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Why Religions Facilitate War and How Religions Facilitate Peace

"Why Religions Facilitate War" and “How Religions Facilitate Peace” were prepared by J.William Frost for the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference at Haverford College, June 16-19, 2005. This paper is based upon his A History of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim Perspectives on War and Peace, vol. 1 From the Bible to 1914. vol. II   A Century of War (Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press), 2004.


Why Religions Facilitate War?

A colleague at Swarthmore College is attempting to raise her 8-year-old son in accordance with Quaker principles.   After meeting one Sunday, a group of Friends, including the parents, were sitting in a circle having a discussion.   A Quaker matron pronounced, " I hate war." The child responded, "I like war." She replied, kindly, “You're just a little boy.   You don't know yet what war is really like."   The child did not back down.   "I really like war."   The parents at this point hustled the child off (with a story likely to be retold often).   I remember as an 8-year-old that my Methodist parents would not buy me a toy gun.   So I went to the YMCA and made one out of wood that sufficed when I could not borrow the neighbor boys’ guns.   I also really liked war.

What is normal for little boys is more dangerous in adults.   Two recent books, Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning and Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism, discuss our nation's love of war and both link it to religion.   "The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism.   And the dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has increasingly come to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.(1) Bacevich relates America's new thirst for militarism to the rise of militant evangelicalism's post Vietnam love affair with Israel, reinterpretation of just war of contemporary life.   The result was to give "moral legitimacy" to "military activism." (2)  

In spite of our infatuation with war, I have learned that a good way to kill conversation is to respond to a new acquaintance’s query as to subject of my research by saying,   “Religions’ roles in war.”   This generates two responses,   “that’s relevant today” or “religious wars are the worst,” and then the subject changes.   Still, the popular press, particularly since 9/11, has discovered that not only realpolitik, economics, or dictators but organized religion can play a major role in war – though it is often assumed that this happens elsewhere, in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, “the uncivilized nations”(3) However, a close observer of America’s response to 9/11 would have noticed the frequency that politicians, businesses, mass media, and individuals invoked and are still using the slogan, “God bless America,” and singing the Irving Berlin song has become customary at sports events.   When I gave an address at the annual meeting of the AFSC two months after 9/11, driving into Philadelphia on the Schuylkill expressway, a large billboard announced a special price on three adult (pornographic) movies and ended with “God bless America.”

The meanings Americans attach to “God bless America” are ambiguous.   The biblical benediction in Numbers, “The Lord bless you and keep you …and give you peace,” has been simplified to affirm America the innocent and that God will give us victory in war.    When the slogan appears on banks or buses or car bumpers, is it there because we are sure God is on our side, or should be on our side because we are so religious, or are unsure God is now protecting us because allowing 9/11 resulted from our sins. Twentieth-century Americans wish to believe that our democracy and not our policies caused 9/11.   The only response demanded of Americans seems to be patriotic support of the war on terrorism.   I only saw one sign that reversed the equation, “America bless God,” but that would have required actions from us rather than the deity.

The issue for this lecture is simply: was America’s use of religious images to justify our military response different in kind from Al Qaeda’s invoking of jihad?   Is the link between organized religion and war historically as well as theoretically inevitable?   The first section of this paper will analyze the words in the title to illustrate the difficulties in even defining our subject.   The second will look at favorable attitudes toward war in the formative or canonical documents of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.   The third will focus of these religions’ attempts to control war, i.e., just war theories.   The last part discusses the societal roles of religion that are conducive to war.   My conclusions, in a paper handed out, can serve as a basic for further discussion.

I.   Defining Terms

A first requisite in answering these questions is to define the terms: religion, facilitates, war.   Religion as a concept works rather well in defining modern Christianity but less precisely for Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American spirituality.     Scholars of religion use sacred /profane, rituals, myths, scriptures, ethics, and institutions in discussing religions.   One can use a theological definition (a deity or a set of beliefs) or a functional (providing solace, establishing boundaries, ultimate value, normative behavior patterns), or a structural (churches, priests, sacred writings).   None of these definitions is very satisfactory.  

What we think of as religions have long and complex histories enduring over centuries in all kinds of political and economic systems – sanctifying, criticizing, ignoring and escaping from them.   So, just to look at Christianity, does one define it as a transnational body aiming at universal institution but with state forms– Roman Catholicism, or as state sponsored forms – Church of England, Russian Orthodoxy, or as a denomination – like Methodists and Disciples, or in a sectarian way – Jehovah’s Witnesses or Quakers.   Or is there some essence of Christianity as a religion that allows us to ignore its diversity in belief, ritual, and practice?    Is Christianity’s impact on war best defined by the practices of the higher clergy, men or women, educated or un-educated, devout or fellow travelers?    What should one conclude about the public piety of politicians – none of whom rule on a platform of fostering evil and most of whom pay lip service to morality and piety?   Or should one use a Gallup poll of religious attitudes – as in America where a majority of the people say they do not want clergy discussing politics but want religious politicians.   Religious rhetoric and feelings can be easily manipulated by spiritual elites or secular politicians and there is no verifiable test for religious sincerity.   So during the rest of this paper, which is about religion and war, beware of the vagueness of the concepts.   Our focus is upon the basic documents and functions of religious traditions that have been and continue to facilitate war, rather than specific examples from history.

The second term may be less problematic because it is a weak term: facilitates. Note that I did not say “cause” because causation requires a higher level of proof.   Facilitates is more accurate because religion in whatever its form is never a sole cause of war.   It is always religion plus – economics, ethnicity, form of government, character of leader, geopolitics.   Religion becomes potent when it is so mixed with nationalism that they become indistinguishable and now appear as the dominant force of our day (although nationalism is as difficult to define as religion).

Still, there can be religious wars. Michael Sells of Haverford sees the Serbian war in Bosnia as becoming a religious war, even though none of the populations at the beginning were particularly devout. A religious war is 1. led by clergy. 2. fought by groups defined by religion against other groups also defined by religion.   3. the clergy justifies the war, vilifies the opponent, and absolves guilt for killing.   4. the goals are religious – strengthening or purifying the religious group and driving out or subordinating the other group.   5. martyrdoms.     Even using this stringent definition, a religious war could also be an ethnic or a nationalistic war and apply to one side but not the other.

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that religious wars in Europe stopped at the peace of Westphalia in 1648; from then on wars were fought over balance of power or secular ideologies or empire.   Backward areas used religion: examples included Islamic resistance to French colonialism in W. Africa or the Mahdi versus the British in the Sudan; Muslim against Hindu in the partition of India; Muslim vs. Russian in Chechyna; various Christian groups against the Turks in the Balkans.   Zionism was an ambiguous phenomenon because it began as a secular ideology to create a homeland for Jews, but its advocates soon settled on Palestine for religious reasons and divisions continue over the religious implications of creating a promised land with Jewish rule in Israel.

With the end of the Cold War, scholars discovered religions emergence as a powerful political force in the contemporary world but it may have been there all along.     Just as there is not easy way to define religion, so there is no regression analysis possible to say when religion is a major cause alone, when it is an important though secondary cause, and when it is a pretext used to facilitate war. History is, after all, not a science. But religion, when utilized by a state, makes war seem moral by legitimating it as just in cause, asserting that killing is ethically justified, and providing consolation to the bereaved.   After all, killing outside of a state or religiously sanctioned war is just murder.

