts of this paper and to John Nyce for the technical work done for the power point that accompanies this speech.

When a senior in high school, I read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. It shaped my view of pacifism (the rejection of war). Later my peace roots deepened when serving on M.C.C.’s Peace Section Committee. My years in India profoundly taught me via people loyal to diverse religions. More recently auditing a college course with Doug Hostetter led me to read about peace and religions together.1 As a long-term advocate for justice issues surrounding women, scripture, sexual being, and religions, I have also known conflict.

Many of us here grew up claiming peacemaking as germane to our denomination. Many Mennonites have studied and written about peace, like Fred Kniss’ book a decade ago titled Disquiet in the Land.2 What concerns me is how little we are expected to learn from other religions about peace-building. The World Council of Churches named 2001-2010 as a Decade to Overcome Violence. The UN declared the same a Decade for Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World.3 Tonight we connect with such broader endeavor. We explore anew issues that deserve further perspective.

What makes for conflict or peace within religions? Clearly, people determine one or the other rather than religions per se. Conflict might be prompted by extremist groups, nationalism, or fundamentalism. Judgmental truth claims, anti-Judaism, thinking of war as God-driven, or refusal to assess our sacred heritage also add to conflict. Increased peace might follow social activism, hospitality, or nonviolence. It grows through deepened empathy for diverse beliefs or rituals, through attitude changes—toward more openness, compassion, or mindfulness. To value members of other faiths prompts one to discuss their key concepts, learn from their scriptures, or credit their religious integrity.

We look at conflict and then peace-building through paradigms of five religions. Those to examine, from the most ancient, are Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Some will receive more attention than others. Themes covered differ. Sikhism or Taoism would have been worthy complements, but time limits exist.

Conflict: First Word – “Does religion cause violence?”
Clearly, this question is being explored as reflected in recent book titles: Religions in Conflict. Terror in the Mind of God. When Religion Becomes Evil. The Islamic Threat. The Buddha and the Terrorist. Religion and Violence in a Secular World. Articles abound too: “The Cult of Violence in the Name of Religion: A Panorama.” “Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and Qur’an.”4 The plethora of content staggers.

To presume to be a peace-builder but not know about diverse religions—their fears, texts, or wisdom—limits perspective. To consider Christian–Muslim conflict based only on Christian views suggests bias. It implies that Christians alone know what matters. Not that you need to share my perspective, I believe that as Christians grow in knowledge of and trust for other religions, we enlarge our peace-building effort. This stance builds on good theory and decades of worthy experience before us. It draws from other religions’ concerns and strengths. It credits Buddhist’ views of suffering or emptiness, Hindu history with ahimsa, or Muslim leaders like Badshah or Ayoub. To consider myself a peacemaker, I must honor, understand and be open to learn from other living faiths. I believe that diverse religions are needed for peace-building.5

Conflict through Paradigms: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam
A. Hinduism

We begin with Hinduism, the most ancient of religions to examine here. We cannot summarize its complex, extensive scriptures. Worship, stories, and rituals permeate Hindu culture; social order blesses or limits millions in India. Themselves confused, the ruling British perhaps first named the religion of the majority on the subcontinent Hindu, from the name of the important Indus River. Although many Hindus perceive of their religion as tolerant, open to and expressive of great diversity, it too causes major conflict. Other groups have broken from its base—forming Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist groups. Buddhism started late in India, compared to Hindu roots; its dispersal to other Asian countries followed. Hindu dependence on caste turned these break-off groups toward alternate ways of being social.

While fundamentalism has harmed many religions, I describe it as a point of conflict in more recent Hindu exchange. In India, it finds expression in militant Hindu nationalism. The Hindu Great Council (Hindu Mahasabha ) formed in 1915 set the tone for Hindu doctrine through V. D. Savarka’s publishing of Hindutva. Hindutva means “Hinduness.” The National Union of Volunteers known as the RSS (Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh) brotherhood of believers formed in 1925. It trains in martial arts; they master discipline.

By 1964 some RSS leaders founded the VHP cultural organization. This World Hindu Society stages large processions in order to revive religious zeal and to threaten minorities like Islam. Formed around a central, ‘religious assembly’ of committees—within thirty years it had 300 district units, 3,000 branches, and 100,000 members—the RSS ideal promotes Hinduism as the national religion of India. That stance conflicts with the country’s commitment to pluralism, a fact since Independence in 1947.

A third Hindu fundamentalist party called the BJP (Bharatiya Janat party) emerged in 1980. Some leaders of this Indian People’s Party, while trained with the RSS, wished for broader support. In 1998 its Prime Minister Vajpayee formed a coalition government. Some parties opposed a nationalism that ranks the Hindu religion as supreme, that supports basic Hindutva. That stance calls for a “true Hindu” to exchange the secular written law, formed in pluralism, with an order loyal to Hindutva.6

Direct conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, for example, recur in India. Majority Hindus resent century-old tales of Muslim rule. Muslims resent being thought second-class. These two groups, with markedly diverse views of the Divine, still may celebrate each other’s sacred holidays. But, memories and feelings of revenge for prior riots and Partition prompt deep fear to linger. The city named Ayodhya holds history for both religions. But far more Muslims died or had property destroyed in the late ’92-‘93 debacle when a famous mosque was destroyed there by kar sevaks (Hindu fighters). Noted author Arundhati Roy reports7 on the aftermath of the “Godhra outrage” of 2002 when Hindu nationalists killed 2,000 Muslims and left 100,000 homeless in the state of Gujarat. She calls the “meticulously planned pogrom” fascist (meaning to rely on terror to achieve ends). She grieves that such fascists trained at RSS shakhas see “130 million Muslims living in India as legitimate prey.”8

