"Religion is like a knife," remarked Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a recent gathering of world leaders in Indonesia. It was an especially attention-grabbing analogy when spoken by a Nobel Peace Laureate with a prefix like "Archbishop." I had expected the man behind such a title to proclaim only the positive virtues of organized faith. To my surprise, however, as Bishop Tutu spoke, he noted that perhaps nothing has been more responsible for the majority of history's wars, death, destruction, and general misunderstanding than fervent attachment to exclusive religious ideology. I didn't disagree. He continued, "...so many acts of great hatred and evil are performed in the name of religions," and then concluded "...but religion is like a knife because though a knife can be used to stab a man in the stomach, a knife can also be used to cut bread and feed the hungry..."
In this comparison, Bishop Tutu accomplishes something brilliant and highly intriguing for those of us who have often regarded "religion" as an eight letter word (worse in conversation even than some four-letter offenders). Whether believer or non, Tutu's analogy creates a lens of inclusion and possibility; transforming a presiding perception of religion from rigid and competitive ideology into that of a potentially powerful tool.
From the wheel to the microprocessor, tools are inherently neither good nor bad. Rather, the positive or negative application of a tool depends upon the hands in which it is used.
Enacted in the wrong hands, we've been enraged by religion. It has served as the basis for such atrocities as racial segregation and most notably in today's media: war and suicide bombings. In contrast, though, religion has also served in recent history as the launching point for the civil rights movement, the Independence of India, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. So what if, as Desmond Tutu has done, we were to focus our energy on the possibilities latent in this latter aspect of religion?
Granted I'm young, but I've been working in the Middle East and elsewhere since before 9/11. I'm far from oblivious to the Syriana-esque complexities involved in our current geo-political climate. However, the idea of religion as a positive tool does beg a few not-too-complex questions: 1) Can religion not have at least some positive power to promote an end to conflict in regions such as the Middle East? (Answer: yes) 2) Is it possible for political and military leaders to partner with religious leaders? (Answer: yes) And if 1 and 2 are true, and religion touches at the very heart of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other regions of the globe, why are politicians and the military the only two entities at the table trying to fix the problem from the outside-in? (Answer: ??)
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result each time. Interestingly, the two things that have never proved capable of sustaining peace in the Middle East or many other regions are military aggression and detached, external politics. More striking; the most successful and honored international leaders of the last half century such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have been deeply spiritual, grass-roots leaders who spoke to people's hearts and spirits. Yet their efforts are not replicated at the highest levels of power - in the Middle East or anywhere.
Religion is certainly not the only effective angle (few things have only one), but even from my skeptical "spiritual but not religious" camp, I have to believe the Archbishop has at least part of the right idea. If the knife-like religion tool has been used (to absolutely no avail) thus far to stab each other in the stomach; might it not be time to bring the right leaders together and at least try using the power of faith and religion to cut bread and feed those who need it most?
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