Religion and War Research Paper

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Religion and war are universal historical phenomena, occurring in nearly all places and all time periods. It should not be surprising, then, to find that the two have a long, complex, and varied historical relationship—one which is sometimes antagonistic, at other times mutually supportive, and often deeply ambivalent.

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Warrior gods played a central role in the pantheons of many early religions as civilizations struggled to subdue the cosmos and, often, their neighbors. The war god Indra ranks among the most prominent Vedic divinities; the warrior god Marduk is the hero of the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish; the war gods Ares and Mars, respectively, populate a host of Greek and Roman myths; and the war god Thor wages battle in ancient Norse mythology. War and religion, for better or worse, have gone hand in hand throughout history.

In many ancient civilizations—including Indo- Aryan, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Roman, Aztec, Crow, Norse, and Celtic—war was considered a fact of life and heroes were divinized. Religious epics emerged surrounding the exploits of human (if at times legendary) war heroes such as Arjuna (Hindu), Achilles (Greek), Arthur (Celtic), and Siegfried (Norse). Being a warrior was socially prestigious in cultures such as Indian (where the warrior class, the Kshatriya, ranked high in the Hindu caste system), Crow (where the warrior’s raiding activities provided him with access to valued economic goods, most particularly horses), and ancient Babylonian (where male warriors were often rewarded with the society’s most desirable female partners). Even great spiritual leaders could, at times, take up the sword and lead armies (for example, Joshua in Judaism and Muhammad in Islam).

But even in cultures that valued war and warriors, the religious attitude toward them was often one of ambivalence. In the Hindu caste system, the priest (Brahman) ranked above the warrior. Holy men enjoyed a similarly elevated social standing in Crow and Babylonian cultures. In Greek mythology, war was as often seen as the source of tragedy as it was of glory. According to the anthropologist C. Scott Littleton, “The role of the warrior . . . was steeped in paradoxes. He was at once at the apex of the social order and a potential threat to that order. Indeed, the contradiction here, which is reflected throughout Indo-European religious beliefs, is inherent in the profession of arms: it involves a social institution dedicated to the destruction of society” (Littleton 1987, 345).

The histories of many of the major world religious traditions evidence a continuing struggle to come to grips with this paradox. In the process, the phenomenon of war has come to play a major role in defining, distinguishing and, at times, dividing particular religions, while the phenomenon of religion has come to give meaning and inspiration to war.

Religion and War in Judaism: Debating the Warrior Ethic

Judaism was founded in the ancient Middle East where warfare was the norm. The earliest Jewish texts, which probably stem from the mid-to-late second millennium BCE, reflect this violent reality. In Genesis, Yahweh (the ancient Hebrew term for god) is said to have told Abraham: “Know this for certain, that your descendants will be aliens living in a land that is not theirs; they will be slaves, and will be held in oppression there for four hundred years. But I will punish that nation” (Genesis 15:13–24). Yahweh promises the Jews the lands of “the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Cannanites, Gigrashites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19–21). Much of early Jewish history consists of the ensuing, often exceedingly bloody, battles between the Jews and these various peoples. The book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible records the story of the conquest of Canaan in which, at God’s bidding, the Israelites burn entire enemy cities to the ground, slaughtering all inhabitants—men, women, and children alike. As the biblical scholar Millard Lind writes, “Yahweh is a God of war. . . . Violent political power is thus a central issue in Israel’s experience of Yahweh” (Lind 1980, 24).

Yet existing side-by-side with these violent episodes is a deep-seated Jewish reluctance to embrace the warrior life. Speaking of Abraham, Moses, and other seminal figures in the history of Judaism, the nineteenth century German scholar Julius Wellhausen writes, “It is remarkable that the heroes of Israel . . . show so little taste for war” (Lind 1980, 34). The Jewish hero of the Exodus account, Moses, does not, with a warrior might, destroy the Egyptian army as it pursues the Jews; Yahweh drowns the army with Moses as a bystander. Powerful Jewish kings like David and Solomon are as often chided for hubris as lauded for their might. While Jewish history speaks of nationhood, land, and national destiny, its prophets more often speak of peace: “They shall beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war” (Isaiah 2:4).