B. Judaism – We turn briefly to Hebrew Scriptures and Holy War.

Walter Dietrich9names six kinds of violence in the Hebrew Bible—between individuals, nations, or religions; between divine and human; within society; and against nature. Raymond Schwager gathers stark statistics: six hundred passages of explicit violence occur in the Hebrew Bible; God’s punishment appears in one thousand verses; Yahweh either tries or kills or commands others to kill in one hundred passages.10 The same collection of scriptures invites readers to hinder, limit, reject, prevent, and remove causes for violence. Several Psalms call the people to rely on God, rather than an army. (20:7-8, 33:16-18) The Testament predicts that at a future time “everyone will serve the one and true God.” How do readers respond?11

To call on the Divine in order to use force is how ‘holy war’ might be explained. Israel clearly invoked God to destroy or protect. Some Jews credit greater peace when war enlarges Yahweh’s rule. Other writers discuss ‘holy war’ in which divine authority justifies use of force. Charles Selengut finds the earliest example of it in the Hebrew text. He thinks that key ideas of covenant, land promised, and chosen people caused Israel to believe that God ordained violence and war.12 Peter Macky’s study of Hebrew violence notes where Yahweh or Israel directly violates or where Mosaic Law justifies violent retribution.13

Susan Niditch names seven Hebrew models for waging war. To destroy as sacrifice to God; to destroy condemned sinners; to gain honor for courage shown; to get rid of an unclean enemy; to show that an underdog can defeat someone superior; to justify a given purpose; and to give God the glory while the loyal watch the battle.14 Clearly, ancient Israel’s holy war tradition, with Yahweh as warrior or defender, led the people to see their role or weapon as trust in God’s protection.15

Other religions call war ‘holy.’ But, Charles Kimball (former Middle East Director of the National Council of Churches) says that calling war ‘holy’ distorts the very core of defense. It corrupts religion. He believes that both Christians and Muslims have seriously wronged their faiths. Not direct war, conflict occurred also in 1492 when Spain’s king and queen decreed that all Jews must either leave Spain or become Christians, within four months. Forty thousand fled; the same number converted.16


Who could consider exchange about religious conflict without mention of the destruction of millions of Jews during WWII? Hopefully, you are more informed about that religious scourge. If not, I recommend you visit the profound, Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Finally, more Christians now acknowledge the anti-Judaism that shapes our heritage, signs of which start in the Gospel of John. One writer to commend is Susannah Heschel, daughter of the noted thinker Abraham and pianist mother Sylvia (Straus) Heschel. Her book Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus17 explains that early Jewish analysis of Christian texts. Writing in the mid-1800s, he makes clear Jesus’ Jewishness, the need for Christian faith to be known as derived through Jesus’ Judaism. In Jesus, Geiger found nothing unique or original, his teachings being “typical liberal Pharisaic teachings of his day.” Christian religion then became dogma about Jesus, departing even from the leaders’ teachings.18

C – Buddhism

Buddhism has been known more for nonviolence and peace-building endeavor than for conflict. But some adherents also have been destructive. A teaching from the Dhammapada, popular Buddhist text, reflects a strong stance:

“Hatreds are never ended or calmed by hate,
Hatreds are only calmed by non-hate.
This is an everlasting principle.”19

Where some Buddhists have ignored nonviolence is the Asian island of Sri Lanka. Although the Buddha received enlightenment and carried out forty years of preaching along the Ganges in India, Sri Lanka claims to be the world’s oldest Buddhist society, the “homeland of pure Buddhism.” As usual, religion and politics mix. Tensions over land, education, employment rights, and national language have persisted since 1948 between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils. Tamils invade from the southern state of India called Tamil Nadu. An upsurge of Buddhism came in the mid-‘50s with the desire for state Buddhism. Starting in 1976 an extremist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eleem) hoped to form a separate Tamil state.20

Amos Yong explains how the Sangha, the self-governing order of Buddhist monks and nuns, became a distinct force in Sri Lankan politics. It caused tension with local rulers, countered Christian education, and helped a new Prime Minister (Bandaranaike) make Sinhala the official language. Riots caused hundreds of Hindu Tamilian deaths; thousands were displaced. Strong dispute among Buddhist communities about traditions or texts and their meanings added to conflict, not compassion.21

Eva Neumaier22 explains the concept of peace with the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. 1. Dissatisfaction is part of experience; that means that suffering (dukkha) occurs. 2. Such suffering results from being too ideal with hopes, from clinging to or thirsting after pleasure. 3. Nirvana—being beyond birth and death—transpires when a person is free from suffering. 4. Wisdom, intense mental discipline, and release from attachment bring nirvana, a state of otherness, to fruition.23 Whereas a dictionary might define peace as: the end of war, freedom from civil discord, or quiet composure, Buddhist meaning for shanti centers more on inner calm. True peace, the Dalai Lama says, shapes mental quality. Not an ethical response, it arrives through meditation.24 Might we learn from this distinct understanding of nonviolence for exchange with Buddhists?

