Ethnic/religious conflicts: Individual and collective efforts to manage the tension, from a psychological perspective

Ethnic/religious conflicts: Individual and collective efforts to manage the tension, from a psychological perspective

Galtung (1996) while highlighting some of the reasons for ethnic and religious conflicts, puts more emphasis on a ‘culture that legitimizes violence’ and oppression. A structurally endorsed legitimization of violence/oppression we see in a highly repressive society (like India). And that’s the reason why caste oppression was/is possible for centuries without any resistance or protests.

Repressed aggression is often displaced on family members in a desperate effort to regain their lost control and power thus leaving members traumatized. And these traumatized individual often re-enact the suffering by becoming the perpetrators themselves (Ahmed,2019). When a community’s basic rights such as equality, equity, freedom, are denied by an oppressive group for a long time  a strong stereotype of “we vs they” prevails—leading to micro/macroaggression. Long held trauma in an individual can get transmitted intergenerationally. 

            According to Resmaa Menakem (2020), intergenerational transmission of trauma is a soul wound. Soul wound occurs in different ways: 1) through families, 2) through unsafe or abusive systems, structures, institutions, or cultural norms, 3) though our genes—passed in our DNA expression. As a result of these soul wound a deep sense of lack or loss prevails as opportunities for education, job, and resources are denied to a section of the society.As lack of societal support and the need for independence and interdependence is denied or denigratedfor these communities, they are further traumatized.

Frustration of Basic human needs vis-a-vis Conflicts/violence

Galtung (1990) is his study found that when conflicts happens between two ethnic or religious group there is frustration of basic human needs such as :

  • survival needs,
  • well-being needs,
  • identity needs
  • meaning needs and
  • Freedom needs.

Deprivations of basic needs can lead to shame. A shamed community or an individual unleashes violence on others-perpetuating shame (Lee, 2009)–frustrating once again the above needs. Thus keeping them perpetually entrapped in a sense of lack.We see this frustration of needs and shaming happening in families and ethnic and cultural groups and getting percolated to religious congregations and dioceses.Thus an individual’s earliest experiences of being flawed and shamed from their family or community of origin, get played out again and again in one’s community, congregation, or Diocese, as John Bradshaw (1988) puts it, through ‘shameless” behaviors.Bradshaw gives a list of shaming behaviors:  perfectionism, striving for power and control, rage, arrogance, care-taking, re-enactment, pleasing behaviors, rescuing and patronizing behaviours, moralizing/judging, being hypercritical critical and blaming.

An individual exposed to these shaming experiences right from the childhood through one’s adolescence and later into adult, with acute frustration of needs, is likely to develop a pattern or a theme—called Early Maladaptive schemas (EMS).Young, Klosko and Weishaar (2003) provided this comprehensive definition of EMS:

  • A broad pervasive theme or pattern
  • Comprised of memories, emotions, cognitions and bodily sensation
  • Regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others
  • Developed during childhood or adolescence
  • Elaborated throughout one’s lifetime and
  • Dysfunctional to a significant degree

A strong negative core belief that one holds is one strong indicator of a schema. For example some of the beliefs that individuals carry are:

  • ‘I am not worthy/good’—a Defective schema
  • ‘People cannot be trusted’—mistrust schema
  • ‘People will leave me and go; it’s better not to get attached to people’—abandonment schema
  • ‘I am different from others’—social isolation schema
  • ‘I am not competent’—incompetent schema …and so on.

Schemas can also contribute to stereotypes and make them hard and impervious to change and new learning (Chandrasekhar, 2018).Thus for an upper caste, the experience of growing up in his or her family, and the feel of ‘I  am one-up the other’ leaves them with a strong sense of entitlement and utter caste-blindness.

From the study on energy levels/ consciousness:

Using kinesiological muscle testing Dr. David R. Hawkins and his team calibrated the levels of consciousness/energy states which Dr. Hawkins has explained in his seminal work ‘Power vs Force’ and in his later writings. He mapped lower energy states and the higher energy states. According to him, shame, guilt, apathy, fear, anger pride, hopelessness are all calibrated as lower energy states and they indicate a sense of lack. Whereas courage, neutrality, acceptance, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, enlightenment are higher energy states. Liberating oneself from the lower energy state is important for anyone to experience the higher energy states or consciousness.

From the Gospel we read—A grain of wheat has to die..

