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Summary of

A Christian Theological Perspective on Ethnoreligious Conflict

Will, James E. "A Christian Theological Perspective on Ethnoreligious Conflict." The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence. Ed. Eugene Weiner. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing, 1998. 116-125.


This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

It is commonly thought that "when religion regresses toward tribalism, it provokes and rationalizes war, but when it progresses toward universalism it creates and sustains peace."(p. 116) Will argues that the situation is rather more complex. Emphasis on abstract universals can lead us to overlook people's particular lived reality. God created us as concrete and particular examples of universal concepts, and so not all emphasis on a particular group or context can be regressive.

In light of this complexity, Will poses his thesis: "we must strengthen the positive effects of the ethnoreligious factor in our common life, and in so doing turn...'religio-nationalism' toward the relational universal found at its very heart, if we are to move toward the universal peace our global village now requires."(p. 116)

The viciousness of modern ethnoreligious conflicts can be attributed to the fact that these are not mere conflicts of interests. They are conflicts of identity. The key elements in such conflicts are religious, moral, cultural and emotional. The strong identities produced by tribalism have positive effects, such as pride and a sense of belonging. But vicious conflict can occur when one tribe seeks to dominate another.

Will argues that religion plays a role in the formation of all national identities, hence he uses the term "religio-nationalism." Like identity more generally, the influence of religion on national identity has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, religions aspire to create just and loving relationships among people. This is the relational universal core of religion which is manifests itself in different ways in different communities. On the negative side such differences can spark violent conflicts. Will seeks a way to maintain these positive effects while avoiding the negative.

If we are to have world peace, Will argues, then we must draw upon religion to guide communities toward the relational universal of love and justice, even though communities will differ in the ways that they exemplify that universal. Attempts to remove the influence of religion has simply produced nations without a spiritual core. This leads to unlimited nationalism, which may become idolatrous or even demonic. Love and justice cannot be learned in the abstract. We become loving and just people in the concrete context of our particular family and community. As Gandhi said, "Unless one becomes able to serve his or her family and village, there is little possibility of genuine service to a larger or more universal cause, such as a 'global village'."(p. 120) And so religiously shaped communities, with their attendant differing identities, are necessary .

They key to achieving world peace is to develop a theology and ethos which emphasizes the core aspirations that all religions share, rather than emphasizing a particular group's manifestation of those aspirations. Such a theology would be hermeneutical, a tool to understand God's grace and truth as it is manifested in a variety of religions. It would be dialogic. Rather than seeing other religions as threats, we must act on the love and justice developed within our own community to find and explore those relational universals in the other communities. It would employ hermeneutics of retrieval and suspicion; it would remain suspiciously alert to relations of power and domination, while seeking to retrieve the good aspects of various thoughts and practices.

Will also draws a distinction between the cultural and political forms of religio-nationalism. Culture religio-nationalism seeks to create a loving, just community through cultural means. It associates national identity with culture and religion. It also acts as a check on political power by treating politics as secondary. In political religio-nationalism religion becomes associated with politics, and national identity becomes bound up with political power. The religious ideal of service tends to become corrupted when prophetic visions are made political reality. Obedience to the state may be seen as obedience to God, and beliefs about the community's spiritual destiny may lead to political domination. Will concludes that we should reject political forms of religio-nationalism in favor of cultural forms that support dialogue and the search for common truths in diverse communities.

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