Just and Unjust Peace:

Relevance of religious episteme in search of a just peace

posted by Nukhet Sandal

Daniel Philpott’s book, Just and Unjust Peace, can be regarded as a milestone for policymakers and academics looking for ways that go beyond the liberal peace frameworks. As a “student” of international relations and religion, I see the book as a tremendous contribution to the conversations surrounding conflict transformation and peacebuilding. In this short essay, I am not evaluating the myriad possibilities the book offers in multiple fields. Rather, I would like to convey two important implications of Philpott’s approach for those of us sitting at the intersection of religion and international affairs. First, by engaging the epistemological dimension of post-conflict justice, Philpott calls attention to religion as a rich resource, providing avenues that are not always available to secular peacebuilders. He highlights these possibilities without dismissing the contributions and importance of secular voices. Second, Philpott recognizes the multiplicity of theologies and actors; he points out to the key concepts in three Abrahamic religions that can form a basis for a conversation between the religious and the secular without confining the traditions to their institutional structures or particular manifestations. Philpott cautions: “Neither the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, nor most mainline Protestant churches have proclaimed any single theory of the atonement or reconciliation” (142). That is why it is unfair to portray one theology as representative of a religious tradition or blame the entire tradition for an exclusive public theology that was espoused at a given time and location by the followers of that religion. This might look a bit too commonsensical at first, but it is one of the main reasons why staunchly secular policymakers stand against inclusion of religious elements into conflict resolution. They confine religion to its exclusive theologies that might at times condone violence.

Before we come back to the epistemic status of religious interpretation and diverse public theologies, we should highlight the current status of peacebuilding and post-conflict justice initiatives. For years, we have followed the failure of an understanding that solely focuses on finding the culprits and punishing them for the past injustices. The operational successes of the international courts do not usually translate into positive peace, stable governance, and sound economic development. Conflicts erupt again or at the very least, structural violence continues. We can even say that we are in a state of crisis and the recipes developed in the offices of international organizations are not of much help. Philpott’s book emphasizes these gaps in our understanding. His concept of “restorative justice” and review of six practices of political reconciliation (namely, building just institutions, acknowledgment, reparations, apologies, punishment and forgiveness) remind the ideals one should pursue in peacebuilding. However, such a holistic approach to complicated processes requires us to overcome our biases in the field and one of the biggest steps towards this goal is taking religion seriously.

One widespread bias in the field is manifested through dismissing religion as an emotional, irrational and arbitrary element. Liberal skeptics dismiss the role of religious “knowledge” and the significance of reconciliation in attaining a long term peace. I have argued elsewhere that religious leaders and networks constitute epistemic communities with their expertise, competence and policy relevant knowledge in theology. Religious traditions offer insights in multiple fields ranging from development to human rights. In that sense, religious knowledge follows Weberian “value rationality” and it is part of the Foucauldian post-modern episteme that champions the spiritual dimension while acknowledging the scientific advances. The mere existence of conferences, conventions, and peer-reviewed publications in theology shows the presence of a structured expert community, criticisable, and refutable knowledge in text analysis, interpretation, and application. One can even claim that theology comes close to following a Weberian “formal rationality” when it comes to hermeneutics and exegesis.

Religious epistemic communities of peacebuilding and reconciliation have become much more prominent in the last couple of decades. These networks are familiar not only with the sources their respective traditions provide, but also with the local conditions, sensitivities and expectations. Given that a significant portion of the peacebuilding terminology is borrowed from scriptural sources, religious leaders should be seen as natural contributors to debates surrounding healing of wounds. Unfortunately, religious roots of reconciliation and forgiveness are often conveniently forgotten. Philpott brings these roots back to the scene and he traces the development and transformation of some vital concepts of restorative justice within theological frameworks. Examples in the book include the concept of “solidarity”, and how Jurgen Moltman, among others, contributed to the concept as a theologian; the meanings of shalom (peace) and teshuva (repentance) in Judaic tradition and how they are manifested in different writings; and the possibilities sulh, the concept of conciliation in Islam, provides in post-conflict settings. Beyond this epistemological dimension, reconciliation means addressing traumas and recovery of what has been lost both materially and spiritually. It means restoring trust and hope. Such a sensitive process requires a wide array of methods, tools and dimensions, including practices associated with religion. Philpott’s conceptualization of restorative justice shows that such an integrated approach is possible and each practice of political reconciliation can not only easily be located in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but also sometimes directly emerge from religious traditions.

One common misjudgment in conflict transformation is that religion is illogical and irrational, and it cannot be part of policy debates due to its arbitrary nature. However, religious actors and secular ones can converse using similar standards. As Philpott notes, arguments solely from fiat or private revelation “typify bad religious arguments, not religious arguments per se” (111) and religious arguments are “amenable to examination, understanding, consideration, criticism, partial agreement, contradiction and argument…” In many official settings, religious language is ruled out from the very beginning. This is unfortunately a loss for those of us who work towards peace—those who initiate violence are more willing to tap into religious justifications than those who want to bring justice and stability.

The second important contribution I mentioned in the beginning—and an important distinction—that the book makes is the recognition of the changing nature of public theologies, or in Scott Appleby’s words, the “ambivalence of the sacred” in peace processes. In his work on religion and comparative politics, Philpott has already elaborated on political theologies and differentiation of political structures. This work is significant as it tackles religious manifestations on an institutional level and does not assume that a given tradition has fixed traits. In settings ranging from Argentina to Rwanda, religious institutions have supported dictatorial regimes or did nothing to intervene in the human rights violations. Once again though, this is more of an institutional deficit rather than a norm that can be attributed to a religious tradition. To put it bluntly, discarding religious resources due to bad institutional practices and narrow ideologies is as meaningless as doing away with the field of economics altogether because some banks contributed to a financial crisis.

Unfortunately, many academics and peacebuilders still leave out religion in conversations about justice and stability. Once again, this is mostly due to frustration with institutions. I observed this lack of confidence in religious institutions when I was conducting research on the role of religious actors in conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. There were courageous and quite influential religious leaders like Fr. Alex Reid, Cardinal Cahal Daly, Rev. Harold Good, Rev. John Dunlop and Archbishop Robin Eames who played roles in realizing a stable Northern Irish society. However, members of the civil society working on the peace process expressed their disappointment with the churches as institutions while acknowledging the contributions of individual religious leaders and their theologies of co-existence and peace. Another observation I made as an outsider was that elite members of the civil society, political parties and academia were much more resistant to exploring the full potential of religious discourse in reconciliation than people on the street. I also experienced such an instance of resistance on a panel about Israeli-Palestinian peace process I once chaired. I asked the participants (prominent Israeli and Palestinian civil society representatives) about the potential role of religious actors in conciliation and building alternative communication channels. In one voice, five panelists turned to me and said that “there is no place for religion; whenever religion comes into picture, things get worse.” It was a bit ironic that the panel was organized by a Judaic Studies department—the religion dimension was there even if the participants had not thought about it.

To conclude, Philpott opens the way for a healthy discussion of the role of religious traditions and actors by introducing an ethic of political reconciliation. Just and Unjust Peace is a fascinating piece of work that is in the intersection of religious studies, conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It takes religious knowledge as well as experience of reconciliation and peacebuilding seriously; it reveals many possibilities religious traditions contain within themselves towards achieving restorative justice. Most importantly, the book does not bring in religion at the expense of the secular approaches but as a necessary complement to them. That is why it is a required reading for social scientists, religious studies/theology scholars who are interested in reconciliation as well as NGO officials who are in search of inclusive ways of attaining a long lasting peace.

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