Religion and Violence as a Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement

- Aruna Gnanadason*

Just as I was preparing for this paper, a friend from India, sent me a copy of a poem written by a Hindu, Sanjay Trehan, and printed in one of the major national papers in India. Trehan writes this poem in the context of the religious violence (what we in India call communal violence), which took place in the State of Gujarat in February-March 2002. Gujarat, ironically, is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence. This violence is reminiscent of the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

I renounce religion
visceral fires burn - gujarat
vivisect and be merry
sings the politician
tap dancing on dead stinking bodies
what kind of madness is this
that makes bonfires of little children
torches pregnant women
turns neighbour against neighbour
and makes monsters out of ordinary faceless men
leading dull pitiless lives
marx said religion was opium
it shadows senses hides inequities.

Trehan's poem reveals the deep rage that many right thinking Hindus feel about the senseless massacre of some 600 Muslims - men, women and children in the state of Gujarat over the last month. This violence perpetrated by Hindus has momentarily, been brought under some form of control. But, we know that it is only temporary - and sporadic incidents of violence continue. Any small provocation will result in new waves of violence. Many activists and intellectuals in India, of all religious persuasions, and the Christian churches are concerned and feel helpless. Such conflicts are often blamed on "fundamentalists" who would go to any length to protect their religious interests. However, the poet contests this:

but such crimes of hate
are not perpetrated by people
benumbed by the drug of religion
but risen to a frenzied hysteria
by mob reveling in the seething rage
of impotent power
a collective orgy of ritual
you kill a man because he doesn't share
your obscurantist ideas
your bloated belching beliefs

Ironically, women and children are most often not the initiators of religiously motivated violence - but they become its primary victims, as the poet so powerfully expresses it:

you destroy a child
because he was born into a religion
he has no role in seeking
and you don't just surgically kill
you torture maim burn and then laugh
your sardonic devilish laughs

And then, he ends the poem in strong and passionate language - he renounces religion. For many right-thinking Hindus in India, Hinduism is not an organised religion. It is a faith that governs the way one lives in the world, a way of life that calls for respect for all and for living in right relationships with each other and all of creation. And now, as they see the way religion is being used to legitimise the abuse of political power, they feel deep rage at the killing of innocent people because of their beliefs - therefore they feel that they cannot but renounce the form of religion all this represents. In the words of the poet:

you impotent you beast
you wretched son of the soil
you messiah of hate
you mindless miserable soul
you pawn in the hands of politicians
you scum
you make me ashamed of being
i renounce the sordid religion you embody
religion the slayer of innocent kids
religion the one way ticket to lunacy
i renounce you.1

Before I proceed further on the topic presented before us, I think it is important to briefly situate the poem in the context of the violence in India at this time. The present violence can be traced to the 6th of December, 1992, when a 17th century Muslim mosque called the Babri Masjid in a place called Ayodhya, was razed to the ground by a band of Hindus (calling themselves Kar Sevaks). They claim that the mosque was built on a sacred site - the birthplace of the Hindu deity, Lord Rama. The religious violence that ensued spread across the country and a stay was brought on the plans to build a Hindu temple to Lord Rama, on the site where the Babri Masjid once stood. But, now we have a Hindu nationalist party in power at the centre and they have been "allowing" preparations for the temple building. Reports say that the police was quite inactive as the carnage of Muslims took place in Gujarat. The present violence was provoked by a group of Muslims trying to stop a train from carrying Hindu devotees to the site to build the temple on 27 February 2002. The Muslims torched the train and some 58 passengers were killed. In retaliation, the Hindus have gone on a rampage killing, raping and burning - independent sources say that it is in fact over 1000 Muslim men, women and children who were slaughtered in a period of some 10 days.

This in India, but the religiously provoked violence in the Mallukas in Indonesia is far from over; and then there was the incident of the 5 people killed when grenades were thrown into a church in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, just two weeks ago…….the list is endless. Religious tensions are not a new phenomenon in the history of the world, but there is a new language of hatred and violence emerging in many parts of the world fuelled by political interests that makes it particularly frightening.

There are new forms of conflict - between political groups. Most often they are not religiously motivated, but are covered under the garb of religion. We have to acknowledge that some are creating "terror" in the world, in the name of religion. I have decided not to use the word "terrorist" here, as it has been one of the most abused words in recent times. Suicide bombers, who are willing to give their lives for the sake of religion, is another ethical challenge the churches need to address.