These two rival attitudes toward war emerge repeatedly in Jewish history. The Maccabean revolt in the middle of the second century BCE pitted Jewish rebels against their Greek oppressors. When the Greeks, led by Antiochus Epiphanes, attempted to stamp out Judaism by forbidding all Jewish practices and desecrating the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews, led by the Maccabaeus family, rebelled, eventually recapturing Jerusalem and reconsecrating the temple (an event celebrated in the Jewish holiday Hanukkah). While the rebellion was doubtlessly violent in nature—some scholars see it as an early instance of successful guerilla warfare—a number of Jewish historians emphasize the fact that it was a group of nonviolent Jerusalem Jews who brought the ultimate victory. By peaceably withdrawing into the wilderness in response to the Greek actions and taking their tax “dollars” with them, these Jews, it is argued, forced the Greeks to relent and to accept Jewish worship practices in Jerusalem. Jewish scholars also point to the fact that the passage from Zechariah that is traditionally read on the Sabbath of Hannukah declares: “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit, saith the Lord of the Hosts” (Ferguson 1978, 86).

The ambivalence in Judaism concerning participation in warfare and the use of violence continues to this day in the emotional and often divisive Jewish debate over the proper response by the state of Israel to challenges posed by Palestinians and their fight for statehood.

Religion and War in Christianity: Pacifism, Crusades, and Just Wars

The religious ambivalence toward warfare is perhaps nowhere more graphically evidenced than in the history of Christianity, as adherents of the religion have, at different times (and sometimes simultaneously), embraced pacifism, “holy” crusades, and “just” wars (that is, a war limited by strict moral principles).

For the first three centuries following the crucifixion of Christ (c. 30 CE), the Christian church was almost exclusively nonviolent. Founding its actions upon the teachings of Jesus to love the enemy and Jesus’ refusal to take up arms in order to fight the Romans or even to prevent his own arrest and execution, the early church opposed killing and warfare. Whereas the Roman gods were seen as advocates of the Roman people in their battles against foreign foes, the influential Christian Bishop Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) writes in the second century, “Divinity now pervades all humankind equally . . . deifying humanity” (Pagels 1988, 39).

Christianity’s minority status within the powerful Roman Empire—until 312 CE, Christians constituted no more than 10 percent of the population of the Empire and were periodically subjected to savage persecution at the hands of the state—provided an additional (and, some scholars say, more practical and hence decisive) reason for the Christian rejection of war. As the religious scholar Elaine Pagels (1988, 39) writes: “Christians had discovered a terrible secret: the powers behind the Roman magistrates are not gods . . . but demons, active evil forces bent upon corrupting and destroying human beings.” The state meant death to Christians. As such, Christian complicity in the state, and in the institution of war, was largely rejected and pacifism was embraced. A minority of Christians—including members of most monastic orders, as well as denominations such as the Mennonites—continue to this day to reject all wars.

In 312, Constantine (c. 280–337 CE) became the first Christian leader of the Roman Empire and quickly legalized the practice of Christianity. In 381, Emperor Theodosius (c. 346–395 CE) made Christianity the state religion of the Empire, forbidding the worship of the Roman gods entirely. As Christians for the first time began to ascend to positions of political power, the religion began to consider anew the question of bearing arms. Aurelius Augustine (354–430 CE), the Catholic bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa who is later canonized as St. Augustine, produced one of the most influential works in the history of Christianity, City of God, in which he argued that the state was an instrument provided by a loving God to help keep human sinfulness in check until Christ’s return.

