War & Religion in 3 Western Traditions

By McNamer, Elizabeth | The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT), May 13, 2017 | Go to article overview

War & Religion in 3 Western Traditions


McNamer, Elizabeth, The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT)


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle allows: "We make war that we may live in peace." Sages through the ages have pointed out that the best way to keep peace is to be prepared for war.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three monotheistic religions. Judaism traces its origins to the 12th century B.C.; Christianity to the first century A.D.; Islam to the sixth century A.D.

The Jewish tradition

In the Hebrew scripture, God is seen as leading the Israelites in battle. "Yahweh your God goes with you to fight against your enemies and save you." (Deuteronomy 20:5)

At the same time it is filled with a longing for peace. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)

Justifications for war in Judaism include:

* The covenant with Abraham that involves a right to a certain land promised by God: "I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur to make you heirs to this land." (Genesis 15:7)

* Judaism asserts that war is permitted in self-defense or can be undertaken for a good reason (discretionary wars) where no cooperation remains possible. The killing of noncombatants is not permitted.

The aim of war is to achieve peace. The Jewish greeting "Shalom" means peace.

The Christian tradition

Christians, for the first 300 years of their existence did not fight in wars. Their pacifism was based on Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

When Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, barbarian tribes were besieging Rome and threatening to destroy civilization. Pope Leo I got an army together to counteract them. Only Christians were allowed to serve. Thus Christians became involved in war and politics.

St. Augustine in his book "The City of God" points out that a just war is preferable to an unjust peace. He set the criteria for a just war. It must be:

* A last resort. A governing authority must exhaust all diplomatic and non-military options for securing peace before resorting to force.

* It must have a just cause: self-defense; defense of another nation; protection of innocents; to regain something wrongfully taken.

* It must be promulgated by a legitimate authority.

* It must have a right intention: the ultimate end in waging war must be to establish peace.

* It must have a reasonable chance of success.

* The means must justify the end: Respond to aggression with force but do not go beyond the damage done by the aggression itself.

* Mercy must be shown to the defeated.

* Noncombatants are not permissible targets of war. Since weapons of mass destruction have now become prevalent, it is questionable whether this criteria still applies.

The Islamic tradition

Muhammad, the progenitor of Islam, was born in the desert city of Mecca in 570 A. …

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