Can religion bring about peace?

Günther Dellbrügger

In his late work Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe addresses the connection between religion and education. He describes the ability to turn towards another being in reverence and love as a basic religious mood. In the “Pedagogical Province”, children are educated to live together peacefully. From Goethe’s point of view, the path of humanity is reflected in every biography, including the development of religions. The first form of religion is based on reverence for “that which is above us”. We have fear by nature, but we must first develop reverence; for Goethe, it is a “higher sense”. The human being can, “by giving honour, keep their honour”. The first reverence is for a supreme being, which is reflected and revealed in “parents and teachers”.

The second stage of religion lives in reverence for “what is beside us”; this includes nature and fellow human beings. Albert Schweitzer’s life motto “Reverence for life” goes in this direction.

The third reverence refers to “what is among us”. Goethe sees in this reverence the decisive characteristic of the Christian religion. For it does not despise the earthly, but accepts all suffering, even death, as belonging to life.

Goethe mysteriously allows the three forms of reverence to flow into a fourth which is supported by the other three. It is the reverence for what is within us: the highest reverence is “the reverence for oneself ...”.

It is for the higher element in us, the divine in human being, their inner dignity.

According to Goethe, all development finds its meaning in the fact that the nascent human being approaches ever closer to their highest archetype, that they truly become a human being. In Judaism, there is no greater praise for a deceased person than when it can be said of them: “They were a human being!” A distant and lofty goal, but one to which we all have the potential. For Goethe, the foundation of every art of education – and thus also of education for peace – is the development of the powers of reverence in the human being. Does this resonate with us?

A deep longing for peace, harmony and security lives in most people. But we also have a fighter, a warrior, a restless spirit living in us. This can increase to a craving for harmony on the one hand and to quarrelsomeness on the other.

Can we use the potential of both dispositions positively to promote peace instead of “skirmishing”, to develop a good culture of dispute?

The often invoked but not always successful dispute culture is based on key social skills that need to be practised constantly:

  • Recognition of the other as an independent being seeking freedom and themselves.
  • The ability to “change sides”: to empathise, to put oneself in the other person’s shoes; it sounds simple, but it takes a lot of patience and inner work.
  • Supporting and tolerating the other: I want to accept you as you have become. There are many things I simply don’t understand, but I still want to accept you. The benefit of such an attitude often comes much later.

Acknowledging the other, striving for inner understanding, lovingly bearing with others – how much would be gained with such an attitude! A dispute culture based on this must be prepared and practised in childhood and youth.

Good and bad disputes

Around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod was born on the island of Euboea. In one of his works he distinguishes between “good” and “bad” disputes. He does not, therefore, set dispute and peace against each other but different forms of dispute, of argument. Disputes can be carried out fairly, with recognition of the other, or unfairly, destructively.

In a good dispute, the other person is respected and recognised as a person. The disputants abide by rules, e.g. they let the other person finish. This can be increased to “controlled dialogue”: A states their view on a question. B repeats what A said until A says: You understood me, that is exactly what I wanted to say. Only then does B present their own view. Imagine if such a culture of conversation were practised in public today! Strict adherence to these rules of conversation demands a lot of self-education and discipline from both sides. If it goes well, the insight can dawn: I need the other person as a partner to illuminate a question from the greatest variety of sides. All language training in which I learn to express more and more precisely what I want to say prevents the violence that is often an expression of speechlessness.

How can we lay the basis for this in children? At holiday camps I asked an experienced fencer to practise stick fencing with the children.1 This was not about self-defence but about the alternation of attack and defence in given patterns. What is physically practised here can later be internalised into fair “word fights” according to clear rules.

In addition to stick fencing, wrestling, the original form of hand-to-hand combat without weapons, can be considered as a further exercise. Such wrestling enables a fair trial of strength, it exercises skill, presence of mind and alert observation. These powers can also be transferred to the mind: we wrestle to solve a problem, with a set task, we wrestle with ourselves: how do I find my way?

Our own flexibility and understanding of the other can also be practised by consciously changing sides: when the first Waldorf school was founded, the teaching staff could not agree on whether Latin or Russian should be introduced as a third foreign language. Rudolf Steiner is said to have then asked the “Latin supporters” to speak in favour of the subject of “Russian” and vice versa.

With all these exercises – stick fencing, wrestling, controlled dialogue, changing sides – it is possible to prevent aggression. Learning to argue properly is the way to a powerful, peace-making dispute culture that respects the dignity of the other person.

Discovering the peace potential of religions

If we look at the great religions from the perspective of peace, we will at first be shocked at how much harm has been done by religious wars, persecution of people of other faiths, etc. But this can also raise the question of whether there is a form of religion that only promotes peace. It is time for religions to reflect on their potential for peace, something we intend to exemplify in the following.2

Mahatma Gandhi found his impulse for peace in Hindu religion. His method, as we know,  was non-violence and passive resistance (civil disobedience). He received his honorary name “Mahatma” (great soul) because of his spiritual power and charisma, his love for divine truth.

Gandhi was charged with sedition against the colonial power. He spoke in his own defence. In his statement, he asked that he be tried strictly according to the law. He was aware that he was a criminal under British law.

The judge thanked Gandhi because through his statement he himself had confirmed the legitimacy of the verdict. He added, however, that this was difficult for him personally, because Indians regarded Gandhi as a saint who had committed himself to the highest ideals of humanity. “I sentence you in admiration of your deeds, but I must sentence you.”

