Religious wars


The destruction of Jericho, around 1250 BC, began with the blowing of seven ram’s horn trumpets and a great shout by all the people of Israel.1 The walls of Jericho fell and the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass”.2 The signal for the start of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 was the ringing of the tocsin of the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris. The slaughter of 3000 French Calvinists, which followed in the next 24 hours, was the worst of many massacres by both Catholic and Protestant during that era. First awareness of the attacks of September 11, 2001, against New York and Washington DC, came even before the television cameras focused—when victims of Islamist extremism used cell phones to call their loved ones. 

From ram’s horn, to church bell, to cell phone—the technology changes but, after more than 3000 years, religion remains a constant as a cause of war. This provokes an obvious question: Why? Why has military and terrorist action so often been carried out in the name of religion? And are all religiously motivated military actions morally equivalent? These are huge questions and are impossible to answer in a short article, but I offer some reflections and ideas. 

And are all religiously motivated military actions morally equivalent? These are huge questions...

Reasons why wars been fought “in the cause of religion”, whether by nation-states, sovereigns, factions or churches, whether through military campaigns or terrorist attacks, include:

  1. to preserve a religion, sect or denomination from destruction; 
  2. to allow its adherents freedom of belief or of worship; 
  3. to prevent the adherents of a rival faith, sect, church, or “heretical” faction from proselytising, or practising their religion; 
  4. to uphold the honour of a deity or its worshippers; 
  5. in furtherance of prophecies, which are believed to be on the cusp of fulfilment; or
  6. to destroy or restrict the power of a rival state, prince or faction identified with a rival religious group. 

When we look at the long record of appalling actions committed by those allegedly waging “holy war”, it is tempting to condemn all who have taken up arms and killed and maimed on behalf of their faith. But both the Bible and Ellen White make clear that some religiously motivated military actions are laudable. Commenting on Abraham’s attack on the King of Elam to rescue Lot, Ellen White notes: “Seeking, first of all, divine counsel, Abraham prepared for war . . . His attack, so vigorous and unexpected, resulted in speedy victory. The king of Elam was slain and his panic-stricken forces were utterly routed . . . The worshipper of Jehovah had not only rendered a great service to the country, but had proved himself a man of valour. It was seen that righteousness is not cowardice, and that Abraham’s religion made him courageous in maintaining the right and defending the oppressed . . .”3  

It should be noted that, since the biblical account of this episode shows that Abraham only took up arms to rescue men and women captured by the Elamites, Abraham’s actions fit within the concept of “just war”. 

I believe there are other examples throughout history where the action taken was similarly appropriate and necessary. For example:

  • The Jews under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BC, who were forbidden to practise the essential rituals of their faith, began the Maccabean revolt that restored Jewish religion; 
  • The French Calvinist nobles who, in the 1550s and 1560s, refused to let ordinary Huguenots be burned at the stake and instead used force to free them from prison; 
  • The Irish Catholics who, in the 1590s and the 1640s, took up arms against English Protestant rule in order to celebrate the sacraments and baptise their children as they believed God commanded.

There is a difference between defending freedom to worship and to live according to one’s faith within a community, and trying to impose those practices on society at large, as for example some Muslims do when demanding Sharia law. The latter is not defensive. However, where brave men and women defended themselves against oppression, as in the cases listed above, one should not be too quick to condemn. But in all the cases listed above, some of those who took up arms also committed atrocities. Once war begins, it all too often has its own logic, which sweeps away the noblest of intentions and the firmest resolutions for restraint. Yet one can and ought to condemn the excesses, without condemning the underlying motivation.

However, so often religious wars have not been defensive. And if we kill and destroy, as many Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have done, in order to punish those who have harmed our co-religionists, rather than to protect our fellow believers from oppression, is that not taking on ourselves the divine prerogative? Certainly for Christians it defies the will of Him who categorically declared: “You shall not take vengeance”, proclaiming elsewhere “Vengeance is mine and recompense [. . .] I will render vengeance to My enemies, and [I will] repay”.4  Why should human beings fight to uphold the honour of their deity? To kill over an intangible quality belonging to a being who is purportedly all-powerful appears absurd. Yet this has repeatedly motivated religious people, even Christians, to wage war. 

