Religion and the Quest for World Peace


by Ryan McCoy


Throughout the twentieth century, man's understanding of the world grew by leaps and bounds. Scientists made discoveries which fundamentally changed the way human beings interact with each other and the world around them. With the invention of the telegraph and later, the telephone, communication became nearly instantaneous. Horses, carriages, and other cumbersome forms of travel were replaced by trains, planes and automobiles. Diseases once thought hopelessly incurable were eradicated thanks to the miracles of modem science.

Yet, despite the man's unyielding march into the modern age, the ills long suffered by society are still evident. Instead of an increased sense of consideration for our fellow man, tension seems to have increased. In a century in which technology has brought humanity closer together, the world has experienced two of the most costly and destructive wars in history. The crime rate is out of control and the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows inexorably wider. Nations continue to squabble over territories, goods and wealth.

Why then, in the midst of such advancement, does there seem to be an increase in overall social disorder and unrest? The fact is that there is not an increase. The world's population has exploded in the last hundred years and mass media has made the news of crime available in a flash. Rather, it is the nature of the conflict, crime and terror that has deadly repercussions. How is it that, amongst the comfort and convenience that science has afforded, we can still be experiencing suffering? Nuclear bombs can decimate entire cities instantly. Biological weapons can spread horrible contagions throughout entire populations at blinding speeds. Technology has made our lives comfortable, yes, but it has also honed our ability to kill.

We can only assume that, while humanity has expanded its ability to alter the world and its place in it, there is some cornerstone missing. Without this vital piece the whole structure will eventually topple. At its core, the world is missing humanitarian compassion. The most evident and practical route to compassion is woven within the fundamentals of many of the world's major religions. Some would say, especially the older generations, that these values are lost on the current generation. Conversely, I believe that the values represented in most major religions were merely never correctly interpreted. Rather, the new parameters of our growing and changing world have revealed the need for true implementation of these concepts. It may seem as if the world has become a much less compassionate place; people have become increasingly self- centered. However, I believe this heightened state of animosity between neighbors is a product of modem times. The problem is not a decline in moral standards (indeed, I believe these morals were never actually present), but rather man is simply adapting to a rapid-paced world. Therein lays the problem of security.

"Men and nations are alike in their inability to accept a state of insecurity in which they know they cannot protect themselves and their families from war, starvation, or any other lingering threat to good health and well-being (Poling 17)." In 1930's Germany, people were desperate and feeling their security slip away. The German economy was reeling from the weight of massive reparations due to their defeat during World War 1. This situation is a prime example of how insecurity has lead to one of the most terrifying events ever recorded. Because of their feelings of vulnerability, the once reasonable people of Germany were ripe for manipulation by evil forces, in this case Hitler.

One must also consider the economic insecurities arising from the fact that the world is now producing people at a faster rate than the food needed to keep them alive. This problem is intensified by the struggle for diminishing mineral and agricultural resources and the diversion of many of these essentials to the limitless appetite of war (Poling 36).

How can insecurity be halted? Of course, if the aggressors ceased aggression or the fate of a starving man in a poverty-stricken nation was guaranteed survival, than the problem would correct itself.  The Christian view call for a more active involvement.

Christianity proclaims that mankind is a brotherhood and that God is the Father of all. And as a brotherhood, it cannot place the needs of one segment of humanity over the whole. Christians know of the evil nature of man and the importance of his salvation from frustration and insecurity. "Christianity holds that a high premium is placed on a point of view that can look down upon the fleeting things of the world with the considered contempt necessary to keep them from becoming permanent (Poling 37)." Therefore, if a government or institution is evil and causes suffering then it should be changed. Indeed, this principle encourages important flexibility in our modern, dynamic world.

But to fully eradicate the threat of insecurity, compassion must be practiced widespread. For most major religions, loving God and seeking happiness take shape in loving fellow creatures and improving the world for the benefit of its residents.

Hinduism is a religion altogether unfamiliar to most westerners. The national religion, and in many ways culture, of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism is the offspring of the union of cultures of Aryan invaders from the Northwest and aboriginal Indian people. It combines the reverence of nature and fertility with the worship of higher gods (Carmody 17).

One of the most relevant concepts in the Hindu complex is the notion of Karma. Karma is best described as a moral law of action and reaction (Carmody 19). An action taken in the present can shape events of the future. If a man does evil to his neighbor eventually evil will return to him. Cosmic or not, this type of belief is especially applicable in our close-knit modern world. With interdependence at a peak, the actions of one nation invariably affect another. Even if this idea does not inspire renewed compassion for our fellow man, at least it could appeal to the self-preservation instinct. The lessons of Karma, though certainly relevant to each individual personally, can certainly be applied to how one nation behaves towards another.

