wnrf.org - exploring the future of religion Add to My Yahoo! RSS feed
 Top News
 Jewish Futures
 Christian Futures
 Muslim Futures
 Esoteric Futures
 Transmodern Futures
 Dr. Richard Kirby

Get the WNRF Bulletin

Home > Dr. Richard Kirby
Is God At War?
by Dr. Richard Kirby, Sept 23, 2002
Printer-friendly page Printer page
Email Page Email article

After reading this essay, join its discussion with Dr. Kirby. Go to the Future of Religion forum, where a special essay page has been set up to discuss terrorism, religion and war.


Part 1. America is at War: Is God at War Too?

Part 2. Religion and Violence

Part 3. The Just War Theory-Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Part 4. The Role of the Religious Citizen in a Time of War


Part 1. America is at War: Is God at War Too?

On Sunday October 7, 2001 the United States of America and allies launched a military strike against Afghanistan. The President of the United States, George W. Bush, is said to have preceded his command order with an abundance of prayer. Does this mean that the war (if we are to call it that, as it presumably is) is a "just" one, and if so, is it right to say that God is at war too?

We of WNRF, as religious futurists, have for a long time been students of the whole evolution of religion, its trajectory and the forward thrust of its doctrines towards global civilization and world 'shalom' (peace). We think it is helpful to assemble for our readers some of the best ideas of theology, contemporary spirituality and religious-futures thought, to help all religious people everywhere - and all non-religious people also - to understand the relevance of faith in the time of war, to develop some ways of thinking about citizenship in relation to religious belief and practice, and overall to work out for themselves answers to a very important question: what is the meaning of the Spiritual Life in a time of our nation being at war?

But we, as religious futurists accustomed to take the long view and to look at the 'big picture' of world religions, know that this is not just a question for Americans to ponder, nor for Christians only. To the contrary, we know that around the world people are asking the same question from within their own nation and their own religion: it is a question for Islam and Muslims, for Jews and Israelis, for Hindus and India, for Afghanistanis and Pakistanis. In fact we know that in this 'global village' there is really no country and no faith that can ignore this question. This is a question that even involves economic ideologies such as capitalism. Or, it could be posed geographically - is for example "The West" 'at war' with "The Middle East" or the "East"?

Of course, to pose the question, "what is the meaning of the Spiritual Life in a time of our nation being at war?" is to put the issue much more delicately than to say "Is God now at war with our enemies," or even more bluntly, "Is Our God at war with our enemy's God?" Or, as a philosopher of religion might say more sweetly, "Is our conception of Ultimate Concern in collision with theirs?"

We think it can be helpful to set some parameters here - some 'boundary points; in terms of extreme positions occupied along the spectrum of world religions. For example, we can immediately point to two 'religious positions' which emphatically say, "No - God is not at war." The first of these positions is that of Buddhism. Since it is a non-theistic religion (though believing in a profoundly moral Cosmic Order) is does not hold any beliefs about "God." Instead it talks about the Dharma (Teaching), the Sangha (Community), and Buddha (Enlightened One.) It stresses the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. This Path is one of non-violence from start to finish, and for this reason Gautama Buddha has been called "This man who made our Asia mild." Of course, many would ask where this Asian mildness is to be found these days.

The second non-violent position is the theistic one. It is to be found in Jainism, which so profoundly abhors killing that its adherents wear masks to avoid killing insects; they are careful not to step on insects in their path.

Likewise, branches of Hinduism, and the essential philosophy of Yoga, dictate "Ahimsa" harmlessness as not only the first step of religion but also 'the whole of religion.' Such spiritual leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have made highly public demonstrations of the non-violent philosophy.

A large component of Christian thinking, including the thinking and life of Jesus Christ, has been non-violent, indeed has seen the Cross, the Resurrection and the birth of the Church as the divinely intended end of violence. "Put up your sword," said Jesus; "for all who live by the sword will die by it."

More to the point, the self-giving of Jesus as the meek sacrificial Lamb pointed to a way decisively out of violence — not just as a 'role model' but cosmically. For the Death of Jesus is a revelatory event: it decisively reveals God as love.

