Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Jesus, Political Philosopher

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


From the Editor: Wars of Religion

by Mark Silk

In February, New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans filed a dispatch from Ambon, Indonesia, describing "what has become an unstoppable surge of religious warfare" between Christians and Muslims. So direct an invocation of religion in violent confrontations around the world is the exception in contemporary journalism.

More common is the attitude expressed by the Times’s former Balkan bureau chief, Chris Hedges, writing last year in the journal of the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life: "Ethnic conflicts, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsies, are not religious wars."

Whence the tendency to write religion out of the "ethnic conflicts" of our time? Journalists can hardly be accused of believing that religion is incapable of moving people to action. They do not dismiss the religious motives of activists who boycott abortion clinics or members of the Christian right who take over state Republican parties. They do not question the faith of radicals who claim to want to return their countries to the true Islamic path.

Religion can, in short, be a motivating cause when the designated enemies are immorality, modernity, or secularism. But when one community is defining itself against another, there’s an almost pious sense that any religion worthy of the name is too pure, too universalistic, to be responsible.

Our preference, then, is to see people acting (perhaps "in the name of religion") for more worldly ends—power, loot, personal vendettas, hatred of the other, self-determination. It is in this spirit that Mydans ends his dispatch from Ambon with a local priest reflecting on "the despair that seems to have driven so many people into religious warfare, beyond the reach of any real religion."

Yet in many times and places real religion has served to constitute and marshal national identity. Years before Slobodan Milosevic played the religion card in his effort to turn post-communist Yugoslavia into Greater Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church was promoting its own version of Serbian nationalism: "a state in which," as one Orthodox writer put it in 1984, "Christ is the czar; art in which Christ is the magic; the school where Christ is the teacher; slavery, which can be endured only with Christ; while the thread[s] are ‘saints, heroes, and martyrs of Christ.’"

Serbian Orthodoxy had been pushed to the margins of Yugoslav society during the communist era, and the practice of the faith declined precipitously among the Serbian people. The patriarchate looked at the collapse of the Titoist state as its chance to re-evangelize the populace by re-cementing the bonds between Orthodoxy and Serbian national aspirations. As a leading member of the hierarchy put it, "The apparent freedom of the Church’s activities but without its real return to its place in society [deceives] both the Church and the people. There is hope only in the mutuality between the Church and the state that is being born."

The aim of restoring Orthodoxy to its "rightful" place at the center of Serbian self-assertiveness may seem like an abuse of what we think of as Christian ideals, but that doesn’t make it hypocritical or nonreligious. Had NATO policymakers taken more seriously the religious significance of Kosovo for Serbian national identity, they would not have so badly miscalculated what it would take to persuade Milosevic to withdraw his troops. It is not irrelevant that Serbian religious practice now seems to be undergoing a revival.

Nor is the shoe of religious nationalism always on the aggressor’s foot. As Robert Hefner points out in his article on East Timor in this issue, only 40 percent of East Timorese were Roman Catholic prior to the 1975 Indonesian invasion, with the balance adhering to one or another indigenous religion. Today the number is over 90 percent. In their 25-year struggle for independence, the East Timorese seized on Roman Catholicism as an expression of their national identity as distinct from largely Muslim Indonesia. Similarly, many southern Sudanese are embracing Christianity in the face of what they perceive as Muslim assaults from the north. Such religious affiliations make a difference—to individuals and to communities.

This is not to say that every "ethnic conflict" is a religious war. Or that where there is a significant religious factor, it is the only factor in the field. The historical conflicts we do not hesitate to call religious—the Crusades, for example, or the Islamic wars of conquest—had their admixtures of this-worldly motivation.

Religion is a moving target, even within a given country. As circumstances change, it can come to the fore or retreat into the shadows as a political actor. Whether the conflict is taking place in Ireland, Chechnya, Nigeria, Burundi, Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir, or Sri Lanka, we cannot afford to be dogmatic about the role religion plays. Its measure must be taken case by case.