D. Christianity – Just War and Crusades

After centuries of nonviolence, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s ‘official’ religion. With questions of how to reconcile a clear conscience with acts of war, Ambrose and Augustine, in the 4th century, proposed a basis for ‘just war.’ They hoped to maintain justice and order, avoid undue harm, and restore just peace. Standards for declaring war just were: declared by a lawful leader, as a ‘last resort,’ with a sane chance for success, with moderate violence or more goodwill likely to occur than evil, resulting in intent for peace.25 The monk Gratian compiled a major document to justify the Crusades. By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas declared “war as always sinful . . . even if waged at times for a just cause.” Writers like Sri Lankan professor Wesley Ariarajah state that by the 20th century, some Christians doubt if any war can be called “just.” Modern methods and nuclear weapons lead ecumenical people to call for just peace, not just war. 26 “Waging holy war is easy. Waging holy peace is painstaking,” says Rabbi Justus Baird.27

Relations between Islam and Christianity around 1050 shaped the Crusades. By the end of the eighth century, Islam already posed a broad threat. As Islam questioned Christian culture, Christians could not bear to have such a ‘demonic, counterfeit’ religion control the Holy Land. Issues of commerce, land grabbing, and glory also drove the Crusades.28 Like intentions to suppress heresy, Crusade plunder promised blessing for those who joined; booty followed plunder.29

Centered in mistrust, the two religions saw each other as harmful competitors. While Christians thought theirs was the only valid religion, Muslims felt that Islam corrected Christian corruption.30 The only major, post-Christian religion, Islam presumed to supersede it in ways like Christians had presumed to replace Judaism. Such supersession never brings accord; it fails to admit the good of difference. Further, Eugene March and others believe that “Muslim rule was far more tolerant toward other religions than the Christian intent to replace.”31 In the name of God, Christian Crusaders killed those of the house of Islam in its effort to regain Jerusalem and Holy Places.

From the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, devoted Christians destroyed Jews and Muslims. First impelled by Pope Urban’s 1095 sermon, religion supplied the ‘just cause’ for holy massacre. A recital of battles followed.32 Capture of Jerusalem in 1099 led to Islamic counterattacks. A second Crusade from 1147-49 failed to repossess Muslim Edessa. Sunni Saladin (ended Egypt’s Fatimid caliphate in 1171 and then) re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187. The third Crusade soon after (1190-92) failed to take Jerusalem back despite new strategy. Fourth and fifth Crusades tried again, but in vain. Conflict did not end there, John H. Yoder reminds us. Spain’s conquest of Algeria occurred during the sixteenth century; a mindset persists about fighting for God or martyrdom.33 While these battles took place centuries ago, views gained then linger. For Muslims and Jews, Crusades with echoes of “God wills it” suggest “ugly, human zeal to ‘please’ God.”34 Yoder says that “for the average Muslim, the Crusades define what it means to be Christian.” Perhaps those who today point a finger at the Taliban or Al Quada might first pause.

E. Islam – Inner war (Jihad) and Wahhabism

Critics of Islam and Muslims, intent to harm, often give a negative meaning to the term jihad. While I mention it here in the conflict section, the conflict may be more the distortion that opponents or extremists give to “holy war.” For Muslims, war may be just or unjust; Islam calls nothing “holy” except God. The multi-layered doctrine of jihad results from diverse teachings and teachers, applied through history. Noted author John Esposito says that the Qur’an refers to armed struggle as either defensive or expansionist, against nonbelievers.35 It provides directives for dealing with conflict: Who is to fight and who is excused. (48:17; 9:91) When to end warfare. (2:192) When to make peace, suggested by the other. (8:61) How to be fully committed when fighting. And how to inflict such defeat that those who follow learn the lesson. (8:57)36

However, the deeper meaning of jihad deserves more press. It describes the inner struggle with selfishness. While ascetic Sufis directly oppose war, some Islamic scholars call a battle sacred if it enables people to submit to Allah. A Sufi might see how true, ‘holy war’ praises God if the enemy of truth within a person is destroyed. The war that needs fighting is an inner one—getting rid of evil within that opposes God. The real war brings falsehood into contact with truth. To attack others or force them into your belief is not Islam. Self-control—to restrain anger, revenge, or jealousy, to get rid of inner thoughts that hurt others—is the war worth waging.37 While the personal struggle or striving to draw nearer to God centers in getting rid of inner demons, the community’s duty remains to defend the faith against evil while bringing justice and life-affirming values to the world. Such effort moves toward becoming “true believers.”38

We look briefly at Islamic Wahhabism. Born to a devout Muslim family in 1703, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was sent from his desert home to Medina to study with a teacher determined to purify Islam (Shah Wali Allah). Driven to restore early Arab thought, Wahhabism linked with the Kharijites, the first Muslim extremists. Internal debate over interpreting the Qur’an, applying law, defining a Muslim, and uniting a community divided by tribes and wars had shaken Islam for fourteen centuries. Wahhabist terrorism, meant to conserve or release from foreign sway, basically simplifies tawhid—which refers to God’s Oneness and Unity.39

Omid Safi describes Wahhabism as the “single greatest source of impoverishment” for current Islam.40 Presuming that it alone is right or knows Islamic truth, it tries to impose orthodoxy on all Muslims. Many Saudis claim it as Islam. Diverse Sunni movements feel that it: 1. counters mysticism and reason, 2. rejects intercession, and 3. often relies on hadith. Begun in the eighteenth century, it strongly opposes non-Muslim customs, Ottoman corruption, and native Sufism. By 1970, Wahhabism bonded with nineteenth century Salifism, another group less tolerant of different views.41

III. Peace-building – First Word

A story of Kabir, the poet-saint who brought peoples’ hearts together, speaks. People could not tell if he was Muslim or Hindu; he lived the best of each faith. When he died, Hindus wanted to cremate his body and Muslims wanted to bury the pir as they do. On looking under the saint’s shroud, each group found “only a heap of flowers.” Even his death turned conflict to good will.42

How might Christians respond to the fact that Buddha was called “Prince of Peace”? Born into a royal family, the idea holds in more than one way. Further, his wide-spread teaching commends a rule of right living (dhamma-cakkam). Buddhism calls for external freedom, from conflict or war, and for inward peace, “peace that passes understanding.” Peace that moves from self-centered being or attachment to peaceful Nirvana, devoid of desire.43

“Peace the Divine Gift” is how Monika Hellwig titles a chapter. She notes three points on which world religions agree. 1. Peace, ordained by God, directs people and communities. 2. Because people ever quarrel, peace is a gift of heaven. 3. Personal and group peace depends on inner peace with the self and the divine.44

Peace-building through Paradigms: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam

We turn to the question posed: How might religions foster more peacemaking?

