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Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation
Jan 1, 2004

Thomas Petriano, Ph.D, is the chairperson of the Religious Studies Department of St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. He teaches comparative religions, as well as courses in Christian Studies. He has a doctorate in theology from Fordham University. He is deeply interested in and committed to inter-religious dialogue and promoting the common points for people of all faiths. Last November, our reporter had a chance to speak with Dr. Petriano.

THE FOUNTAIN: What are the general views of religions toward war?

Dr. Petriano: One could say that in general the world's religions all preach and promote peace. An example of this can be seen in the gathering of religious leaders from all over the world that took place in Assisi, Italy on January 14, 2002. Religious leaders from all the world's major religions gathered there to pray and exchange views on how the world's religions could be a more vital and unified force for peace. One of their commonly agreed upon goals was 'to proclaim our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion, and, as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or of religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.' This was a profoundly important statement agreed upon unanimously by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and several other religious leaders from around the world.

THE FOUNTAIN: Even though, in general, religions do not counsel 'war' unless absolutely necessary in the case of defense, how do you interpret war, including the current terrorism?

Dr. Petriano: My thoughts on this subject are influenced by a recent book by a historian from the University of Notre Dame, R. Scott Appleby. His book is titled, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. He correctly points out that there is, historically speaking, what can be called some sort of ambivalence within religions when it comes to questions of war and peace. On the one hand, religions teach and promote peace, but yet, historically religious passion and zealotry have also been strong factors behind many of the great conflicts of the past and present. Examples of this kind of militancy in the name of God or religious principles are numerous and can be found in many religions. Part of this has to do with what happens when political, ethnic, or nationalist agendas make use of religion or religious values to advance what is really a political or nationalist goal. Another reason has to do with forgetfulness or a convenient neglect of the basic principles and teachings of various religions. You might call this a 'selective' reading of the various scriptures, for example, the Bible or the Holy Qur'an, in a way that justifies violence in the name of a religious principle or value. Most of the religions also do have 'just war' teachings. Many times, however, I am afraid that these teachings can be invoked in a way that is not consistent with the reasons for which they were first devised.

THE FOUNTAIN: What can ordinary people, from the perspective of their faith, do to prevent wars?

Dr. Petriano: This is an excellent question. I think ordinary people can actually do a great deal. There is a song called 'Let there be peace on earth.' One line of the song is, 'and let it begin with me'. I think peace must begin with each of us. First of all we must learn to find peace in our own hearts. I think religion can help us find that 'inner peace'. Secondly, we must learn to not just 'tolerate', but to genuinely respect people who are different from each other ' whether that difference be religious, ethnic, economic or racial. Is this not what Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and the great Jewish prophets all taught, peace be upon them all? We have to be willing to reach out to others. It is only when we do so that we can begin to realize how alike we really are. Maybe what we are most afraid of is not our differences, but rather our similarities. I would say that ordinary people have a responsibility to be well informed. Fear comes from ignorance, and it is fear that ultimately is the cause of violence. By 'well informed', I mean both historically and religiously. Education is central. I teach a course in World Religions here at St. Josephs College, and it amazes me and my students how little we know about other people's religious beliefs and how much of what we think is based on false stereotypes. The more we learn, the more we realize how similar we are. We cannot stay isolated. By education, I also mean it is important for religions and nations to know and admit the mistakes they have made in the past.

Peace must begin with each of us. First of all we must learn to find peace in our own hearts. I think religion can help us find that 'inner peace'.

THE FOUNTAIN: Even though people's lives are affected greatly by war and disasters, can people be tolerant enough to forget all such events? If so, how can this be done?

Dr. Petriano: This is where I think religion has a vital role to play. Religion and religious leaders can exercise a great deal of influence in society, and all the great religions teach forgiveness and reconciliation as important values. One thinks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as an example of how an appeal to religious values can have a vital role in helping a society come together after a long history of violence, hatred and torture. Forgiveness and reconciliation are key. There are some very good models of conflict resolution out there, and just as religious passion can sometimes ignite violence, I believe, it can also be used to promote peace and reconciliation.

