Summary of "The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation"

Summary of

The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation

Summary written by Damon Lynch

Citation: R. Scott Appleby. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Full Text of this book is available at


Scott Appleby is Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He addresses two overarching questions in The Ambivalence of the Sacred. First, "why and under what conditions do some religious actors choose the path of violence, while others seek justice through nonviolent means and work for reconciliation among combatants?" [p. 19]. Second, what might be gained by involving what he calls "nonviolent religious militants" in peacebuilding?

To offer answers to these questions the book is structured into seven major areas, in two overall parts. The first part covers:

  1. The idea and experience of the sacred and people's ambivalent response to it, which sustains religion's inherent internal pluralism
  2. The conditions under which religious actors justify violence as a sacred duty or privilege. Ethnoreligious nationalism and fundamentalism are discussed at length.

The second part covers:

  1. Peacemaking through nonviolent religious militance.
  2. Reconciliation as informed by Christianity, with a focus on Northern Ireland.
  3. Peacebuilding by religious actors working in conjunction with secular actors.
  4. Religion and human rights
  5. The future of religious peacebuilding

The book attempts to map the terrain of religious violence and religious peacebuilding from the premise that they both flow from the same religious dynamic. The book begins with a discussion of that dynamic. Religion is by definition a yearning for transcendence, for moving and reaching beyond the mundane, the spatial and temporal, the physical and contingent. Furthermore, it implicitly or explicitly makes the claim that as human beings we are oriented toward a horizon beyond history. Self-sacrifice is one important pattern of behavior called forth by this claim.

The term used in the book for this dynamic is militance. Terms have to be defined consistently when discussing religion and conflict because there is no consensus on how they are to be used. By "militance," Appleby means the willingness--and under certain conditions even an eagerness--to sacrifice oneself, one's family, one's loved ones, and one's most precious possessions in the service of a noble cause that is perceived to be transcendent, sacred, beyond time and space, engaging at the deepest level of humanity. To experience the authentic, deep source source of religious activism is to experience dynamism, power, wonder, and awe. In describing this, Appleby draws upon Rudolph Otto's (1869-1937) term "mysterium tremendum et fascinans"-a mystery of the radical other, which is tremendous in the sense of soul-shaking, and ultimately fascinating, intriguing, and compelling. This source is pre-moral--the encounter with the sacred, the experience of the sacred, is not in itself an ethically unambiguous experience. It contains within it a variety of ethical behaviors and interpretations from suicide through homicide to martyrdom to self-sacrifice, to simple consistent care for the poor, sick and vulnerable. This range of activity is legitimated by religions under the canopy of experiencing the sacred.

Consequently, analytically Appleby recognizes the suicide bomber as no less "religious" than the person who renounces violence and gives his or herself entirely to compassion and healing. Thus, if a suicide bomber is motivated by this power of the sacred--in his or her best interpretation and understanding--and finds that act to be an expression of devotion to the sacred, then it is a religious act.

Ambivalence and internal pluralism are two foundational concepts in the book. The major world religious traditions covered--Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Sikhism--hold in common the characteristic that they are internally plural. That is, they are multi-generational, have been around long enough and have dispersed widely enough that they have produced various schools, sets of practices, and religious orders. Consequently, these religious traditions are perpetually contested. This internal pluralism is a hopeful thing, in that, while each religion has a core identity that is recognizable, it is also adaptable. In each tradition there is an ongoing argument taking place over what is good in the tradition, what is authentic in it, and what its priorities are. This internal pluralism and contestation is rooted in religion itself, because religion is ambivalent. Religion's encounter with the sacred lends itself to many expressions culturally, which by nature are pointing to a transcendent other that is not captured in language, symbols, ethics and so forth. This encounter will always be adaptive and interpretive. Ambivalence toward violence is found in religious texts, for instance, with some texts justifying it, and others rejecting it.

