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Book review: The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Peace

10 November 2023

Michael Doe considers the influence of religion on the making of peace

I OPENED this book on the day that Hamas broke out of Gaza, killing Israelis and taking others hostage. I read it as Israel responded by bombing civilians in defence of their Jewish state, and on the streets of London some Muslims shouted for Jihad. It felt more appropriate to be reading a previous Companion volume, on “religion and violence” (Books, 18 October 2011).

Israel came into being after the horrors of the Holocaust to provide a safe space for the Jewish people, but their expulsion and domination of the Palestinians, mainly Muslim and with a decreasing number of Christians, has taken place with decades of violence. We Brits are part of it: the Zionism that we favoured in the Balfour Declaration, and the Christian Zionism that is now such a strong force in United States foreign policy, are also about using force in the name of our God.

We can, therefore, speak of religion as peacemaking only with a profound sense, if not of irony, at least of confession and commitment to doing better. In this current volume, 50 scholars from different faith communities seek to untangle the ambivalent relationship between religion and peace while also exploring how different religious traditions and practices can be a foundation or even a motivating force for peace amid the storms of violence.

It would appear that every world religion, however much each may have played a very different part historically, has a strand within that has a commitment to peace and reconciliation. Sometimes, this arises from an almost fundamentalist application of received teaching; sometimes, from the very human experience of meeting “the other” and realising that this is not the enemy, but another human being.

Christians will be particularly interested in what is said here about our own tradition. It is assumed that the Early Church was pacifist until it was adopted by the State. So, as Joshua Rey writes, we now live in the tension between “the donkey ride into Jerusalem” and the Emperor Constantine’s triumph at the Milvian Bridge. Others ask how far the concept of a just war enables or denies peacemaking, or at least how there can be humanitarian rules in the engagement of war. Martyn Percy again roots it all in power, its use and abuse.

There are interesting chapters on how a greater concern for peace can surpass tit-for-tat aggression, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and efforts to find restorative justice in dealing with criminals and victims. The part played by religious values and leaders in international consultation and agreements is acknowledged, but also how faith communities strongly allied to nationalisms can easily lose their way.

Returning to our current tribulations, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem have called for the cessation of violence by all sides. Muslim leaders have generally gone along with them. The Jewish response, both here and in Israel, has been more muted. What is clear is that peacemaking must be about more than non-violence. It must be about people meeting as human persons, whatever their religion. It must also be about addressing the issues that have led to the violence.

The Rt Revd Michael Doe is a former General Secretary of USPG, and a Trustee of the Balfour Project.


The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Peace
Jolyon Mitchell, Suzanna R. Millar, Francesca Po, and Martyn Percy, editors
Wiley Blackwell £135
Church Times Bookshop £121.50

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