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House of Lords

Friday, 15th October 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Religions and International Order

The Archbishop of Canterbury rose to call attention to the role of religions in the promotion of international order and the avoidance of international disorder; and to move for Papers.

The most reverend Primate said: My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate which I believe is timely, notwithstanding the fact that it is being held on a Friday. I thank the House and the business managers for making the debate possible.

I believe it is timely, not simply because of the many challenges to international peace and stability that continue to confront us these days, but also because we are just 10 weeks away from the new millennium, from the 2,000th anniversary of the coming of the one described by the prophet Isaiah and seen by Christians as the Prince of Peace.

I want to assure your Lordships at the outset that in this debate I am not seeking to restrict the meaning of religions to Christianity alone. Far from it. Indeed, it is one of the joys of your Lordships' House that there are men and women for all seasons, and for a whole range of denominations and faiths. So I look forward to hearing contributions from a variety of perspectives today.

I suppose the essence of the debate could be distilled into two questions. Do religions cause conflict? Can religions forestall conflict? My basic response to the first question is that in today's world their impact is overrated and to the second that their potential is under-exploited. Indeed, my main purpose today is to outline the kind of contribution that I believe religious communities and leaders can make to the quest for a more just and peaceful world.

However, before I do that, let me refer to some of the more negative interpretations of the role of religions in this quest. It has become fashionable in the post-Cold War era to claim that clashes of civilisation are replacing clashes of ideology, that the world's fault lines, on the eve of the millennium, are in a broad sense cultural. It is also claimed in the context that religion is a kind of diabolical yeast, fermenting and fomenting strife and discord. Far from speaking up, as I do today, the argument implies that religious leaders could serve the world best by piping down. It is a warning with quite a history. I think back to the admonition of the king in Shakespeare's Henry V to what is portrayed as a rather gung-ho Archbishop of Canterbury then. The king says:

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    “For God doth know how many, now in health,

Shall drop their blood in approbation Of what your reverence shall incite us to. Therefore take heed how you impawn our person ... How you awake our sleeping sword of war". I trust today that I shall deserve no such yellow card, and that neither will I awaken any sleeping swords of war.

It is certainly the case that matters of faith and religious allegiance can have a substantial bearing on the formation and preservation of a sense of communal identity. Religion, if you like, can be a potent binding agent for societies and cultures, part of their fundamental sense of self. In situations where conflicts arise between communities so defined, politicians and others will often use religion as a way of justifying and even sharpening the conflict. It becomes a way of saying, “This is what makes you against us rather than for us, different from us rather than like us". One does not have to stray very far for examples of this kind of thing. Ireland and Kosovo spring readily to mind.

But none of this means that religions are necessarily the root cause of the conflict or its essential constituent. Recent experience indicates that shared religious affiliation has proved no barrier to patterns of violent revenge and reprisal. I shall never forget visiting Rwanda soon after the genocide. I heard inspiring stories of Christian Hutus and Christian Tutsis prepared to be martyred together. But, sadly, I heard more stories of Christians killing Christians, despite the fact that they had known one another for years; nor are Christians alone in that. More recently in Kosovo we have learnt of cases of Albanian Muslims from Kosovo exacting revenge on fellow Muslims identified as Serbian.

Of course, I do not seek to deny that religion, or what many of us would regard as the abuse or misuse of religion, in such circumstances can be a complicating and negative factor. Put simply, invoking religious alignments and affiliations in the dubious service of a difficult political problem can make it even more intractable.

But even allowing for that, those who would dwell on the alleged destructive power of religions in world affairs during the century now drawing to a close might want to reflect upon the mass slaughter of civilians, in concentration camps and elsewhere, carried out by the messianic but secular regimes presided over by Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. These, it can be argued, are examples where the absence of true religion, and the abandonment of basic moral values anchored in it, helped to make genocide both possible and, shamefully, acceptable.

But if, as I believe, there has been a tendency to over-estimate the impact of religions in situations of conflict, there have also been occasions when their presence as a factor has been virtually ignored or dismissed. This has resulted in a corresponding failure of analysis and understanding, and even of the potential, to exert a positive influence. The revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran is a well documented example. The loud claims of the participants--that it

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was a faith-based movement drawing much of its energy from a reading of Islam in opposition to the influence of the West--seem to have been woefully ignored. The religious dimension was all but discounted in favour of a range of other factors, economic, political and social. A mistaken diagnosis is unlikely to yield the best prescription.

The reasons for this kind of diplomatic myopia are many and varied, and at least some can be traced back to Enlightenment views about so-called scientific methods of analysing human behaviour and interaction from which religious considerations were firmly exiled. This tendency has clearly influenced the world of professional diplomacy where there has been a tradition of keeping religion as far away from the diplomatic machinery as possible, which one expert has called a learned repugnance to contend intellectually with all that is religion. I believe that to be a shame and a loss for reasons that I hope will become obvious as I turn to the positive contribution and considerable potential of religions for international peace and stability.

The benign influence of religion in this context can take many different forms. At the most general level, faith communities help to shape societies and cultures through the core values that they proclaim. An ethical framework that includes tolerance and forbearance, repentance and forgiveness is shared and sustained by many different faith communities. The very fact of common ownership of such values can act as a counterweight to narrow and self-serving objectives and policies. My own appreciation of the values that religious communities share owes much to the writings of Professor Hans Kung. Important work is being done in this field by organisations such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace, which I shall have the honour to address in Jordan next month.

