30 Years of Research in Review














Fighting the 'Good' Fight:
THE RETURN OF THE RELIGIOUS WAR

The world's worst wars were fought over ideology. But killing each other in the name of religion has never been out of fashion.
by John Kelsay

Perhaps as none before it, the 20th century began on a theme of hope for increased cooperation and peaceful initiatives between adherents of the world's religions. On the century's eve, in fact, the 1893 Parliament of World Religions stood as one of the great expressions of such hope, as representatives of various religious traditions championed a world civilization with shared religious values at its core.

Today, there is much to validate this hope. Advances in information technology, economic and environmental interdependence, and a new emphasis on respect for diversity may all be seen as evidence of an increasingly global civilization.

For religion scholars, the phenomenon of globalization promises much. After all, all religious traditions in some sense emphasize the hope that humanity can live in a peaceable kingdom, where, in the biblical phrase, "the wolf shall (lie down) with the lamb." The story of research in religion at century's close might well be focused on increased cooperation between religious groups in the service of peace. But, sadly, it is not so. What began as a time of so much promise for religion's contribution to global peace has become a time of revival for religious war.

What happened?

The answers lie in what grew out of a worldwide, intellectual movement prevalent in the first decades of the 20th century-the so-called Social Gospel Movement-in the wake of World War I. This movement, allied with the more wide-ranging Progressive Movement, trumpeted the moral potential of humanity and held an idealistic, even utopian vision of society. Social Gospel writers called for the elimination of social ills through reform measures based on biblical principles of charity and justice. Adherents were convinced, especially after seeing the devastation wrought by the WWI, that as a means of settling conflicts among nations, war was outdated.

Perhaps no better expression of the movement's approach to war may be found than in the lyrics of the great hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory," written by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the most popular American preacher of the 1920s:

Cure Thy children's warring madness
Bend our pride to Thy control
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness
Rich in things and poor in soul
Grant us wisdom
Grant us courage
Lest we miss Thy kingdom's goal

The notion that war is, like "madness," a thing to be "cured" found more scholarly expression in the writing of American theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Head of the Social Gospel movement in the U.S., Rauschenbusch joined calls to resist the evils of war; with the conviction that human beings must, and therefore would, find nonviolent ways of resolving international conflicts.

In other words, the thinking was that the evils of war are so great (more than 10 million dead in World War I alone) that there must be a better way to resolve disputes among peoples. And where better to start than with bold resolutions to never again participate in the collective madness of international war? Thus, the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 codified in international law the hope of a new generation-with the stroke of a pen, war was eliminated as a legal means of solving disputes among nations. War, never again!

For all its optimism and idealism, however, the movement drew powerful critics who discounted it as being unrealistic. The alarming growth of totalitarian regimes in Europe by 1930 fueled such criticism.

Among the staunchest critic in the U.S. was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the noted intellectual and liberal Protestant theologian. Niebuhr said that the idealism of the Social Gospel writers, while admirable, failed the test of moral and political realism.

In thinking about war, as about politics in general, Niebuhr held that one needs "to take all factors in a social and political situation...into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power." Put more simply, in a world where (by 1933) National Socialism and Stalinism were brutally using military force to achieve their aims, one had to admit the necessity of war as a means of resisting-even destroying-evil.

For Niebuhr, religion provided a way of thinking about political life that balanced moral ideals against political realities. Religious faith points not to the abolition of war, he argued, but to a hope "beyond history" that human beings may eventually live in a peaceable kingdom on Earth. As such, religion provides expression to humanity's deepest aspirations, and sets the attainment of peace as an ideal for which people ought to hope and work.

At the same time, Niebuhr argued, religion does not suggest that human beings can attain lasting peace in any actual, historical moment. The best they can achieve is "peace of a sort," a more or less stable equilibrium between moral ideals and power interests. With this in mind, conflict between political communities is to be expected. In particular cases, religious values support war as a tragic, though justifiable means of policy.

Justified War: A Western Model

Niebuhr's ideas rang true with many religious thinkers, political theorists, and policymakers, who found particular solace in his descriptions of the ambiguity of political life, the difficulty of choices, and the resistance of politics to moral ideals. That very ambiguity, however, became the focus of criticism for a subsequent generation of religious thinkers.