A.Hinduism: ‘The Way,’ Mira Bai, and ahimsa

Shared insight into spiritual themes can enhance good will between Hindus and other living faiths. One theme centers on ‘way’ or ‘path’ as known to Hindus and Christians.45 The popular, spiritual classic text for Hindus, Bhagavad Gita known as Gita, is part of the great epic Mahabharata, (the other main epic being the Ramayana). In Sanskrit language, marga means ‘way.’ Three types of seeking or striving for a goal, or a path that leads to God-experience, mean liberation. Jnana-marga, the way of knowledge or intuition, karma-marga, the path of action, and bhakti-marga, the road of deep devotion. Known as his “spiritual reference book,” Gandhi credits the Gita’s teachings for lifting whatever problem he faced. 46

The long epic tells about a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of a royal family.47 Just before going to battle, Arjuna, a Pandavas, admits that he cannot kill his own friends and relatives. Gita teachings present Arjuna and Lord Krishna’s exchange, a sacred process through the three margas. Krishna (Vishnu incarnation) guides Arjuna to intense thought about the ways: being, selfless work to benefit all, and loving surrender to Lord Krishna. Those paths will lead Arjuna to yoga or union with the Ultimate (what Christians call salvation). True yoga entails full control of desire, absorption into the Divine, and the wisdom of bliss. Might such background move you toward greater good will with a person loyal to Hindu insight into the Way?

Consider also Mira Bai who lived during the 1500s.48 A saint, mystic, and famous poet, she exhorts the way of bhakti. Fully devoted to Krishna her lover, she gave up her princely husband to live with kindred, devoted bhaktas known for equality and care for the poor. She also chose a Muslim to be her guru, one who “knows the secrets of the Divine path.”49 She traveled to many temples sacred to Krishna where she sang and danced her devotion. A “favored symbolic figure” of Gandhi’s, Mira Bai’s nonviolent, noncooperation “compelled him to become her disciple.” She symbolized for him the “power of love.”50 Might she mentor your faith?

Ahimsa, usually explained as nonviolence, has meaning broader than not harming a person. A Hindu writer51 finds the idea of “oneness with all life” or deep compassion in an ancient Upanishad text. Jains then gave ahimsa a central place in their thought and practice; they neither kill an insect nor buy silk. Western peace movements rarely practice nonviolence to the extent of the Hindu point of unity of all things. Vedic philosophy sees everything as pervaded by divine power (Sat) or Brahman (pure consciousness).52 Buddhism, a break-off from Hinduism, later applied the practice of ahimsa to relations between people. Each person’s duty to help, not even despise another, re-shaped the term into positive action. Monika Hellwig suggests that western religions could cultivate a deeper empathy with all living beings for its peacemaking and ecology focus, learning from eastern karma about moral cause and effect.53

Judaism – Hospitality – Genesis 18

I renewed insight into the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah showed at their tent by the oaks of Mamre when reading my mother’s “talks.” Her first public speech, given in her home church when age 13, notes this text. How intriguing, that she as a youth, who later hosted more people than anyone I know, including strangers, who credited the Divine as ever-present, chose this ancient account of God’s visit! A divine creature’s surprise visit to a person appears in several world religions.54

In the Genesis text, three unknown visitors appear to elderly Abraham. Gracious, he offers water for thirst and foot-washing and suggests that they rest while he garners the ‘tent crew’ to ready a meal of calf, bread, milk, and butter. He passes God’s test of piety that preserves strangers. Here is warmth of welcome and deep respect offered at midday. Whether Yahweh appeared in all three commoners but spoke as one, mystery pervades.55 After appearing to eat, the guests attend to their ‘task’ of reporting that Sarah would birth a child before another year had passed. That prediction was enough to make the eavesdropper inside the tent flaps laugh. Who could critique her unbelief? Her fear when she denied laughing? The guests depart having pointedly asked: “Is anything too hard for God?”

The call to entertain strangers recurs. Thirty-six Hebrew texts remind hearers to “love the stranger.”56 Stranger refers to one who differs from you. To love those different reflects basic peace-building, for strangers will be loyal to diverse faith traditions. Believers will reach beyond borders. Risks will be taken and empathy offered when making space for difference. Will Christians see God’s image in those whose faith and ideals differ? Jonathan Sacks suggests that if we fail this test, we “make God into [our] image instead of allow God to remake us in God’s image.”57 Self-righteous members might negate the stranger in a pluralist context, might set a fence around her. Such absolutists wish to keep their own people separate. They fear that strangers will undermine their values. Martin Marty, in When Faiths Collide, supports Darrell Fasching: “To welcome the stranger involves passing over into the other’s life and stories and coming back into our own [religion] enriched.”58

C. 1. Buddhism – Examples of Engaged Buddhism

Sallie King calls ‘Engaged Buddhism’ “Gandhi’s ahimsa in Practice.”59 Engaged Buddhism appears as social activism, building peace through transformed systems, or acting out Buddhist basic values. The Four Noble Truths explain suffering, or what results from self-attachment. Factors that cause or remove suffering include compassion, selflessness, interdependence, and karma (seeds in actions that shape future fruit). Its precepts counter harming another, stealing, lying, sexual offense, or being drunk. Sallie King names60 Buddhist mentors of lived nonviolence like Tibet’s Dalai Lama. Maha Ghosananda, born in the 1920s, joined a monastery at age ten and came to be known as “Cambodia’s Gandhi.” The entire family of this humble monk died in the Khmer Rouge holocaust of his country; he died last year. Spiritual leader of the masses who walked with him thousands of miles, his wisdom and compassion taught many. His moral sense that revenge only repeats itself grew from intense practice of meditation.