The second and third chapters of the book discuss two of the most prominent types of violence associated with religion. The first of these is what Appleby calls ethnoreligious or ethnonationalist violence. Here the power and militance of religion are brought to bear in a cause that is, strictly speaking, not religious, or not primarily for religious goals. In ethnoreligious violence, religion itself claims that its institutional self-understanding and prerogatives are implicitly or unconsciously subordinate to a different ideology, such as the nation-state or the ethnic group. Nationalist and ethnic leaders recruit religion to make sacred their struggles and therefore legitimate* the kind of dynamism and activity described earlier, which includes martyrdom and suicide, as well as acts of sacrifice and compassion for the fellow countryman and woman or other co-religionists. This kind of religious violence is an extreme form of religious militance-it legitimates violence and sometimes sees violence as a sacred duty or obligation. The chapter gives examples from Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.

The second form of religious violence is covered in the third chapter, focusing on the type of religious extremism that is often called "fundamentalism." It differs from ethnoreligious and ethnonationalist violence in that religion is at the center the goals*, motivations, and purposes of those doing the violence. Fundamentalists believe the solution to problems besetting society is the building up of religion as a viable alternative to secular society, which has replaced religion or rivals it. Therefore, these so-called strong religions--extremist* religious movements in which the component of religion is very strong--tend to sustain good momentum over time, superior organization, and can be transnational. Many Islamic movements in the world today are fundamentalist in the sense that they are defending and promoting a version of Islam as the answer to society's ills. This takes the form of an implementation, strengthening, or retrieval of certain aspects of sharia-Islamic law as the basis for the nation-state. There are other examples of religious fundamentalism, for instance Christian fundamentalist movements. But today, most of these movements are emerging from the world of Islam.

Chapter Four sees the beginning of the book's second part. It is more constructive than the first part in two senses. First, the individuals, movements and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) looked at in Part Two are working constructively as nonviolent militants, not as extremists. Second, it is more original than the first part. The first part of the book is derived from secondary sources. The second part focuses on gaining new insights into organizations and movements from the 1960s, 70s and 80s that have responded to violence, conflict, discrimination, misdirected power and other obstacles to peace by drawing on the peaceful teachings and practices of religion. These practices espouse forgivenessreconciliationdialogue, charity, hospitality to strangers, and restraint from judgment--values which these nonviolent militants articulate as central to the historic tradition. These practices are particularly appropriate in a world characterized by ethnic and religious border disputes, face-to-face conflicts, and village-to-village conflict.

Chapter Four begins with a general description of nonviolent religious militance, and some of the strengths and weaknesses to date of people like Maha Ghosananda from Cambodia and the community of Sant'Egidio, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Society of Engaged Buddhists. These are movements that pursue progressive social change and draw upon religion as a bulwark and source of legitimation. Religion is a source of dynamic strength, but also weaknesses. One such weaknesses is that the religious virtuoso is not necessarily competent as a bureaucrat, organization person, or even with the use of computers. So they need to form alliances with NGOs and religious people working in NGOs.

Chapter Five focuses on forgivenes and reconciliation as essential political realities that help create a context in which peacebuilding becomes possible. It uses the test case of religiously and culturally-centered peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. It makes the argument that the top-down [elite leadership] processes that led to the Good Friday agreement would not, did not, and cannot work without the kind of ground-up, bottom-to-top [grassroots leaders] processes of dialogue and change that took place. They helped bring a culture of nonviolence and reconciliation--or at least the possibility of such--thus beginning to make cultural sense of any kind of a peace agreement or ceasefire. What are the contributions of religion to such peacebuilding? Religion itself, while important, is a player with other players. Religious actors need to utilize their faith-based dynamics within a broader spectrum of peacemaking and peacebuilding. The idea of the religious peacebuilder is to bring the resources and riches of their faith to a more ecumenical, religious-secular, community-wide effort, rather than campaigning primarily for their own faith.

The sixth chapter is on religion and conflict transformation. It attempts to show the different ways in which religious actors help create a context in which conflict preventionmediationresolution, and transformation is possible. As in the previous chapter, it argues that seldom, if ever, is it only the religious peacebuilders who are doing this. Furthermore, the religious presence is complex and often works at cross-purposes. It can be its own worst enemy, because of internal pluralism and divisions within a religious community over such questions as engagement with the other [enemy image], forgiveness of perpetrators, and policies toward the state. Cognizant of this complexity, Appleby proposes three modes of religious conflict transformation: the crisis mobilization mode, saturation mode, and interventionist mode as mediator and magister. These kinds of modes are not necessarily mutually exclusive--they can coexist--but are distinct in their approach.

