University of Southern California

Religion and War

John P. Crossley

Intro: The three Abrahamic religious traditions, the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim, have developed three approaches to war:

  1. The pacifist tradition. Always a minority strand in all three.
  2. The crusader tradition. This is the elemental, gut tradition.
  3. The just war tradition. Cool, rational, reflective. To be enunciated by my colleagues.
I want to talk about the crusader tradition, and especially about how it invokes the name of God in support of particular political agendas.

  1. Crusades–wars undertaken by Christians in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries to try to take back the Holy Land and other formerly Christian territories held by the Muslims since the seventh century CE.
    1. Fighting in the name of the cross of Jesus Christ, hence the name crusade.
    2. Identical spirit in Islamic jihad, holy war. Fighting in the name of the crescent. Jihad literally means struggle.
  2. Examples of crusades or jihads
    1. Israelite conquering of Canaan. Saul required to show no mercy to the Amalakites.
    2. Christian crusades–Urban II in 1095 characterized the Muslims as “wicked, accursed, and alienated from God.”
    3. Thirty Years War–Catholic/Protestant. Catholics were “corrupt.” Protestants were “heretics and schismatics.”
    4. Northern Ireland today. “Papists” (Northern Irish Catholics) and “Renegades” (Northern Irish Protestants)
    5. Saladin’s take-back of Jerusalem from the infidel Christians in the Third Crusade.
  3. Characteristics of the crusader approach to war (four)
    1. War is essentially a conflict between forces of good and forces of evil, not a conflict between two different ideas of the good.
      1. Bush: Iraq part of the axis of evil. Saddam a force for evil. God will bless America in its struggle against evil. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said on March 26, “. . . Muslims are the ones declaring holy war, not us. They’re the ones trying to convert people by force. They’re the ones killing people in the name of religion, not us.” It would appear that the U.S. is doing everything that Mr. Land says it is not.
      2. Saddam on April 1, in a statement read by his information minister, Mohammed Said Sahaf: He calls on the people of Iraq to rise up against the U.S. in a jihad or holy war: “Strike at them, fight them. They are aggressors, evil, accursed by God, the exalted. You shall be victorious, and they shall be vanquished” LA Times, April 2).
    2. Crusaders pursue absolute and unlimited goals.
      1. Rumsfeld: There will be no negotiations with this regime. The only goal is absolute, unconditional surrender.
      2. Saddam: They are aggressors, evil, accursed by God . . .
    3. When war is seen as a struggle for absolute goals, the means of war tend to be unrestrained.
      1. U.S. wants to minimize civilian casualties, but when the enemy resorts to using civilians as shields, it cannot help but kill civilians. Seven women and children in van.
      2. Saddam: Soldiers in civilian clothes, civilian shields, parade of prisoners. No respect for the Geneva convention. The U.S. is not a legitimate warrior, but an illegitimate invader and aggressor, and must be “exterminated from Iraq.”
    4. Tends to promote total war
      1. Saddam’s “all out war”–call for martyr squads from other Arab states. Absolute promise of eternity in Paradise.
      2. U.S.: “Shock and Awe,” carpet bombing, heavy bunker bombing with 4,500 pound bombs.
  4. Problems with the crusade approach to war (four)
    1. Inadequate understanding of God
      1. It’s difficult enough to gain an understanding of God without war there to force an interpretation of a God in favor of one’s own political agenda.
      2. In a crusade, God is no longer the universal God who loves all people equally, but the partisan God who loves my people and despises yours.
        1. To Iraq, the U.S. is Satan, unmitigated evil, and Americans are to be killed in the name of God
        2. To the U.S., the Iraqi regime is completely expendable. Saddam can be killed, exiled, tried and convicted–it makes no difference. Bush on Saddam: I don’t care whether we take him dead or alive, just so we take him out.
    2. It’s morally simplistic. Everything is black and white, good or evil.
    3. There’s a false assumption that a crusade in the name of God will bring about perfect conditions in the world. This is the so-called domino effect. Even the Israeli/Palestinian problem will yield to the Iraqi solution. In Saddam’s mind, if Iraq can defeat the U.S., the whole Arab world will benefit.
    4. It’s indiscriminate about killing civilians. The U.S. laments it, but does it anyway. If they are in harm’s way, they are expendable. The Iraqis would kill or harm Americans if they could.
  5. Conclusions
    1. We do not know God in Himself or Herself, the God beyond the Gods of the respective traditions. We know the Gods of our own traditions, but God is beyond all traditions.
      1. We know that God is our master and judge and cannot be manipulated by us or equated with our own aspirations and still be God. If we attempt to do this, the resulting God is not God, but a caricature of God that suits our political or economic aspirations. The God of a crusade or a jihad is a trivial God whom humans control for their own advantage.
      2. Given the human propensity to put God’s stamp of approval on whatever suits our interests, God is probably most authentically God when he judges what we do, not when he endorses what we do.
    2. One of the truly disturbing things about the Bush and Saddam administrations’ take on this war is their tendency to see it in terms of Iraqi evil and American righteousness, or vice versa. Hence, God is on “our” side, and that simple belief on the part of the U.S. administration goes a long way toward explaining why it does not need the backing of the U.N. or anyone else to prosecute this war. And it helps explain why Iraq wants the backing of the whole Muslim world. If God is for us, who can be against us? Historically speaking, however, hubris is the number one stumbling block to ever coming to an understanding of God as God, and not as a rallying cry for victory over a putative enemy.

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