So we have a large, international, poly-faith tradition that claims not only that God is not 'at war' but cannot be; for God is love; God is peace; God is bliss. A Hindu saying asserts, "God alone is Real; He is Beauty, Truth, Bliss and Peace." This is called the Adhyatma Yoga, and is associated with Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri . Likewise, for the most part the witness and the tradition of the Christian saints (as described, for example in Butler's Lives of the Saints), and particularly those martyred for their faith, is one of non-violence, the literal fulfillment of the commandment of Jesus, "Resist not evil."

But religions have many strands. Islam, Christianity and Judaism have powerful voices (including Scriptures) within them speaking of God's war - in earth and 'in the heavenlies' (in spiritual cosmology).

Furthermore, the so-called 'Just War' theory from the earliest times of the Constantinian settlement of Christianity has found reasons - pacifists would call them excuses - for waging war, as long as certain conditions were met which could entitle the military action to be designated as "Just" by religious, military and civil leaders.

Part 2. Religion and Violence

Many 'religionists' are now claiming that their God is at war with their enemies.

In a celebrated essay on religious terrorism, Jay Gary has written that increasingly "religion and violence, piety and pandemonium are being mixed in a volatile and deadly cocktail."

This combination was seen in the catastrophic bombing of American embassies in Africa, at the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, at the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister and at the massacre of innocent worshipers at the Mosque in Hebron.

Gary points out that virtually all the world's religions contain martial metaphors; whole books of the Hebrew Bible are devoted to the conquests of great kings. In Hinduism, warfare has contributed to great religious epics such as the Mahabharata.

Warfare, unfortunately, was not just confined to myths and legends. It is well known in history with conflicts such as the Crusades, the Muslim conquests and the Religious Wars of the sixteenth century.

Gary notes that warfare is not just a matter of religious militarism as in "jihad" concepts. Violence and conflict as an ideology seems to underpin many faiths which nominally are dedicated to love.

The ideology of violence leads to the idea of redemptive violence. This idea not only appears in religious wars, policing and tribunals, but also sometimes defines cosmology is seen as the key to history and its movements, and indeed to the end of history or the end of time - eschatology (Last Things).

Of course, the ideology of religious violence as a way of both serving God and accomplishing the supposed cleansing of civilization is necessarily linked with the pursuit of secular political power. In fact a religion like Islam holds up the high ideal of a religious civilization. Theocracy is not its primary idea; the primary idea - at least in my understanding - is the dissolution of the sacred/secular distinction so that God can be "all in all."

Religious futurists and scholars such as Jay Gary, WNRF senior associate, and Tim King, president of Living Presence Ministries, have studied the historical underpinning of these violent images. They find them to deriving from various dualistic metaphysical doctrines in history, in which the good/bad or good/evil dichotomy almost necessarily leads to the idea of the self-styled good people or nations designating their enemies as bad=evil='God's enemies'=their own enemies. This journey of thought also almost necessarily implies military wars and crusades, jihads, political pogroms, ethnic cleansing and the like.

King is the leader of the Transmillennial® movement that sees radical evil (rebellion against God) as being defeated at the Cross of Christ, and destroyed at the fall of Jerusalem.

There is evil in the world today, according to King, but that evil is not the evil that Paul the apostle said would be crushed at A.D. 70. King says evil today comes from human double-mindedness; as the Book of James states, "But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it." (James 1:14).

In other words, the Final Battle is finished. The War To End All Wars has been won.

"It is significant," King adds, "that when the Final Battle was won, God won it by losing on the cross. He did it non-violently!" "People turn to redemptive violence today," King says, "because they don't believe that God already has won the battle!"

King, Gary and other theologians are looking for all churches to renounce violence in their radical discipleship of Jesus Christ, and become - not pacifists but energetic seekers of the healing of the nations.

With hundreds of thousands of Christian congregations in the U.S.A. alone, there is a wonderful opportunity at present for the "Churches of Tomorrow" to arrive today. Such congregations would become power centers for moral innovation. They would enable the transformation of the energies of war into energies of love, wisdom, intelligence, innovation and redemption.

War, at present, has become a fact of national consciousness. The churches are standard-bearers —potentially—for the conduct of war, as an act of true healing. Not healing by torture, but healing by love, education, transformation.