After making confusing the concepts of religion and facilitates, I wish I could say that the term “war” was clear, but it is not.   War used to be legally clear:   a state in control, armies in distinctive dress, borders.   War was organized violence fought by soldiers against soldiers. Since the 16 th century, according to Christian and later international law theories, civilians were not targets. Rebellions were problematic but became recognized as war after the American and French Revolutions, if the rebels controlled territory.   The rules governing behavior in an occupied country or in guerilla wars were and remain less clear.   The 20 th century has witnessed an erosion of restraint in war so that now soldiers are less likely to be killed than civilians.   Now also we have what is now termed “fourth generation” war involving a non-state actor:   here, according to an 1989 article in the Marine Corps Gazette   “the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point.   It will be nonlinear . . . .   The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.”(4)  Whether or not there is a 4 th generation warfare, Al Qaeda and the U.S. are acting to make it so.   We have declared “war” on terrorism, but in Afghanistan treated both the Taliban and foreign fighters as not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention and recently seems to have treated some Iraqis the same way.   Yet the outcry over Abu Ghraib shows that there is widespread resistance to using torture even against alleged terrorists.   The American military in Gulf War II sought to fight Saddam Hussein using smart weapons to minimize civilian casualties.

What seems clear, however blurred the practice, is that the world still recognizes a distinction between a terrorist and a soldier, a war and a massacre.   Terrorists commit crimes against non-combatants and soldiers do battle with other soldiers.   War has publicly declared political objectives and is fought to attain them.   (Modern terrorism is more of a media event with no clear relationship between the act and a political aim.   Religion has often been used to legitimate terrorism, i.e. assassinations of political leaders for betraying the true faith has characterized Christianity and Islam.   However there is a distinction between using religion in war as either a pretext or cause for criminal activity.)   This paper is about religion and war; terrorism is not war in spite of much recent semantic confusion.

II. Sacred Scriptures and War

The great religions of the world – our focus will be on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism - proclaim their aim as bringing peace but have used their sacred writings to legitimate war.   War against evil becomes part of the nature of creation.   What follows is a brief description of the sacred writings and early history of the world’s most influential religions in order to illustrate how deeply war and violence are in their formative documents.   I will begin with the Bible because war is deeply imbedded in both testaments and my audience here is mostly Christian or Jewish.

A. Judaism

Often worldly war is related to a cosmic struggle between good and evil.   The Bible, for example, begins with Yahweh conquering the forces of chaos – the term deep, for example in Genesis I “God moving over the face of the deep.”   The same term “deep” appears again in Exodus in the Red Sea story and again in Job where it refers to a dragon killed by God.   The Genesis, Exodus, and Job stories draw upon Babylonian myths where Marduk wars against the forces of chaos to bring order to the world.   Still, in Genesis God does not actually war; the story has been, so to speak, baptized.

Biblical scholars insist that the formative period of the Jewish people was the Exodus events, symbolized by the destruction of Pharaoh’s force in the Red Sea, and memorized poetically by Marian’s song that proclaims “Yahweh is a man of war.” Elohim or El who fights was a war god leading the heavenly hosts who fought with Joshua for the Hebrews in the conquest of the promised land and who, according to the book of Judges, inspired males like Gideon and females like Deborah and Heber the Kenite.    God alone gains the victory against the Midianites and Jericho, though humans do ritual acts and mop up after Yahweh acts.  

God’s war evolved after the conquest and establishment of the monarchy with its standing army.   Now the Lord God aids and inspires or fights along side of the king’s soldiers.    According to the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, the relationship of the king and people to God and observance of divine law and social justice determine whether Jehovah will help the Jews and give the army victory and bring security, and will, in the words of the 23 rd Psalm, “erect a table in the presence of my enemies.”   The fall of the Northern and then Southern kingdoms did not end a belief in holy war, for in Second Isaiah God ordains the rise and destruction of states.   During the Persian and Greek empires, holy war evolved into apocalyptic war in the books of Ezra and Daniel evolved into apocalyptic war and was utilized and was reinvigorated or reinterpreted again in the struggles of the Maccabees.   In apocalyptic war, an oppressed people without power living in a totally corrupt world is delivered by a heavenly host of angels after a climatic battle.   The present time of troubles is a sign of the impending eschaton.   Then a time of peace under a restored Davidic king could come on under the reign of God at the end of time.    Except in messianic revolts against Rome in 4 b.c., 40 a.d. and 130 a.d., holy war in any of its biblical forms would disappear as an influence upon Jewish behavior until the 1930s struggles against the Palestinians, and is now flourishing in Israel.   The main and continuing influence of biblical descriptions of God’s role in war would come through Christianity.

B. Christianity

The belief in an apocalyptic war before the end of time permeates the New Testament in the synoptic gospels and the book of Revelation.   The term “son of man,”

frequently used for Jesus, had earlier been used for the leader who would initiate the final war.   The petition in the Lord’s Prayer for “thy kingdom come” is for the reign of God after the final conflagration. At the end of Revelation, a figure dipped in blood – a clear reference to Jesus – will come to “judge and make war.”   For Mennonites, like Prof. John Howard Yoder, such a war does not negate our responsibility for pacifism – since it is initiated and fought by God and angels against the forces of the antichrist.    Many Fundamentalists do not worry about the pestilence, famine, and war accompanying the final battle (even if it is initiated by a nuclear war allegedly prophesied in First Peter), because they will be taken up to heaven in the rapture.   However, modernist or liberal Christians seeking to reconcile the warrior, judge Jesus with their image of a non-violent peaceful Savior have to do a selective exegesis.

Those who make Christianity approve war face the difficulty that Jesus did not fight, died a non-resistant, forgave his crucifiers, and advised love of enemy and martyrdom.   He held no political office, rejected worldly power, and offered no explicit political advice beyond paying taxes and the ambiguous “Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God” – though not saying what belongs to each.

So far as we can tell, the disciples and early church members did not join the army, either because they were exempt as a sect of Judaism, or as believers in the imminent end of the world, or because they took seriously love of enemy teaching.

Paul and the John of Revelation disagreed about the status of Rome, whether it represented just government ordained by God or the antichrist.   By the second century Christians began praying for the success of Roman arms and, even before they were tolerated, some joined an army where service for the divine emperor occurred daily. Before the conversion of Constantine, the Church fused Roman war with Jewish holy war.   Constantine became a new King David, fighting under the sign of the cross and allegedly carrying a fragment of the true cross into battle.   Justinian could be pictured as a thirteenth apostle.   Selective proof texts also legitimated war:   John the Baptist told soldiers to be content with their wages; Jesus healed the centurion’s daughter without rebuking him; he said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” and when asked about two swords, replied “it is enough.”   Even the love of neighbor supported war, because – according to St. Augustine – a man should not pick up the sword for oneself but could to protect a neighbor.   Until he obtained true peace in heaven, a Christian soldier had an obligation to support the fragmentary peace of a well-ordered society.   War was analogous to a magistrate’s enforcing civil order by using law to punish a fault.   Expanded and revised, Augustine’s synthesis would become Christian just war theory officially espoused by the Roman Catholic and most Protestant churches until the present.  

C. Islam

Unlike Christianity, which did not face the issues posed by political power for three hundred years, Islam’s paradigmatic figure, the Prophet Muhammad, ruled in Medina and later in Mecca, participated in battles, and left teachings in the Q’uran about legitimate war and right conduct in war.   Yet at his death, the realm of Islam did not extend beyond the Arabian Peninsula.  Only after the spread of Islam from Spain to India, the rise and fall of the Umayyad dynasty, and the coming to power of the Abbasids would a normative theory of war and peace emerge.