  • In crisis mobilization mode, charismatic religious leaders catalyze religious resources that engage social movements which are in resistance to broader political or social ills; once the crisis has passed, the religious body may revert to its previous conservative orientation.
  • Saturation mode "offers a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy for ending violence and achieving and sustaining reconciliation" [p. 238], and reflects the presence of long-term peacebuilding efforts working gradually within a society in conflict.
  • The interventionist mode is the most promising of the three modes, given the rarity of the homegrown saturation mode. "In this mode external religious and cultural actors intervened in conflict situations, usually at the invitation of one or more parties to the conflict, in order to initiate and help sustain a peacebuilding process" [p. 239]. Mediation is a typical form of intervention and perhaps the most productive, but of central importance is the long-term development of indigenous religious (and other) actors dedicated to sustaining cultures of peace, building upon local knowledge and customs.


Chapter Seven covers religion and human rights. After setting forth his basic argument, it offers test cases, among them the question of proselytism, and the question of the local or parochial versus the universal. In the latter case, genital mutilation in Africa is one example of how difficult and complex it is to negotiate universal human rights within a context of local understandings. This case is used to tease out religious arguments regarding what is tribal, ethnic and traditional, and what is more generally religious. Religion here is held to be a prophetic voice over and against the traditional and ethnic. Religion as an agent of cultural evolution is considered, a role in which Appleby says organized religion has a mixed record. Islam's inherent human rights debate is discussed, covering issues such as governance and interpretative principles without recourse to centralized authority. Another test case offered to understand religion's role in human rights is the question of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and their tension with proselytization and the limits to proselytization. How far does religious freedom go? Whose rights are paramount in a region where there is religious homogeneity, that rejects any kind of proselytization? Which right is paramount--the right not to be evangelized, the right to privacy, or the right to freedom of speech? This is explored through, among other things, a topology of types of evangelization, and the types of spiritual work which are more threatening to the universal human rights regime. Appleby suggests that ultimately the "internal pluralism of Christianity, Islam and other major religious traditions enable religious actors to select and develop theologies and moral precepts that accommodate universal human rights norms and enhance the building of local cultures of peace" [p. 276], and that the "challenge of the next phase of the human rights era will be for religious leaders" from different traditions "to identify and enlarge the common ground they share" [p. 279].

Ambivalence as Opportunity The final chapter discusses ambivalence as opportunity, which is a brief interpretation of the policy implications of the preceding material. This includes focusing on education to develop religious actors who are more knowledgeable of their traditions, in particular the peace and justice prerogatives. This comes not only through education but through spiritual discipline, prayer, meditation, and charitable work, all of which form the character to embody the principles of social justice. This is not simply an intellectual pursuit, but an expression of character and personhood. The other opportunity that comes with the ambivalence of religion--it's multi-locality and plurality--is the openness to work with and build bridges with others. One example given is what religion can bring to the nongovernmental and humanitarian worlds, and the modesty with which it must enter that dialogue. Appleby offers various practical suggestions near the conclusion of the chapter, such as having a religious attaché in embassies around the world who would specialize in the religion and culture of that region. Such an attaché would advise policymakers and diplomats on the particular dynamics of the religion, as it relates to policy analysis and decision making.

For peacebuilders, the case to be made for any violence or peacebuilding is an argument that is natural to religion. Therefore, religious peacebuilders are called on to roll up their sleeves and start arguing in a constructive sense. Religious peacebuilders must extend and deepen alliances with their secular counterparts. Appleby concludes by saying "Ambivalence provides an opening, an opportunity to cultivate tolerance and openness toward the other; indeed, religions, despite the shameful record of a minority of their adherents, are strikingly accomplished in developing their own traditions of peace-related practices and concepts. Lifting up, celebrating, and empowering those elements of the religious community are acts of civic responsibility in today's world" [pp. 306-7].