Cultural or doctrinal conflicts: What's the difference and does it matter to journalists?

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Here’s my question for the week. Which is the stronger glue -- tribal, meaning culturally reactive, religious expectations or religion rooted in deep and thought-out transpersonal conviction?

I ask because it seems to me that these days, and maybe this has alway been the case, tribal religious affiliation is at the root of many, if not most, of the religiously-colored conflicts in the world today.

For journalists, the question becomes, how do you tell the difference between the two, and does it really matter if you're only trying to report body counts and similar traditional journalistic metrics for measuring conflict severity?

My take? I think it does matter because it can mean the difference between labeling the institution of religion itself as the cause of human conflict. Or, as I believe, recognizing that humanity's myriad shortcomings as a specie is the better explanation for why so many of our institutions, including religious ones, become fatally corrupted over time.

Walt Kelly nailed it when his cartoon character Pogo famously exclaimed, slightly abbreviated here, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I can’t reword it any more succinctly.

I started considering these questions — again — while sloshing my way through yet another week of international, religion-linked, depressing news.

This is the initial story I hold responsible for my current state of mind.

It’s a Religion News Service piece about a bizarre situation in the Central African Republic, in which Christian clergy are sheltering Muslims threatened with death by Christians, quite possibly including some of the clergy’s own parishioners.

It sounds like grist for a can't-we-all-just-get-along film script -- except we’re far from assured of a happy ending. Here’s the link. And here, because we’re paid the big bucks to read the stories to which we link so you don't have to (just a little joke, friends, though our click numbers don't lie), is the story’s head-spinning lede.

BANGUI, Central African Republic (RNS) — Hundreds of Muslims are trapped on the grounds of a Roman Catholic cathedral in the southern city of Bangassou, unable to leave the compound for fear of being attacked by a Christian militia.
Muslims have been attacked and murdered in the area around Bangassou, a small market city on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a nearly five-year-old civil war between the Christian majority and Muslims has divided the southeastern part of the country.
In July, a self-styled Church Defense Group for Christians called on all Christians in the country to carry out revenge attacks on Muslims for killing Christians.
The leader of the group, François Nzapakéyé, said “priests and pastors are systematically assassinated.” He cited Father Paul Emile Nzalé, murdered in an attack by 200 armed men in May at Notre Dame of Fatima in the capital, Bangui.
“We will avenge the killings of the many church leaders and men of God, killed in the exercise of their functions. Muslims or Christians, we shall see,” Nzapakéyé said in his communique to followers.

Ready for the kicker?

Yet in Bangassou, St. Peter Claver Cathedral has opened its doors to some 2,000 Muslims. And three hours east, hundreds of students and residents have taken refuge in a local parish in Zemio. In both places, Muslims and their protectors live in constant fear of attack amid threats from Christian militia.

Want more detail on the conflict? Read this Forbes online backgrounder.

Now back to my opening question: Is tribal religious affiliation among these wannabe Christian killers stronger glue than the Roman Catholic doctrinal teachings presumably addressed by those priests sheltering frightened Muslims? How does a situation such as this one, in which the burning desire for retribution wins out over basic church teachings about one’s responsibilities toward one’s neighbors to which the wannabes have been exposed?

Now let’s go from the Central African Republic to Switzerland, where a religion-tinted story of quite another hue caught my attention this past week.

This piece, an online offering from The Washington Post, also struck me as a case of tribal religion trumping true religious belief. (Isn't it interesting how the verb “to trump” has so many more layers of meaning these days?)

Here’s the meat of the piece.

When a Muslim couple sat down for a meeting with a municipal commission in the Swiss city of Lausanne, their interviewers found that they “showed great difficulty in answering questions asked by people of the opposite sex,” the city’s mayor said.
So they were both denied Swiss citizenship.
Mayor Grégoire Junod told Agence France-Presse on Friday that the man and woman declined to shake hands with people of the opposite sex and that their behavior during the interview signaled to the three-person commission interviewing them that they had not adequately integrated into Switzerland.
Despite laws that ensure freedom of religion, “religious practice does not fall outside the law,” Junod told AFP.

Modern Switzerland is hardly a strongly religious nation. In fact, it's moving steadily toward the secular column, though it remains culturally Christian.

This means to me that the Muslim couple’s personal religious beliefs about handshakes ran afoul of Swiss fears about Muslims altering Switzerland’s exceeding secular, or at least non-religious, go-along to get-along values. (I wonder if an Ashkenazi, or European, Orthodox Jewish couple with similar religious handshake constraints would also be denied citizenship?)

In short, what we have here is a much diminished version of the Central African Republic’s cultural religious conflict.

Retribution, preservation, fear and hatred of the other -- these all figure into our world’s myriad religious conflicts. Except they're not religious conflicts so much as they are human conflicts.

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