In Islam, all humanity desires peace. True peace will come only after submission to God and this is accomplished through personal struggle or jihad.   Muhammad taught that an individual’s internal striving for submission is the greater jihad.    The lesser jihad is the military struggle to make the world submit to the rule of God, which is the natural law as described in the Q’uran.    The spread of the faith can be done peacefully or by the sword.   The use of military force is not to convert a person (this submission must be voluntary) but to create a government of Muslims that will rule in accordance with

sharia, or God’s law.   People of the book, Jews and Christians, can be tolerated and given some self rule if they pay special taxes.   

The only legitimate jihad war is a religious war to expand the rule of God.   Only the caliph can declare an offensive jihad after an invitation to submit to the opponent has been issued and should be fought only by Muslims free of debt.    A defensive jihad is when Islam is under attack and is a duty incumbent on all Muslims.   Those within the realm of faith (the dar es islam) are in perpetual conflict with those outside (the dar el harb), though the Prophet allowed truces of up to ten years.   In theory at least Islam did not recognize the existence of several states; in practice there soon came to be multiple kingdoms taking their legitimacy by being recognized by the caliph and Muslim states often engaged in wars (quital) that were not religious in nature.   In fact, jihad was rarely invoked in civil wars and even in wars against the Christian Byzantines and the crusaders.    While Muhammad had cautioned against war over minor differences within Islam, even during the reign of the first four good or paradigmatic caliphs, reformers appeared who attempted by armed revolution or assassination to purify the realm of allegedly corrupt rulers.    As will become apparent shortly, the teachings of Muhammad were interpreted to create a kind of holy war as well as justice in the conduct of war similar to medieval Christian just war theory.

D. Hinduism

Hinduism is a term invented by outsiders to describe the indigenous religions on India and was used in the nineteenth century by nationalists to distinguish all these from the foreign imports, Islam and Christianity.   In Hinduism, unlike Christianity and Islam, there is no one founder or normative canon or myths but layers of traditions contained in Vedas, Puranas, and epics.   In the earliest Vedas Indra is a war god who subdued the monster and fights for or even becomes the king in battle.   Over centuries the king or warrior caste became subordinate to the Brahmin or priest caste who led pure lives and conducted the rituals necessary to please the gods and guarantee victory in battle.   The warriors or kings granted money to the Brahmins and they occupied a privileged position, as a caste above merchants, tradesmen, and farmers.  

The founding epic of Hinduism is the Mahabharata, a poem that purports to be the story of the struggle for their rightful throne by the Pandavas against their usurping cousins, the Kurovasa.   In spite of many vicissitudes, the Pandavas – because they have the gods on their side – will prevail.   The most influential part of the Mahabharata is a long section termed the Bhagavadgita occurring just before the climatic battle scene.   Arjuna, a mighty Pandava warrior who has never before in the epic shown any ethical sensitivity, now hesitates to fight because he will be shedding the blood of his relatives.   Arjuna’s charioteer, an avatar of the god Krishna, assures him that it is his duty as a warrior to fight.   The carnage of battle is irrelevant because death is not ultimate but is part of the karmic cycle of rebirth.   Although Arjuna will gain material rewards, he must fight with a right attitude of detachment in which life and death are ultimately meaningless.   The high point of the Bhagavadgita is Krishna’s appearing in his full cosmic glory, with Arjuna becoming a devotee.

Eventually the Pandavas are restored to the throne through means allowed by Krishna that violate the just practices of war and contribute to their own downfall.   The end of the epic is a sort of Gotterdammerung in which the gods pass away to be replaced by kings whose caste duty legitimated fighting in a world where an ethical means of war is no longer possible.

E. Buddhism

Buddhism seems the least likely of a major religion to legitimate war.   The Buddha taught non-killing and detachment, accepted no political office, and dismissed war as of no importance.   Yet Siddhartha came from a warrior caste, accepted kings as his followers, and allowed them to build and endow monasteries as a way of earning merit.

The ideal kingdom was a dharma realm, a place where the king should practiced non-violence, harm nobody, and try to preserve peace and avoid war.   An ideal king in this imperfect world should exemplify the dharma and by his charisma can bring order out of chaos and do violence to obtain justice.   A normative pattern of kingship, exemplified by Asoka in India and Duttagamini in Ceylon was for a claimant to the throne to wage war against evil men and, after victory, to donate to the monks as expiation while promoting the dharma realm.   Duttagamini showed sorrow for killing Tamils, but was assured by the monks that, because his opponents were not Buddhists, their deaths were equivalent to those of beasts and equaled only one and one-half a Buddhist.    In other words, using violence as a means to create peace.   This teaching allowed kings to wage war even against other Buddhist kings.  

A second way of linking Buddhism to war came in late medieval Japan when Zen became the ideology of samurai warriors.   Zen was a non-ritual and anti-intellectual form of Buddhism for samurai who found in its asceticism, discipline, and emphasis upon mindlessness the means to become totally focused in battle.   Killing an opponent was not evil because his death was only a fulfilling of karmic destiny caused by misdeeds in an earlier life.   Zen proved adaptable to warrior life when they fought and, after 1600, when the samurai became bureaucrats who also wrote poetry and arranged flowers.

            This brief survey illustrates that built into the formative documents and practices of the five major religions of world is an acceptance of war.   There may be countervailing emphases as well, but frequently in history religious and political authorities have called upon traditions that legitimate war.   No matter how often we may emphasize the teachings about the value of peace in early traditions and canonical documents, the potential for making war a religious duty will always be there.   Holy war is a basic ingredient for Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and both the devout and those who want to exploit the traditions for political ends will find in the canon fodder for another kind of cannon.    

III. Roles of Religion in Restraint in War

Justified War Theories

It is not clear whether this section on limiting the cause and conduct of war should be included in this paper on religions facilitating war or in the next paper on religion and peace.   This is because we cannot prove whether establishing restraints on war prevents it or instead by making it more religiously and morally acceptable facilitates war by giving it legitimacy and prevents the human costs from being calculated.   If the various religions’ just war theories really have stopped wars from occurring, the historical record should provide clear examples where a ruler or country was restrained from fighting for moral as against prudential or utilitarian reasons.   I know of no such example, though John Adams’ refusal to declare war on France in 1798 is the closest American example.   There is, by contrast, considerable evidence that just war theories have on many occasions established restraint by professional soldiers in regular armies in the conduct war.  

The critics of Christian just war theory, from Erasmus to our time, have complained about the ambiguity of the tenets and the ease of misrepresentations by government and its apologists.   The various responses of social ethicists to Vietnam and the two Gulf Wars show how difficult it is to reach consensus on the meaning of justice in the cause of war or of proportionality, that the evil done in war will not be greater than harm done by the original fault.   John Howard Yoder concluded that modern theories require a well-informed citizenry to judge, and because governments lie, the theories have become useless.   Quaker James Childress says since just war theories do provide a language used by politicians and the military, it does provide a language for which pacifists and other opponents of a war can communicate to the generals and politicians, in Quaker jargon, speak Truth to Power.   Even if not efficacious in preventing or stopping war, the categories provide a way before, during, and after to evaluate a conflict and becomes, what Michael Walzer terms a moral equivalent for military strategy.