But, then what makes it even more worrying is that new instruments of violence are being utilised in conflicts between religious groups. The kind of "religious" language used by President George Bush in the so-called "war against terrorism" and in the destruction of Afghanistan, and now in the continuing threat against other "Islamic nations" - all have been couched under what could be termed "Christian language" - the language of Crusades. There is no doubt in the minds of those advising Bush in his war, that this is a "just war". This was the language used when Iraq was bombed in 1990 and the present wars are no different.

For the World Council of Churches and for its programme on a Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010) - this concern has without a doubt, become one of the major foci and challenges. This has to be addressed if we are to overcome violence in the world.

But, we begin on the premise that all religions in their essence teach peace and justice. In a meeting held in March this year, in the World Council of Churches, of women from conflict situations, we had with us 50 women representing various religious traditions. Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Brahmakumari religious institute and of course Christianity were represented. We were immersed in the spirituality of the religions we represented as we reflected on the extent of violence in the world and we looked for resources from our faith traditions to overcome violence. In the interventions, in the readings from various scriptures and in the inter-faith worship that accompanied the discussions, one thing was clear - all religious traditions have at their centre, a commitment to peace.

We live in a world of globalisation when pluralism is threatened and the tendency is to impose a monoculture generated from the centres of economic and political power largely from Europe and North America. In a context of major social change, there is a tendency to cling to the familiar. This gives rise to aggressive individualism and a kind of "fundamentalism" - or of going to the roots of what one believes in and placing this in competition with belief systems of others. This also blocks from our vision the diversity within each religious group. The acts of violence against all Muslims, or even of anyone who looked like a Muslim, in the US after the September 11th bombing, is a case in point. All Muslims were branded as "terrorists" and therefore to be feared - sometimes to be hurt physically and on occasion even to be killed. Muslims have been "demonized" globally, and as a Roman Catholic theologian in India describes what follows when this is done: "From 'demonization' follows militancy. Militancy becomes an essential part of politics, involving not only struggle but also violence. And violence is raised to the status of a virtue.2 "

This is not the time for us to be pitting one religion against another, putting them in a hierarchy of which religion speaks most of non-violence - this is particularly not the moment for Christian triumphalism and arrogance. We are in a time when we need the greatest coalitions, when all religions are challenged to discover their potential for creating harmony and for being agents of reconciliation and peace.

If we take this as the basic challenge then, what are the questions we need to address as Christians committed to Recognising Violence and Overcoming Violence?

1. The first mandate is to recognise violence in all its forms.

I am grateful that this meeting acknowledges this. Sometimes we tend to believe that this is not important and that we can overcome violence without recognising violence in its many forms. We need to go to one of the Latin roots of the word, which is violare, which means, "to violate". In this sense, anything that "violates" another, by infringing upon or disregarding or abusing or denying that other, whether there is physical force or not, is a violation of the personhood of the other. This could be by physical force that can harm - as in the case of religious or ethnic conflicts, or in war, or in racially motivated violence, or in domestic violence committed against women and children - all of which can lead to the death of the victim/s.

But then, violence can also take place in more subtle ways that are not obvious at all, except to the victims. Here I think of prime importance is the question of economic violence and economic globalisation and the depth of suffering that poverty causes. We often don't recognise this as violence and in fact we often hear the claim that there is no alternative to globalisation - which ensures that those of us who enjoy the fruits of economic growth can turn a blind eye to the grotesque violence of poverty in our world. (We have to be cautious however, of the new language that emerged particularly after the Monterrey UN Conference on Financing for Development where leaders such as Bush have popularized the notion that poverty has to be eradicated because "poverty breeds terrorists". This gives our governments globally the right to now demonize the poor! Just struggles for dignity and survival could be branded as terrorist. A recent debate in the Indian parliament over an Anti-Terrorism Bill being introduced by the ruling party is a case in point.)

There are other forms of subtle violence that we need to recognise and address. The violence of racism and of any sense of superiority, the violence of consumerism, the violence of words and language that can be exclusive and could hurt. Simone Weil the feminist thinker reminds us that violence can transform a person into a thing. We need to boldly stand by the Christian concept of personhood, because we must recognise victims as persons - as subjects of our compassion and not as objects of our charity!

