John Reader on Peace and Peacebuilding: Civilizing the Sacred

22 09 2013

[On Wednesday 18th September, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. John Reader here reflects on themes raised at the workshop.]


This is a brief reflection on the workshop held at Liverpool Hope on September 18th and which, like the two previous sessions organized by the Philosophy and Religious Practices network, provided a wealth of stimulating ideas combined with front-line experience. One phrase stood out for me, and was articulated by Prof Jeffrey Haynes during the second presentation. He suggested that what is perhaps required in the relationship between faith traditions and peacemaking is a “civilizing of the sacred”. This seems to me to both summarize the tensions involved and to beg all the important questions. Some obvious comments first. It presupposes that it is possible to draw a strict line between the sacred and the non-sacred. I find this difficult, and would want to know who exactly is going to perform this task and according to what criteria. This is a vexed and invariably unproductive debate as it places human experience in watertight compartments, then leaving the dubious question of how to relate them. So much of the practical experience which was shared on the day drew attention to the complex interweaving of the religious (or sacred) with the equally complex issues surrounding peacebuilding. From a philosophical perspective and using ideas of Deleuze, I would question whether it makes sense now to try to determine the “essence” of either the sacred or the non-sacred. Difference seems to me a much more productive means of describing these interrelationships. Then, even if it were possible or desirable to define the sacred – and therefore the civilized – in such a determinate way, the process smacks of cultural imperialism and no small degree of arrogance. Even if we could be clear what we mean by “civilization”, is it so obvious that the causes of violence are to be attributed to the sacred and that civilized people are the ones who best work for peace and understand what it means? Granted that the phrase might just be a shorthand for arguing that what is potentially a source of conflict in the religious needs to be brought under the control of what is potentially a source of peace within the non-sacred, and that one might equally argue that what are potentially sources of violence within the non-sacred need to be influenced by the sources of peace within the sacred, where does this actually leave us? It just shows that essentialism as a mechanism for addressing this issue is inadequate and needs to be replaced by a different discourse, perhaps that of difference and indeed of a flat ontology. This is where a particular brand of philosophy may have something significant to contribute.


The other major debating point that kept recurring was whether those from faith traditions needed to somehow “bracket” or leave at the door, their particular beliefs and commitments when entering a peacemaking process. This relates to the issues above as it again presupposes strict demarcation lines and an essentialist approach. Listening to the practitioners who spoke so eloquently and powerfully later in the day, it was clear that there could be no clear once-for-all answer to this. On the one hand, it seemed obvious that when faith commitments are themselves a source of division and possible violence, to leave them out of the equation or process of open discussion, was simply to miss the point. Always far better, if possible, to “lay one’s cards on the table” and to be “up front” about where one is coming from and why. In any case, how can it be possible to abandon one’s beliefs at the door of the debating chamber and still enter with any degree of integrity or honesty? On the other hand, if those of faith were able to play the role of “honest broker” in a particular situation, having the trust and confidence of the warring parties, it was likely to be because of their willingness to listen, mediate, and not to impose their beliefs upon the process. So a sort of Rawlsian or early Habermasian approach to public reason where one’s substantive commitments were not allowed to determine the process could indeed be appropriate on certain occasions. Once again, one would need to understand the context – difference rather than essence perhaps?


Finally, one proviso for all of this. Should the “sacred” be subject to a civilizing process, even if this were possible? Is it perhaps the very power of what goes beyond the immediate and mundane that can sometimes become the most inspiring and formative influence in our hopes for peacebuilding? I am thinking I suppose of the work of Badiou and his notion of fidelity wherein it is only by being fully immersed in the process of protest and political action that human subjectivity is formed. To stand aside and claim objectivity or neutrality, perhaps based on the model of the neo-liberal claim for the neutrality of the market, can itself be an ideological ploy for the very imperialism that peacebuilding needs to question. Commitment is surely a prerequisite for getting involved in the first place. That being so, what is required next in terms of process is closer to the patient, slow and attentive reassembling of components that we now associate with the work of Latour. Not an “either-or” then, but a “both-and”. So if we knew what both the civilized and the sacred mean, both have their part to play in the process of peacebuilding, but only the particular context can help us decide on the precise contributions of either.



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