All major religions that legitimate war establish standards for right cause and right conduct.   Unchecked violence for its own sake is universally condemned.   So it is a mistake to view justified war theories as a solely Christian, Western, or European contribution to world civilization.   In additional to Geneva Conventions and the U.N., there is just war theory in the formative documents of Hinduism and Islam.   All these theories arise from the same basic insight famously described by Plato and Aristotle: war is not for the sake of war; it is fought for the sake of peace.   Peace means a well-ordered society, and it is legitimate to defend that well-ordered society. Self-defense is a natural right for individuals and can be extended to the state.    Religion according to Christian theory was not a sufficient cause for war, even though often used in crusades against Islam, heretics, and in post-Reformation struggles between Catholics and Protestants that restriction was ignored.   After the crusades ended and certainly by 1648, religious differences alone were no longer acceptable as a just cause and reinterpretations of jihad appeared in some but not all Muslim theorists by the nineteenth century.

A second element that has been dropped in just war theories was the requirement for purity of motive by rulers and soldiers.   A desire for power or wealth or adventure was, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, enough to make a war caused by a sufficient major fault unjust.   Note that the same purity of motive was required or Arjuna in his dialogue with Krishna.    And while in medieval Islam and Christianity, there were elaborate rules for division of booty, both religions condemned making war for the sake for getting riches.

The primary contribution of just war theory was the belief, even if often violated, of the immunity of civilians.   Soldiers were and are to be the target of other soldiers, not those who do not carry weapons.   This portion of the ethics of war was not dictated by military needs of soldiers, but by religious and moral insight.   We have anecdotal evidence that protecting peasants was observed in ancient Indian warfare.   The first direct statement that one should not war against women, children, and old men comes from Muhammad in the Q’uran.   While there are other ambiguous statements in early Muslim documents, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the 12th century insisted that all Muslims agreed that war was not against civilians.   Since in the 7 th century, neither Byzantium nor Western Europe had extended immunity beyond priests, it is very possible though not yet provable that a belief in civilian immunity spread from Muslim Spain to Christian Europe.   However, one should not rule out independent origins.    By the 11 th century, Peace of God documents list categories of people - priests, merchants, serfs - who are not to be preyed upon.   Widely known, but also often ignored in the religious wars after the Reformation, civilian immunity has become a universal norm even though the 20 th century practice did more than any other to undermine it in practice.

The code of the aristocratic warrior - samurai, knight, ksatriya, or jihadist - is the origin of most of other restraints in the practice of war found in Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist writings.   Knights are to attack their equals and to fight fairly.   After defeat, a captured knight is to be ransomed.   At first common soldiers could be killed or enslaved, but over time this practice was changed into the immunity of Prisoners of War not to be tortured or killed and the wounded to be helped.    The founder of the Red Cross envisaged a transnational organization to help all the wounded, but governments created their own Red Cross divisions to reassure the parents of the new mass armies that their sons would receive medical care while they appeased their military by not requiring them to surrender control of soldiers or the battlefield.   Until the 20 th century, the restraints in war enforced by an aristocratic officer class held for wars among Europeans, but were often not observed in wars against so-called barbarians – Native Americans, Africans, Chinese.   The code allowed society to treat returned officers as belonging to an honorable calling who protected society while observing with professional standards.   The code had little effect on preventing war, except in so far as it allowed the establishment of civilized contact between the parties before and after negotiating the end to fighting and re-establishing what they called peace.

IV. Religions and Society

Thus far our discussion should show that we cannot expect religions to jettison either their founding documents on war or their long history of attempting to limit the cause and conduct of war.   A third factor, equally significant, would be the symbiotic relationship of organized religions to the societies in which they flourish.    Marx saw religion as a tool of the ruling class, a way to persuade peoples to accept their impoverished lot by promising pie in the sky, bye and bye. Religion would disappear when the social conditions that brought it were ameliorated.   Until then, religion would bless the wars initiated by the ruling class for economic advantages.    Emile Durkheim insisted that in religion we create idealized images of ourselves and then ascribe ultimate value to our society.   So, in essence, the nation worships itself.   Again, religion could not stand against a society at war. World War I showed the accuracy of his description of the role of European churches in a war for which historians still search for adequate causes.   More recently, René Girard saw early religions as a kind of Freudian displacement mechanism whereby we ritually sacrifice a kind of scapegoat in order to keep ourselves from killing each other.   A variant of this theory using the Cain and Abel story as a model sees monotheism as creating a scarcity economics in which only one side can obtain the blessing of God.   This leads to the arrogance of a chosen people and a devaluing of the Other, who then can be warred upon.

I find all these theories unsatisfactory, but for our purposes they do point to one essential truth – that priests and politicians recognize that religion cannot be divorced from its society without destructive consequences the state as well as for church or mosque or temple.    And if this is true for society in peacetime, it becomes ever more important when the society is under the stress of war.   So rather than in engage in analysis of these theory, I should like to offer a much more simple and, I hope, more common sense understandings of why it is so easy for religions to facilitate war at first looking at what the state gains and then what the religions gain.

Rulers benefit from having a supportive religion.   Kings or presidents praise religions because they provide a divine sanction to their governance, legitimate the social order, and can be used to establish boundaries keeping apart or establishing links among peoples.   The social ethics of all religions – proscribing murder and stealing and advocating helping the poor and caring for one’s neighbor are useful to a state in keeping order.   Statute laws should be obeyed because they derive authority not only from the caliph or parliament but from God’s revealed or natural law.   So, of course, politicians claim the sanction of religion and bestow favors on its institutions and leaders.   The state may pay the salaries of priests or mullahs, and the history of state supported religions shows that they rarely criticize a king or diet in peacetime or war.   Subsidies for religious institutions, either in indirect form through exemption from taxation as in the U.S. or direct subsidy for institutions also facilitate silence or concentration upon spiritual matters.

Even an organization as powerful as the Roman Catholic Church learned during the French Revolution how vulnerable it was to pressure from what was the first modern anti-clerical state.   After the French Revolution until now there has a constant European anti-clericalism that restricted the power of the papacy to influence decisions on war, even inside of Italy after 1870.   The history of relations between the state and organized religion in dictatorships and totalitarian rulers shows that, although there can be passive resistance by the devout who can carve out safe space, the state is rarely constrained in initiating or pursuing war.   For example, neither Hitler, Mussolini, nor Saddam Hussein hesitated to start wars in spite of the opposition of religious leaders to their rule.   Stalin sought to destroy Russian Orthodoxy until it proved useful to mobilize the people in WWII.     In the U.S. opposition from the National Council of Churches and the Papacy to Gulf Wars I and II did not stop the presidents from initiating a war or prevent an enormous outburst of support during and immediately after the initial successes.    So political leaders try to co-op religions when they are useful and to ignore them when they are not.  

The main impediment to organized religions’ opposing a war may be their own vision of the transcendent.   Religions, having survived many economic and political systems over their long history, do not see themselves as in the messy business of daily politics, and social justice, although important, is not of overriding significance.    Putting people in touch with ultimate reality – God, Allah, Atman, Buddhahood – is their raison d’etre.   Ministering to suffering, providing ethical counsel, organizing ritual to give meaning to life – these are what religions are about.   To provide these services, religious institutions and their leaders must reach people where they are.   If the price of communicating spiritual Truth is silent acquiescence in a war, so be it.   Otherwise, the soldiers in the field and their families and the general populace would be estranged.  