Representatives from the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America meeting at the historic Medellin conference, wrote:
The violence we are talking about is the violence that a minority of privileged people has waged against the vast majority of deprived people. It is the violence of hunger, helplessness, and underdevelopment. It is the violence of persecution, oppression and neglect. It is the violence of organised prostitution, of illegal but flourishing slavery, and of social, economic and intellectual discrimination. (From the 900 Roman Catholic Priests meeting in Medellin, in 1968)

So as early as 1968, they were challenging the world to recognize violence in all its forms. A refusal to recognise all forms of violence as equally important leads to the trivialisation of violence. We therefore become immune to violence and even the worst forms of violence we see on the news day in and day out becomes ignored. And we don't see more subtle forms of violence as violence at all.

2. The second challenge is to recognise our own complicity in the violence.

Regrettably, the church is once too often silent when it should speak because it is itself complicit. The role of the Christians in Northern Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and Burundi, cannot be ignored. We also are well aware of the actions of right-wing Christians in "sanctioning" wars. (It is a well known fact that Billy Graham, the TV evangelist was invited to pray at the Whitehouse, before the US bombed Iraq in 1990.)

The theory of just war, of pacifism and the use of force as a last resort
We cannot forget that the "just war theory" has been used by the church has been part of the parlance of the church from the time of Luther and Calvin, who carried this classical teaching into the Reformation movement. This theory and its use have been abused over the years to legitimate a variety of unjust wars. There is but a narrow line between the theology of just war and that of a holy war or crusade. Additionally, there is the theology of pacifism which is part of the life of the churches, particularly the historic peace churches, but which other churches find hard to accept. Then, there is the question of the use of force as a last resort. All these questions need to be addressed by the DOV.

That it is not an easy discussion was made clear in at a meeting on DOV held in February this year, in Geneva, when a Roman Catholic feminist theologian from the Philippines and a Dalit theologian from India, both warned against glib affirmations of non-violence. They asked a simple question - if a woman who is being raped (say by a powerful upper caste landlord) and she fights back, and perhaps even kills the aggressor - can we condemn her as being violent?

Regarding the question of whether it is legitimate to use force to deal with structural violence, there has been much debate throughout the history of the WCC. The WCC World Conference on Church and Society addressed this question in 1966:
The question often emerges today whether the violence, which sheds blood in planned revolution, may be a lesser evil than the violence, which, though bloodless, condemns whole populations to perennial despair….. It cannot be said that the only possible position for the Christian is one of absolute non-violence. There are situations where Christians may become involved in violence. Whenever it is used however, it must be seen as "ultimate recourse" which is justified only in extreme situations.3

It is an issue that has been on all the debates around the conciliar process on Justice Peace and the Integrity of Creation and remains with us. For me the dilemma is whether violence finally solves problems or whether it simply breeds more violence. South Africa is a case in point.

On the issue of just war Charles Villa-Vicencio, the South African theologian writes: "The theology of just war was originally written from the perspective of the dominant classes of society. Re-written from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed, just war theory acquires the character of a theology of just revolution."4 But he goes on to affirm that "Theological continuity requires that such a theory, just like that of just war traditionally intended to limit war, be used only in the same restraining way."5 This raises important ethical challenges that need to be addressed, especially because of all the misunderstanding and sometimes abuse of the concept of the term "jihad" by Muslims. It is important for us to understand that for most right-thinking and peace-loving Muslims, this too refers to action for the sake of justice for a community and is not a sanction for violence. But, as the trend is to see the Muslims as "the enemy", we seem unable to make this distinction, often ignoring the church's own history and complicity in violence.

And other forms of violence

But there are other issues the churches need to address - for example there is the silence of the church on the unabated violence against women, or the violence of racism (or in the case of India casteism), which happens even within the body of the church. This reduces the church's moral authority to challenge the violence of other religions. I have so often heard Christians make it sound like only other religions legitimise these forms of violence against members of their own body - ignoring the ways in which the church seems to do the same.

