Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Killing in the Name of God

The Problem of Holy War

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 today.

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 and 10:40)

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. (Kelsay; Firestone)

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 military force.

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 Church’s 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 with:

  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 mercy?

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 so.

Sources Cited:

  • Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an (Amana Publications, 1989).

  • Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (Abingdon Press, 1960).

  • Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • Paul Halsall, collection of Crusade-era texts,

  • 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, 1996).

  • Louis Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Michael Glazier, 1983).

  • 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, 1997).

  • John Ferguson, War and Peace in the World's Religions (Oxford University Press, 1977).

  • 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,

David Perry is Director of Ethics Programs, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Lecturer in Religious Studies, Santa Clara University

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.

Sep 25, 2001