I’ve been cautioned, on a number of occasions, about the “religious tone” implicit in some of our material. This, I’ve been told, will be an obstacle for some schools; perhaps I ought to reconsider and take out the sections that mention a peace hero’s religious convictions. While I understand the concern, my engagement with the religious convictions of some heroes is actually intentional. And here’s why.
First of all, the school where the program started and where we have been teaching it for the past three (going on four) years is made up mostly of Muslim students. The schools piloting the program this year are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular. To be wary of references to religious identities is, quite simply, to ignore the realities on the ground – implicit or explicit.
Secondly, the large range of peace heroes covered in the program includes men and women from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and yes – religious convictions. It seems a little imbalanced to place the heroes in their cultural, ethnic, and social contexts but turn a blind eye to their religious ones; it’s a strange kind of blotting out of an aspect of their identity.
But there is more to it than that, since to ignore the religious convictions of some of the heroes is to take away from them the most important motivation for why they did the things they did, which turned them into heroes in the first place. One need only think of Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu, or Ghaffar Khan, or the Dalai Lama – I could go on and on – to see how entwined these men and women’s faith was/is with their (celebrated) actions. It’s amazing to think how often religious conviction is actually the dominating factor in why the people we all admire chose to act the way they did. So I made the conscious decision not to strip these people of their identity, but rather express their worldview (including religious convictions) with utmost respect – regardless of if it was Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and so forth. It was an intentional effort to engage as fully and deeply as I could with the life and character of each hero. And I truly believe the material is richer and broader and more in line with a respect for all humankind and the upholding of human dignity because I didn’t shy away from people’s religious convictions.
I was rewarded for this effort in an unforeseen way, as something interesting began to happen the more I delved into the lives of these remarkable men and women. Over and over again I found that many of them were using the same religious language, regardless of their faith tradition. The words “image of God” or “children of God” were repeated in every religious conviction, as was the idea that we are all (as a result) brothers and sisters, which is why we bear so much responsibility toward one another. It blew me away to see language we think belongs to our own specific tradition so often being used by people of other faiths, for the same purposes. I realized that this is because the people we consider peace heroes are men and women who share the same values: The upholding of human dignity and a respect for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Let me give just three examples from our stories that illustrate how one’s religious conviction can actually shape one’s ability to see the value and worth inherent in all people.
Ghaffar Khan was a devout Muslim living in British India/Pakistan who preached the message of love for all to his thousands of followers until the day he died. “The Prophet,” Khan told them, “has said that the most pious and God-fearing youth is he who brings comfort to the creatures of God. The mission of the Khudai Khidmatgars [Khan’s nonviolent army] is to give comfort to all creatures of God. Remember this also that the Muslims alone are not the creatures of God. The Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and the Parsis, in short, all the creatures that live in this world, are the creatures of God. The mission of the Khudai Khidmatgars is to give comfort to all creatures of God” (qtd. in Rowell 596).
Khan emphasized this point to his followers time and time again, telling them that a true Muslim “’never hurts anyone by word or deed,’ but instead ‘works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men’” (qtd. in Johansen 66).
Gandhi’s message was similar. Speaking out of his own deep Hindu faith, Gandhi explained that since “Man’s ultimate aim is the realization of God,” then
all [man’s] activities, social, political, religious, have to be guided by the ultimate aim of the vision of God. The immediate service of all human beings becomes a necessary part of the endeavor, simply because the only way to find God is to see Him in His creation and be one with it. This can only be done by the service of all. (qtd. in Thompson 44)
Martin Luther King Junior, whose activism was deeply rooted in his Christian faith, explicated this message of Khan and Gandhi still further by making clear that loving all God’s creatures meant loving one’s enemies as well. You love, said King, “not because [people] are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you have ever seen” – even your enemy (“Loving Your enemies”). Loving one’s enemies was a hard teaching to follow, but it was absolutely essential for King in the outworking of his faith and social action. All people must be loved, King explained, because all people are made in the image of God. As such, even “the person who hates you most has some good in him,” which is why it is incumbent upon each of us to come “to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God.’” Only then, says King, will “you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there” (“Loving Your Enemies”).
It seems to me that we are more united in our diversity than we might initially think. Why hide the values that bind us together? Instead, should we not find a way to celebrate the fact that we are all of us, in the end, brothers and sisters sharing life together on this earth?
King once described the world as a house that we all share, which is why it is so essential to build a worldwide community based on love. “We have inherited a large house,” King wrote, “a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu. Because we can never again live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace” (qtd. in Patel 275).
Let this be our prayer, one and all – no matter what faith tradition we come from.
- Johansen, Robert C. “Radical Islam and Nonviolence: A Case Study of Religious Empowerment and Constraint among Pashtuns.” Journal of Peace Research 34.1 (Feb. 1997): 53-71. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
- King, Martin Luther Jr. “Loving Your Enemies.” King Encyclopedia. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
- Patel, Eboo. “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Light of Other Faiths.” Crosscurrents (Sep. 2012): 270-275. EBSCO. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
- Rowell, James L. “Abdul Ghaffar Khan: An Islamic Gandhi.” Political Theology 10.4 (2009): 591-606. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
- Thompson, Mark. Gandhi and His Ashrams. Mumbai: Popolar Prakashan Pvt. Ltd, 1993. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.