How this doctrine will "apply" to the restraining of terrorists is a question that must be answered of a case-by-case basis. What punishment is appropriate for terrorists who are apprehended, or caught alive, is also a matter of jurisprudence and for theology; there is no necessary truth available such as an eye for an eye. So it is possible that the present war dating from 9/11/2001 could become an opportunity for moral creativity for religionists who are peaceably-minded and concerned with world-healing.

Part 3. The Just War Theory-Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

With all these considerations in mind, we can return to several important questions. If the present war is 'just', which side has 'justice', since both are theists? And does this 'just war' imply that God is at war also, or simply that God is a principle (for example) of infinite intelligence who only represents the spirit of divine counsel to commanders-in-chief? And what is the citizen who is in a nation at war supposed to in private and public worship? What is 'holiness' for the citizen at a time of war?

We have some answers to these questions. We hope our readers can at least use them as discussion points.


We believe that it is time for some fresh questions to be asked of the 'Just War' theory. For the most part, contemporary discussions assume that the problem is whether a particular war meets the known requirements of being "just," such as being provoked, having clearly stated objectives, and aiming not to kill non-combatants (in certain circumstances - the list varies according to the compiler). In other words, the cause must be just, and the conduct of the war must be just.

We suggest that the emphasis is in the wrong place. For the truth is that it is not the variable attributes of the war which are problematic; it is the elasticity of the concept of justice.

From a number of viewpoints we have perspectives which lead us to look in new ways at the idea of "justice" in war or any international relations. From so-called "Ordinary Language philosophy," particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein (d.1953) we have inherited a set of skills which enable us to crack open the "logical geography" of a concept such as "justice" as if we were cracking open a walnut.

The techniques of "logical geography" are like microscopes that we employ to study the nut when our nutcrackers have revealed the wrinkled, fissured, complex-grained walnut inside. Gilbert Ryle, in his groundbreaking book The Concept of Mind, did this with the concept of "mind" in his 1949 book of that name. A concept which is cousin to "justice" in jurisprudence (philosophy of law) is punishment; and Ted Honderich in his philosophical essay, Punishment —the supposed justifications, critiqued exactly what his book declared itself as purposing to do: give a philosophical (and partly an evidential) critique of the reasons which are given to "justify" punishment: that is, to show that it is "just" or conveys justice.

There are other 'modern' techniques for analyzing, deconstructing, contemplating and in other ways dismembering a concept such as "justice." It is a complex concept, a coat of many colors. Modern philosophers, theologians and, we hope, political leaders and statesmenare entitled to ask of any "Just War theory", not "What kind of war are you planning?" but "What do you mean by justice?"

Interestingly a large part of Plato's Republic takes exactly this form: it is an inquiry into the meaning of "Justice". There are also various sub-texts underlying the concept: that is, there are ideologies providing the underpinning, grounding the concept in a tradition. If, for example, we start that with the assumption that justice is the distribution of power, and that therefore the "delivery" of justice implies forceful subjugation of a party so that "justice can be done," users of the concept are trapped into "violence, strength and force," as the categories of their discussion.

But let us look at "Justice" from the Hebrew rather than the Greek side. We cannot summarize the Bible in an article, but we can point out that there is a substantial tradition of Biblical scholarship which sees the progressive self-revelation of God in the Bible as being a sequence in which the self-revelation of God moves away from God's power (apart from the power to create) being the power to chastise, punish and condemn, to a situation in which God reveals God's Power as being the power to suffer sacrificially, the power to love, the power to forgive, the power to save. Justice is absorbed into mercy, not contrasted with it.

God, according to this analysis, being love, cannot be 'at war' — unless, of course we use the idea metaphorically, as in "Education is a war on ignorance". But this is to use the word shorn of violent content. If we see the essence of the Christian revelation and religion as being quintessentially, "God is love," as the New Testament does indeed say specifically, then the whole "Just War" is stood on its head and becomes, "How can we love our enemies?" But this is a question for Christians, not for citizens. We recognize that the State has claims on citizens, but we also recognize that the Church has claims on its members. To reconsider these in a time of war is to join a great tradition, recapitulating not only the experience of the early Church, but the very life of Jesus, who was asked in various ways to use power, force or magic to 'disarm' his enemies; but He chose to disarm them on the Cross.