If Niebuhr was the "father" of realism, then Fr. John Courtney Murray, and with him the Methodist scholar Paul Ramsey, were the "fathers" who begat the renewal of the so-called "just war" tradition, an idea which has fairly dominated scholarship on religion and war from the late 1950s to the present.

For Murray, Ramsey, and many others, the idea of the just war-a war that is morally legitimate-was, in Ramsey's words, "the working politico-military doctrine" of Western civilization. Ramsey, in particular, sought to relate its components to the Cold War world of wars of insurgency, aerial bombardment, and above all, nuclear deterrence.

The most widely read expression of just-war thinking was a pastoral letter entitled The Challenge of Peace published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983. The document remarkably raised public awareness about the concept of the just war, finding audiences far more extensive and diverse than Murray, Ramsey, or others could have hoped for. Draft copies of the letter were sent to officials of the Reagan Administration, whose responses, widely reported in the press, were then incorporated into the final text.

Among other points made by then-National Security Advisor William Clark, for example, was a clarification of U.S. deterrence policy. As Clark put it, the policy should not be described (as it was in popular terminology) of "mutual assured destruction." This phrase, suggesting a strategy built on deliberate targeting of an enemy's civilian population, had attracted widespread and vigorous criticism from just-war thinkers, who unanimously declared that a just war should preclude the deliberate and intentional targeting of civilians.

Clark claimed that U.S. policy was simply designed to target Soviet military power, and should thus be characterized as counterforce, rather than counterpopulation warfare.

The bishops, while appreciative of Clark's distinctions, continued to find reasons to criticize U.S. deterrence policy. Given the placement of Soviet military installations, there could be no question that even a limited and carefully targeted use of nuclear weapons would result in large-scale civilian deaths. In just-war terms, one might say that Clark's characterization answered questions about the targeting of civilians, but raised other questions about the proportionality between means and ends.

Would the benefit gained from destroying Soviet military installations outweigh the "collateral" damage to civilian life?

As the bishops saw it, the answer was no. And their call, in the end, was for U.S. policymakers to find alternatives to nuclear weapons as a way of deterring Soviet aggression.

It is always difficult to assess the impact of ideas on policy. Nevertheless, when the U.S. conducted its first post-Cold War, large-scale military operation in the Gulf War in 1991, many claimed to see the influence of just-war studies in the heavy reliance upon "smart" (that is to say, precise and discriminate) bombs and Patriot (defense-oriented) missiles. More generally, the concern of U.S. leaders in avoiding direct and intentional targeting of civilians was taken by some as a result of the way just-war ideas had made their way into training at West Point, the U.S. War College and other military education settings.

Sanctified Warfare

Even before the end of the Cold War, some scholars were beginning to ask about the relationship of the just-war tradition, as an accomplishment of Western culture, to other traditions of warfare. One of the most outstanding characteristics of the post-Cold War era, in fact, was the return of religious, or "holy" war-war in which religion provides an important source of legitimation and inspiration for military action. In one sense, "holy" war is one of the oldest ways for humans to think about war. In the texts that come down to us from ancient Israel (for Christians, the Old Testament; for Jews, the Bible), we find images of divinely authorized campaigns against enemies. Throughout the history of Christianity and of Islam, the notion of war fought for religious reasons is a familiar theme.

Indeed, it would not be wrong, in both these cases, to see religious war as a type (in Islam, even the archetype) of just war. One fought for religious or religiously legitimate purposes; and in Islam, in particular, one also fought according to religiously legitimated rules. The just-war concern for noncombatant immunity, for example, was, in Islamic terms, justified by commands of God and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

At the same time, the fear inspired by such warfare was always that it would violate just-war limits. Here, the idea was simple: Religious values are in some sense ultimate values. To fight in the name of religion is to raise the stakes, since to suffer defeat is a blow to the cause of that which is most important. By the same token, those who oppose religious values (one's enemies) are the opponents of that which is most valuable. What will stop religious warriors from identifying their enemies as the enemies of God? And what will keep them from imposing punishments deemed proportionate to the crime of resisting God?