Although Hindus and Muslims persecuted Buddhism in India during the 9th century, when many monks fled to Nepal, a more recent Indian peace-builder was B. R. Ambedkar. He labored hard to reform India’s social system of caste. Born a Hindu Untouchable and ever an advocate for them, he helped write the Indian constitution and was a cabinet minister in the new government. Weeks before his death, he with a half million converted to Buddhism. Buddha’s Way, which has become Engaged Buddhism, affirms mutual dependence among all beings.61

C. 2. Buddhism – Thich Nhat Hanh

Perhaps some Americans first became aware of Thich Nhat Hanh (known as “Thay”) from actions of monks during the Viet Nam war. Over one hundred monks and nuns set themselves on fire to protest that war.62 Born in 1926 and a monk for six decades, Nhat Hanh now lives in France, since exiled from Viet Nam. He founded Plum Village in 1982. His peace effort begins with mindfulness and a smile. For Buddhist Nhat Hanh, all violence is injustice, its main corrective being compassion combined with understanding.63

Mindfulness restores a person to the present moment, to insight. It centers in awareness of what is going on. It depends on breath which connects life to consciousness, which in turn brings together body and thought. Mindfulness, a kind of energy, exists in all that is done. This ‘Buddha nature’ might be called Spirit, the seed which exists in all people. To practice right mindfulness, Buddhists look to others who live by Buddha teachings—their community or sangha. Core members within a sangha “observe at least sixty days of mindfulness within a year.”64 Buddhism’s three ‘gems’ are known as Sangha, Buddha (the awakened one) and dharma (Buddha’s teachings).65

A religious life for Nhat Hanh includes reverence for life, nonviolence, and communion—with people or an absolute.66 Nonviolence means “to act with love and compassion.” By contrast, war, which no one wins, is based on wrong perceptions of a situation. “Thay” contends that killing another person means seeing that one as a beast. To transform such anger into love, or to heal, requires meditation, a core practice of Buddhism.67 Asked what he would say if he met Osama bin Laden, Nhat Hanh explained: He would listen, taking strong listener friends along. He would try to understand what suffering may have led bin Laden to be cruel. After a break to absorb the information gleaned, he would calmly respond to each of bin Laden’s points in order to “gently but firmly” prompt him to find what he had failed to understand. For bin Laden to claim suffering and hear reasons—like U.S. consumption patterns or lack of deep listening in foreign policy—could lead Nhat Hanh to compassion—sign of creative peace-building.68 [Update: “Thay” died early in 2022 having returned to his native Viet Nam.]

A.1. Christian – We turn to Christian peacemakers, starting with Thomas Merton.

As an English teenager, Thomas Merton first read a book on Buddhism. Five years later he met the Hindu monk Bramachari and joined the Catholic Church. Attitudes during his early years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, his and those around him, were negative toward other living faiths. Some features changed while others did not. His book titled Peace in the Post-Christian Era, ready to be printed in 1964 was published in 2004. Too prophetic, that book discusses just war theory, working for peace, and moral issues about nuclear bombs. At fifty he remained open to the world, people, and God. Learning from interfaith friendships, many through letter writing, Merton was as rooted in his faith as free to perceive and value others.

Peace-building insight from Merton’s letters abounds.69 Writer William Apel begins reporting with Sufi mystic Abdul Aziz. Their exchange is based on ‘poverty of spirit,’ meaning being humble to learn from the other. Pitting one’s God against another’s not only divides; it creates idolatry. As Sufi saints and Christian mystics speak about “God behind God,” Thomas and Abdul share the void—only God between them.

Letter writers from different countries and religions appear. Amiya Chakravarty, world citizen rooted in Buddhist wisdom from India, links Christ’s limitless love with the Buddha’s deep compassion. To love without restraint—have “the mind of Christ”—is like right mindfulness or selfless compassion. Jewish Abraham Heschel affirms the Hebrew Bible as “God’s search for man.” To repent, or re-turn, a person responds to God’s seeking. When neither Jews nor Christians subsume or convert the other, their dialogue remains strong in covenant.

A Buddhist correspondent is D. T. Suzuki from Japan. Fully aware of inner being, Suzuki reflects on breathing Zen’s universal spirit. Both see in Zen deep exchange or communion about life. Both see religious practice, not religious doctrine, as the true place for interfaith meeting. Merton, a contemplative Christian monk, shared with his friend the link between Christ’s emptying and Zen experience of sunyata (emptiness). When Merton wished Suzuki to write the introduction for his book The Wisdom of the Desert, censors from his monastic order refused. “A work on the desert fathers could not be introduced by a Buddhist.”70 Oh, the travails of peace-building!

D. 2. Christians Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, David Scott and Paul Knitter

Another source of interreligious peace-building results from shared, extensive knowledge of religions or religious figures. Three personal friends—Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, David Scott and Paul Knitter—write about and teach World Religions. Joyce and David grew up in India, children of missionaries and graduates of Woodstock School [school about which more appears on this website.]