From this point of view, we reach the paradoxical conclusion that a "Just War" is one which "saves" or even which "heals" the 'enemy.'

John Austin Baker, in his book The Foolishness of God is a good presenter of this kind of thinking. The idea of a "healing war" is perfectly consistent with military history. Japan, having attacked the USA, brought upon itself Occupation, which was an attempt to bring healthy political institutions to the defeated country. Whether or not these are truly "healthy" political institutions is a question too complex to go into now.

There is one other thing we must say about the "Just War" theory. Either-or thinking horribly impoverishes the analysis of a war for its "justice". To believe that the military and civilian leaders of a country can decide whether a war or military action "is or is not" just is to emasculate the topic. We can learn from process philosophy that here is an infinite set of gradations possible as we analyze the degrees of justice in a military action —depending, of course, of what we "mean" by "justice. We here and now call for the emergence of a tradition of greater subtlety (and therefore greater truth) in analyzing "our" war(s). For there are degrees of justice/injustice by almost any definition of the concept of justice; and there are situations in which an action can be "just" in some ways but not others; or in its trends.

For example, the whole evolution of non-violent philosophy has shown that there is a world trend towards minimizing the use of deadly force (except by terrorists). Police forces and armies are more and more reluctant to target civilians; and the emergence of 'soft' and 'smart' weapons ranging from rubber bullets to pepper spray and 'smart' missiles shows a growing reluctance to use deadly violence when it can be avoided. In other words, the infinite worth of every life, even that of the 'criminal' or 'deviant' or enemy, is being acknowledged.

Meanwhile, opposite viewpoints are part of the cross-currents of civil discourse. Voices parading the claims of compassion and the spirituality of love can be heard, even in reference to the war on terrorists. These gentle, kindly viewpoints are presently intersecting the viewpoints of the advocates of deadly force.

I believe that here is a little bit of confusion here in public discourse: the gung-ho military mind is very clear and is at home in all-or-nothing thinking. This is true whether the military mind belongs to a soccer mom or a Marine commander. This all-or-nothing thinking leads the military mind to be very sure, indignantly so, that pacifists, peaceniks, and the like are traitors, lunatics, or at best hopelessly naive. And probably retired Hippies, lefties, commies and the like. What they clearly deserve is to repatriated to Afghanistan where the Taliban will show them what idealists receive from realists. The important thing, says the military mind, is to use total force and ruthless violent energy to destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys our citizens, our way of life and our nation. And if civilians have to be gassed, nuked, or maimed, that's too bad. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Here, I believe, is where the confusion enters. The claims of compassion and love are not the fantasies of idealists; they are hard, empirical facts of human nature. So, of course, is the existence of terrorists. But we do not have to choose between compassion and violence as our national identity.

The spiritual leaders, the emotional leaders, the religious and civic leaders of humanity and most of the greatest political philosophers have, for the most part, seen love and compassion as among the supreme goals of civilization itself - the purpose, in fact, of the State, the purpose of nations existing at all.

It is interesting to note that for the most part nations which have seen their purpose, their defining quality, as aggression or domination, have been tamed by the rest of the nations - as if they were cancer cells in a healthy organism, which resolutely ejected, rejected or best of all reprogrammed those rogue cells.

Thus, Germany and Japan, in the world wars of last century, turned their nations into militaristic communities aiming at world (or regional) domination and destruction. Their fate? They were defeated by alliances of (relatively) sane nations, and were "reprogrammed" by occupation or equivalent. This is a fascinating sign that - as Kant wrote in his essay on Perpetual Peace - wars activate alliances which are stronger than the fissiparous (tending to split apart) collaboration of belligerent nations.

Similarly, the Soviet Union, aiming through the Comintern (international Communism movement), through AgitProp and through regional wars and annexations, sought world domination as a clear and inevitable purpose - one so great and predestined that it justified terror, the national habit of the varieties of untruth such as lying, deceit, misinformation, etc. - but this Soviet Union, like the Russian Empire, simply collapsed.

