WORLD RELIGIONS: WAR AND PEACE
What follows is a very brief summary of what the world’s major religions say about war - and peace. Of course, religious beliefs are often complicated; individuals and groups within each religion often have different views; and religious affiliation is often closely associatedwith partisan emotions.
A summary can only give a very limited picture. But it can open a door to understanding the links between religion and war.
War: wrong, just or holy?
- The pacifist view: all violence and killing is wrong.
The term 'non-violence' was actually coined in English (about 1920) by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) as a direct translation of ‘ahimsa’, 'avoiding harm to others'. The idea of non-violence was very important to Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking and actions as a Hindu leader during India's approach to independence in 1947. He wrote:
In Hinduism, however, there is another tradition. The Hindu scripture called the 'Bhagavad Gita' tells the story of Arjuna, who learns it is his duty to fight as a member of the soldier caste. Arjuna is told by his chariot driver Krishna, who is really the god Vishnu in human form, that:
‘Even without you, all the soldiers standing armed for battle will not stay alive. Their death is foreordained.’ Bhagavad Gita 11:32-3
In the story Arjuna overcomes his doubts and fights, even though he knows it means killing some of his own family. Strict rules, however, are laid down for war: cavalry may only go into action against cavalry, infantry against infantry and so on. The wounded, runaways, and all civilians are to be respected. The idea of a Just War is represented here.
How did Gandhi deal with this story in a scripture he loved? He thought of it as an allegory, and interpreted it as meaning that one should certainly engage in struggle, but only by means of non-violence. Certainly one should not kill anyone. However, not all Hindus interpret the story in Gandhi’s way.
Buddhism developed from the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha (c.563 - 483 BC), who believed that human suffering could be overcome by following a particular way of life. The first precept of Buddhism is 'non-harming' (ahimsa): Buddhists reject violence. Buddhism is clearly pacifist in its teaching, and many Buddhists say quite bluntly that it is ‘better to be killed than to kill’. Some Buddhists have been very active in promoting peace, particularly during the Vietnam War (1961- 1975), when they offered a 'Third Way' of reconciliation between the American and Communist armies. Some Buddhist monks burned themselves to death in self-sacrificing protest against the war.
Buddhism perhaps has the best record of all religions for non-violence. However, Buddhists in Sri Lanka have been criticised for oppressing the Tamil minority there (Tamils are a mostly Hindu people whose origins are in southern India)
Buddhism, like all religions, seeks to be ethical. Confucianism and Taoism, which both developed in China, also share similar principles with Buddhism. For example, they seek to adjust human life to the inner harmony of nature (Confucianism) and emphasise mediation and non-violence as means to the higher life (Taoism). The founders of these religions, Confucius and Lao-Tsze, lived in the same period as Buddha, the 6th century BC.
The tenth and last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) was a general as well as a Guru. In order to strengthen the courage and military discipline of the Sikhs at a time of great persecution, he organised the Khalsa - the Sikh brotherhood. Guru Gobind Singh expressed the idea of 'Just War' as follows:
‘When all efforts to restore peace prove
But the idea of 'Holy War' is not found in Sikhism. A central teaching of Sikhism is respect for people of all faiths.
Peace is the central teaching of rabbinical Judaism (teachings based on the writings of early Jewish scholars). However, Judaism is not a pacifist religion. The idea of Holy War occurs in the Hebrew Bible, but it was not about making others Jewish, but about survival.
The idea of 'Just War' is clearly expressed both in the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 20:10-15,19-20) and in the later rabbinical tradition. So while revenge and unprovoked aggression are condemned, self defence is justified. Jews have been victims of dreadful persecution, usually at the hands of Christians, for nearly two thousand years, culminating in the Holocaust during the Second World War (1939-1945). On the other hand, defending modern Israel and dealing justly with the Palestinians places thoughtful Jews in difficult dilemmas.
Pacifism was the teaching and practice of the Christian Church until the Roman Emperor Constantine (274-337) made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Pacifism then largely gave way to the development of the 'Just War' doctrine. Politics and religion were able to endorse each other in going to war.
In the Middle Ages the Crusades were fought mainly to recover the Holy Land (the area between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan) from Muslim rule. Today most Christians would be ashamed of the terrible cruelty and injustice to which the Crusades gave rise. Most Christians would also be ashamed of the later persecution of heretics (people who did not accept the official teachings of the Christian church) and non-Christians (such as Jews).
The majority of present-day Christians support the idea that war is regrettable but unavoidable and should be fought according to 'Just War' rules. Pacifism is a minority position held by some Christians in the larger denominations (Roman Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, etc.). The Quakers, Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites together make up the historical 'peace churches', with a long tradition of pacifist belief and action.
The question remains: which position on war is the most faithful to the teaching of Jesus, who advised his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ and who, when arrested, forbade a disciple to use a sword?
Islamic teaching is often misunderstood in the West, particularly on the matter ofJihad. What does Jihad mean? One scholar wrote: 'Jihad means to ‘strive’ or ‘struggle’ in the way of God.' Jihad has two further meanings:
- the duty of all Muslims, as individuals and as a community, to exert themselves to realise God’s will, to lead good lives, and to extend the Islamic community through such things as preaching and education, and :
In the West Jihad has retained only the meaning of 'Holy War'.
However, it is more correct to say that there are four different kinds of Jihad::
All faithful Muslims are thus involved in a continuous 'greater jihad' which is largely non-violent. 'The lesser jihad', war, is commanded by Allah but must be carried out acording to strict rules.
There is a sense in which the lesser jihad is both 'Holy War' and 'Just War'. But it is not about making others Muslim, although some Muslims believe it is. The Qur’an says: ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion’.
One Muslim became widely known for his practice of non-violence. Abdul Gaffar Khan, a member of the often warlike Pathans on the north-west frontier of India, adopted Gandhi’s ideas in leading his people to independence with the establishment of Pakistan. He became known as ‘the Frontier Gandhi’. Like Gandhi, he was often imprisoned.
The Humanist View
Some humanists would accept the ‘Golden Rule’, a term first used by Confucius: 'Do as you would be done by', or 'Treat others as you would wish them to treat you’. Some see the natural or logical conclusion of such a principle to be the rejection of all war and violence. Others, who have reservations about pacifism, argue for 'Just War' rules similar to those based on religious law.
Was Gandhi right?