Equally important, the personal of all organized religions are drawn from the society they serve and will share most of its values, both the good and bad ones.   The similarity of experience helps the priests to communicate with and serve the community.   If the people approve of a war, so will religious institutions that are directly dependent upon them.   This dependence is both intellectual and financial.   Formerly, in most of the world, the state supported the clergy; in America, the clergy need the laity.   Any minister knows that being too far in front of his/her congregation may mean the loss of his job or create weakness in his religious congregation.   A few leaders, often far away from local congregations, do make bold pronouncements, but these are easily ignored under the sentiment that what do religious leaders know about international politics.   There realpolitik rules and the ministers should confine themselves to individual or local moral issues.    The only religious institutions that are really free to oppose war during wartime are sectarian organizations far removed from power.  

Finally, many religious organizations are organized within a state.   Even when there is a transnational body, like the Roman Catholic Church, most members of the hierarchy were born and live in the nation their churches are in.   Even a kind of weak transnational organization is minimal for most Protestants and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.   History shows how easy it has been for fellow believers to war; it is even easier when the parties are of different religions.


In conclusion, when we consider the roles of war in scriptures, the prevalence of just war theories, the usefulness of religion to government, and the internal constraints on religious institutions   - there seems little prospect that churches or mosques can resist the siren calls from the Osamas and W’s that God is blessing their calls to war.   Bertram Russell was right when he complained that churches are like a thermometer, reflecting rather than shaping, their societies views of war.

To conclude, here is my list of factors predicting when religions will facilitate wars:

  • Sacred texts portray violence in an approving manner whether done by a god or by paradigmatic men and women who make war and whose successes the god guarantees.   Imitation of such warriors is approved  behavior.
  • Rituals and prayers are designed to enlist the help of the god in war and the blood sacrifices in rituals prefigure the martyrdoms of those fighting for a holy cause.
  • The risk of losing life in war for a holy cause is compensated for by the promise of salvation in the next life.   Martyrdom becomes the highest mark of religious devotion.
  • A group defines itself as a holy or chosen people with special obligations    and privileges, particularly involving a right to a land.   Such chosen people are more likely to war if
    • socio-political divisions are justified and enforced on religious   lines.                                 
    • the religious group feels persecuted in the present or past and nable to obtain justice.                                 
    • the religious group is cohesive enough to unify politically and sees the possibility of gaining power to achieve autonomy or dominion.                           
    • the land itself is sacralized and contains sites of special holiness.
  • The devotion of the faithful is joined so intensely to nationalism that these   seem to be one phenomenon, and fighting for land and family becomes a                             religious duty.
  • Political and/or spiritual leaders come from the upper class, share common  interests, and see in the religious teachings and institutions a means of gaining or maintaining power.
  • Priests and people are willing to use the political realm to institutionalize and/or enforce correct worship, doctrine, and ethical practices.   Such a perspective can justify rebellion against corrupt leaders or suppression of schismatics or heretics.
  • Alternative value systems and institutions are weak or lacking.
  • The state fails to provide an opportunity in which minority and/or majority faith communities can obtain political and religious rights and in which there is minimal interaction among religious leaders.
  • People of different faiths live in close proximity but the teachings and practices of their religions seem incompatible.
  • A group sees its truth as universal and is intolerant of other perspectives either within or outside of its religious tradition.
  • A faith's influence is restricted to a "spiritual" realm and its teachings considered irrelevant to a political sphere in which realpolitik is the prime consideration.

How Religions Facilitate Peace

St. Augustine, writing at the time of the decline of the Roman Empire, insisted that built into humanity was a desire for peace.   Aristotle, unlike Plato who saw war as an essential ingredient in creating civilization, believed peace was the normal state and war the abnormality, i.e., a society or rock at rest tends to stay in that position.   Virtually all religions insist that pax, shalom, salaam, nirvana are the desideratum of life and promise to bestow it on their followers who practice right belief, rituals, and ethics.   Modern peace theorists, including Quaker Elise Boulding, remind us that peace is the condition of most of humanity most of the time.   Even belligerent powers, and there is a strong correlation with being a great power and the frequency of war, remain at peace most of the time.   That is, if peace is defined solely as the absence of war.   So it may be that not peace, but war needs to be seen as the abnormality and explained.

What we mean by peace is often unclear.    A tee shirt I bought at South of the Border has the motto: “Know God, peace; no God, no peace.”   Is peace a method, a means, a process, an end?   What is the difference between peace and non-peace, and is war the best or a misleading description of non-peace.   (The analogy is similar to the distinction between violence and non-violence.)   If there are a variety of wars, should we not also talk about a variety of peaces?   For Quakers and the Historic Peace Churches, which make a very small percentage of the population, a major issue in their work to prevent war should be determining whether there is a direct relationship among individual, small group, community, national, and international peace?   Briefly put, does domestic politics in some complicated fashion end up determining international relations or do the systemic features of our interstate politics govern the incidence of war and peace?

Two leading theorists of the discipline of non-violent conflict resolution, John Burton and Roger Fisher, insist that all conflict stems from identical causes (though they do not agree on those causes) and the same techniques designed to ameliorate small groups’ differences by fulfilling basic needs or by blending interests can at the national and international level manage conflict and/or end the need for war.   Perhaps because both of these men, like Gene Sharp, the theorist of civilian based defense, were writing to persuade secular academics and military strategists of the value of their perspectives, they divorced themselves from religious and moral precepts and ran away from rather than seeking, any direct contact with modern pacifists.   Instead, they advocated a secular method for bringing secular results – creating a win/win situation as a way of managing rather than solving conflicts.  

The results of attempting to teach the theories to professional practitioners who will apply non-violence in a wide variety of contexts have been more successful dealing with individuals and small groups rather than in easing intractable international conflicts, such as the war in Bosnia or disputes between Israelis and the Palestinians.   No use of non-violence, or diplomacy, or peacekeeping forces seems likely to bring an end to conflicts in the Congo, Somali, the Sudan.   The many churches teaching non-violent conflict resolution and the Alternatives to Violence Project of the AFSC have had many small-scale successes.   Rather than utilizing careful training or social science, the great successes of non-violence have come from peoples applying Gandhi’s insight that withdrawing consent makes governments fall – as witnessed in the Velvet and recent Orange revolutions in Eastern Europe.   This paper will finesse the issue of evaluating non-violent conflict resolution as either a religious movement or secular technique because many scholars and practitioners are assessing whether its failures are due to the type of people who become national leaders, or the theories, or the techniques.

I.   The Meanings of Peace

For our purposes of focusing primarily upon religion and the international realm, a logical starting place is to decide what we mean by first political and then religious peace and then to see where they are congruent and the roles that organized religions can play.   One form of political peace is that of an empire, of which the “pax romana” remains the primary example.   Imperial peace can come by controlling a contiguous land mass or by using cultural influence to keep the peace, as the papacy attempted in the medieval Europe.   Currently the U.S., which sees itself as a hegemonic power, is trying to create a balance of power peace in East Asia by military power and cultural influence.   None of the great empires had lasting success, and what they did to subject peoples could as easily be labeled as oppression rather than peace.   Certainly the U.S. in the post cold war has shown a limited ability to impose peace either by cultural or military might.   The U.S. should have learned in Iraq that building peace by transformation of a state through a combination of military might and ideologies of democracy and capitalism when there are profound religious/ethnic differences is not possible in our times.   Early Islam, the Ottomans, and maybe Russia before 1914 were the last empires created successfully using religion as a unifying factor.   Today religious diversity is so pronounced that creating an empire utilizing an existing or new religion will fail.

