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The Challenge of Peaceful Coexistence
Sep 1, 2011

'Peaceful coexistence is the most important project of our era. But we cannot do it alone or in isolation; we must do it together.'

The world has become very small.

Mass communications, mass travel, and economic interdependence have created a contemporary world in which we as individuals and groups no longer can live in isolation from other groups as well as we could have in previous periods. Nations and groups of people who barely knew of each other now see each other's lives and worlds in living color and in real time through television and the internet. Governments who counted on secrecy and submission just a few years ago now find themselves humbled, bewildered, and even overthrown through mass communications that broadcast their tyrannical deeds—and the bravery of those who resist them—to the entire world. Regions who thrived in their own prosperity in isolation from the poverty and stagnation of other regions now find their economies racked by volatility as globalism ties the purse strings of world commerce together into complicated knots.

The world has become small, and we are with each other—knowing of, affecting, and interacting with each other—more than we ever have in the history of the world. And we are not the same. Yes, we are all human beings. Yes, all of us are subject to the universal conditions of human existence like uncertainty, change, loss, and death. But how we deal with those conditions and what we make them mean depends in large part on our distinctive cultures, backgrounds, languages, and histories. Herein lie the differences in the human family. We do not think the same. We don't pray to the same gods. We don't choose the same cultural values. We don't share specific histories. We interpret the world, and ourselves in it, in very different ways.

Given these differences, how can we all live together? Is peaceful coexistence possible globally, regionally, or even within one family? If so, what are the necessary components that create it? In other words, what are the preconditions—philosophically, socially, politically, culturally, or otherwise—for peaceful coexistence among different people? These are powerful and complex questions that require asking even more questions in order to answer.

First we must ask questions of history.

Have we as human beings ever lived together peacefully? Have people of very different faiths, for example, ever lived with each other for a sustained period of time without seeking to oppress or eradicate each other? Answering these questions requires a significant and thorough study of world history.

If we determine that sustained peaceful coexistence has been achieved in certain situations—for example, under the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, or in thirteenth-century Spain—we must further determine what factors allowed that coexistence to occur. What were the specific conditions—economic, political, social, cultural, etc.—that made that coexistence possible? These conditions and factors are myriad; to distinguish them so that they can be meaningful to us today requires intensive analysis from highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals.

Once distinguished, can the conditions that made peaceful coexistence possible elsewhere and in a different era be transported to the present time, into a current situation of conflict and violence? Can the conditions be recreated today, the present time, although taken from the past? This may seem simple, but it is not. People change from era to era. Notions of what is permissible, moral, and just change over time even within one culture, much more across cultures. What worked in a previous period, in terms of a conception of societal harmony and justice, cannot simply be picked up and moved into a new era with different notions of morality, truth, society, etc. Things must be translated first, and even before being translated, we must determine if the factors in question can be translated at all. Worldviews may have changed so much in the intervening centuries that they no longer work as viable concepts for today.

If certain conditions and factors that generate peaceful coexistence can be translated from the past into today's world, they must then be implemented socially, culturally, politically, economically, and legally. In many instances, this will require a fundamental overhaul of current socio-political systems. Transformations of this nature are daunting simply because of their sheer magnitude. Moreover, such societal transformations contain within them the seeds for violence and injustice. They rarely happen without conflict. Implementation of new societal structures must happen in a way that minimizes or omits opportunities for breakdown, violence, and retribution from those who may feel left out or trampled upon by the changes. Otherwise, the implementation of a new system for peaceful coexistence ends up perpetuating yet more violent conflict.

These are the questions we must ask of history. But we cannot stop there. We must also ask questions of the religions.

What is the general stance of our religious traditions to those who do not share its beliefs and commitments? Does it demand eradication of all contrary belief systems and the people who propagate them? Or does it request accommodation of 'the stranger,' or those who believe and live differently? In short, do people of faith ground themselves into patterns of tolerance or intolerance as they root themselves in their faith traditions?

These are difficult questions to answer because the religions themselves, as historical entities that grow and change over time, sometimes seem to have multiple ways of being with regard to peaceful coexistence. Over the centuries, adherents of the largest two religions in the world—Christianity and Islam—have lived both peacefully and non-peacefully with each other, and with people of other religions they encountered. Certainly, the teachings of both religions encourage peaceful coexistence in their respective sacred texts and traditions. However, both these religions also have suffered violent expression in the hands of those who either ignore the teachings of coexistence, or twist the teachings to justify violence and terror.

