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War and Peace

War and Peace


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

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Hello, and welcome to this tutorial on war and peace. We'll be taking a look at various different religious traditions, and their attitudes towards war and peace. Most traditions around the world agree that peace should be the ultimate goal, they just have various different ideas about the way to get there. So let's go ahead and get started. I have here some selections from various different world scriptures about war and peace. The first one, comes from Isaiah 2:4, "They shall beat their swords into plow shares, and their spears into pruning hooks." This is a vision of a time when war will end, and God will bring a reign of peace on the Earth. Or the next one, which comes from the Dhamma Pada, which is a central Buddhist scripture, "All tremble at weapons, all fear death. Comparing others with oneself, one should not slay, nor cause to slay." Buddhism, a religion which is famous for its stance of nonviolence, but as we shall see in a minute is not completely universal within Buddhism. At any rate, also a sort of idea of the golden rule here, comparing others with oneself. Moving on, to the Tao Te Ching, "Compassion in war brings Victory." So again, these kind of paradoxical sayings of the Tao Te Ching. But we see here, yes war may be necessary, but wage war in a way that you have compassion for your enemy.

Moving on to the Christian tradition and the peace churches. These are churches within Christianity that have an official stance of pacifism. That is, they believe that war should be avoided completely. The Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, has always had a stance of nonviolence. And then also the Mennonites and the Amish, they're known as Anabaptist traditions. Anabaptist means "re-baptizers." These were churches that originated in the Reformation, when they were protesting against the Catholic practice of baptizing infants, and so they would re baptize people when they came of age, and they decided to be baptized for themselves. We might say many, many other churches have a stance of peace and nonviolence, but these two are really the most strict traditions of nonviolence. The Methodists, for example, were officially pacifist during World War I and World War II, but many Methodists nonetheless fought in those wars. We also think about the Catholic church as having a stance of nonviolence, but the Catholic Church has given its blessing to many different wars. We can see this tension in the Christian tradition, "Turn the other cheek." That's from the Sermon on the Mount, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile." But on the other hand, Matthew 10, "I've come to bring not peace, but a sword." So we can find really both ideas in the Gospels, and it just depends on which idea that we want to emphasize, whether or not we should view Christianity as a pacifist tradition.

Christianity, of course, in its origins, was religion that was marginalized. It wasn't until the reign of Constantine that Christianity became an imperial religion, that it became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Christians may recognize the initials IHS, which you will see printed on many vestments and communion tables. It stands for "In Hoc Signo," but of course the missing letter here is V, it's actually "In Hoc Signo Vinces," "By this sign, you will conquer." This comes from the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in which Constantine was fighting in Rome for the western half of the empire, and he defeated Maxentius. He had a vision in which he saw the cross painted on a shield, and he followed the vision, he converted to Christianity, he converted the entire empire to Christianity, and he won that battle, and from then on established Christianity as an imperial religion. And from this time onward, Christians have seen fit to engage in warfare for causes that they regarded as just. Of course, what constitutes a just cause is a matter of some debate.

So let's just take a brief look at Christian Just War Theory. Saint Augustine was the first to use the phrase "Just War" in a famous book of his called The City of God. But Augustine didn't really give a checklist for what he considered to be a just war, it was Thomas Aquinas who gave us a checklist, and other theorists after him-- many, many different theorists after him. But Thomas Aquinas gave the conditions. First of all, the war has to be waged by a legitimate authority. It must occur for a just purpose. And peace must always be a motive, even in the midst of violence, so you have to wage the war all along as though you wanted the war to end. Let's take a brief look at Buddhist non-violence. Buddhism teaches an official vow of nonviolence, both for monks, nuns, and laypeople. It's important to remember though, that the Buddha had an anti metaphysical doctrine, that is he was speaking as someone who is speaking to practical and personal liberation. So the nonviolence vow should be viewed in the context of a spiritual teaching, rather than a blanket political statement. The Buddha did not view himself as getting into the political fray. So we do know that the Buddha taught in the presence of kings, at least two kings, Pasenadi and Bimbisara. And when he was teaching in the presence of these kings, he never criticized the power of the state to exercise coercive power. So, how do we view the Buddha's silence on this point, does he agree with the authority of the state in exercising coercive power, or not? Well, it's open to interpretation. So Buddhism has inspired anti-war activism, as well as various different martial arts, as in feudal Japan.

Thanks for watching this tutorial on war and peace. We said that many religions have practices and writings that speak to war and peace, and the proper role of society and governments in responding to warfare. We said that the attitudes towards war and peace depend on the tradition, and the particular strand of each individual tradition. We talked about Christianity and the peace churches, specifically the Anabaptist tradition and the Quaker tradition, as churches that pretty much regard warfare is wrong in all cases. But we said that many other Christian denominations also oppose warfare in various different contexts. We talked about the history of early Christianity as a marginal religion, and how Christianity really became to be an imperial power under Constantine. And that Constantine waged warfare in the name of Christ, and that from then on Christians came to regard warfare as necessary. Saint Augustine was the first Christian theologian to use the term "just war," and it was later expanded by Thomas Aquinas who gave rules and conditions for when warfare is justified. We also said that Buddhists take a vow of nonviolence, but that there are portions of Buddhist history in which warfare has been part of Buddhist practice, as in feudal Japan.

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.