Understanding abroad can profitably be fed by experience at home. In this country we have seen remarkable examples of inter-faith co-operation since the last war. The Council for Christians and Jews has proved to be a significant counterweight to anti-Semitism. More recently, the Inter-Faith Network has brought together members of no fewer than nine different world faith communities.

At the same time, a commitment to seeking and sharing common ground does not mean compromising or disowning what is distinctive and special. The recent words of the Iranian President, Ayatollah Mohammed Khatami, come to mind:


    “The aim is not to eliminate differences between human beings, but to preserve and strengthen them as a source of joy and strength. That is the work ethic we need; a framework of shared values--a sense of our common humanity--within which different traditions can co-exist".

Religions and faith communities do not exert influence merely through the resonance of an ethical framework. We trust that at their best they also seek to provide examples and agents of such values. I think, for example, of the immense humanitarian work of organisations such as Christian Aid, Cafod, Muslim Aid, UKJ Aid and similar bodies in Hindu and Sikh

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communities around the world. This is work that, in the aftermath of a conflict for example, can be a vital part of helping to secure peace and thus prevent a relapse into violence. In addition, such organisations seek not only to alleviate some of the conditions that can exacerbate conflict but also, at their best, they attempt to embody the values that they proclaim. They seek to be (to use current jargon) models of good practice.

I believe that there is also a role for faith communities not only as ambassadors of positive values and good practice but, on occasions, as something approaching diplomats themselves, as mediators, go-betweens and conciliators. That may especially be the case when it comes to conflicts within rather than between states; in other words, precisely the kinds of conflicts that have so scarred the last part of this century and could well disfigure the next if we do not do something about it. It is that dangerous prospect which lends special relevance and urgency to such a debate.

As I suggested earlier, there has been a marked reluctance in the past within international diplomatic and government circles to contemplate or permit this kind of entanglement. All the same, it is not difficult to point to instances in which the active involvement of religious leaders and communities has been extremely effective, if not downright indispensable. Let us take, for example, Mozambique where the distinguished Roman Catholic lay community of San Egidio in Rome and the Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane have played major roles.

Other examples come to mind. One thinks of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. Those are all remarkable figures with a charismatic power, personality and vision which would have stood them undoubtedly in good stead in many different circumstances. But the influence they wielded was not political power in the conventional sense. Indeed, they represented the dispossessed and powerless. I believe that that is significant in itself. In a sense, they had influence because they lacked power. They could not be viewed or dismissed as merely representing one or other of the usual political suspects or vested interests at the negotiating table.

The same holds true, I believe, for the potential impact on conciliation and mediation efforts of other religious communities and leaders. They owe allegiance to and derive their authority from a moral and spiritual constituency beyond the scope and therefore at times, we trust, beyond the suspicions and limitations of conventional politics. They can play precisely because they are not players. They are not part of the game.

In sum, faith communities and religious leaders have distinct and distinctive qualities in relation to the realm of conflict, mediation and conciliation which makes it gratifying that there seems today to be a growing awareness of that potential, based upon some significant experience.

I give another example. We are about to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade ago, the evangelical churches in East Germany

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were playing a significant role in that momentous process of change and unification. But that is not an isolated example. The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines helped to shape the emergence of that nation from the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Today we admire the courage, vision and remarkable spiritual leadership of Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor.

Of course, there are limits to the scope of the possible religious involvement. It should be regarded as a useful supplement to the more traditional diplomatic activity, not as a substitute for it. But I am convinced that the potential is there. We should be looking to forge closer links between faith groups and bodies like the United Nations. Ties already exist. But if we in the faith communities are serious about the potential we have, those links need to be activated and the expertise more widely deployed. I know that the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, is developing ideas along these lines. Individual governments, including our own, should be encouraged to draw on such expertise. Indeed, it might become an integral part of the training of diplomats.

In the United States, the American expert, Douglas Johnston, has done ground-breaking work on religions and diplomacy. His efforts are now being carried forward in a number of initiatives blending theory and practice. Closer to home, in the City of London we watch with admiration the project led by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London to build a centre for peace and reconciliation from the rubble to which St Ethelburga's Church was reduced by a terrorist bomb.

In a recent lecture at Lambeth Palace, the Dalai Lama pointed out that true peace means more than the absence of war: to be real and substantial it requires a sense of security; and that does not miraculously appear after the guns fall silent and the bombs stop falling, it has to be earned and fostered with care and commitment.

That is surely one of the lessons of the Balkans. I have already referred to the magnificent humanitarian work of organisations with religious affiliations. These inter-faith partnerships are vital to the prospects for reconstruction and what will prove the even more daunting challenge of reconciliation. Reconciliation is intimately related to ideas of repentance and forgiveness. True forgiveness, we know, does not come easily; but without it we may do no more than obtain a period of quiescence, one born partly of exhaustion and trauma. That must be the fear in the Balkans: that the recent cycle of fear and hatred will not be broken; merely the wheel will turn more slowly for a time. The parties may bury the hatchet, if you will, but do so in the certain knowledge of how to dig it up again in double-quick time. We in the faith communities must seek out ways of developing the true spirit of reconciliation. We must do so by example and practical engagement, not simply by exhortation.

As I remarked at the outset, the millennium is almost upon us. The anniversary for us as Christians is the anniversary of the coming of the Prince of Peace.

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“Blessed are the peacemakers", He said, “for they shall be known as the children of God". Whatever our beliefs, or none, whatever our spiritual allegiance, surely in this House we can all aspire to be in that sense children of God. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

11.25 a.m.


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