Wars of contrition

Does Christianity Cause War?
January 2, 1998

To every question that is complicated and difficult there is an answer that is simple, clear - and wrong, said H. L. Maitland. To the question "Does Christianity cause war?" anti-religious polemic answers "Yes". David Martin shows that the question does indeed raise complex and difficult issues.

Martin's thesis is that at some stages of their development societies can indeed have a system in which religion is integrally related to power and authority. As far as Christianity is concerned this was true from the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century until the emergence of democracy in Western Europe and the United States. But at the stage of social differentiation, a key phrase in Martin's work, all kinds of complication can set in. The least complex and suspect is the change of the role of churches from being hand in hand with power to that of a voluntary group among other such groups. This is what has increasingly happened to the Church of England. Churches as voluntary groups compete on the same terms as everyone else in a democratic society and are now a worldwide phenomenon, from the thousands of small Pentecostal chapels in Latin-America to the baptist missionary groups in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union. When this switch occurs in a pure form, unrelated to other factors, then the short answer to the question "Does Christianity cause war?" is "No".

The complicating factor, however, is another form of social differentiation, one which takes place on religio-ethnic grounds. Here what we rightly champion in most contexts, namely ethnic distinctiveness and diversity, can at the same time be a potential cause of conflict with other groups that are at the same time breaking away from a unified society and wanting to affirm their identity, very often in relation to land and locality. But even here Martin is not prepared to say that Christianity as such causes war. Rather, "each group will mobilise the traditional markers of its own identity, and in this context ethnicity and religion will mediate each other". So, for example, in the Bosnian conflict it was difficult to decide the extent to which the increasing mobilisation of the markers of identity, which are religio-ethnic, was a consequence of the conflict or how far it arose precisely because such markers happened to be present. There is also the role of mythic histories, retrospectively amplified by the work of nationalist writers. The fact is that terrible conflicts can arise where religion is not a mark of identity in the conflicting groups, for example in Rwanda. Or to take another example, Turks, Iraqis and Iranians slaughter Kurds "with an enthusiasm entirely unaltered by the presence or the absence of religious difference".

To support his argument, Martin takes a number of case studies, including England, Bosnia, France, Algeria and Romania. His analysis of what happened when Romania emerged from an undifferentiated Communist society indicates the kind of complexities that can be present. For although Romania had an official Orthodox Church, which retained some favour during the Communist regime, in the Northeast where the uprising against Ceausescu started there was a mixture of religio-ethnic groups, for example German-speaking Hungarian Protestants, who had often been imbued with the voluntary spirit.

A person with whom Martin particularly takes issue is Richard Dawkins, who has argued that it is the element of "certainty" in religions that makes them the cause of wars. Martin rejects all these explanations, whether they are based on religion, or the universal corruption of humanity. He argues that we have to look at each context. It is no good, for example, saying that Catholics and Protestants tend to go to war with one another. "Under what particular circumstances does the proximity of Catholics and Protestants lead to conflict, given that mostly it doesn't?" In particular we need to analyse the multiple, inter-related factors involved in a differentiating society, whether it is medieval Christendom or a Communist empire. In such circumstances it is true that religion may be an important marker of identity. But it can also be a factor for peace, undermining any easy identification with nationalism and power groupings. This is also true when Christianity served in some sense to validate a political system. For its message was one of peace and it taught that even rulers are ultimately accountable to the Prince of Peace. This meant that there was always ambiguity, even an irony - a key Niebuhrian term - about the church's alignment with government.

Indeed, Martin makes a powerful Niebuhrian point in criticising something totally different. "The criticism which Dawkins might properly pursue is not the connection between religion and war but an undiscriminating invocation of peace and with that the neglect of a practical wisdom in political affairs. The analysis provided by Reinhold Niebuhr in the mid-century waits to be done all over again."

Clearly, religion has always aroused people's suspicions and has sometimes been to blame. As Lucretius wrote, "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum" - religion can incite us to so much evil. But in the modern world, Christian churches are now mostly voluntary groups that are pacific in intention and distant from the power structures of the state. Where there is still a connection with a particular ethnic group, while this can be used by unscrupulous politicians, it can also undermine political manipulation with its rhetoric of peace.

This is an important book whose thesis is well sustained and persuasive. I raise only three questions. Martin brings in the interesting concept of the sacred and how it may lodge itself in new structures of power, cohesion, identity and legitimacy, particularly in relation to land and nation without any reference to any specific church or any church whatsoever. It would be useful to have exploration of that concept of the sacred, for it, too, has a complex relationship with conflict and is not identical to religion or ethnicity.

It would be useful to have a rather more extended analysis of Islam. Martin is right to indicate the ambiguous relationship Christianity has with power. He contrasts this with Islam and its sanctioning of shariah law, often brutally enforced by the state. Yet there are strands within Islam that are much more ambivalent about the relationship of religion to political power. Martin says: "There are no Waldensians or Anabaptists within Islam." But John Ferguson in War and Peace in the World Religions, mentions the Maziyariyya sect that dropped Jihad and Sufis who emphasised its spiritual nature, as well as Muslims caught up in the non-violent movement of Gandhi.

Then, rather surprisingly, Martin is dismissive of symbolic gestures being made on behalf of one group in relation to another. "The question therefore arises as to whom precisely an ecclesiastical leader thinks he is that he should apologise on behalf of the reified national entity to members of another reified national entity for deeds he did not commit to persons who themselves did not suffer from those deeds." This is surprising, because Martin, as a sociologist, is more aware than most of us of the reality of groups and of the importance of symbols. The expressions of penitence in South Africa were an important element in creating the conditions for apartheid to end. Of course, we can only be responsible for particular acts as individuals. But as individuals we belong to communities with a history and that history helps to form our identity now. Leaders in symbolic roles can make important symbolic gestures, as, for example, the pope has done in relation to Judaism. Martin writes that "the peace that follows from forgiveness in Christ cannot be transferred to international relations, and in particular cannot be transferred by some doubtfully representative functionary apologising on behalf of a reified collectivity for remote (or even for relatively proximate) historical events". But there is a growing interest in and study of the "politics of forgiveness", whereby precisely this is being explored. It would be good to have Martin exploring what might be possible in this way.

Martin is well aware Christianity has taken many different social forms. In and through all these social expressions the religion of peace has offered a question mark as well as validation. But inevitably it has had to do so within particular social contexts with all its assumptions and presuppositions. The Christian faith of the converted Norsemen will not be quite the same as that of a 19th-century Methodist trade union leader, but in all these social processes religion will, as Martin argues, provide a variant coding that undermines any easy identification with the group and subjects it to critical strain. Alas, that critical strain has not always been present. Slitting throats in the name of Christ has gone on as well as redemptive self-giving. "But if the original marker had not been set down outside the city wall of Jerusalem, the range of irony would never have become available."

The Right Rev Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Does Christianity Cause War?

Author - David Martin
ISBN - 0 19 829267 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 226

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