Armed Force and the Abrahamic Tradition

Address by Dr. Douglas M. Johnston

The sweeping nature of the topic before us causes one to wonder where to begin. Perhaps a good start would be to acknowledge the rules of war developed by all three Abrahamic faith traditions that share in common a respect for God’s creation. In one form or another, all three have articulated principles of Jus Ad Bellum, to determine when it is morally acceptable to wage war, and Jus In Bello, to determine the moral parameters for the actual conduct of war. Briefly stated, all three agree that (1) states should only use force as a last resort, i.e. after all diplomatic and other nonmilitary options have been exhausted, and (2) if force is used, every effort should be made to avoid harming innocent civilians.

In Christianity, the essence of these principles can be found in Christ’s commandment to “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek.” From this, St. Augustine concluded that war is only justified if it is waged with Right Intention. It should not be motivated by a desire for revenge, but solely to halt aggression and restore a just peace. Once it has passed that test, it should be waged with the minimum level of violence required to achieve the desired ends. This means that nations should spare those who are not themselves aggressors and that if there is any way to restore a just peace without resorting to violence, it should be pursued.

The roots of Jewish Just War tradition can be found in Deuteronomy 20, which stipulates that before besieging a city the attackers must “call out to it in peace first,” and offer its inhabitants a chance to negotiate. As interpreted by Maimonides in his 12th Century code of Jewish law, this means that “One does not wage war with anyone in the world until one seeks peace with him.” The Jewish tradition of Jus In Bello, meanwhile, is grounded in the requirement that an army allow escape routes for retreating forces when surrounding a city. In the first century BCE, the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus gave an unambiguous call for the protection of innocents, saying, “The Jewish nation… when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done very little or nothing amiss, shows what I should call a savage and brutal soul.”

In Islam, both the Qur’an and Hadith strongly endorse the idea that force should be used sparingly. Sura 8, Verse 61, for example, says of the enemies, “If they incline toward peace, incline you toward it, and trust in God: verily He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing.” Similarly, Sura 2, Verse 190 states: “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not transgress limits, for God loves not the transgressors.” The first Sunni Caliph, Abu Bakr, offered even greater specificity in articulating these limits when he said: “Do not act treacherously; do not act disloyally; do not act neglectfully; do not mutilate; do not kill little children or old men, or women; do not cut off the heads of the palm-trees or burn them; do not cut down the fruit trees; do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food. You will pass by people who devote their lives in cloisters; leave them and their devotions alone. …”

Unfortunately, political leaders within each tradition have all-too-often ignored these religious principles. Whether motivated by wounded pride or considerations of national interest, they have been unwilling to make the compromises that would render war unnecessary. Once war begins, these same leaders sometimes find themselves forced by strategic considerations to adopt tactics and use weapons that kill non-combatants indiscriminately.

Perhaps the best illustration of the tension that exists between moral imperatives and political expediency can be found in a nation-state’s approach to nuclear weapons. For example, the United States, which has recently expressed its desire to develop nuclear “bunker busting” bombs, and which remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in time of war, appears on the face of it to be impervious to the Christian dictums of Just War Theory. It is also interesting to note that the Catholic Church, despite its firm opposition to nuclear weapons, endorsed the concept of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, the church is more forcefully emphasizing its conviction that deterrence should only be seen as a stepping stone to progressive nuclear disarmament. As cited in an article on this subject in the July 29, 2005 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, “The time has come for the Catholic church in the United States to take up the Vatican’s call for a reexamination of the whole strategy of nuclear deterrence and directly challenge this administration’s plans.”

On a personal level, when I was serving aboard a fleet ballistic missile submarine in the 1960’s, I experienced first-hand the prospective dilemma of responding to an order to fire a nuclear missile in the absence of compelling evidence that an enemy nuclear attack was either imminent or already underway. Needless to say, the mere entertainment of such a question acts to undermine the very concept of deterrence itself. Deterrence is only sound if it is automatic. In any event, my inability to come up with a compelling answer to this question contributed to my later decision to resign from the Navy.

Much as the Catholic Church was willing to consider the permissibility of nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense (through deterring their use by others), the State of Israel, out of an ongoing concern for its very existence, appears to have overcome some very real restraints rooted in Jewish theology in developing a formidable nuclear capability of its own.

Within Islam, it is clear that Pakistan has not felt constrained from developing its own WMD capability, while Iran, on the other hand, has elected to occupy the moral high ground by both (1) refusing to respond in kind to the Iraqi use of Chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, and (2) thus far refusing to build such weapons in today’s similarly threatening context. Although there are concerns that Iran may follow the lead of others in developing such weapons if she feels sufficiently threatened, the temptation to do so should be resisted for as long as humanly possible. Clearly, the entire world will be better off if Iran is able to lead by example in adhering to its religious principles.

