John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration he...
John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration helped provide an intellectual foundation for religious tolerance via Wikipedia

Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves

โ€” Matthew 7:15

Religious leaders often emphasize the sweet side of religion, publicly calling for truth, peace and love. But underneath their peaceful prayers and intentions, most public figures, be they religious or not, have to come to grips with the harsh realities of aggression and war.

When we dig a little deeper into the sacred teachings and formal laws of the world’s traditions, we usually find explicit or implicit support for the notion of the Just War.

It’s a misconception to believe that religious persons only pray for peace and, perhaps, the safety of troops at war. On the contrary, many religious adherents accept and justify war as a necessary evil.ยน

Christianity and Aggression

In Catholicism, the Just War doctrine condones the organized killing of other human beings who are deemed extremely harmful to the common good. Killing is thought to be necessary if all peaceful solutions have failed, the enemy poses some kind of grand-scale threat, and there’s reasonable expectation of victory.

But this isn’t just a part of Catholic belief. The prominent Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis when implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Hinduism and Aggression

As more fully detailed in The Bhagavad Gita in a Complicatedย World, the Hindu holy scripture, The Bhagavad-Gita, tells of the deity, Krishna, who urges Arjuna to slay kith and kin to fulfill his dharma (divine duty) as a member of the kshatriya (warrior) caste.

While some say this is a only minor part of a story that’s really about love, devotion and spiritual knowledge, anyone who actually reads the Gita will see, quite clearly, that it’s largely about Krishna sanctioning warfare. In fact, the whole storyline revolves around war.

If taken literally, the Gita sanctions physical killing because of the twofold teaching that (a) the soul is immortal and (b) a greater ethical balance must be preserved through apparently sacred warfare.

However, there are subtler, psychological interpretations of the Gita that don’t involve physical violence. But these interpretations go beyond the original text, just as we might reinvent the bellicose parts of the Jewish and Christian Bibles to try to ignore or, possibly, transform its ugly aspects.

Buddhism and Aggression

While many say that Buddhism is a non-violent path, this is a severely misguided perception.

Moojan Momen indicates scriptural, philosophical, and folkloric justifications for killing in the Buddhist tradition (The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach, Oxford: Oneworld, 1999, p. 410). And John Ferguson draws on scripture, legend and history to outline five justifications for war in the Buddhist tradition (War and Peace in the World’s Religions, London: Sheldon Press, 1977, pp. 55-57).

Isaiah 42:13-16, KJV
Isaiah 42:13-16, KJV

The Other

In today’s world religious fanatics often feel it’s their holy duty to purify the world from those perceived as the other.

The idea of the other is described by sociologists and anthropologists as the stereotyping of another human being as “the bad guy” or “the enemy.” This characterization, or rather lack of it, apparently makes it easier to treat people harshly or, perhaps, kill them.

The enemy isn’t viewed as a complete human being with a full range of feelings, but as a dangerous object—a poison, vermin, etc. Anyone different is perceived as an evil scourge to be subjugated or eradicated.

And this is where so-called sacred texts may come in. Sociopaths and violent fanatics cherry pick the most judgmental and turbulent aspects of the holy books and, instead of placing these passages in their proper historical context, read them as instructions on how to behave in the 21st century.

This differs from the Jesus of the New Testament who teaches that, when someone strikes us, we should “turn the other cheek” and not retaliate. (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29).

But as noted at the outset, it’s not just the deranged and angry who advocate war under the aegis of religious belief. In extenuating circumstances, most contemporary religious traditions endorse aggression.ยฒ

This may not sit well with the peacemakers. And it may not be the ideal that any decent person would hope for. But itโ€™s a sad fact that, despite all the lofty speeches and front page smiles of dignitaries, mankind hasn’t really gotten over its barbarous impulses.

1. To say that religious doctrine advocates war in certain circumstances is quite different from saying that religion is the cause of all war. On violence and religion, John Locke wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689):

If men enter into seditious conspiracies, it is not religion inspires them to it in their meetings, but their sufferings and oppressions that make them willing to ease themselves. Just and moderate governments are everywhere quiet, everywhere safe; but oppression raises ferments and makes men struggle to cast off an uneasy and tyrannical yoke. I know that seditions are very frequently raised upon pretence of religion, but it is as true that for religion subjects are frequently ill treated and live miserably. Believe me, the stirs that are made proceed not from any peculiar temper of this or that Church or religious society, but from the common disposition of all mankind, who when they groan under any heavy burthen endeavour naturally to shake off the yoke that galls their necks.

2. For more on world religions and violence, see the articles listed at Crosscurrents. It should also be noted that religious aggression may be direct or, as suggested by Michel Foucault, convoluted and subtle.

Copyright ยฉ Michael Clark. All rights reserved.