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Behind the Facade of Holy War
by Brian Victoria
Centre for Asian Studies The University of Adelaide

Brian Victoria Page

As the world remembers the terrorist attack of September 11 a year on, the words “holy war” have left an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness. We ask, with a mixture of disbelief and outrage, how the terrorist perpetrators could have convinced themselves that their barbaric acts were in any way “holy”?

In seeking to answer this question, many commentators point to the Islamic faith of the terrorists. Isn’t Islamic fundamentalism, if not Islam as a whole, a violence-prone religion inciting followers to kill non-Muslims in pursuit of their fanatical goals?

In the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad does call on the faithful to kill Islam’s adversaries. Sura ii, for example, states: “Slay [unbelievers] wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places they drove you from. Idolatry is worse than war. . . . If they mend their ways, know that God is forgiving and merciful. Fight them until idolatry is no more, and God’s religion is supreme.” Small wonder then, that the Taliban saw the ‘idolatrous’ Great Buddha at Bamiyan as meriting destruction.

If the Taliban and violence-condoning passages in the Qur’an were the whole story, non-Muslims could take comfort in the fact that “holy war” was a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, reflecting a singularly intolerant, if not bloodthirsty, faith. Accordingly, the ultimate solution to Islamic terrorism would be for Muslims to change their thinking, if not abandon their faith, and adopt the values of the secular and liberal West.

Such a change assumes, however, that the idea of holy war does not exist in the ‘Christian’ West. True, Church leaders did once exhort the faithful to take up the sword in the blood-soaked Crusades of the 11th-13th centuries, but that was centuries ago and, thanks especially to the Protestant Reformation, the West long ago renounced such acts as “unChristian”.

Yet, if the Protestant Reformation contributed to a rekindling of a loving Christian spirit, how does one account for the following passage in Martin Luther’s 1523 treatise, Secular Authority: “If your opponent is your equal, your inferior, or of a foreign government, you should first offer him justice and peace, as Moses taught the children of Israel. If he is unwilling, then use your best strategy and defend yourself by force against force . . . . And in such a war it is a Christian act and an act of love confidently to kill, rob, and pillage the enemy, and to do everything that can injure him until one has conquered him according to the methods of war . . . . Such happenings must be considered as sent of God, that He may now and then cleanse the land and drive out the knaves”.

Luther was of course not the first to endorse warfare as God’s instrument to “drive out the knaves”. Thanks to the earlier teachings of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church had long embraced the belief that a “just war” was in accord with God’s will. And as the above passage graphically illustrates, the belief in just war made its way unchanged from Catholic to mainstream Protestant Christianity. If anything, in calling the faithful to “rob and pillage” the enemy, not just kill him, Luther went beyond the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas. Thus, the holy war of the Crusades did not disappear in the West but was only transmuted into support for a so-called just war.

What is amazing about the words of Muhammad and Luther quoted above is how similar they are in spirit even though they represent the thinking of two leaders of disparate religions, separated by nearly a thousand years of history. It was this universal religious sanctioning of violence, continuing even to the present-day, that led Martin Marty of the University of Chicago to comment in 1997: “One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills. Or, if, as the gun lobbies say of weapons -- that they do not kill; people do -- one must say of religion that if it does not kill, many of its forms and expressions motivate people to kill”.

Needless to say, Marty did not claim that killing was the only thing that religion did, for he readily admitted that over the centuries religion has also brought great comfort and well-being to its followers. But he insisted that we minimize or ignore the distress that can come from religion at our peril.

One cause for the intimate relationship between religion and violence has been found in the historically close connection between institutional religion and the state. As early as 1932 theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted: “The nation is always endowed with an aura of the sacred, which is one reason why religions, which claim universality, are so easily captured and tamed by national sentiment, religion and patriotism merging in the process”.

Sociologist Peter Berger points to yet another cause for this close relationship -- the reality of death on the battlefield. Berger writes: “Whenever a society must motivate its members to kill or to risk their lives, thus consenting to being placed in extreme marginal situations, religious legitimations become important. . . . Killing under the auspices of the legitimate authorities has, for this reason, been accompanied from ancient times to today by religious paraphernalia and ritualism. Men go to war and men are put to death amid prayers, blessings, and incantations”.

Few would deny soldiers facing death on the battlefield the comfort of pastoral care in the form of military chaplains. Yet it is also clear that the chaplaincy does more than simply minister to the religious needs of individual soldiers. It also validates, even makes sacred, the act of killing. For example, in 1995 Major Gary Perry, a Protestant chaplain at Yokota AFB in Tokyo, was asked about the relationship between the Christian teaching prohibiting killing and the US military. Maj. Perry replied: “I interpret killing as a willful taking of life for personal gain, or because of hate or convenience. I view the military as an institution that when going to war, takes life to save people. . . . I believe it’s sometimes necessary to kill in order to preserve life”.