             A second form of peace is obtained by defense.   Its classic formulation was given by the 4 th century Roman theorist Vegetius: to have peace, prepare for war.   The U.S. seems to be officially committed to Vegetius’ perspective since it now spends more on its defense than the rest of the world combined.   The modern form of military might is justified by the assumption that the international realm is anarchy with states constantly engaged in competition, of which one form is war.   Plato refuted the Sophist version of this argument as applied to domestic society but realist theorists as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Robert Kaplan continue to apply it to contemporary issues.  

Often building upon realism is a belief in a balance of power.   As old as Renaissance Italy, balance of power received its classic form with the emergence of the modern state system in the seventeenth century.   One difficulty in ascertaining whether a balance of power can bring peace is that it is difficult to determine whether war is prevented by a gross disparity of power or an equilibrium among states – all of whom are trying to increase their power relative to each other in a zero sum game.   If it is the equilibrium that brings peace, the danger is, as Kant observed, that this house of cards can be destroyed by a slight wind.   Even more dangerous in today’s world is that no one can accurately calculate a nation’s power and so the shorthand method is to use armed forces.   The break up of the USSR which still had its military intact shows the limitations in calculating power based upon armies.   If the theories of international anarchy and that relations among states are always either latent or hot war are true, then there is very little that organized religions can do to bring world peace.   The best that we can hope is to create a widespread moral opprobrium against the use of nuclear weapons.   (Larry Wittner’s three-volume history of the international anti-nuclear bomb movement concluded that this is what happened in the Cold War, but he also found that religious organizations played a very limited role in this crusade.)   We have returned to the situation that existed in Europe before 1700.   Then war was considered inevitable, a product of sin bringing God’s wrath that humanity could do little to avoid and must endure.   The modern form of this theory assumes that war is inevitable, because of the nature of the state and the international system.   The best that can be hoped for is a cold peace based upon mutual deterrence or overwhelming force.   

A third form of peace is a stable peace, when war becomes so remote as to become unthinkable.   Examples would be the U.S.’s relations with Mexico and Canada, and, most importantly, Western Europe since the 1950s.   The example of the European Union shows that a stable peace can be created in what historically is a very limited time frame.   It has been done by modifications of rather than abandoning a state system and it works because, in spite of a long history of war and different languages, similar economic and political systems have emerged.   The irony for students of religion in thinking about this positive development is that the old warring Europe was a far more Christian place than the new peaceful Europe where secularism, as defined as the declining influence of religion in all areas of life, is rampant.   Still, religious organizations have and can continue to play a supporting role in the integration of Europe.   However, if one defines the religious fault lines as between Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim Europe, as Samuel Huntington does, then the acid test for the Common Market model of stable peace will be whether the very different countries of the Balkans, Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey can become integrated in this system.

A final definition of peace links transnational peace with justice within a society.   Here when one works for peace, he or she is also working for a more just economic and social order within and external to a society.   This is a secular theory, but it is easy to baptize it because in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures God demands justice for the poor.   Liberation theologians found biblical authority in the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, the demand of prophets for social justice, and Jesus’ identification with the poor. The liberal church lobbies working in Washington have been described as not knowing that peace and justice are two words.   They assume that the process of creating a more just society can be done without violence, even when privileged groups lose influence.

The peace and justice groups often link a peaceful society with a democratic society as more likely to allow a change that does not directly benefit the ruling class. (That is a big assumption!)   I suspect that also built in is the belief of some political scientists and virtually all Americans that democracies tend to be peaceful.   Our President also believes democracies retard terrorism; one wonders if he remembers the Red Guards of Germany and Timothy McVeigh.   At least, many political scientists argue that democracies rarely fight each other, but, of course, this may be because they find so many non-democracies to fight.   The classic theories of just war assume that the society to be defended is a moral good, though the preference for legitimate authority and distrust of rebellion overrode almost all other criteria.   A democratic society is now seen as offering the greatest potentiality for becoming a moral society, although – as Niebuhr said – this is because everything else looks worse.  

The most extreme, and therefore very popular with my students, variant of the peace/justice theory is by Johann Galtung, who defines a peaceful society as one in which everyone can achieve to the limits of his or her capacity.   A disease not caused by poverty or lack of intelligence would not in Galtung’s scheme be considered as war, but a disease caused by lack of money for a vaccine would disrupt peace.   Obviously such a utopian society has never existed, perhaps never can, and is even difficult to conceptualize.   Would, for example, the child who never achieved what his parents thought was his potential, be a cause for concern.   The theory is also very human centered, with environmental concerns placed second to individual capacities, i.e., central only when they directly affect people.   Galtung might say that asking if such an ideal society can be created is the wrong question.   Rather, the concept allows us to see what we should be focusing on.  

The advantage of any version of the peace and justice linkage is that one can begin working at any level and can obtain successes even if the micro does not easily transform into the macro level.   I used to ask my students, who were required to write term papers on various NGOs, whether it was necessary to have a comprehensive theory of peace to do effective peace work.   The answer, of course, depended upon the definition of peace and the work undertaken, but most students decided that peace work was not primarily an academic exercise.   That is, the successes of the AFSC or Amnesty International or the International Red Cross depended on a careful definition of what they sought to accomplish.    The world today is a better place for the activities of the NGOs, but recent history does not prove that it is becoming a more peaceful place, if the quantity of wars and numbers of deaths are the criteria.

If the advantage of peace/justice theories is that they allow a wide variety of programs, that is also their disadvantage because there is no clear way to decide what is most crucial for success.  This dilemma is not new: to cite a Quaker example, the difference between Lucretia Mott and John Whittier on reform activities in the 1830s.   Both agitated against slavery, but Mott also worked for other crusades: women’s rights, temperance, prison reform and, like Garrison, disdained politics.    Whittier believed in all of these causes, but crusaded only against slavery and, because he saw the potential from political activities, in 1840 supported the Liberty Party.   Who was more effective is difficult to prove.   Another analogy, using more classic terms:   the myth of Sisyphus.   Sisyphus, you remember from the Camus book, is condemned to carrying a boulder to the top of the hill and then watch as it rolls down the hill.   We all know that peace work is like carrying a boulder, but if the peace/justice or the Galtung formula is adopted – we don’t have a good way of knowing which rock is the one to carry – or to mix a stone metaphor – what is the keystone.   My solution, not original and one I suspect most of you already practice, is to work in a few causes, accept small victories, and hope without much expectation that the academic professionals in many fields will in the future provide more helpful theories that will influence the political class.

II. Peace in the Teachings of Major Religions

Peace (shalom) is a frequently used term in the Hebrew Scriptures with a wide variety of meanings.    It can be what we would call religious – obedience to or a right relationship to God or a blessing from God.   Peace can be a greeting or a benediction.   Peace can also be what we, but not the ancient Hebrews, see as more secular: security, prosperity, health, justice.   In the Bible these qualities can be applied to an individual, household, a kingdom, or the whole world.   Peace can be a description of relations between kingdoms, a ceasing of hostilities or a treaty, and even, on one occasion, a war undertaken in obedience to God.   In Amos, war results from God’s punishment because of the failure of justice within the kingdom. In first Isaiah peace comes after defeat of the Assyrians by God’s miracle and there will be a future realm of peace under a restored Davidic king dwelling in God’s holy mount Zion.   In Jeremiah peace requires a whole new creation and in 2nd Isaiah God controls the processes of all kingdoms.   For Ecclesiastes, even peace may be a vanity.   In the Psalms, peace, identified with rest, can refer to death.    Peace can be a past, present, or future condition.   Most often, peace is not created by humans, but is a gift bestowed by God when individuals respond in obedience to Jehovah’s revealed law. Seeking the will of God, finding it, and responding appropriately is the key to the Peace of God.

