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An Urgent Search for the Myths of Peacemaking

By By The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing

In the context of current global turmoil, the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing briefly explores a few of what he sees as the “myths” of the peacemaking process.

In religious circles there are at least two meanings to the word “myth.” A myth is (1) a noble story which points toward the truth about history rather than declaring what is historically true (Creation myths in the Book of Genesis) and (2) a compelling story with a false premise that has the potential of doing cataclysmic damage (Hitler's master race myth). When leaders of our nation declare that we are not at war with Islam, I can't help wondering which definition of myth I am hearing.

I look at my Iraqi sisters and brothers of Islam, and I wonder about:

The myth of precision: For two straight wars we have been assured that our smart bombs would land only on the bad Muslims and not the good ones.

The myth of time: We have been told that we would be in and out. Yet by the end of the 1991 hostilities, we left between 300 and 800 tons of depleted uranium in that part of the world. Its half-life is 4.5 billion years. Radioactivity forever on Muslims.

The myth of coalition: Coalition sounds like a pulling together. In reality it appears to be rending asunder the hard-won United Nations global alliance, dismantling our European partnerships, and stirring up animosity between a Christian/Jewish coalition and a global Muslim coalition.

The myth of democracy: A former Islamic fundamentalist leader who has made a radical transformation toward tolerance writes, “I am frightened from the breakdown of democracy, transparency, international law. Is this the end of the democratic free world? They kill our women and children and talk about freedom, peace, and democracy.”

The myth of our rightness: I tremble when I read of the myth circulated at the core of our leadership. That we are uniquely endowed by Providence to save the world from evil forces if only we would take the risks of leadership. Because of our moral superiority we must not be limited by petty agreements such as mutual nuclear restraint, landmines, or global emissions. Whatever happened to the understanding that “we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God?” What about checks and balances? About all people being equal? Muslims, too.

Religions are the custodians of many of the great myths. And these myths have power, good and bad, to change life. If a myth encourages religiously motivated violence, it deserves to be hauled out and examined. In Indonesia the head of the most moderate, tolerant Islamic organization says that this “war in Iraq is a sort of jihad, its own sort of fundamentalism.” There's an aroma, a smell in the air of myth and murder, righteousness and reward, fear and faith. I worry not that religion is dabbling in politics. On the contrary, I am scared that politicians are working from their homemade myths to create a national patriotic religion. Bad for Muslims. Ultimately bad for the rest of us.

For the sake of Muslims, Jews, Christians and the whole Earth, we had better embark on a massive, urgent search for the myths of peacemaking in our religious traditions. Not the myths that foster cataclysmic damage but the myths that tell the truth of history that is deeply embedded in the primitive stories of faith. We are on the road to war with Islam if our guiding myths say so. We are on the road to peace with Islam if our guiding myths say so. The myth behind the policy is what ultimately matters.

The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing is the founding spirit behind URI and serves on its Global Council as President and Founding Trustee. He is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

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