"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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”
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.”
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.
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.