In the Gospel of Jn12: 24, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it will bear much fruit”. The grain of wheat is our small self/false self which is always in a feel of scarcity of things, success, achievements, power, position, degrees, wealth and so on ( Rohr, 2013). We need to let go and die to our false self (the lower levels of consciousness) – that which entrap us in negativity, as mentioned in Dr. Hawkins’s levels energy states and then we will be able to get to the level of courage, acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, love, pure joy—the path of light/truth/of the Gospel-the level at which we bear maximum fruit.

How to get there…to the positive dimension of energy state?

The fastest way to move from the bottom to the top is by telling the truth to ourselves and to others- by taking some proactive steps.As negative emotions are acknowledged and surrendered in the safe context of a one-on-one/group sharing facilitated by a competent guide/psychologist/mediator, or through a personal healing/renewal process, we get freer and move up the scale, eventually experiencing predominantly positive feelings.As we get higher and freer, we become more intuitive and spiritually aware—unveiling of our true self happens.

What can one do at the individual and Community level?

At individual level one could go through Trauma informed psychotherapy or be part of a healing circles/support group –to heal historical trauma. One could as well attend a healing workshop and some of the following approaches:

  • Schema therapy to work on one’s EMS.
  • Training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
  • Conflict resolution strategies/conflict management through mediation process.

Some Trauma healing strategies (De Wolfe &Geddes, 2019):

  • Seek physical, spiritual or emotional safety
  • Create nurturing and loving relationship
  • Seek justice processes that restore relationship
  • Engage with spiritual and faith-based practices and communities
  • Create opportunities for physical, spiritual, and emotional release.
  • Acknowledge and accept the reality of what happened to oneself and “the other”
  • Confront fear
  • Reflect on and address root causes including the history of “the other”
  • Take risks with those we have labeled “the other”
  • Choose to forgive; find meaning
  • Practice in joint projects with former enemies that build political, social, spiritual, and economic networks.
  • Practice self-care

What is that we could do at the community/group level?

Get involved in interfaith dialogue—facilitated by counsellors/mediators.At group level, Psychologist/Mediators/Spiritual guides could help individuals and groups have a look at their own meaning system they derived from their respective religion/ethnic group. This we could implement it at the congregational level.Particularly looking at the moral disengagement that happens when violence / conflict takes place—help them look at the essential teachings of all religions.

Reduce the ‘we-they’ divide in different ethnic and religious groups through theme-centered group facilitation and discussion based healing circles; community celebrations of festivals, focusing on value-based education. If there is a strong divide within a congregation between different groups, theme-centered group facilitation and healing circles will do a lot of good.Once groups in conflict become more permeable for each other that would engender greater understanding of the “other”, empathy and interconnectedness, and an inclusive self-sense.

What could Spiritual guides/formators and teaching do?

Our Formees, and Brothers experience Christ as a Universal Christ—help develop a non-dual understanding of God, as strongly urged by spiritual teachers like Fr. Richard Rohr. Rupert Spira (2020) a non-dual teacher would say that ‘the apparent individual being of every person is God’s universal being’. Also help individuals see the world as ourselves in oneness and not in just in fragmented parts.Rohr (2019) says, “Truly enlightened people see oneness because they look out from oneness, instead of labelling everything as superior or inferior (p.7)”.


Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27 (3), 291-305. doi: 10.1177/0022343390027003005.

Galtung (1996). Peace by peaceful means: Peace and conflict, development and civilization (Vol. 14). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Lee, J. H. C. (2009). Shame and Pastoral Care: Implications form an Asian Theological Perspective. Pastoral Psychology, 57, 253-262. doi: 10.1007/s11089-008-0138-x

Hawkins, D.H.(2009). Healing and Recovery. Hay House. NY

Rohr. R.(2019). The Universal Christ. Convergent Books. NY

Rohr .R.(2013). Immortal Diamond. John Wiley & Sons. London

Manakem. R. (2017). My Grandmother’s Hands. Central Recovery Press. NY

Bradshaw. J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Health Communications Inc. Florida.

Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S., & Weishaar, M.E. (2003). Schema Therapy: A practitioner’s guide. NY: Guilford Press

De Wolfe T.N & Geddes. J. (2019). The little book of racial healing. Good books. NY

Spira, R. (2020). A meditation on I AM. Kindle Edition.