While a kingdom of true and eternal peace will ultimately be established by God, in the interim “the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable, and that the soldiers should perform their military duties in behalf of the peace and safety of the community” (Christopher 1994, 40). Augustine defines “just wars” as those which “avenge injuries . . . punish wrongs . . . or restore what has been unjustly taken” (Christopher 1994, 40). Augustine himself would come to advocate Christians participating as both soldiers and military commanders in wars to fend off the attackers of the Roman Empire, even though he acknowledged that grave injustices would inevitably be committed.

The notion of war as an instrument of the Christian God would reach its logical, if bloody, conclusion in the crusades. The crusades were a series of Christian military expeditions prompted by papal declarations and aimed, at least initially, at the recovery of the Holy Land from Muslim control. Initiated by Pope Urban II (c. 1035–1099) at the Council of Clermont in 1095 and extending for several centuries, the crusades promised participants the remission of their sins if they took up the cross and defended the faith. (The Latin word for cross, crux, is the root of the word “crusade.”) Tens of thousands of European Christians answered the call. Eventually this “defense” of the faith included attacks not only upon Muslims but upon all alleged enemies of the church, including European Jews and Christian heretics, with perhaps hundreds of thousands of people being brutally slaughtered in the name of Christ. One crusader reports, “Wonderful sights: piles of heads, hands, and feet. It was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers” (Baran 1998, 1).

With the end of the crusades, placed variously by scholars between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, came the rise of the Christian just-war tradition. Over the course of several centuries, so-called Scholastic authors such as Francisco Suarez (1548–1617) and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) built upon the foundation established by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to develop a set of moral principles which, while allowing Christian warfare, attempted to place strict limits on its conduct—limits which presumably would prevent the barbaric excesses of the crusades. These principles, which would eventually serve as an important impetus for the founding of international law, consist of the jus ad bellum— rules which establish the circumstances under which Christians may enter war—and the jus in bello—rules covering the ethical conduct of war once it has been initiated. Central to the jus in bello, for instance, is the principle of discrimination, which holds that Christians may kill even noncombatants as long as the deaths are unintentional: “The death of the innocent must not besought for its own sake, but it is an incidental consequence; hence it is not considered as voluntarily inflicted but simply allowed . . . ” (Suarez 1944, 847–848).

In the twenty-first century, although Christians continue to debate various historical attitudes toward warfare, the just-war perspective has come to gain the support of the vast majority of individual Christians and Christian institutions, with jus ad bellum criteria such as “just cause” and “last resort” emerging as central aspects of public debate on initiating war.

Religion and War in Islam: War and Tolerance

Islam is often depicted as a religion that not only allows for but embraces warfare. In reality, the history of the religion is complex and surprisingly pluralistic with regard to issues of violence.

The Qur’an at times is clear in its support of the institution of war: “Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful to you; but it may happen that you hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that you love a thing which is bad for you” (Qur’an 2:216). Such passages combine in Islam with an important historical fact about the prophet Muhammad (571–632 CE): “Muhammad, it will be recalled, was not only a prophet and a teacher, like the founders of other religions; he was also the head of a polity and a community, a ruler and a soldier. Hence his struggle involved the state and its armed forces” (Lewis 1990, 49). In one of the most famous episodes in the founding of Islam, Muhammad flees his native city of Mecca in 622 CE, ridiculed and threatened by the town leaders for his religious teachings. Eight years later, he returns as a conqueror, leading an army of ten thousand into Mecca and converting the city in the process. As John Kelsay (1993, 45), a professor of religion at Florida State University, writes, “At least with respect to the example of Muhammad, then, it was possible to speak of the use of lethal force which was right, in the sense of divinely sanctioned —even divinely commanded.”

The Abbasid caliphate during the classical period of Islamic civilization (c. 750–1258 CE) established an imperial state based in Baghdad and, employing the principles of divinely sanctioned war, ruled an empire extending from Egypt to Spain. During the Christian crusades, Muslim forces enjoyed a series of decisive victories over the crusaders, keeping much of the Middle East in Muslim control. Thus, although pacifism is found in some forms of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), mainstream Islam historically accepts warfare as a God-given instrument.

