How Do Different Faiths View War?

In light of the many violent conflicts around the
world involving people of different faith traditions — Christians,
Muslims, Jews, and others — what's the difference between Christianity
and
other religions when it comes to making decisions about war?
T.D. New Haven, CT 


 In light of the many violent conflicts around the
world involving people of different faith traditions — Christians,
Muslims, Jews, and others — what's the difference between Christianity
and
other religions when it comes to making decisions about war? 

T.D.  New Haven, CT

 

Despite
the political tensions which divide Christian, Jewish, and Islamic
communities from one another, the three faiths have a lot in common in
the way they think about the use of force. Of course, each includes a
range of positions, from pacifist or mystical traditions that reject
war to more militant views that seem easily stirred to violence. What
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share, however, is a broad mainstream
in each faith that views war as always regrettable, sometimes
necessary, and permissible only under certain conditions.

 

Key
among those conditions is that the faithful do not use violence to
advance their personal ends or to enrich themselves. If force is to be
used, it must be to relieve those who are oppressed or to defend the
community of faith from aggression. The war, once begun, must serve
those ends and be disciplined by those purposes, so that random acts of
vengeance and excessive violence are not permitted. In Christianity,
these ideas are summed up in the doctrine of the "just war," which must
be fought for the right reasons, using the right means.

 

Islam and
Judaism, for a variety of historical reasons, have nothing exactly like
the Christian just war concept, but similar insights and principles are
articulated by religious and legal authorities in various places in
those traditions, too. Also, leaders in all three faiths have accepted
the growing body of international law that governs the conduct of war,
the treatment of enemy combatants, and the protection of non-combatant
civilians.

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Why, then, is there so much violence that has a religious tinge to it in the world today? Part of the reason is that faith is very basic to a person's identity. What an outsider sees as neutral or "secular" may seem to a person of faith like a direct attack on his or her faith. Ways of doing business, styles of humor or artistic expression, and the way people dress all provide occasions for these conflicts, and in a world with increasing global interaction and religious diversity, we can expect to see more of them. Leaders in business, journalism, and the arts, as well as in government, need to cultivate sensitivity to these differences and find ways to accommodate faith, rather than challenge it. We Americans do this pretty well in our domestic political life, despite some controversies, but we have a long way to go in thinking about it globally. It's easy to recognize an "faith-based initiative" when it comes in a familiar form and supports our civic values, but some of us are tone-deaf to faith when it's singing a different tune from the ones we know.

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Knowing the potential for religious conflict, some people conclude that the solution is to keep faith private and exclude religion from politics and diplomacy. But the same traditions that sometime authorize war also talk about respecting others who live their faith in peace and integrity. If you try to prevent war by isolating politics from religion, you may also cut yourself off from one of the most important sources of peace. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have made that point in American life, but we're still looking for religious and political leaders who can connect faith to peace and mutual respect on the global level.

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Why,
then, is there so much violence that has a religious tinge to it in the
world today? Part of the reason is that faith is very basic to a
person's identity. What an outsider sees as neutral or "secular" may
seem to a person of faith like a direct attack on his or her faith.
Ways of doing business, styles of humor or artistic expression, and the
way people dress all provide occasions for these conflicts, and in a
world with increasing global interaction and religious diversity, we
can expect to see more of them. Leaders in business, journalism, and
the arts, as well as in government, need to cultivate sensitivity to
these differences and find ways to accommodate faith, rather than
challenge it. We Americans do this pretty well in our domestic
political life, despite some controversies, but we have a long way to
go in thinking about it globally. It's easy to recognize a "faith-based
initiative" when it comes in a familiar form and supports our civic
values, but some of us are tone-deaf to faith when it's singing a
different tune from the ones we know.

 

Knowing
the potential for religious conflict, some people conclude that the
solution is to keep faith private and exclude religion from politics
and diplomacy. But the same traditions that sometime authorize war also
talk about respecting others who live their faith in peace and
integrity. If you try to prevent war by isolating politics from
religion, you may also cut yourself off from one of the most important
sources of peace. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have made that
point in American life, but we're still looking for religious and
political leaders who can connect faith to peace and mutual respect on
the global level.

 

For further reading on Islam from a Western, Christian perspective, see  Islam and War:  A Study in Comparative Ethics by John Kelsay (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).


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