The Body Politic of humanity, the world-political body, is clearly on a journey of health, and is in its own time defeating the bearers of rogue political ideas such as domination, bondage and - violence.

As futurists, one of our professional skills is extrapolation. It is illuminating to extrapolate these trends in our present setting.

One thing is clear: if deadly force is not seen as "appropriate" punishment (and this may eventually apply to all death-penalty states), is any kind of wounding "appropriate" punishment? We can easily imagine, as science fiction writers have, a State in which there is no "punishment", only rehabilitation with love. Here is a situation in which mercy has displaced revenge as the core idea of justice, and the idea of punishment has accordingly vanished. Such a tale is told in the novel The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. A murderer is 'reconstructed' (rehabilitated physiologically) by the State. He is not "punished."

Likewise, we can imagine future wars which do not involve people at all (zero harm) but are virtual Olympics in which computers, robots and space ships vie with one another for supremacy as vicarious antagonists.

Finally, we should mention that the Just War theory should not really be called a Christian theory, but perhaps a Roman or a military one, or an imperial or pseudo-Christian doctrine. We believe that the earliest church, building on the example of Jesus, was formed by the example of pacifists such as St. Stephen, proto-martyr, whose unresisted execution by stoning was so influential upon the conversion of St. Paul —another martyr and early witness to be executed by the State. The Christians in the gladiatorial arenas and the lions' dens made no resistance. By giving their life they won the State —as Will Durant argues in Caesar and Christ within his History of Civilization.

After the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the empire -- assisted by the church -- produced some rationalizations of imperial military culture. But we see the essential Christian witness as being non-violent.

Therefore, we can reframe the question from "Is this a Just War" (the answer is a forgone conclusion, an automatic "Yes" in militaristic circles) to "is this a Christian war?" And we would like to answer that question ourselves: There is no such thing—in our opinion.

Part 4. The Role of the Religious Citizen in a Time of War

Therefore, we arrive back at one of our starting points--interestingly, one where in some ways we find ourselves in the situation of the earliest Christians--asking the question: "What are the potential roles of a Christian (for example an American Christian) in a time of war?" We will turn to this in our final section.

For the moment, we can draw together some of the strands of this section by pointing out that a citizen has many powers, as does a person of faith and a member of a worshipping community, to add voices which promote truth, justice and mercy, healing and holiness to any discussion of the justice of war.

And since we are told that the present war is likely to be a long one, we will probably have ample opportunities to gather worship-led viewpoints on the goals or aims of the war; on its strategies; on its tactics and methods; and on the reconstruction of the world post-War And we do well to remind ourselves that the non-violent philosophy, in theory and practice, is as mobile and apt to grow and evolve as science. Like bombs and guns and missiles, it has grown and is growing in its power, its persuasiveness and its influence.

What then is 'holiness' for the citizen at a time of war? This is a complex question really a set of questionsfor which Dick Spady and I have provided some materials in our upcoming book The Leadership of Civilization Building**. The tasks, the attributes, the responsibilities and the privileges of citizens are many-layered. We distinguish between citizen skills and citizen responsibilities, amid a discussion of theories of citizenship. These theories of citizenship are part, of course, of the wider field of political philosophy, which discusses among other things, the relationship between the State and its basic political unit or element: the citizen.

As with most co-authors, Dick Spady and I agree on fundamental issues, but have a different tactical emphasis sometimes. Dick Spady's principal concern is that citizens accomplish their basic duty - which is to communicate their vision of the highest good, and to communicate it in particular to their elected representatives or governors. The best way to do this is through symbolic dialogue, which is achieved through the Fast Forum. This can be studied on the Forum Foundation's website, http://www.forumfoundation.org/.

The idea of citizens being encouraged to think through their vision of the Highest Good - the highest good for society, the common or Higher Good, especially the international highest good, fits nicely with an idea of religious communities as communities of character as Stanley Hauerwas termed them in his book of that name.

