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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Faith and Peace

by Thomas Graham Jr.

A distinguished U.S. diplomat graphically demonstrates why it is urgent that the leaders of the world's major religions put aside their differences and unite in search of peace and disarmament.

Disarmament, the reduction and, where appropriate, elimination of dangerous weapons that are a threat to peace, and its important contribution to the cause of peace is not a new concept. In 1139, at the Second Lateran Council, Pope Innocent II outlawed the crossbow, declaring it to be "hateful to God and unfit for Christians." However, the English longbow soon appeared, which was more effective than the crossbow and was not prohibited. Both of these weapons, in return, were soon eclipsed by the destructive firepower of the cannon. The Roman Church also banned the rifle when it appeared, but military technology continued to develop over the centuries. Disarmament efforts could not keep pace.

Efforts to limit the scope and availability of arms continue to this day. Pope Benedict XVI, in his message on the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2006, made several significant statements in this regard. "The truth of peace requires that all--whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them--agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament," the pope said. "How can there ever be a future of peace when investments are still made in the production of arms and in research aimed at developing new ones?"

Summons to cast aside weapons date to ancient times. The prophet Isaiah said that God would "wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples; these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift up sword against nation. There will be no more training for war." Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said, "Happy are the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God."

Messages like these indeed are fundamental across all of the great religions. According to the Holy Qur'an, war is such a disaster that Muslims must use every method in their power to restore peace and normality in the shortest possible period of time. In Sura 4, verse 90, it is said, "[Be at peace with] those who approach you with hearts restraining them from fighting you as well as fighting their own people. If God had pleased He could have given them power over you and they would have fought you: therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not and [instead] send you [guarantees of] peace then God has opened no way for you [to war against them]."

The Dalai Lama in his New Millennium message said, "We must first work on the total abolishment of nuclear weapons and gradually work up to total demilitarization throughout the world." Mahatma Gandhi, however, noted that "it may be long before the law of love will be recognized in international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another."

If the call for peace and the reduction of arms is a central religious message, why then has organized religion been so singularly unsuccessful in promoting peace and disarmament? The steps that the medieval papacy took in regard to the crossbow may give us some clues. For a time, the ban on the crossbow may have reduced violence. But technology was too quick, and soon the spirit of that ban was as arcane as the crossbow itself.

While individual religious leaders have from time to time succeeded in advocating peace and disarmament, the overall picture is far more bleak. On balance, organized religion has more often been the cause, rather than the cure, for violence and war. This result is in diametric opposition to the teachings of the founders--and many subsequent major figures--of all the world's principal religions.

In classical times wars were fought to preserve and expand dynasties, to conquer new territories, or for economic gain-- rarely for religious or ideological reasons. This remained largely true for centuries even after classical times. The clashes associated with the rapid expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. were far less conflicts about religion than they were wars to unify the Arab world and expand its domain. There was no attempt to eliminate Christianity and Judaism in areas that were predominantly Christian or Jewish that as a result of this expansion came under the control of the Muslim caliphate. Jerusalem was governed by a succession of moderate Muslim leaders.

And after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, the spread of Christianity followed Roman and Byzantine legions. Rather than solely an effort at proselytizing, it was more a civilizing force. The Israelites, likewise, in the early centuries after the Exodus established Israel in Palestine by force not so much for religious triumphalism as for the purpose of creating a national identity.

None of these conflicts were religious wars; they represented state and national expansions of a classical nature. And after the three religions of Abraham--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--were established by the end of the eighth century, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were able to live together in relative peace and harmony for some three hundred years. Far to the east, Buddhism expanded through India into China and Japan and some adjacent areas largely peacefully, and Hinduism is the cultural religion of India.

It wasn't until the eleventh century that organized religion took an inexorable turn and became a direct instigator of violence and war. In 1095, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade. He did so in part to divert energies away from the incessant dynastic conflicts that plagued Europe in the Dark Ages, and also to turn attention away from the stagnant economic conditions that had existed in Western Europe for centuries. But most important, the goal was to create a new, aggressive, militant Christianity that would be a tool of the papacy and Western dynastic leaders.

Almost immediately, within a year or two, the First Crusade became a religious conflict. As they began their march toward Palestine, the Crusaders attacked European Jewish communities simply because they were Jewish and not Christian. Those attacks foreshadowed similar, sporadic attacks against Jews during the ensuing Crusades era, and far more serious ones during the fourteenth century when Jewish communities were singled out as scapegoats for the Black Death.

Thus the First Crusade touched off a thousand-year war between Christianity and Islam--one that still rages today. Christian anti-Semitism as we have known it stems largely from this period. After the Crusaders finally arrived, having endured many hardships en route, at the gates of Jerusalem in 1099 on the First Crusade, they decided on an all-out attack on the city's inhabitants. In the next two days, the Crusaders slaughtered forty thousand men, women, and children in Jerusalem simply because they were Muslim or Jewish. We live today with the impact of the Crusades and the many, many other similar atrocities that followed.

The battle over Palestine during the Crusades lasted nearly two hundred years. The Muslims eventually turned the tide, thanks in part to the leadership of the famous Salahuddin. However, the era of religious war had begun, and it continues today. Later the Muslim cause against the West was taken over, to a degree, by the Ottoman Turks, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and brought much of southeastern Europe under their sway before being halted by a Christian army at the gates of Vienna in 1520.

