(Reprinted with permission from Theology Today, written by Anselm Kyongsuk Min.)

The role of religion in the genesis and resolution of conflicts has always been controversial. Marc Gopin, senior associate in the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, has written an illuminating book with insight, realism, fairness, and historical erudition.

Religion is by no means the sole cause of war, but war engages the deepest human emotions, which tend to express themselves in the language and symbols of religion. Some of these may promote peacemaking, others violence. Organized religions are capable of both great good and great evil. And yet, for reasons of fear and aversion, politicians, journalists, secular intellectuals, and activists have generally neglected to study the contributions of religion in this area. Religion contains a vast reservoir of insights—gained through millennia of inner struggle, personal meditation, and collective wisdom—about what makes for tension, conflict, and war in human relationships and what does not, and provides an in-depth understanding of the concrete motives for violence and coexistence on the part of millions of people currently involved in violent struggles.

In Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking, Gopin expresses the fear that these religious sources of insight and motivation are not tapped because of certain inadequacies of both secular and religious approaches to war and peace. The secular “just war” approach addresses only the political and intellectual elites, not the broadest range of religious believers as well, and isolates the problem of war and peace from the ethical and psychological problems inherent in the totality of human relationships, ignoring the roots of war and peace in the ethical and emotional tendencies already there before the outbreak of hostilities. It also limits itself to the narrow choice of war or no war, indifferent to the many ambiguous gradations of mutual relationship between overt violence and external peace, and lacks sensitivity to the multicultural contexts of how, when, and why religious people seek violence and peace, beyond the biblical, Christian, and elitist contexts. The “religious” approach—that of Judaism—is guilty of the same compartmentalizing approach, treating war as an isolated instance of human life without locating it in the full spectrum of the ethical challenges of human intercourse as a whole.

The professional approach, concentrating on crises and problems, is not satisfactory either. Crises bring out the worst in human beings and drive them into extreme positions, while problems focus only on failures of relationships, severely limiting creative possibilities of peace. It is crucial to bring out the best in human beings in peacetime, so as to avert war as well as to ask why conflict does not occur among certain groups of religious peoples at certain times and what the social values are that support coexistence, not only why conflict occurs and how to defuse it once it does.

Gopin’s proposal is an “elicitive” approach. Recognizing that there is no preset formula for all situations, it seeks to elicit peacemaking possibilities from the positive insights and motivations for peaceful coexistence already embodied in the religious traditions that promote compassion, love of the stranger, discipline of greed and passion, humility, forgiveness, repentance, and a prophetic vision of a truly humane society. It is realistic enough to engage people as they define themselves in all their particularity, especially the conservatives, who often make the difference between war and peace. Sensitive to the multicultural, non-European context, an elicitive approach avoids pure intellectualization and appeals to the power of symbols and ritual. It tries to prevent war by cultivating the primordial social and moral habits that promote coexistence during peacetime, in all areas of human relationship.

Gopin takes religion as a community constantly engaged in the process of self-interpretation according to changing contexts. Such a community treats religious doctrines, including those concerning the holy war in Judaism or jihad in Islam, as something always open to further interpretation, not as something fixed, which makes it possible to hope even in the presence of the most exclusivistic doctrines regarding the Other. As part of sacred texts, these elements cannot be removed, but they can be “reread.” For Gopin, this interpreting dimension of religion is crucial. The imperative of our time is how to reinterpret and open up the violent and exclusivistic aspects of traditions about the Other without betraying one’s basic identity. We are living at a time of “interpretive intensity.”

Predicated on the rejection of the Enlightenment’s liberal, agnostic, individualistic, rationalist, and universalistic humanism, Gopin’s proposal—positive, realistic, concrete, holistic, and interpretive—is an exemplary postmodern approach to the peacemaking possibilities of religion. The book also contains insightful discussions of two nineteenth-century attempts to open up to the Other while remaining thoroughly Orthodox Jewish (Moshe Luzzato and Elijah Benamozegh), peacemaking resources in Mennonites and Judaism, and a list of concrete recommendations for conflict resolution.

I do not have any strong criticism to make. Some might argue that the lack of a substantive discussion of non-monotheistic religions is a significant gap, or that Gopin is a little too optimistic about right-wing fundamentalism. In any event, I recommend this book wholeheartedly for anyone interested in the relation between religion and conflict, whether they be secular liberals, religious progressives, or right-wing conservatives. The book has something to offer to each. It is one of the wisest, most illuminating books I have read on the subject.

We are witnessing an unparalleled invigoration of extreme enthusiasm for old patterns of belief and practice... [which is] often expressed in active opposition to state authorities, secular authorities, and the basic institutions of global secular culture.

This has set many religious people on a collision course with the rest of society and, in some cases, is creating serious levels of destructive conflict and violence. On the other hand, this religious revivalism is shaking up complacent cultural institutions of the modern state, and it is forcing most people to rethink their moral and political assumptions as citizens of their state, as well as citizens of a global society.

Between Eden and Armageddon

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