Here is where I stand. Any religion that advocates, practices, or condones war – or any form of violence – is at least a flawed if not a false religion. If the name of a supreme being is invoked in justification of violence, such a being is a demigod at best – a mythical figure that is created out of the lack of imagination of fearful people who would project their fears and their agendas onto others. Any ‘god’ that is not understood as pure love holding all of creation and every creature as precious is not worthy of our devotion.
But what if the threat to my well-being, to one of my loved ones, to my neighbour, or to our cherished way of life is so immediate and so potentially devastating that it has to be stopped decisively and now? If such a position can be argued at all, it must be accompanied by the confession of our failure as persons and as a civilization to be true to our better angels: necessary under the circumstances, maybe, but a holy action, never. The human experiment is a work in progress and it will come to fulfillment only if the impulse to resort to violence is purged from our DNA and any invocation of the name of a divine being to give violence credibility, let alone honour, is universally understood as an implicit oxymoron.
The religious stream whose current carries me along – often a quite uncomfortable ride for me – is responsible for what has become known as the Just War Theory. Along with more recent developments such as the Geneva Convention, the Just War Theory attempts to limit the circumstances under which an armed response to a perceived threat can be justified and to curb the excesses to which such actions can lead.
What our limited memories may have forgotten, or never known, is that the Just War Theory is one of the many compromises included in the Great Compromise – the implicit deal the church made with the powers-that-be in the days of the Roman Empire.
The original movement initiated by Jesus of Nazareth was an early instance of radical non-violent resistance in response to tyranny and oppression. His immediate followers advocated desertion from the Roman imperial army and provided sanctuary for those soldiers who did desert. In this and other ways, the original church was a counter-cultural movement that was an annoying and potentially injurious pebble in the shoe of the dominant culture.
After repeated attempts to stamp out the church by declaring it illegal and persecuting its adherents, the Empire came up with a much more effective strategy. It legalized the church and gave it recognition as its official religion – victory by domestication. Whether the early church thought it had triumphed or was just tired of the struggle, it accepted this new status – and all the side-deals that went with it. Things like: “You can say all you want about private morality but leave social ethics alone; talk all you want about personal salvation in a world to come but shut up about the quality of life in this world.” The church went from being an outspoken movement on the fringes of society to an institution at the centre of society, often a mouthpiece of the status quo.
And the development of the Just War Theory was part of that. A mandate was given to the church who assigned Augustine of Hippo to begin the task of providing a justification for that Empire and succeeding states to maintain and employ a standing army. In modern memory, Hitler required the national church of his day to create a justification in support of the strategy he called, “The Final Solution”, and the government of South Africa expected the church there to develop a theology to undergird its Apartheid system. In various societies and circumstances, the church has been expected to defend the policies and to encourage support for the actions of the governing authorities of the day, most of which involve some form of injustice needing justification and some expression of violence perpetrated in the pursuit of an officially sanctioned higher cause. In Canada these days, we are painfully owning up to the way the church has been complicit in the misguided policies of past governments to assimilate – eliminate? – the original peoples of this land.
Now, I have spoken mostly of my own religious tradition, partly because it is the one I know best and for which I feel most responsible, and partly because it is not for me to criticize from the outside another tradition that I don’t understand from the inside. I continue to ride this current, despite my discomfort with it, because I vaguely glimpse the radical vision out of which it originated and because, as I am carried along its stream, I am feeling for the currents that lead back to that original impulse and forward to its promise. For every compromise and atrocity committed in this divine name, there are corresponding examples of courage and integrity that have advanced and continue to advance the cause of justice, peace, and environmental integrity in the world.
Such currents do not belong to one tradition alone. If those currents have any authenticity, it is because they derive from the ultimate source of Love that belies any form of violence, hatred, or injustice, from which all creation and all humanity derive, and who is not the private property of one particular sectarian group. Perhaps we are nurtured in a specific tradition and community but unless that tradition teaches us the way of communion beyond our boundaries, violence will persist and probably end up destroying us all.