The sentence was six years in prison. Two worlds confronted each other: the external law of the colonial government and the duty to humanity experienced by Gandhi. A single act: for some a great crime, for others a service to humanity at the risk of his life. The historical distance makes it easier for us to recognise Gandhi as a representative of a higher truth. But how do we recognise today which side the truth is on?

According to Gandhi, the ability to relate peacefully to the world, even to our opponents, is based on five pillars that are inwardly related: respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation and empathy. Peacefulness develops in the practice of these soul qualities.

I show respect to people who “instil respect” in me. With Gandhi, however, this attitude increased to respect for everyone, especially for the “pariahs”, the lowest level of the Indian population. He treated everyone, no matter what caste they belonged to, with a deep respect – and they respected him until he was killed by a fanatic from his own religion.

I have to actively muster understanding. Often a person’s behaviour may seem incomprehensible to us. But when I get to know their biography better, I begin to develop understanding for them. This can be a lengthy process!

The power of acceptance, of truly accepting the other, requires a certain maturity of soul. How often we reject what is strange and unfamiliar to us. Young people, for example, like to be provocative in various ways in order to test whether they are nevertheless accepted! Every person wants to be accepted just as they are.

An even higher soul ability seems to me to be genuine appreciation. For this, I have to look more deeply into the other person’s character, search for, recognise and acknowledge their qualities. Appreciation is a social benefit. Because the other person feels appreciated as an individual human being with all their possibilities and weaknesses.

Lastly, empathy – the fifth pillar of peacemaking according to Gandhi – draws its inner abundance from the four preceding virtues: empathy merges into love. Empathy and love are those qualities that we particularly associate with Buddhism. In Gandhi they become the soul of non-violent resistance.

Judaism also contains a deep potential for peace. The common daily greeting is “Shalom”. Many people in everyday life may no longer be aware that this means “peace”. How often is peace wished every day in Israel – if the greeting is taken literally. May this greeting unfold its inner power, especially where political reality is full of discord ... The traditional Jewish morning prayer speaks of peace ultimately coming from God, that it is given to us “from above”: “Praise be to the Eternal One, praised for all eternity! Praise be to You, Eternal One, our God, King of the World, Former of Light and Creator of Darkness, You have made peace and created all things full of light ...”

The film Was bedeutet dir der Islam? (What does Islam mean to you?) was shown at the North German Short Film Festival on 22 August 2021. It was made by Klaus Weller with young people in Hamburg.3 People who live in Hamburg and come from Islamic countries are interviewed in the film. It shows how this religion lives in the individual. It seems to me that it is important and necessary to be aware of this in our time in order to distinguish what lives as Islam in millions of believers from Islamism which should not be glossed over in any way.

Here are the statements:

  • “Islam is a tolerant religion, means peace.”
  • “Islam means friendship and peace.”
  • “Islam makes me be humble and believe in God.”
  • “Islam encourages all people to stand together.”
  • “Islam makes me remain steadfast in life, gives me motivation and strength.”
  • “People sometimes think that if someone makes a mistake, that is part of Islam. But it is part of the human being. Everyone is responsible for their own actions.”

What do we feel when we hear such testimonies? Better still to watch the film (4 mins) yourself and see the people’s faces. These statements all sound very authentic to me and document lived religion.

In March 2021, Pope Francis visited the Iraqi city of Mosul. Here he commemorated thousands and thousands of people who were displaced or killed in the name of religion, especially the Yazidis. He also visited the city of Ur in southern Iraq which is considered the home of Abraham by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In his address, Francis called on all religions to look up to heaven again like Abraham, because reconciliation begins with looking up to heaven together. “Let us not allow the light of heaven to be obscured by the clouds of hatred!” For the path that heaven showed us was the path of peace. This path of peace began with renouncing having enemies. “The person who has the courage to look at the stars has no enemies.”

The Pope appealed for freedom of conscience and religion to be respected in all religions. For this fundamental right “frees the human being to contemplate the heaven for which they were created”.

Looking up to the stars – we might add – reminds the human being of their spiritual origin, of the divine origin of all human beings.

The Pope ended his address with a comparison: looking up to the stars was “the most effective vaccine for a peaceful tomorrow”. While reading this address, the thought came to me: over every human being shines a star, their star. If we direct our gaze to it, the world will change.

In a world that threatens to destroy itself, peace education is “systemically relevant”. In this context, I myself have been accompanied for years by a text with which – a little shortened – I would like to conclude.

It is attributed to a person who was born a nobleman but then radically changed his life and became “wandering peace”: Francis of Assisi. His prayer for peace is based on the conviction that we need help “from above” to create peace on earth. He asks to become an instrument of this higher peace in the midst of the outer world. The conditions that lack peace are clearly before his eyes:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.”

But only those who are prepared to forsake – to use Goethe’s words – can become instruments of such higher peace:

“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.”

... for example the children!

In view of the world situation, we could despair about the distance of the path to peace. But every step on this path brings light into the world. An education for peace must be guided by the fact that thoughts and feelings are also effective on this path.

About the author: Dr Günther Dellbrügger is a retired priest in the Christian Community.

Notes: 1. | 2. Cf. Albert Schmelzer, Die Weltreligionen, Vielfalt und Zusammenklang, Stuttgart 2021. | 3.