War in the name of God

War in the name of God

It is always refreshing to visit the Austrian capital – to experience its majestic architecture, impressive museums and legendary cafes. What brought me here this time is a more specific reason though: A conference on the role of religion in World War I. Organized by the Institute for Religion and Peace of the Catholic Military Chaplaincy of Austria, it was really an intellectual treat.

As various scholars who spoke at the conference noted, the Great War, as it was then called, was partly a religious war, at least in the eyes of its parties. Every warring nation in Europe employed chaplains – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or even Muslim – who blessed the war effort. That is why every army marched with slogans that reflected their trust in the divine. “Gott mitt uns,” said the Germans and Austrians, which was the English version of saying “God is with us.”

Notably, the Christian theology of that time was not as peaceful as it is today. Christian leaders argued that God wants the armies “to smite the enemy,” or punish whole nations for their sins. A Catholic artist made paintings reflecting every line in the Lord’s Prayer, but left a particular line out: “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Apparently, that core Christian message of compassion and forgiveness was not fit for the zeal of war.

Of course, things have changed dramatically within Christendom since then. Today, Western Christians, particularly Catholics, preach not war but peace in the name of God. The Catholic Church also made its peace with liberal-democratic values and also accepted a more embracing theology in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. More recently, Pope Francis has taken further liberal steps, presenting olive branches to atheists and gays.

Some modern Western Christians who have absorbed all this moderation and liberation within their theology make the mistake of thinking that Christianity was always like this. They, in other words, forget both the dark age of Christianity, where Crusaders launched wars and the Inquisition burnt “heretics.” They also seem to disregard that non-Western Christianity can still be militant. (When Serbian nationalists waged a genocide in the 1990s against Bosnian Muslims, for example, they were blessed by some of their Orthodox priests.)

The problem of militancy in the Muslim world today is a story with some parallels to this Christian story. The majority of Muslims, in fact, reject this militancy and seek peace, not war, in the name of God. But there are more militant Muslims, who, like the militant Christians of the past, are willing to “smite the enemy,” or kill the heretics (“apostates”) in the name of God. They share the German battle cry of World War I: Gott mitt us, or, in Arabic, “Allah is with us.”

Islam, as a world religion, is not doomed to harbor such militancy forever. But some of its denominations need to go through some reinterpretation to rule it out on principle. As with Christianity, this will happen thanks to the ideas of reformist religious leaders and thinkers. But also thanks to the hard lessons taken by the pains of war and destruction – as is the case now in Iraq, Syria and other troubled parts of the Middle East.