Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Jos in Nigeria where this week hundreds of people were killed in the latest outburst of sectarian violence, itself apparently a reprisal against an earlier wave of killings in January this year.
The facts are far from clear, but they fit a pattern that has become all too familiar in the post cold war world, in the Balkans, Sudan, the Middle East, and many other places. It begins with a conflict that has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with economics and politics. There’s a shift of balance in wealth or power. One group feels it’s been treated unjustly. The other group feels that the established order is being challenged. And that remains the issue throughout.
But then an old bit of the brain kicks in, once useful, now deadly dangerous, and divides the world into a threatened us and a threatening them, and suddenly there’s the possibility of violence, despite the fact that from it all sides will suffer. Places where people of different ethnicities have lived side by side, begin to fracture. And since religion speaks to the deepest sources of identity, it too gets drawn in. And then we have the most dangerous situation of all, because if you feel God is on your side, there’s no limit to what you can do. That’s when people begin to hate in the name of the God of love, practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and kill in the name of the God of life.
The truth is that for a long time we in the secular west have treated religion as irrelevant. We believe, not wrongly, that political and economic conflict has a political and economic solution. We forget that while religion is rarely the match that lights the fire, it can become the fuel that feeds the flames.
The answer is not to abandon religion. When that happens people kill in the name of race, nationalism or political ideology, as the hundred million lives lost in the secular twentieth century tragically testify. Instead the answer stares at us from the first chapter of genesis, telling us that all human beings, them and us, enemy and friend, are equally in the image and likeness of God. Our common humanity precedes our religious differences.
Until the world religions stop taking sides and become instead an active force for peace, sectarian violence will continue, and God in heaven will weep.