A Goshen College grad for decades on the Emory University faculty, one of Flueckiger’s books71 describes her extensive fieldwork (over a decade) done with Amma, a Muslim healer woman from Hyderabad. Professional, public, religious roles for women are rare but noticed. Laywomen may also practice healing or prayers in homes. Gender roles and arrangements matter for Amma and her teacher husband Abba. Amma may see, diagnose, and prescribe spiritual forces for Hindu, Muslim, or Christian patients. “They’re all the same in the healing room,” she says. Patients with troubles or as her disciples value her charismatic, spiritual teaching or strength. Asked whether Joyce was a disciple, Amma replied: “She loves God and I love God, so we have a connection.” Writing diagnoses on paper “amulets or unleavened bread,” she also may pray or recite from the Qur’an. [17, 42, 68, 70, 86 142, 154, 168]72 [Update: Before Joyce’s retirement, her disciplined teaching and research led to publication of books titled When the World Becomes Female and Everyday Hinduism, a notable resource for the study of that religion.]

David Scott lived much of his life in India. Retired from seminary teaching, he spoke in 2011 to a group of Methodists about Christian peace-building with Muslims.73 To truly know a Muslim of faith, Scott urges engagement in prayer, hearing the Qur’an recited, sharing the Ramadan fast, or absorbing the poetry of Islam’s lived prose. Knowledge enables experience. Islam stems from an Arabic noun root aslama which means to submit. A religion of God, not Muhammad, Islam depends utterly on God, the Arabic word being Allah. Not a new religion, Islam confirms and culminates what went before—Abraham, Moses, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, prophets and Jesus. Dependent on the one God, they were all Muslims, all mentioned in the Qur’an.74

Muslims explain that as Jesus fulfilled Moses’ work, so Muhammad confirms or fulfills Jesus. Scott says that they might tell their children about God’s children finding rest and shade at the Oasis of Moses. When God calls them to journey on, those who refuse because they wish to stay with Moses are Jews. The rest reach the Oasis of Isa Masihu where they in peace drink at Jesus’ feet. Again, called by God to move on, those who choose to stay with Jesus are Christians. But the rest follow God to the final seal of prophets, the Oasis of Muhammad. [Ibid., 4]75

Scott suggests that with the same Divine source, Jews, Christians, and Muslims belong together. Despite divided camps and strong dislikes, members face God—through the Lord’s Supper or recital of the Qur’an. “Not alive to God if dead to one another,”76 might Christians build a bridge of peace and follow the muezzin’s call to prayer? Might we join to proclaim: “God is most great. God is greater than all our perceptions and conceptions. I bear witness that there is no god but God.”

With extensive knowledge of Buddhism, Paul Knitter asks four questions.77 He then explains how each might be answered by Buddhists and Christians. First, “The Many Religions: a Problem or a Blessing?” Is religious diversity something to solve or enjoy? Christianity looks for a final oneness or unity of religions. But, as the Trinity never becomes one, religious pluralism abides in its move toward unity. Knitter states: “God may will unity; but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t also will diversity.”78 Buddhists know reality as something always new, always more. The whole of religious manyness credits the parts involved without clinging to either. For dialogue then, the common ground is groundlessness. “No common denominator is the common denominator.”79

For the second question: “Do the Many Hold Anything in Common?” Knitter finds Buddhist and Christian answers to be both yes and no. His two other questions with discussion follow: 3rd – “Among the Many Does One Excel?” and 4th – “Does ‘Many’ Mean ‘Any’? From an ethical call to compassion, Knitter expects Christian love for others to link with justice and Buddhist “compassion [to] be grounded in the wisdom of enlightenment.”80 Granted, not all people who value diverse faiths will understand another’s religion to great depth. But, to put aside attitudes that require the other to mostly learn from me and what I value reflects a ‘poverty of spirit’ that enhances exchange.

E. Peace-building and Islam – How peace-building might evolve through listening to Islamic thought
E. 1. Riffat Hassan – Interpretation of Scripture and Messianiam

Riffat Hassan who teaches at the University of Louisville was born in Pakistan. She wrote two books about Sir Muhammad Iqbal, (1877-1938) noted poet and philosopher. Her articles often focus on direct content from the Qur’an, women in Islam, peace concerns, or interreligious dialogue. An important article of hers responds to: “What Does It Mean to Be a Muslim Today?”81 For Hassan, being a Muslim means this and more:

Belief in Allah, serving Allah and humanity;

Being Allah and Creature-conscious—to understand the interconnection of all life;

Following the Shari’ah (Divine law/will of Islam);

Knowing that the Qur’an is the charter of human freedom;

Developing a way to interpret fundamental teachings separate from additions; [like hadith]

Heeding Allah’s decree that diversity is for knowing each other while being Allah-conscious;

Being on a journey toward achieving peace.

Hassan perceives that accurate insight into Islam depends on careful attention to the prime text, the Qur’an. Her discovery of God’s justice and compassion toward women as taught in the Qur’an, compared to the injustice faced by many in life, has shaped her thirty-five-year study.82 Hassan is concerned that many Muslim women—often poor, rural, and with limits of literacy—passively accept men, those presumed to be superior. Without power except in the home, Muslim women struggle. Mostly controlled by men for worship in mosques, alert women now turn to sanctuaries with space to assess their problems, develop skills of critique, and find solutions. With other educated women, Hassan sees how religion is used to oppress more than liberate. So, they no longer accept the myths and arguments given. As Christian and Jewish women scholars learned the value of disciplined, textual study, a few Muslim feminists feel driven to be duly informed. For peace-building purposes, Christians in dialogue with Muslims will believe the pain and read others’ religious texts.83

Riffat Hassan’s discussion of messianism also prods openness with Muslims.84 “People of the Book” anticipate redemption through a messiah figure—Jews of one to come publicly within the community and Christians with the return of one to bring spiritual, inner change. Qur’an content does not expect such a savior. It avoids points like redemption, intercession, or a figure with charisma. That a person might be God—sustainer, creator, and guide of all people—or more than human “is simply anathema to the Qur’an.”85 Islam does not claim that one bears the sins of another; all people strive and must answer for their own choices and actions. Although how Muslims live the present shapes their Day of Judgment, they are not bound to ‘live for the future.’

