As you may know, I am a secular Jew. In matters of ultimate belief I am an agnostic – which I define as an atheist who does not like to argue with people. However, much to the chagrin of my godless friends, I also have a lot for respect for religion and spirituality. So when the Pope called for religion to be a force for peace in the Middle East, I penned the following article for Haaretz.
Pope Benedict XVI thinks the Middle East could use a little more religion. Not the religion that divides – the kind he practiced when he suggested that Islam was a religion of the sword, or when he re-sanctioned an ancient Good Friday prayer which calls on God to illuminate the hearts of the Jews that they might recognize their savior Jesus Christ – but the kind that binds members of the human family to one another.
During his recent meeting with Muslim leaders in Jordan, the Pope commented that in an age when religion is misused and maligned as a force of discord, it is imperative that religious practitioners live in accord with the highest virtues of their faith.
The Pope also stated that one of the main purposes of his pilgrimage is to help advance the cause of peace: “We [the Catholic Church] are not a political power, but a spiritual force, and this spiritual force is a reality that can contribute to advances in the peace process.” The Holy See explained that he plans on promoting peace by encouraging mass prayers, awakening the world’s conscience, and promoting a reasonable (i.e. two-state) solution to the conflict.
Perhaps the idea that a “spiritual force” can contribute to peace sounds a little puzzling. A typical secular Israeli reply could be, “Thanks but no thanks. We appreciate the good intention (and boost in tourism), but we have had enough spiritual forces to last a lifetime.”
Indeed, a repeated charge in the discourse over the Arab-Israeli conflict is that religion plays a central role in exacerbating and perpetuating the conflict. The conclusion being that removing religion from the scene will go a long way in solving the century-old conflict.
A somewhat comical example of this position comes Marwan Kanafani, special adviser to the late Yasser Arafat, who in 1994 replied to a question about the place of religion in the Oslo peace process by stating:
“The way to take care of religion in the dispute is to put the sheikhs in mosques, the rabbis in synagogues and priests in churches, and then lock the doors behind them and throw the keys away in the sea – they can only interfere with the process.”
This is a seductive but ultimately wrong-headed position. Religion can (and must) play a positive role in the peace process. All the more so in the Holy Land, where religion actually matters. A lot.
To read more, click here. As always, if the spirit moves you, please leave a comment.