Soon afterward, though, it was Christian battling Christian when the Reformation in Europe pitted Catholics and Protestants against one another. The Thirty Years' War in central Europe in the seventeenth century eliminated about a third of Germany's population before the Peace of Westphalia was secured in 1648.

Religious and ideological warfare--which seemed to recede during the Enlightenment in Europe and the emerging dominance of secularism there--returned with a vengeance in the twentieth century. Examples abound: the rise of fascism and communism leading to the struggles of World War II and the cold war; the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland beginning in the 1970s; the conflict among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia after its dissolution following the end of the cold war; the long-running war between Judaism and Islam in Palestine beginning in the 1920s and intensifying after the founding of Israel in 1948; the clash between Muslims and Hindus in south Asia beginning during the partition of British India in 1947; the conflict between the Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka commencing in the 1980s; and the current worldwide Islamic fundamentalist insurgent campaign based on terrorism and epitomized by Al-Qaeda.

While some of these wars are largely ethnic or national conflicts, they all have a heavy religious component. And with the exception of the wars against Nazism and communism, these conflicts roil on, and some are intensifying. What can be done? How can organized religion overcome the habit of exclusivity, violence, and conflict that has been so much a part of the message for the last one thousand years and return to the path of peace?

In today's world, at least, peace and disarmament are inextricably linked. In previous centuries, military weakness was seen, to some degree correctly, as an invitation to attack. During the cold war, "Peace through Strength" was a well-known maxim. The two superpowers, though, distorted this concept beyond recognition in the cold war's arms race, with the United States constructing some seventy-two thousand nuclear weapons and deploying up to thirty-two thousand in the field at one time, and the Soviet Union maintaining some forty-five thousand nuclear weapons deployed for many years--a large number of these weapons on hair-trigger alert.

The world is vastly different now, and for the first time in many centuries, no major state threatens another militarily, except in south Asia. The world's chief threat now is not major war but declining world order and catastrophic terrorism. In this situation, peace and disarmament, particularly nuclear disarmament, are inseparable. Nuclear weapons now have no military utility. But if one or more should fall into the hands of an international terrorist group such as Al-Qaeda--which would surely use them--we could witness the greatest disaster in human history, throwing modern society and the world economy into ruin. Thus, nuclear weapons threaten not only states that might fall prey to such attacks but also those that possess such weapons.

Sovereign nations, on their own, have seemed unable to effectively address the problem. The international treaty system designed to constrain the nuclear threat, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the centerpiece of world efforts to limit nuclear dangers, appears to be gradually coming apart. Nearly thirty-thousand nuclear weapons still exist worldwide, and the number of countries declaring themselves to be nuclear-weapon states is growing.

If nations are unable to stem this threat, which very much appears to be the case, perhaps the religious communities could take the lead and guide the way toward "beating swords into plowshares." Sadly, as documented above, many of the world's major religions remain at war with one another. Can this change? Will the Good Friday Agreement finally bring peace to Northern Ireland? Is there a solution to the Palestine question? Can Pakistan and India truly make peace? Can Buddhists and Tamils come to terms in Sri Lanka? Will the war on terror be won?

We must hope that leaders of the Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu faiths can put aside their differences, as their faiths at their essence truly demand, and unite in search of peace and disarmament. It will be the faithful of every walk of life suffering if any of the world's major cities is destroyed by a terrorist nuclear device. Now more than ever in history, it is imperative that religious communities join in this most serious task.

There have been attempts. The Dalai Lama has been an outspoken advocate of peace for many years. The American Catholic Bishops' Letter of 1983 made an important contribution, that nuclear deterrence was only morally acceptable as a step on the way toward nuclear disarmament. The bishops declared "profound skepticism about the moral acceptability of any use of nuclear weapons."

But these efforts and parallel ones by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders have not been sufficient to affect the bulk of their followers. The religious establishments themselves must now, as a matter of greatest urgency, considering the alarmingly dangerous state of the world today, make it unmistakably clear to the faithful that the era of religious conflict is past. Religious establishments must emphasize to their followers that religion-based violence is off the table, that those who carry out violent acts in the name of God are outside the faith, that all faiths under God support and advocate universal peace and worldwide nuclear disarmament and reduction of stockpiles of other weapons.

Perhaps in this most dangerous age, the world's religious leaders can succeed where statesmen and politicians have so appallingly failed. Working together, by implementing the visions of their faiths' founders, perhaps they can turn the world community away from the endless cycles of violence, with these unimaginably destructive weapons looming in the background, before it is too late. This is a concept that even with complete faith and dedication would take years to organize, much less accomplish.

But if there is a lesson that history can teach us in thinking about such questions, it is that nothing that is good should be thought of as impossible. We all should be guided by the sentiment expressed in the Bhagavat Purana, a Hindu scripture that some say is more than five thousand years old: "May the entire universe be blessed with peace and good hope. May everyone driven by envy and enmity become pacified and reconciled. May our own hearts and minds be filled with purity and serenity."

Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is chairman of the board of the Cypress Fund for Peace and Security. Internationally known as one of the leading authorities in the field of international arms control and nonproliferation agreements designed to limit and combat the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, Ambassador Graham has served as a senior U.S. diplomat involved in the negotiation of every major international arms control and nonproliferation agreement for the past thirty-five years.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World

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