A Jewish colleague of mine, while commenting on Judaism and the limits of war in an address at Princeton, observed that “even most of those who are rooted in Biblical religion do not in practice make decisions about conflict based on just war criteria. Few of them know these criteria at all.” He went on to note that “if we consult religious traditions only when war is imminent or on the horizon, then we ask their advice only when the real damage has been done.” He feels that ethical values and personal relationships should play a much larger role in conflict prevention and suggests that religious cultures and their ethical traditions be engaged in creative conjunction with official and unofficial diplomacy toward this end.

As implied above, religious leaders generally have greater influence before a conflict begins than after it has started. All-to-often they wait too long to make their voices heard. A case in point occurred in 1992 when Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle of Belgrade, the spiritual leader of 12 million Serbian Orthodox Christians, joined with Franjo Kuharic, the Roman Catholic Primate of Croatia, in appealing to their political leaders to end the violence that was wracking the former Yugoslavia. The two church leaders condemned the practice of “ethnic cleansing” and the “blasphemous destruction of all prayer and holy places, Christian and Muslim.” By this point, however, ethnic and religious tensions had been inflamed to the point where this appeal to conscience fell on deaf ears and had absolutely no impact at all.

In America’s own history, religious leaders have often fared no better. In November of 1990, a mere 2 months before the beginning of the First Gulf War, the National Council of Churches, a major voice of mainline American Christians, unanimously issued a public statement that criticized the Bush Administration for “reckless rhetoric” and “imprudent behavior,” saying “As Christians in the U.S., we must witness against weak resignation to the illogical logic of militarism and war,”  The following month, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church met in the White House with President Bush, himself an Episcopalian, to convey the views of 18 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders who stated: “War is not the answer. No cause will be served, no crisis resolved, no justice secured.” Within a month, the nation was at war despite these pleas.

Even the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose foreign policy is uniquely informed by religious ideals, has occasionally been forced to make unpalatable compromises. For the first five years of the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini showed remarkable restraint when he refused to respond in kind to Saddam Hussein’s unconscionable use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. In 1987, however, when Iraq began targeting Iranian population centers in “the war of the cities,” Khomeini felt he had no recourse but to respond in kind and authorized attacks on Baghdad that he knew would kill Iraqi civilians.

As each of these examples shows, it is not enough for religious leaders to oppose war once it has already become an irresistible option or to simply condemn weapons of mass destruction on theological grounds. Rather, they should seek to engage politicians early in the foreign policy process, long before morality has been trumped by political expediency. Among the examples where this approach has succeeded is the case of Macedonia, which was able to avoid the kind of inter-ethnic violence that its former Yugoslav neighbors suffered because its president, among other initiatives, fostered inter-religious dialogue between Macedonia’s Orthodox Christians and Albanian Muslims before the nascent tensions between these groups spiraled out of control.  All of this points to the importance of interactions such as ours today. Over the course of previous meetings in Iran and the United States, we have come to understand the deep commitment that all of us feel toward our respective religious faiths. More importantly, we have come to understand the commitment that each of us feels toward the precepts that our faiths hold in common. Out of this shared understanding and commitment to religious principles, I think we are uniquely positioned to help our respective policymakers devise peaceful solutions to existing problems.

Toward this end, one possibility we might want to consider (and that would represent a logical extrapolation of our earlier meetings) would be to bring high-level participants from both sides together in a Track II effort to chart a mutually acceptable course for achieving peace between our two countries. By peace, I don’t mean the mere absence of conflict, but rather the development of a cooperative relationship. Among the many reasons for pursuing such a relationship are our overlapping interests in a number of different areas. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, we would both like to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, curb the drug trade, and promote strong governments to support regional stability. More broadly, both countries could play a valuable role in fighting the spread of radical Wahhabi groups whose intolerant ideology leads them to attack Americans and Shiites alike. On the economic front, both countries have much to gain from increased trade, technology exchange and energy cooperation. Even in the area of Israeli/Palestinian relations, we have a shared interest in the creation of a vibrant, economically sound Palestinian state. Finally, a cooperative relationship would greatly enhance U.S. and Iranian policy options for bringing peace to the entire region, and, in the process, address some of Iran’s understandable security concerns.

Participants for such an engagement would be chosen from the ranks of respected political, religious, academic and professional figures who are known to be spiritually-minded, who are not serving in government, and whose views will command serious consideration by their respective governments. A world-class expert on negotiations would facilitate the effort, and the final recommendations would be presented to both governments for appropriate consideration. Such an initiative could capitalize on the collective wisdom of some of our best thinkers in developing potential solutions to the intractable problems that are currently blocking meaningful interaction at the Track I level. While it may not be possible to engage in such an exercise anytime soon, it is certainly something to which we can aspire once the political planets achieve sufficient alignment to permit moving ahead. Let us pray that this day comes soon.



Address by Douglas Johnston to Iranian religious leaders and scholars
March 1, 2006, Rome

Comments are closed.