This does not mean, though, that war is accepted in Islam as a normal and acceptable condition. Far more of the Qur’an speaks of peace than of war: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one that is better. Then lo! He between whom and thee there was enmity will become a bosom friend” (41:34). Even the concept most often associated with the Islamic support of violence, jihad, literally translates from the Arabic as “striving” and not, as it is often translated, as “holy war.” In traditional Islamic thought, the “greater jihad” represents the striving of Muslims to overcome their own tendencies toward selfishness, hatred, and hubris; it does not mandate the slaughtering of infidels. Muhammad’s triumphant return to Mecca is recast accordingly in some Islamic historical sources. In 630 CE, when Muhammad enters the city with his huge army, he asks the Meccan nobles who had threatened his life eight years earlier, “What am I to do with you?” Their leader, Abu Sufyan, replies: “The best.” With that, Muhammad frees all his rivals, in the process converting them to Islam by his generosity. In this strain of Islam, Muhammad rules by justice not fear, war is never initiated by Muslims, but fought defensively and reluctantly, and tolerance is among the highest values.

This moderate vision of Islam has guided much of the religion historically. When the Moors (a Spanish term for Muslim) crossed the Mediterranean to Gibraltar in 711 CE and conquered Spain, they ushered in a seven-hundred-year-long period not of oppression but of cultural flourishing, as Muslim art, architecture, and ideas were peaceably integrated with those of the indigenous culture. The longest continually existing Christian community in the world exists not in Greece, Italy, or England; it is a Coptic Christian community in Egypt, a land dominated by Islam since 700 CE.

Islam’s history with regard to war is thus more varied than many popular contemporary depictions in the West would suggest.

Religion and War in Hinduism: From Kshatriya to Ahimsa

War would seem to hold an unquestioned position of acceptance in Hinduism. The structure of the caste system suggests as much, with the Kshatriya (warrior) constituting one of the four main social classes. While classical Hinduism traditionally holds that all of creation is infused with a spark of the divine and killing is thus not to be taken lightly, the warrior’s dharma (duty) to fight is consistently judged to outweigh this consideration. The Mahabharata, one of the greatest epic poems in all of world religious literature, examines the dilemma faced by the Kshatriya and concludes: “Since those evil actions belong to the duties of your profession, the penalty of evil karma will not attach to you” (Ferguson 1978, 29). In fact, the entire Mahabharata tells the tale of a great multigenerational war between members of the Bharata clan. In its most beloved segment, the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna debates whether to fulfill his dharma to fight or his dharma to protect life, since the two seem to be incompatible; he is told by Krishna, an avatar of the great god Vishnu, quite directly: “Fight, O Bharata!”

Not surprisingly, then, war is common in the history of Hinduism. Candragupta and his son Samudragupta, two soldier-monarchs and unapologetic conquerors, established the Gupta Empire (320–484 CE), often viewed as the golden age of Hinduism. In the early eleventh century, when the Muslim Mahmud of Ghazna (971–1030 CE) invaded India, Hindus fought fiercely to defend the temple with, according to some accounts, fifty thousand men dying in a single battle. The Rajputs—calling themselves the “sword arm of Hindustan” and the protectors of the Brahmans —emerged in the ninth century and have fought foreign challengers to Hinduism ever since.

