Killing in the Name of God: The Problem of Holy War
By Dr. David L. Perry
Adapted from an Ethics at Noon presentation given at Santa Clara University
on 25 September 2001.
In spite of the many differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims,
they share a fundamental belief in God as compassionate and just. As a
result, those communities have often nurtured people of extraordinary
kindness and courageous commitment to justice. In contrast to the deep
hatred that obviously inspired the September 11 attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, the vast majority of Muslims, like their Jewish
and Christian counterparts, are appalled and sickened by terrorism, and
utterly repudiate the mass murder of innocent people.
Why then do some members of those same communities believe that it is
their moral obligation to wage aggressive holy war, even to annihilate
innocent people in God's name? What aspects of their scriptures and traditions
tend to support violence against "infidels"? What ethical principles--religious
and non-religious--can we affirm in response to those ideas and the atrocities
that they sometimes engender?
Religion is clearly not the only catalyst of total war and other forms
of indiscriminate violence. People seem to be able to invent all sorts
of rationales for mass killing without feeling the need to cite the will
of God. For example, just a few days prior to the September 11 attacks,
two young men from the Sacramento area each killed half a dozen people,
apparently out of personal revenge. And some of the most appalling atrocities
in history have been rooted not in religion per se but rather in racial
or class hatred. There may even be a genetic tendency in our species,
like that of our chimpanzee relatives, to attack and kill others for no
reason except that they aren't "one of us." (Wrangham and Peterson)
But religious violence can take on a particularly intense and ruthless
character, if the objects of that violence are seen as blaspheming or
insulting God, as the enemies of God or God's way narrowly conceived.
The problem of indiscriminate holy war is particularly difficult for Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam to eliminate from within because it's so deeply
rooted in their scriptures and traditions. The same religious traditions
that affirm God to be compassionate, merciful, and just, also include
more disturbing claims that promote religious hatred and intolerance,
and sadly have provided a rationale for aggressive holy war. We need to
face these things head-on. Questioning the moral justification of holy
war leads, moreover, to troubling questions about the legitimacy of some
basic theological claims and the authority of foundational religious scripture.
Most of my comments will be about Christianity, but I'll start with the
Hebrew Bible, since it is considered sacred by all three traditions.
One of the Mosaic commandments prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13). Why is
murder wrong, other than its obvious conflict with love of neighbor (Leviticus
19:17-18, 33-34)? Essentially because people are made in the image of
God (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6). One might infer from that idea that no killing
of persons would be allowed at all, that the concept of human beings as
made in God's image would entail strict pacifism, an absolute duty not
to kill people. But that is not what the ancient Hebrews concluded, since
many offenses were subject to capital punishment, a form of killing (see
examples in Exodus 21-22). So perhaps we might interpret the image-of-God
idea to mean, All persons have a basic right not to be killed, but they
can forfeit that right if they commit a serious enough crime. This would
also be consistent with punishing only those guilty of crimes (Deuteronomy
24:16) and limiting the use of deadly force to the defense of innocent
others or oneself. This is probably what most Jewish people would affirm
But collective punishment and indiscriminate war were also commanded or
approved in the Hebrew Bible, especially in cases of idolatry. The first
of the Mosaic commandments prohibited the Israelites from worshipping
any other gods but Yahweh. God demanded purity and strict obedience, and
idolatry and blasphemy were punishable by death (Exodus 20:3, 5). Non-Israelites
who lived within the area believed by the Hebrews to have been promised
to them by God were seen to pose a great temptation to them to abandon
their faith. This led them to justify the slaughter of entire communities
(Deuteronomy 20:10-18). And their holy wars eventually inspired similar
wars many centuries later by Christians who admired Old Testament warriors
like Joshua: "[Joshua's army killed everyone in Jericho], both men
and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.... Joshua defeated
the whole land... he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all
that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded." (Joshua 6:21
In the Islamic tradition, there is a similar mixture of values
restraining war along with others promoting it.
The Qur'an repeatedly refers to God as compassionate and just. It also
says that "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256): submission
to God must be freely chosen, not forced (Ali). The Qur'an urges Muslims
to use "beautiful preaching" to persuade people to accept Islam
and to "argue nicely" with Jews and Christians who are seen
as worshipping the same God as their own (16:125, 29:46, Firestone). This
is probably the attitude of most Muslim people today. Jewish and Christian
communities have often been tolerated and protected under Muslim rule.
