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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation
R. Scott Appleby

Oxford and Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000
429 pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 54.00; ISBN 0-8476-8554-3. Pb.: 19.95; ISBN 0-8476-8555-1



Scott Appleby has produced a work of considerable scholarship as he seeks to explore the painful and paradoxical relationship between religion, destructive conflict and peace in the contemporary world. On the one hand religion has legitimated and exacerbated so many violent conflicts around the world, acting as one of the key identity markers by which people seek to distinguish themselves as a 'people', and providing the necessary mythological legitimacy to claims of primordial rights to self-determination and national territory. But religion has also provided the vision and the promise to inspire peace-makers and peace-builders throughout the world in their efforts to transform deadly quarrels and promote processes of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Three overarching questions guide the study. Under what conditions do religious actors become violent? Under what conditions do religiously motivated actors challenge the extremists' commitment to violence as a sacred duty? And under what conditions do nonviolent religious actors become active agents of peacebuilding?

The nature of religious extremists who consider it a sacred duty to pursue an exclusivist truth and their particular version of justice by means of violence has been explored in many studies and this volume adds little to our understanding. Furthermore, there have been numerous studies of religious pacifism and the belief systems that sanctify nonviolent resistance to tyranny and oppression. The real ground-breaking value of this work lies in the exploration of the variety of roles performed by religious institutions, communities and individuals in conflict transformation. Illustrated through a range of case study material we can learn about the witness and truth-telling of groups like the Christian Peacemaker Teams now based in Hebron and the protective accompaniment work of para-religious groups like Witness for Peace in Central America. Other religiously motivated communities and institutions have concentrated on human rights and advocacy roles, whilst others have focused on developing conflict management training and related workshops. Then there is the mediation and 'good offices' work performed by religious professionals and para-religious networks within and across the fractures of divided societies, whether it be at the grass-roots or the inter-state level at which the Community of Sant' Egidio has operated. Historically religious institutions and communities offered 'safe havens' for those seeking sanctuary. The contemporary variant of this is the healing and reconciliation work that can take place within the religiously sanctioned safe spaces where people from different communities can attempt to come to terms with the pain of the past.

There is a growing interest in the role of religion in international affairs, and this volume will be central to this field for some time.


Dr Andrew Rigby
Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation




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