In the case of ancient Israel, few would deny that the images presented are terrifying. The book of Joshua provides a good example: "(The Israelites) utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and donkey, with the edge of the sword." (Chap. 6, Vs. 21, et al)

In fact, the history of warfare is filled with examples of how religious war can quickly become total war. Much of modern, just-war thinking thus features an attempt to limit direct invocations of religion in war. As the Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria wrote, in a phrase that became something of a motto for the just-war philosophy, "difference in religion is not a just cause of war."

To many, a number of post-Cold War conflicts defy Vitoria's prescription. In the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to rally Muslim support under the umbrella of jihad or religiously ordained struggle. In the former Yugoslavia, conflicts between Serbs and Croats; Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims; and most recently, Serbs and Kosovar Muslims have been depicted in religious terms. In the former Soviet Union, fighting between Armenian Christians and Azerbaijani Muslims carries a religious tinge, as does fighting between Muslims and Russians in and around Chechnya.

In every case, we find groups that tell a story in which they fight to right injustices against them. The story legitimates them in a struggle to regain control over territory; at the same time, it incriminates their enemies as the perpetrators of injustice, or as the beneficiaries of injustices committed by others. And, most importantly for our purposes, the story trades on religion as an important aspect of group (and thus, of personal) identity.

So, in conflicts between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, the terms "Christian" or "crusader" come to be interchangeable with "Serb," and "Islamic militant" comes to be interchangeable with "Bosniac." The continuing presence of the perpetrators of injustice in the defined territory is held to be at least an irritant, at most an abomination. And justice requires that this presence be restricted, or even eliminated. Thus, we see the reemergence of religious war, and in some cases, of notions of such war as total war. More than that, it may be that this trend is not limited to conflicts in which participants are inheritors of traditions usually associated with religious war-i.e., Christians and Muslims. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala nationalists see Buddhism as an important element in Sinhala identity, and invoke notions of the isle of Lanka as a Buddhist land in connection with efforts to contain a Tamil minority; or in India, where Hindu communalists speak about, and sometimes act against, the perceived threat to a Hindu nation posed by Muslim and Christian minorities, one seems to find evidence of the renewal of religious war, and perhaps even new types of such war.

Wars and Rumors Of Wars...

When the conflict in Bosnia first began to capture the attention of CNN and other American news networks, a retired Yugoslav military officer was quoted as saying: "This [religious war] is a throwback to medieval times. It has no place in modern Europe."

Given more recent developments, one might wonder whether this officer was engaged in wishful thinking. At century's end, when scholars interested in the connections between religion and war find themselves increasingly occupied with conflicts reminiscent of those wars characterized by the gentleman as "medieval," one might better speak of Bosnia, not as throwback, but as portent.

What will be the story of religion and war for the next quarter century? From all indications, it will be less the story of enhanced diplomatic initiatives-fostered by the ever-growing interconnections in economy, information technology, and environmental awareness-and more the story of increasingly bloody conflict, fostered by a resurgence of group identities. In such conflict, religion will serve less as a force for peace, more as one of several factors establishing differences between groups, and legitimating their irreconcilable claims. Considering the emphasis of writers at the beginning of the 20th century, it's an ironic commentary-but at century's end, we should prepare to see religion less in the service of peace; more in the service of a particularly bloody kind of war.

Dr. John Kelsay (Ph.D. Virginia) teaches and writes in the area of comparative religious ethics. His books include Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures (with David Little and Abdulaziz Sachedina (U. South Carolina Press, 1988); Cross, Crescent, and Sword and Just War and Jihad (both volumes edited with James Turner Johnson; Greenwood Press, 1990 and 1991); and Islam and War (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). Since 1996, Kelsay has served as chair of FSU's religion department. He may be reached at (850) 644-1020 or at Jkelsay@garnet.acns.fsu.edu.

"It is Hell, of course, that makes priests powerful, not Heaven, for after thousands of years of so-called civilization fear remains the one common denominator of mankind."" H.L. Mencken

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." H.L. Mencken

"An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup." H.L. Mencken