Does religion really cause all wars? A man who has devoted his life to peace has some of the answers. By Helen Pearson
Conflict is about identity – and conflict will be at its worst when I negatively identify myself as ‘not like you’.
David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Reconciliation, spoke from personal experience as he presented the annual Beach lecture at Newbold College last month.
A mediator in the Northern Ireland peace process, David offered six lessons drawn from his experience in resolving deep differences between communities and building peace in religious contexts.
He began his lecture, held at the Binfield college on Tuesday, October 15, by making it clear that most conflicts described as ‘religious’ are conflicts about other things, particularly about power.
He began by making it clear that most conflicts described as ‘religious’ are conflicts about other things, particularly about power.
“The Islamic conflict in which the world finds itself now is a postcolonial political conflict”, he said. All conflict is also about identity – usually a distorted sense of identity as we struggle to maintain our own identity by destroying those who are ‘not us’.
In community, we also struggle to maintain our identity. “We create boundaries with other communities who are ‘not us'”, he said. “We create narratives in which the other is not included. We negotiate relationships within our community but not across boundaries. The boundary with other communities instead of being a source of curiosity becomes a source of conflict.”
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is encouraging negotiation with other communities to the point where my ‘enemy’ can tell my story in such a way that I recognise it.
Mr Porter then described the way powerful people use religion to perpetuate conflict in the development of religious nationalism. Sectarianism arises when religious people say, “God is on ‘our’ side rather than, ‘we are God’s people’… By claiming that God is on our side we create communities of exclusion rather than communities of embrace.”
Shared responsibility for conflict was the third of Mr Porter’s concerns. As we divide the world into allies and enemies, each of us has responsibility for conflicts in which we may not be directly involved. An uncomfortable question summed up in the situation, “You may not have pulled a trigger but did you point your heart?”
In Mr Porter’s view the fourth idea crucial to reconciliation is the recognition that history matters. “In the UK we need to remember our colonial history. In Europe, we need to ask , ‘Why is Europe so rich?’ As we see the deep tragedy of what is happening off the coast of Italy, those of us who are European, need that perspective about how the rest of the world sees us…” He noted that, “We should not allow the ancestral voices to hold us back from the difficult task of honestly remembering the whole story of our past – the good and the bad.”
Thinking about history demands that we practise reconciliation as presence, listening, paying careful attention to our narrative and the story our ‘enemies’ tell. To make a creative witness to peace we need to use our imaginations and see things differently.
Mr Porter referred to the offensiveness of peacemaking as its fifth characteristic. He described developments in the Irish peacemaking process when relationships changed. There is something “deeply offensive about enemies becoming friends”, he said, while showing on the screen an iconic photograph of the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sitting side-by-side in government after forty years of hostility. “There is a profound injustice in making peace, in seeing those who have held out with the greatest intransigence becoming friends.” Accepting change is difficult but necessary.
In making his final point about the elusiveness of reconciliation, Mr Porter warned against fake reconciliation which “ignores differences and forgets the past.” Instead we need to continue the quest for true reconciliation, “managing it, living with it, creating a space for it, moving between reconciliation and the deep ambiguity of our lives.”
Several audience questions followed including one about the tension between evangelism and peacemaking. Mr Porter, himself an evangelical Christian, had thought hard about the matter. Though clearly concerned that, as he said, “a large number of people do not choose to follow Jesus”, he suggested that it is for Christians to recognise that Jesus does not come to us in a coercive way, and we have to do the same, learning to “hold in place our consuming passion” while we practise “incarnational belonging to people in their deepest need.”
His audience of 70, including Dr Bert and Mrs Eliane Beach, sponsors of the lecture, a small group of Baha’is and Christians from Bracknell and Wokingham left with much to think about for their own lives, for the world stage, and their own religious communities.