“If I knew something useful to me, and harmful to my family, I would reject it from my mind. If I knew something useful to my family, and not to my country, I would try to forget it. If I knew of something useful to my country and harmful to Europe, or useful to Europe and harmful to Mankind, I would look upon it as a crime”.
(Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Pensées, 1720-1755)
Reading today this famous quote by Montesquieu, most people would consider it incurably naïve, wildly idealistic it its appeal to a universal ethical dimension at a time when what seems to be prevailing is a generalized regression to individualism, localism, tribalism, sectarianism.
The positive potentials of globalization in terms of both modernity and human agency might still be able to turn into an actual improvement of society, but for the time being the concrete features of the present time are rather disconcerting. The feeling of a loss of control over the basic elements determining our daily lives is widespread in all latitudes. The economic crisis, the deterioration of the environment, transnational terrorism, pandemic diseases are all global problems, but there is no real reply to them. The nation-state, until now the framework within which individuals could exert their political choice, is evidently incapable of adequately addressing those problems, but at the same time not only a “world state” is both impossible and undesirable, but even the more modest goal of some system of world governance is far from being attained. Thus people – looking for both meaning and protection -end up being pushed toward a retrenchment into more limited political frameworks, and re-discover specific identities that were previously integrated within the nation-state.
To make things more radical, more dramatic, we have to add the effect of the economic crisis, reducing the margin for compromise and stimulating a zero-sum attitude toward the sharing of resources and wealth. Moreover, it is a fact that today practically there is no functioning international system: after the bipolarism of the Cold War and the failed attempt of the United States to establish a unipolar system, the reference to “multipolarism” is more prescriptive than descriptive.
More and more – especially in the Middle East, but not only – the feeling is that “no one is in charge”, and that we are justified in finding a solution for ourselves, for “our people”, however defined. In more developed areas, by breaking previous links of solidarity and build smaller, more homogenous political units; in less developed parts of the world – especially in the Middle East, but not only – through a process that often leads to the tragic alternative between dictatorship and anarchy, both inevitably associated with violence and inhumanity.
History of course has not come to an end, and there are both political and economic agendas that should and could be pursued in order to escape from this regression.
We feel, however, that it will be impossible to reverse the present unraveling of previous integrative structures, both on an international and on a national basis, without going back to what Montesquieu was referring to in mid-XVIII century: the widening of the circle of recognition of moral responsibility.
What can be the role of religion in the framework of such an urgent task?
But is religion a part of the problem or of the solution?
There seems to be no doubt that religious identities can be added to Montesquieu’s list of “partial allegiances” that, while legitimate in themselves, run the risk of being lived as closed, antagonistic identities in contrast with a spirit of universal moral obligation and human fraternity.
It would be logically and historically incorrect, on the other hand, to equate “religion” with “religious identity”. Religion is on one hand transcendence, eschatology, theology, liturgy and on the other a marker of identity defining a particular community.
When we speak of religion and conflict we have to be clear on the fact that we are addressing one of the many, and often intertwined ways in which a human group structures and defines itself - not very differently from class or race. Historically the world has known (I am especially referring to Christianity)conflicts that originated around theological divergences – though usually mixed with power struggles and geopolitical rivalries. Today this does not really seem to be the case, and so-called religious conflict is not really about the transcendent essence of religion. It is about politics, and in particular it is promoted by violent leaders who use religion as an ideology and as a tool for the mobilization of consensus - a consensus that is not obtained on the basis of an increase in religiosity, but rather a heightened need for identity and community. What we are talking about here is belonging, not believing.
The distinction is important because after stating that, when addressing contemporary conflicts, religion in its authentic spiritual essence is actually not the problem, we can ask ourselves whether, and how, it can be a part – an important one – of the solution.
Nothing automatic, here, but rather the need for a courageous and explicit engagement on the part of all religions.
The centrality of peace in every religious tradition should certainly be stressed, but that is certainly not sufficient.
Allow me to suggest, as points for discussion, the following five areas in which religions can contribute to the difficult but indispensible task of opposing conflict and promoting peace:
- Whenever the perpetrators of violence claim to be acting in the name of religion, they should be de-legitimized both by religious leaders and by the members of their religious communities. The firm reply to inhumanity should be: “Not in my name”, and “Not in the name of our religion”. This implies also an attitude of self-criticism, in the sense that - while we may legitimately voice grievances and condemn persecution or discrimination of which our religious brethren are the victims - we must be ready to admit guilt whenever “our people” can be seen associating religion and violence. Unfortunately this obscene association has happened historically and happens today in different parts of the world.
- There can be no dialogue without respect, and the first sign of respect is to admit that people of different religions, or even non-believers, can be equally credible from the point of view of ethics. Disqualifying ethical foundations different from our own is incompatible with dialogue based on respect.
- Religion has a very important role in challenging “partial ethics”, i.e. the drawing of a restricted perimeter of ethical recognition around family, nation, race, gender, politics –as well as around religion affiliation. All dimensions of human identity are both valid and legitimate. What is not legitimate – and religions should be particular sensitive to that and capable of challenging it – is to elevate, idolatrically, any one of those dimension to an absolute status overriding all limits, silencing compassion.
- Religions should be active in civil society with the goal of addressing the problems lying at the root of conflicts that are often fraudulently presented under a religious “false flag”: exclusion, inequality, injustice, exploitation, corruption. Religion should not claim the right to be superimposed to the political sphere: theocracy has never been “the rule of God”, but rather the rule of essentially political leaders attributing to themselves a divine mandate. At the same time, religion cannot be excluded from the public space, where it can –and should – exert an important constructive role. The imposition of religion on the state and the political sphere is evidently not compatible with democracy and a plural society, but the exclusion of religion from the public space is also highly problematic for democracy. A secular state and a religious civil society are not incompatible.
- Dialogue, but on what? Again, one should deconstruct the different aspects of the concept of religion. Definitely theologians can talk, clarify concepts and beliefs: all this is useful for a deeper mutual knowledge, a premise of more respect. Religious dialogue, however, should basically deal with ethical matters – an area where differences are less marked than those existing in theology and which is directly related to issues of violence and coexistence. Dialogue should help identify areas of moral convergence on values and principles on which common action can then be pursued. There is no doubt that today the most urgent task refers to breaking the perverse link between identity and violence, and that dialogue of religions should mainly be aimed at fostering the universal acceptance of common ethical standards against violence and for peace.Without exceptions, without double standards, without morally indefensible partiality.
Finally, I would like to recall a book that was written in 1927 by Julien Benda, a book whose original title was La trahison des clercs, in which Benda denounced the betrayal of intellectuals abandoning universal ethical values in order to enlist in the ranks of sectarian and unilateral defenders of nation, race, class. It seems only fair to include in this list also religion. After all, the French term clerc comes from the Latin clericus.
As we meet here in an atmosphere of open dialogue and mutual recognition and respect, whatever our differences, in too many parts of the world human beings are being discriminated against, oppressed, turned into refugees and even murdered in the name of religion. It is a scandal, but also a fraud that we all have a moral duty to unconditionally challenge and systematically debunk.