Muhammad was said to have practiced non-violence early in his prophetic
career but soon came to believe that God commanded the use of force, not
only in defense of his growing religious community (Qur'an 22:39-40) but
also in the form of offensive jihad to expand the territory of Islam.
The word jihad, by the way, means struggle or effort. Jihad can refer
to the struggle of the individual Muslim to conform his or her will to
Allah's, or to a peaceful effort to persuade others to accept Islam. But
jihad can also mean holy war. In fact, there's a sense in which the only
completely just war in Islamic terms is a holy war since it has to be
approved by proper religious authorities and waged to defend or promote
Islam or the Muslim community. (Kelsay; Johnson)
In spite of the Qur'anic statement against forcing religion on others,
Muslim leaders have sometimes threatened to kill unbelievers if they did
not accept Islam (Peters). Although Islam spread to some parts of the
world like Indonesia mainly by means of "beautiful preaching,"
much of its expansion elsewhere was due to offensive war, first by Muhammad
to unify Arabia, then by his followers in conquering Palestine, Syria,
Iraq, Persia, parts of India, North Africa, Spain, Turkey and the Balkans.
Now, Muhammad and his successors did express some important moral rules
for fighting holy wars: women, children and the elderly were not to be
directly attacked (though they could be enslaved). Jihad was not supposed
to be total war involving indiscriminate killing (in spite of what Osama
bin Laden might claim). But Muslim leaders were permitted by Muhammad
to kill all captured soldiers and male civilians if they were not Muslims
or had abandoned Islam. The fact that you might be a civilian or a soldier
who had surrendered didn't necessarily protect you from being killed after
a battle against Muslims was over. Thus, Islam traditionally did not have
a generic principle of noncombatant immunity though many Muslim leaders
today uphold such a principle. (Kelsay; Johnson)
Of course, Muslims are probably as prone as Christians and Jews to seeing
in their holy scriptures only what they want to see, ignoring other passages
that contradict their preconceived beliefs. Someone inferring a mandate
to wage indiscriminate, offensive war from Qur'an 9:5, "Kill the
idolaters wherever you find them," could only do so by ignoring the
particular historical context of that passage, verses elsewhere that urge
defensive and limited uses of force only, such as Qur'an 2:190, "Fight
in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits,
for God does not love transgressors," and numerous other verses praising
patience in adversity and nonviolent preaching. (Firestone)
Turning to Christianity, its early history was characterized by a fairly
strict form of pacifism. That approach slowly gave way to an acceptance
of violence in defense of the innocent. And sadly, some Christian leaders
eventually came to advocate force against heretics and infidels, and even
total war in the interest of defending and expanding the faith. (Bainton)
In spite of the loving and peaceful tenor of his teachings and example
overall, Jesus did occasionally show anger, as when he confronted the
merchants in the Temple (John 2:13-16). Some New Testament passages also
appear to accept the institution of the military, if not explicitly praise
it: Roman soldiers who met Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul were
not asked by any of them to abandon their vocation (Luke 3 and 7, Acts
10 and 27). (Arguments from silence are notoriously weak, however.) There's
even a passage where Jesus seems to permit his disciples to carry swords,
and by implication to use them in some situations, though that passage
appears only in Luke 22 and is very ambiguous. Jesus also claimed the
authority to call on legions of angels to protect him, but held back because
it would conflict with his sacrificial mission (Matthew 26). Paul in Chapter
13 of his letter to the Romans declared, "Let every person be subject
to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,
and those that exist have been instituted by God." He who is in authority
"is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer."
This text was cited by many later Christians as divine justification for
But Jesus also set very high ethical standards for his followers, including
an unbounded willingness to forgive wrongdoing, non-retaliation against
evil, and love of enemies (Matthew 5). Three of the Gospels say that he
rebuked one of his disciples for using a sword to defend him at his arrest.
Most of his early followers seem to have interpreted Jesus' commands to
prohibit all uses of force by Christians, even in defense of the innocent.
Paul echoed Jesus' nonviolent message in his letter to the Romans, Chapter
12: "Repay no one evil for evil ... never avenge yourselves."
Over a century later, Tertullian argued that holding public office and
being a soldier would inevitably require actions forbidden to Christians;
in his view, "It is more permissible to be killed than to kill."
