In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: March 2011


War and Peace: Dilemmas Facing Contemporary Religious Leaders

Throughout history, religious leaders have had to decide what stance (if any) to take on conflicts. Inspired by the March 14th, 2011 symposium at Brandeis, “Religion and the Quest to Contain Violence” marking the publication of Carroll’s Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited the Modern World, in this Ethical Inquiry we will look at how contemporary religious leaders have addressed this question.

In Spring 2009 James Carroll taught an undergraduate course at Brandeis, "Sacred Violence: An Investigation in History and Theology," which examined the relationship between violence and religion, focusing specifically on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In part, this inquiry reexamines some of the ideas discussed in that class.

Different religions have carved out their own understandings of the nature and appropriate use of war, informed by a number of sources, including their readings of sacred texts as well as tradition. Some religious leaders have chosen to abstain from condoning any type of warfare and remain staunch pacifists. Religious leaders may also choose to defer to civil authority and not take a public stance with regard to any particular conflict. Others have developed specific criteria that must be met in order for a war to be “justifiable,” and will approve of the use of force under certain circumstances.

Yet even within a given religion, the stance toward a particular conflict may not be monolithic. For example, in “A Clash of Civilizations?
The Influence of Religion on Public Opinion of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East”
(Political Research Quarterly, 2008) the authors note dissent among Christians of various denominations with regard to the Iraq War.

The Pacifist Stance

Some religious leaders categorically oppose the use of force.

Historically, Quakers and Mennonites have been among those Christian denominations to remain absolute pacifists, opposed to war under any circumstances. Quakers refer to their pacifism as the “peace testimony” and take as their guide the early Christians who refused to participate in warfare.

Pacifism does not mean passivism, however. Quakers, Mennonites, and others who share their views, prefer other methods of conflict resolution, such as mediation and education initiatives that promote peace.

Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of recent political and social causes, most famous among them, the 14th Dalai Lama. Many of these religious leaders use non-violent means to convey their message. However, Buddhist morality is not guided by a set of rules, but by principles, such as kindness and compassion.

While Buddhists might participate in war – to aid those who are incapable of helping themselves, for example – that does not mean that they consider war to be right. Many Buddhists refuse to fight, under any circumstances, even if it means certain death. Buddhists are called upon to take account for their motivations for going to war, before determining whether or not they wish to participate.

In 2010 the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches (NCC), “an ecumenical consortium of Christian denominations,” adopted “A Call to End the War in Afghanistan” [PDF]. While not strictly pacifist, the NCC asserts in thus document a belief that “that war is always contrary to the will of God, and that there are alternatives to war that wise leaders must seek.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. connected his opposition opposed the war in Vietnam with his belief in non-violence. In a transcript [PDF] of the question-answer period following his “Beyond Vietnam speech” at Riverside Church in New York on 4 April 1967, he “discusses the concept of war as a negative good but urges more peaceful, non-violent means to address conflicts,” saying “I happen to be a pacifist on this whole matter of war; I am not a self-righteous pacifist because I understand the moral dilemma of the non-pacifist, but I do think we have reached a stage where war can no longer serve as a negative good that it may have served against a tragically evil and sick force like Hitler.”

Counter-War Movements

Concerned with the destruction that war threatens, some religious thinkers have started counter movements.

Valerie Elverton Dixon, an independent scholar studying ethics, peace theory, public discourse, and the civil rights movement, has spearheaded Just Peace Theory, dedicating herself to efforts to end war and violence. She believes that war is not inevitable and that people must question the accepted thinking that justifies warfare. She grounds her ideology in the teachings of the New Testament.

In a response to President Obama’s 2009 speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point [PDF] Dixon outlines her opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Others have established guidelines for “Just Peacemaking,” with both immediate and long term goals intended to eventually eradicate war.

Preventative War

The “preventative war” approach maintains that there are circumstances in which use of force is justified to prevent an unacceptable anticipated situation. The so-called “Bush Doctrine” invoked to justify the war in Iraq followed this reasoning.

Research has been done into which religious denominations tend to favor this line of thinking. Some suggest that Evangelical Protestants have been influential in the strength of this position.

The use of the atomic bomb by the United States on Japan during World War II has been justified by some using the argument that it prevented further war, saving countless lives. The accuracy of this contention has been the subject of debate.


Some religious leaders have looked to the issue of self-defense when considering support for a military action.

In the Jewish tradition, a distinction is made between two types of war: obligatory war and discretionary war. Obligatory wars are those commanded by God and recorded in the Hebrew Bible as well as those waged in self-defense. The understanding of the latter has become controversial surrounding Israel’s use of its military force. According to rabbinic authorities, in order to wage a discretionary war the following elements are necessary: a sovereign, the Jewish high court, and the breastplate worn by the High Priest in the Temple, used to commune with God.