At the DOV consultation referred to earlier, the group, which discussed the church's role in legitimising violence, made the following points that I paraphrase here:

  • In order to heal, the churches need to look at themselves and how others perceive them.
  • The churches need to distance themselves from temporal powers if they want to contribute to reconciliation.
  • The churches need to acknowledge their own imperfections - we could suppress our own sinfulness.
  • Too often religion is reduced to Sunday worship - we don't attempt to integrate worship and the everyday values of living as a Christian.
  • The churches thrive on a strong sense of community - but this leads them to set strong boundaries around this community - excluding others, unable to embrace others.
  • As churches we need to look both at the ontological reality and functions of the church, which exists to foster the imitation of Christ in our life here and now; and to provide cosmic meaning for the everyday lives of people.
  • Our worship life provides us a sacred space. The spiritual nourishment we receive and are in itself transformative.
  • The churches have an eschatological perspective - committed to building the Kingdom of God on whatever context they find themselves.6

3. The third challenge is to see the liturgy of the church as providing a sacred space that challenges violence

I speak here as a Protestant Christian, that too of the Reformed tradition, the form of worship I am most familiar with. Too many times, I have sat in Sunday morning worship services wondering why I am there. Too often the worship life is far removed from the realities in our world. The language and symbols of the church can themselves be violent. I remember sitting in church on the day when the whole of India was aflame after the razing to the ground of the Babri Masjid - and the pastor did not say a word to refer to this. The pastor was very careful about following the liturgy for a service of Holy Communion, but did not seem to connect the context of the bleeding nation with the body and blood of Christ that we were commemorating. I felt a deep sense of sadness. I believe the liturgical life of the church ought to reflect the world we live in, challenging each one of us to live our faith to the full, in the world.

However, my hope in the church is often renewed in unexpected ways. It was appropriate that the Good Friday worship service this year (Friday 29 March 2002) at the Evangelical Lutheran Church, in which I worship in Geneva, connected the symbol of the crucifixion with the struggles for life and survival of the women of Argentina. The women of Argentina are protesting against the economic violence that their country is going through because of global economic policies and programmes. The empty pots that formed a Cross, on the floor of the church symbolized the pain of the women, transforming the violence of the crucifixion into a symbol of the struggle for justice and human dignity. The reading of St. John's account of the passion and the prayers from the book of Psalms and the book of Lamentations, and deeply moving songs from the struggling people in Latin America formed the theological under-girding for the worship service0. But, what was most meaningful in the service was the song from Palestine. As we sang this together my heart was listening to the sounds of the guns in the Middle East and the to the pompous and loud words of the super powers…. and the strange silence of most of the rest of the world! "Waha bibi, waha bibi, ay yu halen anta fih, dzuq ta ka' sal mauti kaima yah-ya sha-bon tafta dih" we sang in Arabic. This is translated as: "My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can I find you? You who drank the cup of suffering that your people might have life." The people of Palestine are longing for life, and for peace with justice. This worship experience reinforced my conviction that religion can offer us words of hope in our violent world.

2. The language of "crusades" evaluated - moving to a new mission challenge:
The violent language of present day evangelists and the aggressive tactics used by those who claim a commitment to "evangelize" the world continues to be problematic and calls for transformation. A friend recently pointed out to us the violent language used by some Christian 'fundamentalists' in India - a language that brands people of all other religions as lost and as sinful. Language such as "Crusades for Christ" or "soldiers for God" reflects a militancy that makes no sense in a world so filled with violence.

Unfortunately, our mission history has been built on an over-emphasised project of the conversion of the world to Christ. This is because, in the words of Wesley Ariarajah, Sri Lankan theologian and former Director of the Programme of Dialogue with People of Other Faiths of the WCC, "Protestant missiology took shape before the concept of the 'mission of God' became a key concept in mission, and within a Theology of Religions that saw no possibility of a life in God through other faith traditions. The intention to be the majority also became the imperial and colonial history of the church, where political power held out the possibility of Christianity, in one way of the other, becoming the religion of the people."7

Dr. Ariarajah, challenges Christians to re-look at biblical resources that we often gloss over. St. Paul, for instance, commissioned to build the early church, demands of the congregations a sacrificial lifestyle - which he calls the "In Christ" experience. Paul does not make conversion a primary vocation of the church.

Ariarajah speaks of what he considers to be a very "troubling" aspect of Christian life in many of our countries. According to him the problem lies in the assumption that, "the advance of mission has to do with numbers, and that the success and failure of mission, like that of a commercial corporation, can be quantified. It is troubling because of the enormous emphasis it puts on individual conversions and its incapacity to understand the rich biblical concept of vicarious representation."

