Tony Blair Gives Lecture at Yale University’s “Faith & Globalisation” Course
12 Oct 2010
Last Thursday, Tony Blair gave his second lecture of the semester in Yale University's "Faith & Globalisation" course. The topic for the week was "Conflict Resolution" and the students, Professor Miroslav Volf, & Tony Blair engaged in a spirited and penetrating discussion focused on how religion has and can facilitate conflict resolution and social reconciliation in the aftermath of violent conflicts and social conflagrations.
As both Professor Volf & Tony Blair acknowledged this directly in their opening remarks, historically religion has repeatedly been a source of conflict within and between societies. It would be both dishonest and useless to deny this obvious fact. But both men also noted that religion is but one of many different ideologies that has promoted violence around the world. Political ideologies, social ideologies ethnic ideologies – all of these have justified violent behaviour and atrocities. And in the 20th century, secular ideologies, such as those of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot , caused more deaths than all the world's religions during that century.
So Tony Blair and Miroslav Volf explained that though religion has been the source of many conflicts, it is not unique in this respect. Moreover, religious faith has certain resources that make it a powerful and important source of conflict reconciliation – both in terms of conflicts organised around religious differences as well as more secular ones. These resources can be seen as falling under two major categories.
Tony Blair described how, on the one hand, the world's religions all demand a firm commitment to justice. The acknowledgement of wrongdoing or harmful behaviour is addressed in each of the world's major faith traditions. But of equal importance, he noted, is that the world's religions also demand their adherents act with compassion and forgiveness in their dealings with other persons – regardless of their respective faith tradition (or lack thereof). In short, religion carries with it a dual commitment to justice and forgiveness.
What's more, Mr. Blair described how neither the pursuit of justice nor the pursuit of forgiveness can occur without the other. A person cannot forgive a wrongdoer unless there is a prior open acknowledgement of the wrong done and a subsequent attempt to rectify that wrong to the greatest degree possible. But such an exposition is not sufficient to re-establish cohesion within and between conflicted parties. In order to end this essential but potentially interminable process of recrimination, such conflicted parties need the motivation to move beyond the period of conflict and to re-establish positive relations. As world religions' also bring with them a conceptual commitment to forgive those who wrong us, they can also greatly facilitate this process.
Northern Ireland provides a good example of how this conceptual resource of religion can become a practical one, actually helping to resolve conflicts and create reconciliation between conflicted groups. By bringing together the heads of both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Northern Ireland, Tony Blair explained to the class how as Prime Minister he believed it was essential for him to engage directly with the two churches in order to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict – one that both was unyielding in its acknowledgement of the negative roles both churches had played in failing to check the drift into violence, yet also demanded these churches to work together to rectify the situation and create greater unity between denominations. The historic Good Friday agreement was of course the culmination of this process and is an example of how religion can play an active and constructive role in the resolution of conflicts.
Another example is South Africa, where the issues of justice and forgiveness were addressed by the "Kairos Document," a theological treatise produced by black and white South African theologians during the Apartheid-era in which the necessity of justice as a fundamental step in creating reconciliation was considered at length from a Christian perspective, and the post-Apartheid "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," led by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The Kairos Document, placed emphasis on justice, suggesting that forgiveness was impossible without the prior establishment of restitution for the victims of apartheid and the reconfiguration of society in a just way. The TRC, held in both secular and sacred spaces like universities and churches, emphasised the telling of truthful narratives and an ensuing push to forgive wrongdoers. Though far from incompatible, and in many ways complementary, these two examples highlight the different resources and perspectives that religion can bring to bear on conflict resolution.
In sum, Tony Blair explained to the class that though it is undeniable that religion can be a source of conflict, it is not at all unique in this regard. Furthermore, religion can be both a conceptual and practical source of reconciliation, reminding its adherents of their conceptual commitments to the symbiotic relationship between justice and forgiveness, and then demanding this is enacted practically by religious leaders, practitioners, and politicians alike.