From this we can, from our core values of redemptive love, create a composite picture of the ideal (or excellent) citizen in a time of war:

  1. The citizen learns through her supportive spiritual community (as did Rosa Parks, famously, in church education groups) to discover her own supreme values and what they imply to define the highest good for society and the highest and best purposes of her nation. This can become a Way of Prayer, a spirituality of political action, a personal concept of civic holiness. For the citizen seeking the highest values of her nation must approach the idea of God, and in this way becomes a seeker of God's will or calling to the nation. Every citizen treading this path of inquiry, and the repentance and amendment of life which it may imply, is a priest of the nation, or a prophet to the nation. Both priest and prophet have one core concern: to lead the "People" (of church and/or State) to God, or back to God.
  2. The citizen learns through his supportive spiritual community to continually think through the powers, the privileges and the responsibilities of the morally good or spiritually excellent member of a nation (i.e. a citizen).
  3. The citizen learns citizen skills such as communication with other citizens and governors in symbolic dialogue.
  4. Finally, the citizen leads his or her own religious congregation or faith-based community to its own spiritual duty of a being a light to the nation - bearing the light of God's love and power. The citizen as congregational member helps the congregation grow continuously in its capacity to inspire or reinspire, or even to redeem, the civil authorities (including the military ones).

Collectively these actions of a citizen in a time of war give religionists the best chance to increase the real justness of any war, and to lead Church and State to greater shalom, peace, health, love and the social innovation which is made possible for collective mental and spiritual health.

Organizations such as the League of Spiritual Voters are moving in some of the directions described. We can only hope and pray that our religious citizens will call upon God's love, successfully, to bring new power from God the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier to save our nations and all nations. For we know from Psalm 2, shared by Christians and Jews, that God looks upon all nations. And the historic mission of the People of God has been to save the nations. This is the highest purpose of the religious citizen in the world at war.

To save is to love, to save is to heal, to save is to rescue from squalor and degradation. To save is to set free. And here the American Constitution happily coincides with the Gospel.

The citizen in a time of war, with the quintessential religious-civic duty of praying for the nation, becomes a mediator (priest) between God and the nation, such that the nation's spiritual growth towards complete union with God is empowered by the faithfulness of any and all citizen-priests.

Consequently, the religious congregations of America can lead the Arts (and vice versa) to an outpouring of literature, music, art, worship materials. This new art can help nation and citizens grow continuously in civic power and spiritual illumination.

This, collectively, is a vision of holiness for all citizens of a nation at war. This holiness of love becomes fuel for the helping of the world community, the family of humanity, towards the longed-for era of world peace and love. Impossible? Not for God. Impossible for the people of God? For with God, nothing shall be impossible.

Copyright 2001 by Richard Kirby, Nov 8th.

For further reading:

  1. The Violence Within by Paul Tournier
  2. Mr. Britling Sees it Through, by H.G.Wells (1918)

** To acquire copies of The Leadership of Civilization Building, please telephone Ron Schmeer at the Forum Foundation in Seattle, at (206) 634-0420, or e-mail him at RonSchmeer@aol.com.

Dr. Richard Kirby, International Chairperson of the World Network of Religious Futurists, welcomes your collaboration in caring for the Animals of Tomorrow.Your counsel and comments are invited. To discuss with others, including Dr. Kirby, go to the Future of Religion forum, where a special essay page has been set up.

URL: http://www.wnrf.org/cms/war.shtml

Top of Page Top of Page Email this Article Email Article Printer

© 1998-2010 by World Network of Religious Futurists
What's New
Tributes to Dr. Richard S. Kirby
Chaplain to the Stars, Memorial to Dr. Kirby
Farewell Dr. Richard S. Kirby (1949-2009)
The Future of Ideal Language
Kirby Calls for a New Wall Street
WNRF Chapel--a Chaplain's Corner
The Theological Definition of Cosmic Disorder
A New Mathematics for a New Era
A Theologian is Born
Space Spirit: Astronomical Civilization Building
The Philosophy of Civilization Building
Ride Out: a different eschatology
African Renaissance
Is God At War?
New Dollars In Beijing
Preview: The Leadership of Civilization Building
The New Dictionary of Civilization
Infinite Profit At Infinite Speed
The Way of Enlightened Science
Quadrupling the World GDP by 2010
Birthing a New Financial Civilization
The Mondays of Tomorrow
The Spiritual Academy of Arts
The Sacred Homes of the Future