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War and Peace

War and Peace

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will consider ideas on both war and peace from a variety of religious traditions.

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Source: Music: "World music, percussion."

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Hello and welcome. Today we're going to talk about war and peace. There are three basic categories from which we can approach the history of war and peace. The first one is just war theory, which has to do with the idea that there is a legitimate justification for war, and we'll follow that history and its evolution a little bit through Christianity particularly. And the second category is called realism, and that has to do with an approach that really considers the decision to go to war on a very pragmatic basis where morality and absolutes are not a part of the equation. It's really more of a civil concern and not a religious issue. And the third point, the third approach is one that ops for a nonviolent approach, a pacifist approach where war is avoided. And there are many justifications and support for this type of ideology, and we'll look at that as well.

Early in its history, Christianity became very mixed with the interest of the state, the Roman Empire, and the power of the first Christian emperor Constantine. In these early centuries of Christianity, Saint Augustine developed a theory of just war, which centered on the belief that one had earthly civil duties and responsibilities in conjunction with, together with, one's duties and responsibilities to God. And this theory was appropriated or used in the name of Christ to advance the interest of the Roman Empire. And the first Christian emperor Constantine was largely behind this motivating force. And many examples were used from the Bible to justify this. For example, in the Old Testament, "A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace." There are many, many examples from the Old and New Testament that were reduced to justify war in many cases. And there were many counter arguments as well to justify not going to war which we'll look at in a minute. So just war was also a philosophy and the theory of war that was used extensively in the Middle Ages and was given the work through with the scholastics, particularly Saint Thomas Aquinas. A central element of Aquinas' like Augustine's just war theory, stated that any motivation for war had to be ultimately for peace, that behind all of that had to be this desire for peace. So that is a central element of the just war theory, in fact. And with the Protestant Reformation later in the 16th century, there were many denominations and sub-denominations of Protestantism that broke off and didn't agree with the ideology that may have been in line with the just war theory. So there were many peace churches that developed. The idea of non-violence and pacifism became very popular in the 16th century with certain branches of Protestantism, most notably the Anabaptist tradition, the Mennonites, and the Amish, and the Quakers. These are three groups that are steadfastly opposed to war. And nonviolence and pacifism is one of their central tenets and beliefs. And other religion struggled with this contradictions, too. In Islam, for example, there's a tradition and a theory of just war that has some similarities to the one developed by Christian theologians. But again there are many perspectives under that general category, and there are many different ideas about how to justify it.

Another example of an apparent contradiction can be found in feudal Japan, which is a period of time which roughly corresponds to the Middle Ages in the west. These were violent times everywhere and Japan was no exception. At that time, there were different schools in Buddhism that were vying for political power and strength their particular Buddhist school. And Buddhist warrior monks, known as sohei, were often the principal figures behind this call to arms. So what might seem to be a contradiction is the violence on the one hand and the teaching of Buddhism that prohibits taking the life of any sentient being, anyone or anything that has sensory impressions and responses, any life. At the same time the sohei followed a code of ethics called bushido, and this included honesty, respect, and other moral commitments.

Now to summarize, historically war and peace stretches back to the earliest times. We focused on attitudes toward war and peace in several of the major religions of the world. We saw how theories and opinions from within some of the traditions have varied throughout history. Arguments have been made from both sides to either justify war or to abstain from and avoid war. And that often the case for just war involved the interests of the ruling authority. Finally we looked briefly at feudal Japan as another example of the apparent conflicts and contradictions that come to the surface in terms of ideology, practice, and religious commitment. In the end, religious perspectives on war and peace might differ as much as non-religious perspective.



The Holy Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 1769. Authorized King James Vers.; King James Bible Online, 2008.

Music: "World Music Percussion:"





Terms to Know
Just War

A theory developed in the first millennium of Christianity regarding the justifiable use of military force by Christians.


The belief that the use of military force is never ethically or morally justified.