THE FOUNTAIN: What can we do to stop people losing their lives in wars and disasters?

Dr. Petriano: All loss of life is tragic. In the case of war, it seems so unnecessary. One would like to think that at the beginning of the third millennium, human beings would be able to solve their conflicts without having to resort to war. It seems that this is a possible, desirable and necessary goal. We have to use our intelligence to find ways other than building bigger and more destructive weapons. Dr. Martin Luther King once said that in the modern world the choice is no longer between war and peace but rather that it is between peace and nonexistence. I believe that he was right. It is the very existence of our world that is at stake. We have to find a better way!

THE FOUNTAIN: What do you think about a dialogue between different faiths? How should people from different cultures interact with one another and learn? What methods should be utilized? Do you think it is possible that wars and disasters can bring people together, make them closer, making their faith stronger rather than breaking them apart?

Dr. Petriano: Yes, absolutely. One of the many vivid memories I have of the aftermath of 9/11 was an interfaith prayer service that took place the following week at the Yankee Stadium. There, representatives of all the great religions gathered for a memorial service. They all offered a prayer on the basis of their religious tradition. It was a wonderful moment of religious unity and solidarity, the likes of which I had never seen before. Ever since then, there have been many more efforts, especially among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, to meet to discuss, interact and learn from each other. This has been a good thing, and it must continue. Dialogue is important. Mutual respect is important. I think people getting together, even just socially, can be a good thing. We all like to associate with people who are like us. It is important to provide occasions where people of different faiths can come together and meet one another. I also think participating, to what degree possible, in one another's religious services can also be a good thing. I have begun the practice of taking students from my World Religions class to a local mosque for Friday prayer. In the beginning the students were a little reluctant to go, but the experience has proven to be a very positive one. The mosque has been very welcoming, and students gain a new respect and deeper understanding for Islam. I think we must do more of these sort of things.

THE FOUNTAIN: What do you think about the power of the media today and how it is being used to form the opinions of people around the globe?

Dr. Petriano: Yes, the media is very powerful and influential. In the United States there is a danger today of the emergence of a few large communications conglo- merates that will control the majority of media outlets. The danger is that people will be exposed to a limited point of view. Also, the media is not always good at reporting issues that have to do with religion. I find that their staff is not always sufficiently knowledgeable about religion and the various religions and that sometimes reports are made in generalities that do not always promote genuine and accurate understanding. Many times, unfortunately, it is news of disasters or controversies that sell a lot.

THE FOUNTAIN: Do you think Armageddon theories in different faiths play a role in current issues?

Dr. Petriano: Armageddon theories do have a role to play in current issues. They are especially prominent among Christian fundamentalists who have read Revelation, which is the last book of the Bible, in a very literal way. In such a literal reading of Revelation, the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ will be preceded by a great battle between the forces of good and evil. This battle is referred to as Armageddon. According to this interpretation, the Second Coming of Christ will occur only when the Jewish people have re-established control of the Holy Land. It is for this reason that some fundamentalist groups have given unqualified support to this goal. I want to stress that this point of view is not held by all Christians. It is found primarily among fundamentalists. The majority of Christians do not share this kind of thinking or this interpretation of the Book of Revelation. I personally do not think this way of thinking is helpful to the world situation today.

THE FOUNTAIN: Being involved in the education community yourself, what are your observations regarding the general level of knowledge about other faiths and cultures of the average American student population?

Dr. Petriano: I think a lot of work needs to be done in this area. In general, students are not well informed about any religious beliefs or traditions other than their own. That is why education is so important; not only education in the classroom, but providing opportunities for people of different religions and cultures to meet and get to know one another.

THE FOUNTAIN: What are the main reasons, as you see them, for Sufism being so popular in the USA?

Dr. Petriano: I believe that Sufism is attractive to many because of its emphasis on universality and its teachings of tolerance and peace. It offers a teaching that stresses what all human beings have in common rather than what separates them. Also, its mysticism responds to a hunger that many people have for spiritual connection. I think people, especially in our fast paced and technological society have a need and hunger for genuine spiritual experiences.