He proposes that we move from "conversion" to "healing" as our mission. In a world so fragmented and bleeding, a world with so much physical and structural violence, our mission is to work with people of all faiths for healing and reconciliation. The artificial divide between the social and evangelistic tasks of the church needs to be broken down. The oft-held assumption that the explicit acceptance of Christ is the basis of salvation needs to be questioned.

3. Theology of Mission
This requires us to also re-look at missionary history - and the role of the missionary Church in overcoming violence. This has caught the attention, particularly of women, in recent times. Women have begun to re-read history so as to re-claim, particularly the story of women missionaries and their contribution to the life of "native" women. Stories of how missionary wives worked together with "native" women to challenge practices of discrimination and "violence" are now being unearthed form the archives. For example Nyambura Njoroge has explored the partnership between local women and the missionary women in combating the practice of female genital mutilation by Gikuyu women in Kenya.8

But, we are also all aware that tragically; the missionary movement was sometimes part of the problem. Much has been written about this, but more recently this concern has captured the attention of particularly a group of theologians who are "post-colonial" scholars. They explore particularly how Christianity had become part of the project of imperialism and colonialism, alienating the subjugated from their own languages, their cultural values, religious beliefs and philosophies. This has been perceived as violence, as the Christian message came with a strong message of occupation and subjugation. Musa W. Dube, a feminist theologian from Botswana has been particularly articulate in this. Her challenge is to all of us to become post-colonial subjects, to together as both from the Northern "sending" churches and from the Southern "receiving" churches to critique a historical past that violated the person-hood and dignity of peoples. This requires us to challenge the "politics of forgetting", which seems to be the dominant discourse of the day and to, with compassion, deal with that history so that we can together move into a more hopeful present and future.

Additionally, it is regrettable that the development agencies set up by the churches to undo the "damage" done by the missionary agencies (which were considered to "be paternalistic"), seem reluctant to support the churches in their efforts to raise questions of justice and dignity. The imposition of new conditionalities for support to the churches in the South reflects the injustice of the present world order. It is unfortunate that the churches mirror this rather than challenge it. We seem to be better at doing charitable acts than at raising fundamental structural questions that perpetuate injustice and lead to violence.

All this calls for a new ecumenical hermeneutic based on the present missionary challenges, particularly in the context of the extent of violence in our world. The churches can make important contributions here. There is hope in the liberating core of the gospel - the fundamental affirmations of the Christian faith. To boldly shift to a new theological paradigm of mission demands the courage to be credible each in our own context - as churches in the North and in the South. Today our three-fold evangelizing role can be summed up thus:

  • to experience solidarity with people of all faiths by witnessing to a spirituality common to all religions, by recognising and affirming the essence of all faiths to overcome violence.
  • to reveal Christian uniqueness by boldly and courageously proclaiming Jesus as the "pact" that God makes with all those who live in a context of violence in our world.
  • to act out that message through all we do and say, so as to bring healing and reconciliation in a bid to recognize violence and to overcome violence.


1 Trehan Sanjay, I Renounce Religion, Hindustan Times, Tuesday 5 March 2002. Emphasis added.
2 Kappen Samuel, SJ, The Role of Religion in Combating Communalism, Ayodhya: Its Implications for the Indian State and Society, BUILD, 1993.
3 Report of the World Conference on Church and Society, Geneva, 1966
4 Villa-Vicencio, Charles, Just War, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. Lossky Nicholas, Bonino José Míguez et al, WCC Publications, 1991, p 553.
5 Ibid, p.553
6 Group report, Religious Identity and Violence, DOV Consultation on the thematic foci, February 2002, Chavanne du Bogis, Switzerland. Mss.
7 Ariarajah Wesley, Christian Mission: The End or a New Beginning, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church in USA.
8 Njoroge, Nyambura, Kiama Kia Ngo: An African Christian Feminist Ethic of Resistance and Transformation, Legon Theological Studies Series, Ghana, 2000

* Dr. Ms. Aruna Gnanadason is the Executive Secretary of the Justice Peace Creation (JPC) Unit of the World Council of Churches, Geneva. Paper presented at a meeting on "Recognising violence - Overcoming violence", 19-20 April 2002 at the United Evangelical Missions, Wuppertal.