Holy War

We are wont to readily condemn Muslims for waging holy war and rightly so. The very word “jihad” strikes terror in our fearful hearts; however, we often overlook the fact that Christians too have engaged in holy wars for centuries. It is ironic that the church that was founded by the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth came to sanction, condone and even bless holy war. Calling these wars crusades does not make them any less warlike.
Christians in the first three centuries practiced the nonviolence of Jesus. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. “Put away your swords.” “Return good for evil.” Some will try to dismiss this claim by saying that Christians refused to serve because they would have to wear symbols proclaiming the divinity of Caesar. This is partially true. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence that Christians refused to serve because they heeded Jesus’ nonviolent message. Early church writings speak of harsh penalties for those who kill in war.
Men being men (no gender bias intended), some theologians thought it best to abandon nonviolence. People have an evil streak and the millennium has yet to arrive. Therefore, we will have wars. Let’s develop a moral theory to ameliorate the horrors of war. The just war theory began to emerge as various theologians/philosophers put their twists on the requirements for just war. The work of these well-intentioned theologians had disastrous consequences.
The just war theory morphed into the holy war theory. Gradually, it came to be acceptable to kill nonbelievers who did not embrace the faith and believers who questioned tenets of the faith. How bizarre to contemplate the great Benedictine, St. Bernard, preaching a crusade. How incredible that a doctor of the church, St. Catherine of Siena, counseled princes to stop killing one another and to go off and kill infidels. How preposterous to envision Pope Urban II leading his own army. The imperial church had meshed fully with the powers and principalities.
Having studied the history of Ireland and having travelled there, I witnessed the aftermath of centuries of holy war. Imperial greed led England to colonize Ireland much like they colonized America. After the Reformation (was it really a reformation?), the descendants of the original colonists were loyal to the British throne and embraced Protestantism. The more numerous but also poorer Irish remained loyal Catholic Christians. Cromwell waged a furious and brutal holy war against the Catholics. A mural in the Shankill Protestant-Loyalist section of Belfast extols Cromwell and his war on Catholics. Murals in the Catholic-Nationalist Falls Road area sing the praises of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).


In recent years, Ian Paisley has led the Unionists and Gerry Adams has led the IRA. The Protestant-Unionist Ulster Volunteer Force and other paramilitary units and the Catholic-Nationalist Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary units have waged holy war on one another. “You kill some of ours and we will kill some of yours.” The terrorism of holy war has led to countless civilian casualties. We met a lovely lady in Ireland who had lost both legs and an arm in a terrorist attack. Fortunately, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams have sat at the same table and shred governance of Northern Ireland has been restored. The Troubles, as the Irish dub the conflict, have died down. However, I sense that the centuries-old tensions are still bubbling just beneath the surface. Murals, monuments to the partisan dead, and parades exacerbate the tensions.
With this as background, I am firmly convinced that we must return to the Gospel value of nonviolence. God is on nobody’s side in war. God is a God of peace and mercy, justice and compassion. God lets the rain and the sun fall on the just and unjust alike.
The just war theory has run its course. No one has ever followed the principles of the theory before going to war, while waging war or after the war. The theory does not prevent our inhumanity to one another. Once you wander away from Jesus’ message and start making exceptions there is no end. Holy war is the logical outcome of the just war theory. Violence begets violence in a vicious cycle of death.
Recently, President Bush told us that he would rest content in his retirement years in Crawford, Texas because he acts on principles. Given his record, I would conclude that the principles are violence, death, indiscriminate killing of innocent people for oil and water, greed, conquest and continued American hegemony. I dare to suggest that he might rest more comfortably in his retirement years had he followed the Gospel values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice and peace.
It is time for all of us to realize that our security does not come from Homeland Security. Jesus repeatedly tells us, “Do not be afraid.” In spite of his assurances that we, like the sparrows, are cared for, we build arsenals to protect ourselves from purported enemies. It is time to return to the radical Gospel values and make an attempt to inculcate them in our personal lives and in our life as a nation among other nations. We are all brothers and sisters in God however we name God.

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