The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the church attack on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka was retaliation for the March mass shooting of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand.
While all the facts are not yet known, the atrocities in Sri Lanka and New Zealand are signposts for why religious liberty is as crucial as ever for navigating a world that is growing smaller and smaller.
Societies that demand uniformity, or form national or cultural identities on the expectation of theological conformity, are those nations most inhospitable to freedom and diversity. It is expected that religion shape a person’s identity and a nation’s culture, but not at the expense of devaluing or excluding those who believe differently. In a diverse world, tribal identity cannot mean tribal supremacy.
This is not an argument against evangelism or the rightful influence that religion can have on a society. It is a warning to every person, every society, and every government that basing membership and inclusion in society on religious identity will never work in a fallen social order. It will not work pragmatically as is born out through repeat episodes of religious violence, and from the perspective of Christian eschatology, the expectation that societies be uniformly regenerate will not happen apart from Christ establishing His Kingdom. This means the reality of religious difference ought to be expected.
Given the reality of religious difference, how are we to navigate it?
One powerful force for quelling the tide of religious violence is religious liberty. It is well known in foreign policy circles that cultures which value religious liberty also incubate lower levels of religiously-motivated violence. This is because societies that treat its religious citizens as equals do less to foment exclusion and the corresponding temptation to lash out in violence. When a society does not make religion a marker of citizenship, no religion is seen as a subverter of the common good. It means we need not fear the religiously other. This means the reality of religious diversity ought to be both expected and welcomed. Societies that cannot sort out their religious or cultural differences peaceably will resort to the worst forms of tribalism.
Religious liberty assumes the reality of religious diversity. In diverse societies, peace is achieved through mutual understanding. By coming to understand our neighbors who do not believe like us, religious liberty becomes a humanizing force for understanding our commonalities even amid great divergence. A commitment to religious liberty affords a nation’s citizens the ability to form a national identity apart from one religion. In a diverse society, religious liberty may be one of the most basic common denominators needed for quelling violence and breeding civic peace.
Religious liberty does not solve every dilemma when it comes to religious conflict and misunderstanding. It cannot. This is because the Christian worldview understands that no amount of geo-political statecraft will ever be sufficient to wipe away the murderous bent of the human heart. The reality of human evil is no excuse, however, to wave such atrocities off as normal or expected.
In a senseless cycle of death and despair, it is hatred bred of misunderstanding and fear of the other that fuels these episodes. Not knowing all the motives involved, what we can say is this: When religion becomes either a weapon or a victim, religious liberty is also one of the casualties as well.