Article
Comment
4 min read

How to shape peace today

On International Day of Peace, Christine Schliesser counts today’s conflicts, deliberately imagines peace, and recalls an old song.

Christine Schliesser lectures in Theology and Ethics at Zurich University, and is a scientific collaborator with the Center for Faith & Society at Fribourg University.

a dirt barricade blocks a cross roads, behind which stands a roadside cross
A crossroads in Ukraine.
Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

One in four. This is the number of people living in conflict-affected areas on this planet. A record 100 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. Psychologists tell us that we can only process numbers in the two-digit realm in a meaningful way. Any number larger than that eclipses our capacities to attach a face, a story, an existence to that number. 100,000,000 is simply too large to picture. So imagine the entire UK population on the run, plus the population of Australia, plus that of Hongkong. In 2022, 16,988 civilians were killed in armed conflicts, which is a 53 per cent increase compared to the year before. And as you read these lines, there are 32 ongoing violent conflicts in the world, including drug wars, terrorist insurgencies, ethnic conflict, and civil wars.  

Just as we are overwhelmed with trying to grasp the extent of violence, conflict and war, we are equally at loss with imagining peace. When in 1981 the United Nations General Assembly established the International Day of Peace (IDP), it was recognizing exactly this by emphasizing that “it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. Constructing, envisioning, imagining. The tough world of realpolitik, however, seems to leave no place for such kind of romantic games of mind. Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of Germany, made no attempt to hide his scorn for the imaginary, “Let him who has visions consult a doctor”. This shows a remarkable misconception of reality, however. French philosopher Henri Bergson points to the power of imagination, for to invent “gives being to what did not exist; it might never have happened”. Perceiving and transforming reality thus become mutually supportive forces. And the numbers above make it clear that peace is not the default option of reality, but needs to be envisioned. “Inventing peace”, as film director Wim Wenders calls this conscious effort.  

Restoring momentum to the SDGs is a crucial sign of life for global cooperation – and for peace. 

So peace begins in our minds, but it cannot remain there. Just as love yearns to be embodied, peace seeks concrete shape. And just as the shape of love is acts of kindness, the shape of peace is acts of justice. In the Jewish and Christian tradition, the term shalom is used to convey this kind of inclusive vision of peace and justice. This year’s International Day of Peace (IDP) coincides with the UN General Assembly. When conceived 78 years ago, a vital part of the United Nations’ raison d'être was the common vision for peace. The experiences of the horrors of two world wars totalling more than 76 million people dead – another one of these unfathomable numbers –united the nations of this world in their quest for peace. Yet the shape of peace is justice. So three years after the conception of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born, celebrating its 75th birthday this year.  

As the world leaders currently convene for the UN General Assembly, however, the nations assembled there will be anything but united. The demand and supply of international collaboration seem grossly disproportionate as multiple challenges, including geopolitical, ecological and economic crises, eat away on multilateral ties. This year’s IDP also coincides with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) summit, marking the mid-point milestone of the goals.  

Endorsed in 2015, the 17 SDGs unfold the vision of a better world, including the eradication of poverty, advancing education and gender equality and environmental stewardship. If justice is the currency of peace, it seems only appropriate that this year’s IDP’s theme is ‘Actions for Peace: Our Ambition for the #GlobalGoals’. “Peace is needed today more than ever”, says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. This, in turn, means that the vision spelt out by the SDGs is needed today more than ever. It is a misunderstanding to conceive of the SDGs as an add-on for better times. Rather, restoring momentum to the SDGs is, as Stewart Patrick and Minh-Thu Pham from the Carnegie Foundation point out, a crucial sign of life for global cooperation – and for peace, one may add.  

To dispel the ever-prevalent “myth of redemptive violence” as the still predominant paradigm, we need exactly this kind of active imagination. 

One would think that the scale of the challenges spelt out by the 17 SDGs requires the joint collaboration of all actors. Yet one factor that is strikingly absent in this equation is religion. This is all the more remarkable given the fact that 85 per cent of this planet’s population profess adherence to a faith tradition, according to the World Population Review 2022. This makes faith communities the largest transnational civil society actors. Now religion – every religion – is inherently ambivalent. But this means that each religion can not only be used to incite hatred and violence, but also contains potent resources for peace and reconciliation.  

Many of the SDGs including peace, justice, equality and care of creation to name but a few align with core concerns of, for example, the Christian faith tradition. Just imagine the potential for transformational change towards peace and justice if faith-based actors worked together, among each other and with secular actors! To dispel the ever-prevalent “myth of redemptive violence” (Walter Wink) as the still predominant paradigm, we need exactly this kind of active imagination. Or as the poet of an ancient song once put it:

“Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss”. 

 

For more information on the role of religion in the SDGs, read the Open Access book series “Religion Matters. On the Significance of Religion for Global Issues” (Routledge), edited by Christine Schliesser et al.  

 

Article
Belief
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?