In modern times, none of these conditions can be met, but current rabbinical figures have interpreted these requirements to mean that both political and religious authorities must agree on whether or not going to war is justified. Once war is agreed upon, strict regulations dictate the means of conflict.

Islamic teachings place particular conditions upon engaging in war, and provide guidelines for conduct in war. Asma Afsaruddin, professor of Islamic studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a presenter at the March 14, 2011 symposium at Brandeis University,  “Religion and the Quest to Contain Violence” notes in a commentary, “Of Jihad, Terrorism, and Pacifism: Scripting Islam in the Transnational Sphere,” (Global Dialogue, 2005) that “Mainstream Islamic teachings … do not endorse resorting to violence in the absence of extreme provocation. Violence as expressed in armed combat with a precisely defined enemy becomes permissible under certain conditions; during such combat, specific rules mandating humane and ethical conduct are in effect. Detailed as they are, Islamic military and social ethics still leave certain options ultimately to the conscience and interpretive abilities of the believer, allowing for a large measure of flexibility and adaptability to specific circumstances.”

A 2004 monograph “Islamic Rulings on Warfare” [PDF] from the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College provides another overview and analysis of Islamic teachings on warfare, including contemporary interpretations – some of which, the authors assert, represent misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of Islamic beliefs.

Just War

The Just War doctrine as articulated in Catholic theology, and dating as far back as St. Augustine, stems from an acceptance of war as a necessary evil. While the ideal remains the promotion of peace, the doctrine clarifies under what conditions a war may be considered appropriate.

The seven standards include: a just cause, just authority, just intention, the seeking of peaceful ends, the exasperation of all other methods of curbing aggression, the attainability of victory, and casualties of war will not outweigh the damage inflicted by or threatened by the enemy. The ultimate decision rests with those entrusted with overseeing the public good, the government.

Similar criteria form the basis of international law regulating warfare.

In “A Christian Defense of the War in Iraq” (2006) the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, and “one of the most influential moral voices on the conservative Christian scene” speaks “about why, as a Christian, he supports the war in Iraq” even three years on. He explains that the basis for his support is just-war theory.

Some Christian leaders rely on the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to guide them in determining how to individually respond to violence and counsel their followers. Other religions also draw on tradition that regulates what kind of wars should be fought and how.

Protection of Others

Many contemporary religious leaders have found to be compelling the idea that innocents and the defenseless should be protected from abuse, by force if necessary. This is similar to the legal concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” explored in the November 2009 Ethical Inquiry ("Is There a Responsibility to Protect?").

In fact, in 2007 the aforementioned Governing Board of the National Council of Churches USA adopted a “Resolution on the Responsibility to Protect,” which specifically refers to the international law concept of that name. The resolution reads, in part, “The Christian community has always affirmed that, in response to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), we are indeed the protectors of one another. This affirmation is grounded in the prophetic call to protect the other – the strangers, the weak and the dispossessed.” In keeping with the organization’s anti-war stance noted above in this Inquiry in the section on pacifism, the statement goes on to note that “recognizing that war is always a failure to find peaceful resolution to conflict, [the organization] encourages the US Government and the international community always to first seek non-violent means of intervention, and exhaust all opportunities for peaceful resolution, as a means of protecting those threatened by genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”

Some within religious communities, still grapple with failure to do more on behalf of an oppressed people, for example, in the case of the Rwandan genocide. In a 2007 article “Is 'never again' a hollow promise?”, Father John Walsh, pastor of Saint John Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle, Quebec. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz serves the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Synagogue in Cote St.-Luc, Quebec, reference the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide in a plea to action in Darfur.

Leaders of many faiths have urged governments to pressure the Sudanese into ending genocide in Darfur. In 2006 the Methodist Church in the U.K. called for “immediate international action to prevent further killings in the Darfur region of Sudan,” suggesting that “…‘We should not let the challenges of military intervention in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East cause us to fall shy of intervention in Sudan.’”

Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, Co-Founder and Co-Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts, Founding Co-Chair of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur and Chairwoman of Save Darfur Coalition's "Million Voices for Darfur" campaign, is a prominent example of the many religious figures who have called for United States involvement to end genocide in Darfur.

Final Thoughts

No religion possesses easy answers with regard to the dilemmas posed by war. Even among members of the same religion, responses to conflict may range across the spectrum, from pacifism to support of military action. Religious leaders try to navigate a precarious path, using the weapons in their arsenal – including faith and tradition – to reconcile religious teaching with the realities of the political world.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Talia Graff ’10, Masters candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, with assistance from Alexander Levering Kern, Brandeis University’s Protestant Chaplain.