Virtually all of these meanings are carried over into the New Testament.   Peace is proclaimed by the angels at the nativity, advocated in the Beatitudes, and is the desired condition among the followers of Jesus before the resurrection and in the early church.   The biggest change is that the Old Testament prophecies about the coming age of peace are applied to Jesus.   Jesus in his teaching, suffering, and resurrection is the bringer of peace.   The peace is not political, however.   Jesus explicitly rejects worldly power in the temptation scene on the mountain at the beginning of the ministry and the gospels make clear that his kingdom and rule are not at least at present in this world, even though Paul and the early church preached that Jesus’ return and the worldly reign of God would happen soon.   The Gospels present Jesus as mourning over the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in a coming war, not preventing their destruction.   In the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes after the time of troubles, including war, and takes place at the throne of God after the judging of the quick and the dead.   None of the teachings about peace in the New Testament are about politics or war.   This is one of differences between the two Testaments.   They agree in seeing peace as having many dimensions and as a gift from God.   The Kingdom of God is at hand, realized in the disciples of Jesus before the crucifixion and then in the church, even though – as the letters of Paul show – the early church was far from unified or peaceful.

The concept of salaam or peace in Islam is more like the Old than the New Testament; that is, there is a explicit political as well as a religious dimension.   In fact, they are almost one.   Islam means submission to God and doing so brings the believer peace.   When the whole world submits to the rule of God as contained in the Quran, then the whole world is at peace.   Since the sharia embodies the teachings of the Quran, then the ruler has an obligation to enforce its norms.   Of course, the sharia is not just law; it encompasses advice for behavior that goes beyond law to attitudes.   In the Sunni tradition, there is a strong presumption of loyalty to the caliph and then sultans, but authority for interpreting the religious traditions after Muhammad’s death belonged not to the political leader but to the community of scholars.   Now no political leader can have his authority blessed by the caliph or sultan, but the ulema is still a major source for legitimacy.   The most radical Wahhabis and Sunnis insist that the only true political peace can come in the restoration of the transnational boundaries of early Islam as exemplified by the rule of Muhammad in Medina and Mecca.   For the twelver Shiites who dominate Iran and Iraq, true peace cannot come until the return of the Mahdi who will restore the pure realm of the first caliphs and the legitimate succession of the Prophet.   Shiite teaching, resembling Christian eschatology, sees a decisive break with normal history with a superhuman figure necessary to create a lasting peace.

Deciphering the Hindu teachings on peace is complicated by the enormous variety of traditions and the fact that there is no one canonical text or agreed upon set of beliefs.   I once registered for a philosophers’ conference on karma sponsored by the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii.   When asked which sessions I wished to attend, my response was any on social ethnics.   I was informed that karma had no social ethics.   While this is a caricature, we should recognize that there is a strong emphasis in Hinduism and Buddhism in a devotees escaping from or making irrelevant this world of attachment and impermanence.   After all, suffering is caused by attachment and among Hindus mortifications is one way to purity.

On the other hand, ahimsa or non-violence to living things is a prominent element among the Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus.   While scholars can debate whether there is a social ethics of peace in ancient Hinduism, certainly Gandhi created one and his satyagraha campaigns are now a prominent feature in modern Hinduism within India as well as the diaspora.   Gandhi took features from classic Indian, Buddhist, Jain, and even Christian writings to create his satyagraha campaigns.   He reinterpreted the Bhagavadgita so that Arjuna became the model for a satyagraha warrior – a detached soldier who could be male or female prepared to struggle or even die while using non-violence and compassion in a search for truth or God – the terms became the same.   The struggle for India’s independence and self-sufficiency began with a careful political analysis before each campaign but became a religious quest in which the welfare of both sides became paramount and a tainted or violent means could not result in a pure end.   Gandhi’s preeminent value was not peace per se but truth, and he associated being passive with cowardice, insisting that he preferred a soldier to a do-nothing bystander.   He was also no humanist and was prepared to allow his followers to sacrifice, to become martyrs in the quest for truth.    However, it is no accident that Gandhi has become the patron saint of those who believe pacifism is religious truth as well as politically relevant.   Gene Sharp and others have shown that India was one of many examples of people creating non-violent revolution by mobilizing a people against oppressive governments.   Gandhi shows that it possible for the right kind of person to transform an ambiguous or pro-military religious Hindu legacy into ahimsa.  

III. The Problem of Evil

All the great religions on the world have grappled with a world and people that are hostile or indifferent to their proclamation of truth.   Since truth requires adherence to a transcendent or supernatural reality, one response to violence is withdrawal from the world in search of peace.   For Jews in the Middle Ages, the debate was how to respond to persecution – what could be compromised or surrendered and what was essential enough to die for.   For Hindus, members of the warrior class could fight, but Brahmins must keep ritually pure.   For some Muslims, Sufi mysticism and/or organization into Brotherhoods was a way out of the compromises of politics.   For Christians and Buddhists, there was seclusion in a monastery.   Christians in politics might have to fight, but priests, monks, and nuns had a higher calling and should not shed blood.   Theirs was a way of perfection reserved for the most devout.   After the Reformation and years of persecution, the Anabaptists, who in essence made all believers priests, renounced political influence as well as violence and sought to find a sanctuary as subjects to sympathetic nobleman or later in Pennsylvania.   Anabaptists agreed that magistrates might need to employ force but true Christians took literally the Sermon on the Mount and withdrew from politics.

The Quaker Peace Testimony after 1660 in England but not in colonial America also rested upon no direct involvement in political events.   God had established and pulled down Charles I and Cromwell, and Friends did not interfere with the providence of God.   In Britain, Penn’s attempt to change this policy and to become involved with electoral and royal politics was discredited by the revolution of 1688.   Eighteenth-century British Friends remained loyal to the powers that be, but would not fight.   American Friends in our Revolution adopted strict neutrality as a way of preserving peace.   By creating a separate community, the group can find religious peace and it finds politics irrelevant to its quest for salvation.   The Jehovah’s Witnesses who see all governments of this world as corrupt and unchristian and refuse to take the pledge of allegiance or salute the flag or vote exemplify a sectarian attempt to live in America without embracing any duties of citizenship.   Their willingness to die for their faith rather than compromise in places like Nazi Germany shows that martyrdom remained a cost of discipleship the Jehovah’s Witnesses were willing to embrace.

Those unwilling to give up responsibility for the whole society must come to terms with war, which they see as linked to the problem of evil.   In the Christian tradition the three most influential critics of a pacifist withdrawing from politics are St. Augustine, Luther, and Reinhold Niebuhr.   All three hated war, but saw it as an unavoidable response to the sinful nature of mankind.   For Augustine and Luther, the Genesis story of the fall was a literal truth; for Niebuhr it was a myth whose truth was confirmed by Darwin, history, and self-knowledge.   Pride, will to power, a desire to play God, identifying our society with God, or our welfare with the common good – meant that even the highest cultural achievements of humanity were flawed.   He claimed that the social gospel’s claim to create a peaceful society was based upon the enlightenment, not biblical categories.   Augustine had a kingdom of man searching for the peace only offered in the kingdom of God; Luther espoused a two kingdom theory in which the church was the imperfectly realized kingdom of peace set in a worldly kingdom of power.   All three said that an obligation to one’s neighbor translated into political terms allowed fighting to preserve a peaceful society.   Augustine at the time of the Vandal siege of Carthage, counseled a Roman commander who desired to enter a monastery to first fulfill his duty as a soldier.   Luther insisted that soldiering as an honorable calling, comparable to being a priest or a merchant, to preserve a kingdom against unjust attack or anarchy.   Niebuhr insisted that states operated by coercion, that the exercise of power was a continuum and that there was no essential distinction between using coercion within and outside of a state.    

