Irfan A. Omar and Michael K. Duffey (eds.). Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2015).254 pages. $32.95 paperback. | Reviewed by Chris Gooding.
Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions is an extremely accessible introduction to the teachings and practices concerning violence and peacemaking in seven major religious traditions. Each chapter is written by a practitioner and scholar of each tradition (5), and as such each chapter blends knowledge gained from both academic pursuits and activism in each tradition. These seven traditions (and scholars) are, in chapter order: Islam (Irfan A. Omar), Christianity (Michael K. Duffey), Judaism (Joshua Ezra Burns), Confucianism (Sin Yee Chan), Buddhism (Eleanor Rosch), Hinduism (Kalpana Mohanty) and the Native American Osage Nation (Tink Tinker). The editors specifically compiled the book to fill a gap in the literature. While numerous books exist on the topic of religious violence, Omar and Duffey could not find any books that addressed the contributions of religious peacemaking from the perspective of multiple religious traditions (1).
Each chapter covers at least four topics: a brief introduction to the major texts of the tradition, a brief introduction to the major teachings of the tradition, an analysis of the teachings of that tradition concerning war and other forms of violence, and an overview of modern peacemaking practices that have arisen within the tradition. Each chapter also ends with a brief response from two of the other authors.
Most readers approaching this book would likely expect to find differences in how peace and violence are defined between each tradition. And certainly that is what one finds. Mohanty’s chapter on Hinduism contends that the language of nonviolence or ahimsais inherent to the sacred texts of Hinduism (such as the Bhagavad Gita), though considerably more Hindus have taken this as an endorsement of vegetarianism and toleration of other religious traditions than as an endorsement for pacifism (182-184). On the contrary, Hindus have traditionally believed that, in some circumstances, warfare is justified (183). Duffey’s chapter on Christianity explains that Jesus admonished his followers not to kill or to harbor hatred, but to love their enemies while resisting them with active forms of nonviolence (51). It was because Jesus forbade his disciples from wielding the sword that early Christians refused to serve in the military (55-56). Omar’s chapter on Islam argues that the language of “jihad” is inherent to the Quran, but that it merely means “struggle,” and in the majority of cases, it simply refers to a struggle against the sinful impulses within the self (18). And while the Quran does allow for defensive warfare, it endorses such a stringent variety of it that it is questionable whether any modern wars could be considered justified under these restrictions (20-21). Rosch’s chapter on Buddhism exposits the Buddhist conviction that peace is both foundational and “the strongest force in the world” (142), stronger even than the weapons used in warfare (163-164). Chan’s chapter on Confucianism presents the reader with the concept of tianxia, a peace which is achieved in society through a shared set of moral virtues and a shared submission to a single virtuous ruler (129). Tinker’s chapter on Native American traditions critiques the very concept of nonviolence as a “euro-christian” category (even in its Gandhian forms) that imposes an anthropocentric worldview upon its practitioners (215). In Native American traditions, all living things are our relatives. Therefore, the very act of living necessitates violence, because we have to eat our relatives to live, whether those relatives are cows or potatoes (216). The goal is instead to minimize extraneous violence, rather than avoid it altogether (219). These are legitimate differences in how each religious tradition conceives of peace, violence, and nonviolence.
“But the real strength of the book is that almost every chapter provides a searchingly honest window into the conflicts within each tradition concerning the nature of peace.”
But the real strength of the book is that almost every chapter provides a searchingly honest window into the conflicts within each tradition concerning the nature of peace. For example, Duffey’s chapter on Christianity names the various ways in which some Christians have found a straightforward application of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence unpalatable, and have tried to argue that violence is, in some circumstances, justified. He even admits that Christians have not only modified but frequently abandoned the gospel of peace, as can be seen in Christian endorsement of the crusades, colonialism, and American nationalism (58-61). Rosch’s chapter on Buddhism presents a disagreement between Theravada Buddhists (for whom there is, strictly speaking, no justifiable violence) and Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists (for whom killing is permissible if it will save a greater number) (156-157). She also addresses the ways in which Buddhist monks have taken up arms, supported tyrants, or justified Japanese participation in World War II by giving contorted interpretations of basic Buddhist teachings (155-156). And Burns’ chapter on Judaism delves into the various ways in which modern Jews find themselves deeply divided on what peace must look like in Israel-Palestine (98-102). Some modern Jews believe that a strong military policy is necessary to protect Israeli citizens, whereas other modern Jews believe that Israel’s military policies violate Judaism’s ethical obligations toward Palestinians, and yet others try to strike a balance between the other two groups (101).
“The treatment of what peacemaking looks like in each tradition is both holistic and deep. In short, for those wondering about the contributions toward peace from each of these religious traditions, this book is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature.”Such honesty is important not merely for the sake of humility in interfaith dialogue, but because it allows readers to deeply understand each tradition in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. If a tradition is, to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, a socially embodied and temporally extended argument about the goods internal to it, then the only real way to understand what a tradition is about is to be let into the disagreements that have occurred about the nature of those goods. Perhaps the only chapter that does not quite allow the reader this window is Tinker’s chapter on Native American traditions, as he does not provide information on how members of Native American traditions have disagreed about matters of peace, violence, or nonviolence. This leaves the reader with a somewhat flatter sense of what that particular tradition is about. However, this is ultimately a small quibble, and each chapter (without exception) contributes to a thick understanding of what peace looks like in each tradition.
One final strength of the book is that it delves not only into the theory of peace in each religious tradition, but also into the realm of practice. It shows, for example, the ways in which modern Hindus are still practicing Gandhian satyagraha (189-192), the ways modern Muslims are engaging in jihad through unarmed political struggle (31-33), and the ways in which modern Jews are advocating for conscientious objection (100). The treatment of what peacemaking looks like in each tradition is both holistic and deep. In short, for those wondering about the contributions toward peace from each of these religious traditions, this book is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature.