What Not to Say After Violence

How should religious leaders respond when people on their own side engage in unacceptable violence?

An Important Choice: What to Do and Say After Violence?

Whenever violence takes place as a result of public conflict, well-intentioned leaders face a hard question.  How should they respond?   What to they say that might reduce possibility of further bloodshed?  

Painful Lessons from Yugoslav Wars

They can learn from the tragic experience of the Yugoslav Wars in the Balkans in the 1990s where some 130,000 were killed in a decade of horrific genocidal conflict.  

Most of the combatants were religious, loyal to the eastern or western branch of Christianity or to Islam.   All three traditions are home to resources for peace.  Each has scriptures that affirm kindness and peaceful conduct.  Each has individuals deeply committed to peaceful coexistence with others.  

Yet religion played a central role in the violence in the Balkans.  And religious leaders often contributed to the violence rather than help end it.   

General Condemnations of Violence May Make Things Worse

One way religious leaders stoked the war was through public comments on the conflict that superficially seemed to support peace but actually stirred followers up and ultimately supported an upward spiral of violence.  

In his insightful book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation.  (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), Scott Appleby, a noted scholar of religion and conflict, details the problem:

“Although few religious leaders endorsed or engaged in ethnoreligious violence, many more played into the hands of extremists by elevating national identity and the defense of communal rights above all other values.”

Even more damaging, writes Appleby, "was the failure of most religious leaders, on all sides, to denounce consistently and unequivocally the violence and human rights abuses committed by their own people.  Instead, they issued general condemnations of human rights violations by all sides and even formulated categorical denials of well-documented atrocities – while providing detailed reports about the suffering of their own people. (p75)”

How to Formulate Constructive Response

Although Appleby writes about religious leaders, his observations speak to all leaders sincerely committed to helping communities and nations end upwardly spiralling violence.   

Shaped in part by Appleby’s study, for leaders in a place of sufficient safety themselves to risk speaking out, my counsel over the last twenty years in a variety of situations of violent conflict in Africa, Asia, and the US has been:

1) Silence is rarely a constructive option.  If you are a respected leader, silence on your part will be interpreted as people on your side as permission to continue and by those on the other side as alignment with your violent elements.

2) If people from your group or aligned with you have been violent or are seriously tempted to violence, it is imperative that you acknowledge this and publicly address it.   Failure to do this will be understood as license, if not blessing, to continue.

3) General calls to all for peace and good conduct have positive value only to the extent that you display deep commitment to constructive behavior by those “on your side”.   If you don’t specifically challenge your own people to high standards of conduct, they will inevitably sink to low ones.  No matter how low they already are, they will go lower if unchallenged by people like yourself.

4) Unless you are scrupulously doing the above, publicly criticizing the excesses of the other side only fans violence.  It won't change a thing on the other side.  It will make them certain of what they already suspect, that you are but a propaganda tool for your own violent elements.  They will view it as tragic confirmation that your side is corrupt to your very moral core.

5) The ability to do the above constructively will be much higher if you establish personal communication with some leaders "on the other side".   Try out on them the responses you are considering making publicly about the conflict.  No matter how sincere your motivation, you will probably be surprised by gaps in your understanding of what is happening.   The quality and constructiveness of your responses will rise as a result of this interaction.