Yet, most Shi’a and Sufi Muslim history contains a concept of savior. Together they spread messianism to protest Muslim corruption. Shi’a messianism centers in the Karbala tragedy (680 C.E.) when Husain the third imam and a hundred relatives of Muhammed’s died. Oppressed and suffering Shi’as rally around Husain as ‘savior of Islamic values.’86 A couple centuries later, the twelfth Shi’a imam disappeared as a child. Known as the “Mahdi,” he will return just before the end of time, after “a long period of chaos and ungodliness.” His return will signal “the fulfillment of the mission of all the Prophets before him.” He will save creation and all people, conquer the earth, and avenge Husain’s blood.87 I ask: How might peace-building among Muslims endorse such conviction about that future, when the Qur’an counters messianism? And how might peace-building Christians receive such understandings?88

E. 2. Peace-building –Mahmoud Ayoub

Mahmoud Ayoub, a fine Muslim thinker, wrote essays comparing Muslim with Christian views. Irfan Omar edited some of these into one volume.89 Christian peace-building will be strengthened as we take others’ religious thought as seriously as the faithful Muslim Ayoub does Christian faith. Not only does he show how one person can display respectful dialogue; he conveys Islamic integrity and conviction along with deep knowledge of a faith not his own. Naming how the two religions differ without judging either, Ayoub helps readers to learn about both in order to better understand each.

Born in South Lebanon in 1935, Mahmoud Ayoub received degrees in Beirut and at Harvard. For twenty years he has been professor of Islamic Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia. I highly recommend his essays in A Muslim View of Christianity. Readers benefit from details of difference that Ayoub names. Not that what differs matters more or ignores what is similar, to respect difference credits its goodness. An important Qur’an text states: “And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned.”90 God wills religious diversity, a sign of mercy. “To you your religion and to me my religion.”91 To calmly name what differs extends to each view a right to be valued without negation.

Consider the Qur’an’s view that Jesus did not die—that Jesus remains with God until his return. (Surah 3:54, 4:157)92 That stance directly differs from the basic Christian belief that Jesus died on a cross and rose again before ascending. Will we each honor the other’s view while remaining loyal to our stance, to foster good will between members loyal to religions? To argue over positions not likely to shift helps no one. If your texts leave you no choice but to differ, might you still extend friendship knowing that you agree on some vital matters, excluding Trinity?93

Prior to the Crusades, some good will prevailed. Muslims and Christians at first accepted each other as people of faith, the other’s religion as God-inspired. They started with similar goals of love and openness; each wished to reform society. They believed in God’s being universal, in each faith as meant for all. The recited Qur’an called all ‘people of the Book’ to “worship no one except God.” (Surah 3:64) Muslims agreed to protect Christians and Jews (dhimmah) when their subjects.

Yet, the two groups that claimed to supersede those before them became exclusive. Ayoub explains that while the Qur’an values religious diversity, some commentaries grew exclusive. For example, Sayyid Qutb declared that God rejects those who dismiss the final Prophet’s message. Failure to follow the superior Prophet limits space in paradise. But people who truly perform good deeds, even as Jesus’ followers, were in fact Muslims.94 Without doctrines of sin and redemption, Muslims resented Christian mission efforts that stressed salvation in Christ alone. Enmity grew. Christians refused looking to the Qur’an as a guide. They disowned Prophet Muhammad as final revelation. While Christians charged Islam as ‘inspired by the devil,’ Muslims labeled Christians as polytheist, due to the Trinity.95

Ayoub sees the current challenge to be whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims can hear God’s voice through each other’s scriptures. Will Christians, for the cause of peace, credit God as revealed in Islam, Muhammad as God’s prophet, and the Qur’an as a Book of God? Will both admit the polemics created through fear and distrust, the problems that follow from judging another’s by one’s own standards?96 As people loyal to religions engage in dialogue, the options are at least four: dialogue of life, of beliefs, of witness to faith, and of faith itself. Ayoub encourages parties to “listen to and obey the voice of God as it speaks to all communities through faith traditions.”97

E. 3. Islamic Peace-building: Badshah (Abdul Ghaffar) Khan

All of us know of M. K. Gandhi. A kindred spirit, also with nonviolence as his driving passion, was Abdul Gaffar (called Badshah) Khan. Khan, a part of the small, Afghani/Pakistan Pathan tribe and a faithful Muslim, died twenty years ago at the age of 98. (Gandhi had died forty years earlier.) Khan and Gandhi98 bonded through nonviolent effort for twenty-five years prior to India’s independence and the bloodshed of Partition. Both opposed what would become that largest migration of people ever (15 million) when half a million died. A legacy of violence and fear remains from it.

Tribal life breeds distinct features. Its social code includes honor for guests: “An unknown traveler is a guest sent to us by God.”99 Badshah’s father seldom missed the five daily periods of Islamic prayer; his mother’s piety often turned into long periods of silent prayer. Pathans lived without revenge even though ignorance, poverty and fear nearly obliged their tribe to avenge insults. To combine the term nonviolence with Pathan was a near-oxymoron. But, when tribals face resistance or death, as during an earlier retreat from trying to drive the British out of Delhi, enmity for further decades results.