Another noteworthy concept in the Hindu religion is Samsara. Samsara is the eternal realm of births and deaths, or, in other words, the physical world (Carmody 3 1). Hinduists believe that the body is doomed to perish but the soul cannot be destroyed. Since the physical world is constantly in flux with births, deaths and rebirths, the only true unchanging existence is the divinity. Therefore, if life in Samsara is fleeting, and the soul is invulnerable, then perhaps worldly affairs should be approached with a certain detachment. How could this be beneficial to the advancement of world peace? One must understand that the Hinduists also believe that divinity pulses within each living thing. So, to attack another is to attack divinity, which in itself is not bad (no one can actually hurt divinity), but it can lead to bad Karma, guaranteeing one's own agony (Carmody 32).

Buddhism, the distant cousin of Hinduism, is a religion inspired by pacifism. According to Buddhists, there is no such thing as a "just war" (Carmody 45). That phrase is merely a term used by participants to justify cruelty and hatred. Who is to decide what is "just"? Our war against you is "just", while your war with us is "unjust". Buddhism rejects this line of thinking. Buddha himself not only preached pacifism, but was an active proponent. During a territorial dispute between the Sakyas and the Koliyas, he personally intervened. Buddha walked directly onto the field of battle and, with nothing more than his words, convinced each side to lay down their weapons (Carmody 46).

Along with Hinduism, Buddhism teaches the virtues of non-injury, or Ahimsa, which states that all living beings should be treated with gentleness. This notion pairs impeccably with the Buddhist view on compassion: looking on all as unenlightened beings, trapped within an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and so deserving of compassion (Carmody 47). From this idea sprang what is known as the Bodhisattva vow, which is "the formal commitment to postpone one's own achievement of nirvana (enlightenment) so as to labor for the salvation of the suffering of all unenlightened beings” (Carmody 47). If there ever was a more obvious example of compassion, then it has yet to reveal itself.

Judaism moves our discussion back into the western orbit. For the past 1,500 years, the Talmud has been the best indication of the Jewish oral law tradition. The Talmud contains valid insights to the Jewish perspective on compassion. "... Charity doth deliver from death- not merely from unnatural death but form death itself (Cohen 221)." This implies that God cares for those who we for their fellow man, and also that charity fills up one's own soul. Jewish law calls for Jews to band together during hard times and to help those members of the community in need (Carmody 128). Such self-sacrifice would be more than beneficial to the international community. Of course, the problem is that if that charity is not returned, then the tendency is to think of one's self as a sucker. But this purpose is imperative if we are to work through any struggles with a modicum of dignity.

If charity is one way to promote peace and avoid conflict, then forgiveness is another. "A man should always be soft as a reed and not hard like a cedar (Cohen 229)." In Jewish law, if a man is grieved by another, then it is his responsibility to grant forgiveness. It is the transgressors duty to ask his forgiveness.

Forgiveness can also intercept vengeance. If a man lends his neighbor a tool and the neighbor fails to return it, he may be angry. If the neighbor returns and asks to borrow another tool, the man may refuse. If he does, he is exacting revenge and risks worsening his relationship with his neighbor. If he forgives the neighbor's transgression and lends him the tool, he avoids the caustic tarnish of revenge on his soul. Furthermore, his good example may inspire the neighbor to reconsider his actions, return the tool, and return to a mutually beneficial relationship. The practical problem with this is that it requires faith in one's fellow man. Faith in humanity has been replaced by mistrust in our time, but I believe it is crucial to building trust and finding peaceful solutions to personal, national, and global problems.

It is historical fact the religious fundamentalists have waged wars in the name of their respective gods. The religion isn't faulty, rather, sometimes people have a way of interpreting scriptures the way they want, as opposed to the way they are meant to be understood. Human beings are fallible. No one is perfect. Some will say that religions have done more harm than good. I believe that adherence to moral and a religious tradition has been the glue which has held society together over the years. The actions of a few cannot dismiss the wisdom within the world's religions.

The plain fact is that a passive participation in compassion is no longer enough. Each individual must make a personal choice whether to stand idly by or to not submit to fear and suspicion and be an example. In no way do I think that each person must choose a religion. I merely know that the principles represented in those religions are the same ones that will save our world. The earth's population has grown too dense, interdependence too strong, and weapons of mass destruction too deadly to afford any more mistakes.