There is a counterstrain in Hinduism, though, found in the Upanishads and other sacred texts. In the Chandogya Upanishad, ahimsa (nonharmfulness or nonviolence) is seen as a foundational Hindu value, equal in importance to austerity, almsgiving, uprightness, and trustfulness. Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), the great spiritual and political leader of twentiethcentury India, was the most influential advocate of ahimsa. In his teachings, Gandhi attempted to explain classical Hindu works that had for centuries been seen to support the warrior life as in fact embodiments of the principle of nonviolence. The Mahabharata, Gandhi argues, ends by depicting not the glory but the futility of war; Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita tells Arjuna to fight, but only as a means of illustrating to Arjuna the essential incompatibility of violent acts and the spiritual obligation to remain unattached to the “fruits of action.” Gandhi emerges with an approach to combating evil, which is both grounded in Hinduism and entirely nonviolent. As he writes, “I seek to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance” (Ferguson 1978, 38).

Hence, while Hinduism traditionally preserves a privileged place for the warrior, in recent decades a revisionist interpretation of Hinduism, founded on the rejection of war and violence suggested by Gandhi and others, has become highly influential.

Religion and War in Buddhism: From No Harm to the Warrior Ethic

Buddhism may well be the major religious tradition that has most consistently rejected warfare, but the history of even this religion is far from uniform.

The first of the Five Precepts of Buddhism, incumbent on monks and laity alike, is to not take life nor be a party to its taking. This prohibition applies equally to war, murder, and the killing of animals for food or ritual sacrifice. According to the Dhammapada, “Everyone is afraid of violence; everyone likes life. If one compares oneself with others one would never take life or be involved in the taking of life” (Ferguson 1978, 47). The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 566–c. 486 BCE), preached and lived by a code that mandated the causing of no harm, and he attracted many adherents to pacifism, both in his lifetime and beyond. The Maurya emperor Asoka (c. 270–232 BCE) was a military imperialist who, upon converting to Buddhism, established a welfare state, prohibiting all killing. The pervasive effect of the Buddha’s teachings with respect to pacifism can be seen in the harsh words of Yuan Tchen (779–831 CE), who chastises Buddhists for using their religion as an excuse for shirking military duty.

Yet the historical Buddha, born into the Hindu Kshatriya caste, is also regularly depicted as employing martial analogies, even after his awakening to Buddha status. The Sutra of 42 Sections records: “A man practicing the Way is like a lone man in combat against ten thousand. . . . [S]ome retreat; some reach battle and die; some are victorious and return to their kingdoms triumphantly” (Sharf 1996, 45). The Suttanipata draws a distinction between accidental and intentional killing and, like the principle of discrimination in Christianity, condemns only the latter. In fact, all major strains of Buddhism, including both Theravada and Mahayana, contain important historical instances of support for war. In China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), Buddhist monks were accorded military honors for their actions and, in 619, five thousand of them led a violent uprising that resulted in one monk proclaiming himself emperor with the title of “Mahayana.” In Korea, kings historically recruited thousands of Buddhist monks into the military—to fight the Mongols in the fourteenth century, the Japanese in the sixteenth, and the Manchus in the seventeenth.

After Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 1192, it became the religion of the soldiered aristocracy and contributed to the emergence of the Bushido ideal, the way of the Samurai warrior. In the 1930s and 1940s, a series of Zen masters in Japan used the Zen notion that truth lies beyond reason (and that there are thus no absolute moral principles) to excuse and even to support military aggression on behalf of Japanese imperialism, with Daiun Sogaku Harada Roshi (1870–1961) declaring, “The unity of Zen and war . . . extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now underway” (Baran 1998, 1).

Thus, Buddhism, like Christianity, begins historically with a rejection of war and comes, over the course of centuries, to accept and even embrace warfare as an aspect of religious duty.

The Religion and War Relationship Considered

Does war shape religion or does religion shape war? As the above examples indicate, the answer is almost surely both. Religious beliefs are often adopted and adapted to support political enterprises of various sorts, and warfare is a prominent instance of the political use of religion. But historically, religions have also used warfare as an instrument for their own advance, initiating wars or prompting others to do so on their behalf. While war remains an accepted part of the mainstream components of all the leading world religious traditions, it continues to raise the question pondered by ancient religions: is war the instrument of society’s preservation or the source of its destruction?


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