At first glance, Perry position seems eminently reasonable, based as it is on just war doctrine. Yet the fundamental problem with this position is dramatically revealed in a statement of support for Japan’s invasion of China issued by the leaders of Japan’s major Buddhist sects on July 28, 1937: “In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’”.

As peace activist and Jesuit Daniel Berrigen notes so incisively: “Everybody has always killed the bad guys. Nobody kills the good guys. The Church is tainted in this way as well. The Church plays the same cards; it likes the taste of imperial power too. This is the most profound kind of betrayal I can think of. Terrible! Jews and Christians and Buddhists and all kinds of people who come from a good place, who come from revolutionary beginnings and are descended from heroes and saints. This can all be lost, you know. We can give it all up. And we do. Religion becomes another resource for the same old death-game”.

The historical truth of Berrigen’s comments is demonstrated first of all by the Crusades of the Middle Ages. While the Crusades are now long forgotten in the West, they have never been forgotten in the Islamic world. As Church historian Paul Johnson notes: “The effect of the Crusades was to undermine the intellectual content of Islam, to destroy the chances of peaceful adjustment to Christianity, and to make the Muslims far less tolerant: crusading fossilized Islam into a fanatic posture”.

Johnson further reveals that the religious justification given for the Crusades, i.e. to free the Holy Land from Muslim control, was nothing more than a cloak for something far less noble. “The Crusades were not missionary ventures”, Johnson argues, “but wars of conquest and primitive experiments in colonization; and the only specific Christian institutions they produced, the three knightly orders, were military”.

While the “Age of Discovery” began with Columbus’ celebrated voyages, European imperialism has its roots in the Crusades, ostensibly carried out in defense of the faith. As European powers competed (and warred) with one another to carve out empires for themselves, Christian missionaries offered the colonized peoples a Faustian bargain: promise of eternal life in heaven in exchange for control of their lands on earth. Napoleon understood this well when he observed: “The religious missions may be very useful to me in Asia, Africa, and America, as I shall make them reconnoitre all the lands they visit. The sanctity of their dress will not only protect them but serve to conceal their political and commercial investigations”.

The success Napoleon and his successors enjoyed in Asia is demonstrated by the eventual creation, in the mid-nineteenth century, of French Indo-china. In an oft-repeated pattern of Western colonization, French Catholic missionaries served as vanguards for French military and commercial interests, ensuring that France, like Britain with its Protestant missionaries, reigned supreme in their respective colonies. In return, the Catholic Church became the single largest landowner in all of Indo-china and was granted special privileges in religious instruction, education and social welfare, even though the great majority of the population was Buddhist.

US leaders also appreciated the importance of religion as a cloak for their imperial ambitions. In 1898 President William McKinley justified the US colonization of the Philippines to a group of American clergymen as follows: “I went on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And then one night it came to me this way -- that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilise and Christianise them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died”.

The irony of these words is, of course, that they are identical in spirit to those used by Spanish Catholic Church leaders to justify their own country’s three hundred year control of the Philippines. Furthermore, like the Spanish before them, the Americans were quite willing to use brute force to maintain their grip on the country. For example, following the outbreak of a war of independence at the beginning of 1899, General Jake Smith directed his subordinates to invade the island of Samar. “I want you to kill and burn”, he ordered, “the more you kill and burn the better it will please me”. Anyone over the age of 10 who did not surrender was to be shot.

Australia received a chance to share the spoils of the imperialist club as its reward for participating in WW I. Not, however, before the Melbourne Synod of the Anglican Church had assured Australian soldiers and their parents of the justness of their cause. In 1916 the Synod declared: “We are convinced that the forces of the Allies are being used of God to vindicate the rights of the weak and to maintain the moral order of the world”.

In the Church's mind there could be no question that this war, like all the wars Australia had fought on behalf of the British empire, was both just and moral. Thus the Church remained silent when at war's end Australia took over administrative control of Germany's resource rich colony of New Guinea. The Church was similarly silent when Prime Minister Billy Hughes vehemently rejected Japan’s request at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference for a statement in support of racial equality.

Closer to our own times, it must not be forgotten that the leaders of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Europe remained silent, on the whole, in the face of Hitler's Holocaust against Jews and other "inferior races”. This silence is explained, at least in part, by the following statement made by Pope Pius XII on 30 July 1941: “Hitler’s war is a noble enterprise in the defense of European culture”.

Surely the time has come for adherents of all the world's religions to take a critical look at the historical relationship of their own faith to warfare and violence whether initiated by the state or terrorist sub-groups. Couched in Christian terms, is there any world religion whose adherents in large numbers can claim to have always, or even consistently, or even once "loved one's enemy and done good to those who abuse you"?

By all means let the peoples of the world call on Muslims, like believers of all faiths, to forswear the practice, if not the belief, that the taking of human life can ever be a sacred or holy act, let alone a requirement of one’s faith. Yet at the same time, let those of us who are non-Muslims humbly remind ourselves of the Biblical injunction: “Physician heal thyself”.

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