The historic religions are ambivalent in implementing a respect for life, and ambiguous about survival versus broader moral instincts, says a leading commentator.
Oliver McTernan, a former Roman Catholic priest and broadcaster, and author of Violence in God’s Name, was speaking at the 2011 Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh, in conversation with historian Owen Dudley Edwards and church historian Lesley Orr.
He noted that for a century and a half in its early history, Christianity was uncompromising in its rejection of violence and war. But with Constantine and the Edict of Milan, the desire to protect a growing religiously-based empire overcame the previous pacifistic impulses.
Tracing the history of institutional interests often sidelining spiritual ones within Christendom, McTernan said that there was a persistent counter-witness to the compromise with violence, focussing on practices like 'the truce of God' in the eleventh century, and figures like St Francis of Assisi.
But the majority traditions had often been permissive towards war and violence, said McTernan, who also pointed to parallel contradictions and problems within other faiths, including Hinduism and Islam.
Dr Orr amplified the theme by speaking about her research into the global phenomenon of violence against women, domestic and structural - including religiously sanctioned or permitted abuse.
A widespread initial response among Christians she initially spoke to in Scotland about this was that "this can't possibly be happening in the church", she said of her studies. Such reluctance to acknowledge the problem within religious bodies remains common.
The religions emerging from the androcentric, warrior cultures of the iron age were formulated around texts, as with the classical tradition, that inscribed these values and assumed a sacred and sanctifying role. A violent world is assumed and portrayed.
Ideologies of mastery and subservience, denial of the body and other systems of power and control often found a sacralised justificaction, both Orr and McTernan declared.
The reality of violence is much more evident to victims than perpetrators, who seek to disguise or excuse it, Orr commented. The 'entitlement' to use violence legitimated by religion and ideology needs to be challenged from within and without.
The reality is that too often culture shapes belief rather than the other way round, McTernan suggested. Leaders who are capable of rising above the mob and the norm are needed to turn the tide.
Dr Dudley Edwards pointed towards Quakers as an embodiment of an alternative Christian tradition that rejects violence - and includes many Anabaptists and others.
Jesus' statement that he came "not to bring peace, but a sword" was a clear reference to the social conflict leading to his violent death, not a justification of the sword, Edwards said. Indeed, the founder of the Christian movement's last statement before his crucifixion was a demand that his followers "put away your sword".
The discussion was co-sponsored by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which promotes active nonviolence and partners with a range of religious peace organisations, including Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow will tomorrow (Friday 26 August 2011) take part in a panel discussion on war and violence at the Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, at 8pm.
The full Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace programme is at: http://www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk/
* Spirituality Peace and News: http://festivalofspirituality.blogspot.com/
* More on FoSP from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/festivalofspirituality