Hippolytus thought that Christians should not join the army; but if they
were already in the army, they must disobey orders to kill. (Swift)
Although some Christians served as Roman soldiers during the Churchs
early history, a very significant shift in Christian thinking about war
occurred in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine began to use the
Roman state to support the Church. According to an influential bishop
named Eusebius, Christian pacifism was from then on to be strictly for
clergy, monks, and nuns; lay Christians would now be obligated to defend
the empire with force. (Bainton; Swift)
Ambrose, another important bishop of that era, held that Christians may
not use force in personal self-defense--his way of interpreting Jesus'
commands not to resist or retaliate against evil. But he also thought
that Christian love entailed a duty to use force to defend innocent third
parties--indeed, a Christian who refused to prevent injury to another
person would be as bad as the one who inflicted it. Ambrose also shifted
the focus of Christian moral concern from the act of violence to attitude
of the agent: Christian soldiers should love their enemies, even as they
repel them with deadly force! In effect, Ambrose "baptized"
Roman military virtues for Christian purposes: risking one's life to defend
the empire became courageous, just and noble for Christians. (Ibid.)
But he and his famous student Augustine also believed that there should
be moral limits on war. Even in cases where Augustine considered war to
be the lesser of evils, he regarded killing as ultimately tragic, always
requiring an attitude of mourning and regret on the part of Christians.
(Ibid.) Partly due to his influence, throughout most of the medieval period,
killing in war was considered a very serious sin. If a Christian soldier
killed an enemy soldier, even in a war that was considered just, the Christian
soldier would have to do penance for the killing, usually by fasting and
prayer for a year or more. (Verkamp)
Beginning around the ninth century, though, another important evolution
of Christian thinking occurred. Killing unbelievers was actually declared
by popes Leo IV and John VIII to be spiritually beneficial for Christian
soldiers: Their sins could be erased if they killed in defense of the
Church. In the year 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade, urging
European leaders to rescue the Christian holy lands from their non-Christian
occupiers. He referred to the Muslims who then controlled Palestine as
an "unclean nation" that had polluted Christian holy places.
Killing Muslims became itself a form of penance for Christians for remission
of their sins. Moral rules governing the conduct of war were abandoned,
and unlimited tactics were permitted. No one was immune from attack by
Christian crusaders; whole cities were slaughtered. (Halsall)
Tragically, some advocates of aggressive religious war can still be found
today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What they cannot legitimately
claim, though, is that their position is the authentic expression of their
faith. Every major religious tradition contains ethical principles that
are incompatible with total war. People of all faiths can agree, I hope,
that innocent civilians should never be directly targeted, that indis-crim-i-nate
weapons and tactics should never be used against military targets in ways
that would produce large civilian casualties, and that captured soldiers
should not be tortured or executed but treated humanely. I also hope that
in our present crisis we can resist the temptation to excuse the "indirect"
killing of large numbers of noncombatants as "collateral damage"
dictated by "military necessity." But a necessary step toward
achieving interfaith consensus on such things is the recognition and repudiation
of troubling values embedded deeply within religious scriptures and traditions.
In many Christian worship services, it is a common practice for someone
to read aloud a passage from the Bible, and indicate the end of the passage
by saying, "The Word of the Lord," after which the congregation
responds, "Thanks be to God." Imagine that you are seated in
your congregation of choice, listening to the following readings:
"I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.... The enemies have
vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities you have rooted out; the very
memory of them has perished.... The LORD will swallow [up his enemies]
in his wrath, and fire will consume them. [He] will destroy their offspring
from the earth ... their children from ... humankind." (Psalms 9:2,
6, and 21:9-10)
"[Thousands of angels] proclaimed with loud voices: 'Worthy is the
Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth, wisdom and might, honor
and glory and praise!'... I saw heaven wide open, and a white horse appeared;
its rider's name was Faithful and True, for he is just in judgment and
just in war.... [H]e was robed in a garment dyed in blood, and he was
called the Word of God. The armies of heaven followed him.... Out of his
mouth came a sharp sword to smite the nations; for it is he who will rule
them with a rod of iron, and tread the winepress of the fierce wrath of
God the sovereign Lord." (Revelation 5:11-12 and 19:11, 13-15)
"How many were the populations We [God] utterly destroyed because
of their iniquities, setting up in their places other peoples. [W]hen
they felt our punishment (coming) ... they (tried to) flee from it....
