Bring religion back to the front lines of peace

by Bishop Munib A. Younan
JERUSALEM - Is religion the problem in the Middle East conflict? Or can religion be the solution?
Many people have opted for the former, observing that so often the negative side of religion is what is being covered in the news. Those who attract the cameras are people we call hardliners – like Pastor Jones in Florida earlier this month – those who appear inflexible, and leave no room for compromise. They are the ones stoking the flames of the conflict and creating an image that religion is at the heart of the ongoing struggle.

Is the problem religion or extremism in religion?

The answer can be found in an early Christian text: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20).

At the heart of Christianity are two principles: love of God and love of neighbour, as Jesus himself taught (Matthew 22:37-40). Yet this was not original with Jesus. It came right out of the Jewish Torah. Islam teaches the same.

The problem is not Islam, or Judaism, or Christianity. The problem is when certain individuals claim to be speaking for God, or defending God, and act counter to this core teaching that love for God shows itself in respect for the other. We call such individuals extremists.

In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball writes, “Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behaviour toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed… Conversely, when religion remains true to its authentic sources, it is actively dismantling these corruptions.”

I see a second problem, hinted at by Kimball. When mainline Christians, Muslims, and Jews – and especially their leaders – remain silent and timid about these core values, they allow themselves to be held hostage to the extremists, and they in a sense are contributing to the problem.

So the solution is not to remove religion from the political discussion. Religion must play a role as the guardian of the politicians, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we as religious leaders need to become more engaged and to speak out more forcefully to “dismantle the corruptions” and give a vision of life together in all its diversity.

I would like to suggest three steps that we can take, bringing religion back into the public sphere in a positive way. Religion must be: prophetic, a catalyst for reconciliation, and offer peace education.

There are plenty of examples throughout history, when religion has turned political rather than prophetic; when it legitimised the political power of the day rather than offering a self-critical prophetic word; when it remained silent and complicit, rather than risk losing privileges and status. The Hebrew prophets are our example in addressing truth and justice. The situation in Palestine-Israel today needs prophetic voices that call for security for Israel and justice for Palestinians in order to achieve historic reconciliation.

The late Pope John Paul II held that there is “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.” These were not just empty words. He humbled himself in asking for forgiveness for past actions of the Roman Catholic Church against the Jewish people. We need statesmen and religious leaders to learn from him, confessing the sins of the past to enable new beginnings.

Reconciliation is not simply the absence of hatred. Our people need to learn how to create a shared vision of common values and a shared hope for the future.

This is why peace education is crucial. We can make a start by teaching about other religions without prejudice and misrepresentation – just as the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land has already begun a project monitoring Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.

Religion can have a positive role in the current peace negotiations when it emphasises love of God showing itself as love for the other.

To live with other religions, cultures, races, languages and traditions is an art. But it is an art we must learn, practice and perfect if we want our children to be able to live together in peace – with human rights, dignity, religious freedom, cultural liberty and justice for all.


* Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land; a key member of the interfaith Council of Religious Institution of the Holy Land ( and the recently elected President of Lutheran World Federation. This article is part of a special series about religious leadership and its role in the Israeli-Arab conflict and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 October 2010,
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Religious leadership and building a culture of peace
A world without violence: religions and cultures in dialogue
Religious leaders needed in peacemaking
Interfaith challenges
Can religious leaders play a constructive role?
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Other articles in this series

Religious leadership and building a culture of peace by Deborah Weissman
A world without violence: religions and cultures in dialogue by Oded Wiener
Religious leaders needed in peacemaking by Ghassan Rubeiz
Interfaith challenges by Daniel Sperber
Can religious leaders play a constructive role? by Hanna Siniora