All three men saw a desire for peace as natural, as God-given, but as unrealizable on earth and all criticized pacifism as a political tool.   It was an attempt by humans to build the City of God on earth and was doomed to failure.    An individual pacifist can accept death as a result of passive resistance against evil, but states do not and should not commit suicide.   So a state’s obligation and possibility for good is different from an individual’s.   A sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus is the highest that a woman or man can aim at, but justice based upon power is the goal for a state.   There were differences among them on when war was allowed.   Luther argued that the kingdom that fired the first shot was always in the wrong; that is, he made a qualitative difference between power in peace and power in war.   Augustine did not condemn an initiator of hostilities, because a just war was correcting an already existing fault, was self-defense.  Niebuhr disliked just war theories because they could too easily be used to sanctify an oppressive social order and were unduly legalistic and rationalistic.   That is, they failed to grasp a state’s ability to lie to itself about fault and motives.   Still, all three thinkers essentially found in just war theory a solution to dealing with the problem of evil.   As I wrote these papers, I debated putting a section on just war theory here.   Many believe that its theoretical limits on just cause for and just conduct during a war are a significant contribution to world peace.   Whatever the strengths of the theories of fault, immunity of civilians, and proportionality, the historical record shows that sin overwhelms the restraint required.   Just wars are, as the slogan indicates, just wars.     

Modern Rethinking

After contemplating the horrors of modern war, more recent Catholic teaching has sought to narrow the difference between just war and pacifism.   The transformation that has occurred beginning with John XXIII and his two successors is analogous to the change that Gandhi brought to Hinduism.   In Pacem in Terris and Vatican II, the church endorsed both just war theory and pacifism.   Augustine had insisted that one did not fight for oneself but could for a neighbor.   Now the Church insisted that pacifism based on love of neighbor was acceptable.   Pius XII insisted that biological, chemical, and nuclear war are morally unacceptable under any circumstances because they do not protect civilians and do disproportionate damage, but during the Reagan administration the American bishops allowed the possession of nuclear weapons if done on a interim basis and with no intent to use.   Liberation Theology in Latin America, building upon traditional Catholic social thought, insisted that structural violence could be so pervasive that the essential conditions for a just society could not be fulfilled.   In such a case, non-violent resistance was the preferred option but, as a last resort and if the rulers employed violence to preclude political change, violence could be morally justified.   It is a tragedy that the openness that John Paul II brought to the just war tradition was not extended to Liberation Theology.   I see no sign that Benedict XVI will be more flexible here.      

Religious pacifism has also grown more complex, partially by recognizing that there can be many kinds of pacifism and new challenges.   Pacifists have grappled with the issues of genocide, failed states, and terrorism and the value of international peace- keepers, armed or unarmed.   John Howard Yoder’s book, Nevertheless, describes a multitude of forms of religious pacifism. (There are additional secular forms: humanism, free trade, Marxism.)   The most prominent of these religious theories are non-violence, principled disobedience irregardless of consequences, nuclear war pacifism, just war pacifism, and programmatic pacifism.   The last seems to the most relevant to Quakers as well as to mainline Protestants and Catholics because it builds upon the early 20 th century experience of the social gospel.   The social gospel attempted to use the power of government to build the kingdom of God on earth.   Its theorists like Walter Rausenbusch saw a positive use of the powers of government as protecting against the worse excesses of industrialism.   Abroad, its advocates worked for international law, arbitration of disputes, and a league of nations.   In political science, the social gospel helped to create International Relations; the same anti-war impulse was behind another more recent reform discipline, Peace and Conflict Studies.   The Social Gospel advocates were aware that war was not just a product of a ruler’s moral failures (though having moral leaders was greatly to be desired) but peace could come only by countering racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation.   Against the Augustinian-Niebuhr perspective that all actions were flawed by original sin, Quaker A.J. Muste insisted that there is such a phenomenon as amazing grace.   More recent critics say that the ambiguity and conflict exalted by Niebuhr were male projections of his own insecurities and that a feminist theory emphasizing the value of nurturing and community offers an alternative.   Even if actions are tainted by sin, all evil is not the same either qualitatively or quantitatively.   Neither is all coercion the same, and killing in war is qualitatively different from other exercises of power.   Building institutions that can contain the worst impulses of humanity has been done in many societies; there is a great deal of middle ground between perfection and genocide and our task is to find it.   Because religions require a long perspective and critically examine human motivations and actions, spiritual institutions can provide an underpinning for peacemaking activities.  

Finally, religion has played a major role in inspiring individuals and groups working for peace.   From St. Francis to male and female Nobel Laureates – Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Jimmy Carter, Quakers Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, and Rigoberte Mechu Tum of Guatemala - these and many obscure individuals working in church peace groups whose efforts do not lag in spite of years of discouragement show the strong correlation of religious devotion and work for peace.   There are also religious and secular peace organizations throughout the world:   Roman Catholic, Sant Egido, Jewish, Peace Now in Israel,   Buddhist, Savrodaya in Thailand and Sri Lanka, the originally Christian, Fellowship of Reconciliation and secular, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, War Resisters League.   Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary work has for years sought better living conditions through education and health care, and major denominations have lobbies in Washington.   The evangelical churches that often seek to avoid direct political contact in missionary work can have a social impact. The argument has been made that the Pentecostal revival in Latin and South America has done more to improve the status and reduce violence to women than all the international conferences.    Like you, when I look at recent American foreign policy and elections, I despair.   When we look at the response of the world to America’s second Gulf War and the work of a plethora of NGOs – religious and secular, there are if not many grounds for hope, reasons for action.

So religions facilitate peace when

  • Their scriptures and paradigmatic figures proclaim the value of peace, with peace having a heavenly and earthly dimension.
  • They provide a source of ultimate value, often termed a God, beyond the immediate people and a culture that provides a means of judging and establishes restraints upon behavior.
  • They inculcate ethical norms of, compassion, honesty, charity, and social justice.   These norms apply to all peoples, including rulers.
  • They question the value of transitory worldly goods and political power and rebuke inordinate ambition.
  • They provide spiritual solace helping people to endure the ills of the political and economic system.
  • They legitimate the political order by preaching against anarchy and accept the present boundaries of the state.
  • They promote forms of devotion that ignore the state.
  • They bring moral perspectives to bear upon the causes and conduct of a war.   Religious leaders must have sufficient autonomy so that they are free to speak out in opposition to the state and a war.   

J. William Frost, Swarthmore College


  1. Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 147.
  2. Ibid., pp. 122-124.
  3. Public Broadcasting System, “Frontline,” “Rumsfeld’s War,” Feb. 17, 2005.   This paper is based on J. W. Frost, A History of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim Perspectives on War and Peace. Vol. I The Bible to 1914, Vol. II A Century of War.   Footnotes and bibliography are there.   The final conclusions come from Vol. II, 776-778.
  4. Quoted in Jonathan Raban,   “Truth About Terrorism,” NY Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2005, p. 22).