They said, 'Ah, woe to us! We were indeed wrongdoers!' And that cry of
theirs ceased not, till We made them as a field that is mown, as ashes
silent and quenched." (Qur'an 21:11-15 [Ali])
Now if the reader were to end such passages with, "The Word of the
Lord," I hope that the congregation would not answer, "Thanks
be to God," but rather, "I respectfully disagree," or "I
don't think so." Or perhaps to avoid causing unnecessary offense,
the congregation might respond at that point with stony silence, then
"argue nicely" after the service is over. Because these are
not the words of a compassionate and just God. The God portrayed in those
texts, traditionally considered sacred by Jews, Christians, and/or Muslims,
is not a God who is worthy of our love and worship.
Permit me to offer a few additional theological suggestions.
If you believe in God, no matter what religious tradition you identify
1) Hold firmly to the idea that God is compassionate and just.
2) Consistent with that belief, abandon the idea that God ever has commanded
or condoned--or ever would command or condone--the mass slaughter of innocent
people, even if such claims are made in sacred scripture or asserted by
otherwise trustworthy religious authorities.
3) Consider the possibility that it does not blaspheme or insult God to
believe that God's actions are limited by objective moral principles.
To say that God would never do or command anything cruel does not represent
a significant limit on God's power.
Now if we can agree together in the rejection of total war, we still need
to wrestle with some contending ethical perspectives on the use of force.
Here are some concluding thoughts:
1) According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus said to "turn
the other cheek" when struck, not to resist evil or retaliate against
it. But is it really wrong to use force to defend an innocent person (including
yourself) against an unjust, violent attacker? And isn't it right to arrest
and imprison people who commit horrible crimes? (Note that a system of
criminal justice almost always requires some degree of force, though it
need not impose capital punishment.)
2) Also according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus said to love
our enemies. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many Buddhist
teachers have shown that it is possible to convert some enemies into friends
through nonviolent responses to injustice and to restrain ourselves from
lashing out against perceived enemies. But is it really possible psychologically
to love a true enemy? (Imagine someone who has murdered or raped one of
your friends or relatives.)
3) Even if it's psychologically possible to love a true enemy, is it fair
to expect anyone to love such an enemy?
4) If I am personally victimized, surely I can choose to love or forgive
my attackers if they show remorse. (Perhaps I could even be morally obligated
to do so.) But do I have the right to love or forgive someone who murders
or rapes another person? (See the powerful argument voiced by Fyodor Dostoevsky's
character Ivan in the "Rebellion" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov.)
In sum, if compassion should temper our fury and restrain us from waging
wars of annihilation, are there also times when justice should override
Postscript: In public discussion following
my speech, faculty colleagues suggested that a definition of "love"
was needed. Here is what I tentatively propose should be included in that
concept: benevolent feelings toward particular people; a desire that they
flourish, that they achieve good things and are happy; empathy for their
suffering; respect for their dignity, rights, and rational autonomy. With
that concept in mind, consider again whether it is psycho-logically possible
to love a true enemy, and if so, whether we are morally obligated to do
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an (Amana Publications,
Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (Abingdon
Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford
University Press, 1999).
Paul Halsall, collection of Crusade-era texts, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1k.html
James Turner Johnson, The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions
(Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
John Kelsay, Islam and War (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised English Bible with the
Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Markus Wiener,
Louis Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Michael
Bernard Verkamp, The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early
Medieval and Modern Times (University of Scranton Press, 1993).
Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins
of Human Violence (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).
Other Recommended Readings:
Anthony Coates, The Ethics of War (Manchester University Press,
John Ferguson, War and Peace in the World's Religions (Oxford University
Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge University
Press, 2000), ch. 6, "War and Peace."
David Perry, a list of recommended web sites on ethics and warfare,
Copyright for the preceding article is held by the author, David Perry.
Please do not quote from or reproduce it without his permission. None
of the views expressed here should be construed necessarily to reflect
those of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics or Santa Clara University.
For more ethical perspectives on the terrorist attacks
David Perry is the Director of Ethics Programs, Markkula
Center for Applied Ethics, and Lecturer in Religious Studies.