Christians in the Crusades fought to free the holy places of Christendom from Muslim rule—as though the simple fact of occupation by people of a different faith was an intolerable oppression. Many of us would, I’m sure, agree that freedom frequently is worth fighting for—but the freedom of places? That these were the sites of the birth, ministry and passion of the One who saved us by refusing to take up arms, bidding His disciples to lay down their weapons, and dying for a crime He had not committed, makes this not simply ironic, but tragic. 

At other times, Christians and Muslims, in particular, have waged bitter, bloody wars to help bring about what they believe to be divine prophecies. In 1606, the Puritan apologist William Bradshaw declared that those who denied “the Pope is
. . . the Antichrist” hindered “the zeal of Christian[s] from executing that against him [that] the word partly foretells, and partly commands to be done”. To Puritans, the book of Revelation did not merely foretell the end-of-time events but believers had to conform to the behaviour patterns it predicted to help bring those events about. Eternity could be ushered in by human action!

But the apocalyptic prophecies are contingent upon divine, not human, action. Revelation is a deliberately mysterious book and its meanings have been much debated throughout Christian history. But the message of Revelation that anyone can easily take away and on which all Christians could agree is “God is in control; God wins”. To try to “help God along”, especially by killing our fellow human beings, is not merely misguided—it is hubris. 

As Christians, then, we ought to learn some lessons. I fear the cycle of religious warfare will not be broken until Christ returns, but we can reject it and repudiate it in our own lives. I am not a pacifist but I do believe that Christians ought only take part in “just wars”. The concept of “just war”, after all, is a specifically Christian one that evolved as Christian philosophers and theologians grappled with the harsh political realities of medieval Christendom. They sought to ameliorate the worst human instincts and to reduce greatly the circumstances in which violent force would be used. 

As an historian and a citizen I have every admiration for those who serve in their country’s armed forces, especially in wars to defend their own or other countries against tyranny and aggression in conflicts such as World War II, the Korean War and the first (1990-91) Gulf War. However, it does not seem to me that military service is “just another career option” for the Seventh-day Adventist Christian. In recent years, there has been a move away from the traditional, historic Seventh-day Adventist commitment to non-combatancy; this is surprising and saddening, given the sacrifices made by previous generations of Adventists out of a principled objection to using violence. Yet the realities of today’s world are such that we ought to be wary even of non-combatant military service. Not only do no armed forces in the Western world afford regular protection for Sabbath keeping, there is also no certainty that, when force is used, it will be for a just cause. 

It’s important to acknowledge that many military operations undertaken by Western powers in the past 20 years have been in a just cause—but imperative to recognise that others have not. If you are thinking about entering the armed forces, I ask you to remember that, whatever God commanded Israel to do in the Old Testament, the Church has a different mandate in the New Testament. Paul calls us to combat “principalities and powers”, but it is war “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”, not against physical foes here on earth. And the armour he bids us to put on is that of the Holy Spirit.5 Christ bids us “put away your sword”, for His “kingdom is not of this world”.6 

In consequence of this command, it seems to me as a practising, believing Seventh-day Adventist that all followers of Jesus are to cherish and preserve the life that has its origins in divine creation. It’s possible that none of us will ever be in a situation where we are confronted with war but we can be peace-makers and peace-builders regardless of our circumstances.  

1. Joshua 6:4-6, 8-10, 12-13, 16, 20.
2. Ibid., 6:21.
3. Ellen G White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 135.
4. Lev. 19:18, Deut. 32:35, 41 (and cf. vv. 36, 43), emphasis supplied.
5. Eph. 6:12-13, 17-18.
6. John 18:11, 36; cf. Matt. 5:21-22, 6:43-45.

David Trim is an Australian, currently working as director of archives, statistics and research at the General Conference.