For the two ‘Gandhis,’ these two servants of God, their task became “to serve and to suffer in the cause of truth.” Khan asked for a province in Pakistan where all Pathans could by united. Within a year he was jailed by a Muslim government that faulted him for being pro-Hindu. Recall that Gandhi was killed by another Hindu who resented his pro-Muslim stance. Both devout in their own religion yet most respectful of other living faiths, each was misunderstood by those of his own religion. Ingrained, self-righteous disdain for difference prevailed. But, armed with the Prophet’s weapons of patience and righteousness, Khan and those loyal knew inner training.100

IV. Last Word (for now) – Looking at Truth Claims and Exclusion.

Most religions make truth claims, perhaps made with more force by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Truth claims give members a foundation or basis for belief; they need not be cause for conflict. The problem comes with declaring the claim as only or final or the best, as if other religions are inferior or replaced. The problem grows when knowledge of the other’s religion is limited or perceived through non-member lens

When certain that my or our way is the only right view, I treat others as objects to be shaped by that view of mine. When others are labeled as wrong through my ‘only’ language, genuine respect for the good of difference lessens. When certain that my view alone represents God’s will, I grow less tolerant of what differs and may threaten violence. For example, for centuries, most Roman Catholics said that only members of the church could be saved, and Protestants then limited salvation to those with faith in Jesus the Christ. Some Muslims and Jews also held that their religions alone were true, at times tied to nationalism. Baha’I members perhaps best pose no threat to other religions.101

How people comprehend truth and the divine will vary. Do truth claims that insist on one way or concept enable greater good will? Do they take into account diverse views? Might choice among options enrich or disturb your conviction? Can you be grace-filled toward difference yet firm with what matters for you? Presuming that you use varied names for God, that you find diversity in Trinity a model for truth, or that you prefer a relational God, might you, for the sake of greater peace in the world, still learn from other group’s claims that differ? Claims like the Hindu trimurti—creator Brahma, destroyer Shiva, and sustainer Vishnu? Like Buddhist emptiness (sunnyata)? Like primitive, Taoist energy or life force that pervades all things? Might you expect to enrich your view of God’s agape love through Buddhist compassion (karuna)? Why or why not? Might you call Jesus the Enlightened One/Pathfinder or guru? Might Islam’s call for utter submission to one God increase your respect for God’s will? Might Hindu or Buddhist practice of ahimsa enlarge your understanding of God’s “nonviolent resistance to evil on the cross”?102 How do such options enhance your peace-building?

The question remains of peace-builders’ readiness for religious pluralism. Will members loyal to all religions hold lightly yet with conviction, rather than utterly, to ideas that matter? Does the cause of peace and good will matter enough to honor convincingly the neighbor? Might we find integrity in saying, “The truth that you teach gives you meaning. I wish to learn from it to enhance being faithful to mine. For, God’s truth is ‘bigger’ than either of us claims.”103 Muslim Mahmoud Ayoub’s basic rules for claims suggest that they: 1. emerge from divinely revealed scripture or sacred law; proclaim God’s pure Oneness; address strong faith in God and the last day; and nourish just living.104 Applying such rules, open minded folk of faith will apply learned truth to their beliefs while they grow in empathy for others.

Peter Phan, from his Asian context, lists how Christians might approach truth claims.

1. Avoid presuming that “Christ is the fulfillment, fullness, or definitive expression of divine revelation.” 2. Restore the existence of ancient, plural covenants.

3. Admit that what Christians call the Spirit guided people before Jesus; that the same Spirit/Energy/Power will continue to engage with rituals, teachings, practices of any religion.

4. God’s plan includes multiple religions, each to meet adherents’ needs.

5. Each religion, through dialogue, can enable others to more fully achieve its own intent.

6. Dialogue among religions might be of life (shared joys/sorrows), action (toward freedom), exchange of theology (skilled insight), or sacred experience (like prayer or seeking the Ultimate).105

Peter Phan also commends other writers familiar with diverse religions. Wilfred Cantwell Smith sees each religion as an image, or “idol,” of God. When an “idol” becomes exclusive, it turns into “idolatry.” It replaces God with an image or idea. Stanley Samartha suggests that since God is Mystery, no religion dare claim a unique or final case. With more to come of God, our right may not limit the Divine. Both Aloysius Pieris and Paul Knitter state that claims of faith are best lived through actions that favor the poor, not through absurd, debated, verbal statements of faith.106

We have thought with skilled theologians. One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many small books, titled Interbeing, explains the fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism.107 Those most related to peace-building reinforce a Buddhist secret: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”108 The first precepts move toward freedom from attachments, including devotion to views. To cling to dogma (or require others to adopt your views) prevents further learning from others and prompts conflict.109 Interbeing guidelines state: Help diminish suffering. Avoid wealth when others hunger. Address and resolve factions. Be truthful and protect life. Confront injustice and bring change without taking sides. Choose a vocation that promotes compassion. “Do not kill or let others kill.” (by might, thoughts, or way of life) “Possess nothing that should belong to others.” Might such guidelines be a useful format for stating truth, instead of claiming only/best/first/or final exclusion?

In conclusion, what perspectives might you share with each other regarding peace-building among religions? Keep in mind that people define peace in diverse ways: as contrast to conflict; as a state of inner being; or as genuine interest in knowing others’ sacred meanings. Might we agree that interfaith friends are a sign of peace? Might we greet one another: Salam alaykum, saying “Peace be with you.”