Whatever our religious traditions were intended to be, the fact is that historically they have been used to perpetrate some of the worst imaginable violence ever created in the human family. And we have to face this hard fact with courage, and with resolve to enlist our religious traditions as major players in the project of peaceful coexistence.

The potential for religious conflict in society is the chief reason why societies that have achieved peaceful coexistence to any extent champion religious tolerance as a chief civic virtue, and they actually implement that virtue into society culturally and legally. Given the diverse and absolute claims of many religious and moral traditions, tolerance is really all we can ask of people. We cannot, in a truly pluralistic society, expect morally committed or devout persons to embrace or to celebrate practices that they, due to their faith or ethics, consider to be sinful, heretical, or abhorrent. We cannot expect them to acknowledge the legitimacy of gods, or modes of worship, or ways of life they consider to be false. To expect this in the realm of religion is to be fundamentally intolerant. We cannot advocate, in the name of tolerance, a society that tolerates everything but certain forms of traditional religious or moral conviction.

Tolerance, then, is the capacity to put up with or to accommodate ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that one finds deeply problematic, and is society's most essential civic virtue, especially in societies as ethnically, religiously, and racially diverse as many countries are becoming in this period of globalization. Daily life in such societies simply will not move along if the citizenry cannot practice basic tolerance. Of course, simply gritting our teeth and grudgingly putting up with others we don't like or with whom we disagree is the low-water mark of societal growth. Ideally, we would grow to a place of greater understanding and appreciation for those who are radically different from us, even if we still do not accept or agree with their beliefs or practices. Sometimes, however, basic tolerance, especially in matters of religion, is the best we can do.

These are the questions we must ask of our religions. But we cannot stop here, either. We must also ask questions of ourselves.

We must search ourselves and examine our hearts. Are we really committed to living together with people who are different from us? Do we really accept the fact that we as people will never all believe, think, pray, live, or act the same—and that we just have to deal with it? Or do we resent these 'facts on the ground' and spend our efforts trying to coerce others or force them into changing to be more like us? Or, having given up on making other people like us, do we isolate ourselves into enclaves of sameness and construct the daily arc of our lives so that we don't have to encounter many people who are different from us?

Part of the reason why achieving peaceful coexistence is so challenging has to do with individuals. All the legal, cultural, and societal structures that support peaceful coexistence may be in place; however, they will fail to show results unless one thing is true—people genuinely must want to live in peace. This is not a given. While we may think, and commonly say, that all people really want is to live in peace, this is not true. Not everyone wants to live in peace. Often people put qualifiers to the prospects for peace in their lives and worlds. For example, they say, 'I want peace in my region, but not if it means giving up any of our land.' Or, 'I want peace in the region, but we cannot allow attacks on our national honor.' In other words, we say we want peace, but not if it means we have to give up something that we deem more important than peace. Many of us value other things more than peace.

Even in our personal lives, in our relationships with family and friends, we often keep grudges and enmities in place for years and years despite many opportunities to do away with them and create peace. Why? Because we would have to give up something that we value more than peace, in order to achieve peace in that situation—a feeling of being right, a sense of superiority, the perverse joy we take in condemning other people or groups, and other things. We have to let go of these types of things to create peace, yet we often prefer them to peace. So, the conflict and tension endure year after year, and all the while we are saying, to ourselves and to others, that we want peace. We are not being honest about the situation. We value other things more than peace.

Ultimately, achieving peaceful coexistence at the individual, interpersonal level has to do with a person's capacity for difference. How comfortable are we with people who are different from us? Do we feel threatened by them? Do we feel nervous around them? Or, can we be relaxed and comfortable within ourselves even when surrounded by people who believe, look, and act differently than us? Today's global world demands all of us to expand our inner capacities for difference, so that we are not easily threatened by people who are not exactly like us. All of us must stretch our comfort zones beyond their current boundaries.

These are the hard, searching questions we must ask ourselves.

Only when we give ourselves authentically to these questions with a view toward creating sustained, peaceful coexistence will we have a future worth living for. Moreover, all of us must do this work together—religious and secular, liberals and conservatives—all of us. Otherwise, the forces of globalization that have made our world smaller will bring with it new and more barbaric forms of hatred, oppression, and violence.

Achieving peaceful coexistence is, then, the most important project of our era. And we must give ourselves to it wholly, with our fullest capacities for knowledge and understanding, with our truest intentions for truth and justice, and with our bravest strengths in order to journey through the challenges and difficulties that the process entails. We most certainly can do it. But we cannot do it alone or in isolation; we must do it together.