Holy war: a contradiction in terms


Scripture: Ephesians 6: 10-18.  Nigel Bunce


St. Paul used military metaphors 

In some of his letters, Paul imagined Christian apostles (those, like himself, called to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ) as being vigorous. Like soldiers, or like athletes, or like competent workers. Typical of his day, Paul had a rather masculine approach to vigour.

Today’s famous passage is from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.  Paul imagines the Christian person at war. But they are not fighting actual people. Rather, they oppose spiritual forces of evil. They must therefore equip themselves with the spiritual equivalents of a professional soldier’s armour.. A belt to hold the sword, and a breastplate.  Military boots and a helmet.

Unfortunately, English-speaking Victorians took Paul’s metaphors literally. They wrote hymns such as Soldiers of Christ, arise, and Onward, Christian soldiers.  Then composers set the words to militaristic tunes. I doubt that this was Paul’s intention.

Holy wars: can they exis?

This brings me to the question of actual warfare. And specifically, to ask whether there can be such a thing as a holy war. You may recall that Moscow Patriarch Kirill used this term to describe Russia’s war with Ukraine. I have to reject, not just Patriarch Kirill’s use of the term. But also, the whole concept of a holy war. To me, people use the expression ‘holy war’ to justify aggression on religious grounds.

The Crusades of the Middle Ages were often called holy wars.  Their aim was to protect – or recapture, as the case may be – the holy places of Jerusalem from Muslim invaders. But the impetus was mainly political. Christian leaders resented the growing power of Islam.  Hence, they wanted military victories against Muslims.

In the early 13th century, the Pope declared a Crusade against the Cathars.  They were a breakaway sect in southern France and northern Spain. The pope’s armies put down the Cathars with extreme brutality..  So the pope kept his primacy.

So-called holy wars use religion for political ends

Wars and other violence between Catholics and Protestants occurred after the Reformation. Mainly, they used religious differences to recruit people for political ends. The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were more about who would rule over that province than about religious ideology.

And the same can be said about Muslim jihadists. Whether we are talking about the destruction of the World Trade Center or ongoing conflict in the Sahel. These are political conflicts dressed up in religious clothes. And Patriarch Kirill’s justification is the flimsiest of all. He’s merely Vladimir Putin’s pal and lackey.

So I reject completely the idea of a holy war. It is easy to scratch through one’s sacred literature to find references that seem to support the idea. The Hebrew Scriptures contain many bloody passages. But we have to ask, “Did God really command the Israelites to kill all the people of Canaan?” Or did the authors of the ‘historical’ books of Hebrew Scripture use God to justify their ancestors’ actions? To call it, in effect, a holy war?