Just War: Justified or oxymoron?

Nearly 50 believers from the three Abrahamic traditions engaged in a stimulating April 26 interfaith conversation in connection with just war and their understanding of their sacred texts


Can war ever be justified, or is the notion of "just war" an oxymoron, as one presenter put it. And how do sacred texts as interpreted by adherents to the three Abrahamic traditions shed light on the matter in this challenging time?

The theme led to a riveting, fast-moving conversation both in plenary and small group presentations and conversations at an April 26, 2009 program at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

Yehezkel Landau, offering a Jewish perspective, discussed the moral dilemma surrounding the issue of self-defense as appropriate in just war considerations. Landau, an author who teaches Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary, noted that attempts to forestall aggression with "minimal violence" is a "legitimate ethic" that distinguishes killing from murder as constituted in the 6th commandment. Landau, who holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, acknowledged that "pacifism is a rare option" for Jewish adherents. But he added that the "horrific weapons" of modern technological warfare deepen the challenge greatly. The challenge comes from the attendant destruction of innocent lives and Creation when such weapons are used, he said. This reality led Landau to serve the Israeli military via civil service rather than armed combat, he told the group, and his son is currently doing the same thing. The key text for his presentation was Deuteronomy 20.  

Indicating his was "a" Christian perspective, Rob Arner, a Mennonite and PhD student at LTSP, said persons who argue for a "just war" position are abandoning Jesus' teachings, who "never taught or hinted at the theory." Speaking from his tradition's pacifist perspective, Arner leaned on many biblical texts. Among those cited were Romans 12:19:  "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' " Arner also referenced his research on the writings of early Christian leaders, such as Origen and Tertullian prior to 311 A.D., noting that all were of "one mind" in opposition to human bloodshed and argued that "killing is incompatible with Christian discipleship." Arner said that God "can turn wars around to God's redemptive purpose" but concluded that "there is no justification for killing - ever." (During a subsequent questions session, and in response to Mr. Arner's presentation LTSP Professor Frederick Houk Borsch said New Testament passages such as Luke 22: 35-38 and Romans 13: 1-7 have been used theologically to argue for a just war theory.)

Noting that stereotypes about Muslims have often served to strike "fear into people's hearts and made life for many Muslims extremely difficult," Imam Abdulla Antepli said the Islamic tradition is "not pacifist...If confronted by a transgressor we are commanded and permitted to respond with a level of violence." Antepli, who's recently been appointed Muslim chaplain at Duke University, where he will also serve as an adjunct faculty member, said that while self-defense if attacked is justified in the Islamic tradition, certain ethical, moral and humane standards should be observed. "Our enemies are not to be our teachers. They are not to teach us how to fight," he said. Among the standards maintained by teachings in the Qu'ran are "no plundering, no torture, nor harm to people not engaged in fighting, no harming of plants or sheep or cattle" and to respect clergy and worship spaces, he said. He said the Islamic position maintains that "no people are [religion is] more violent than others." He also contended that "the texts from all traditions are [can be] ambivalent. How we reconcile these texts depends on us." He cited as particularly helpful the textual language that says of God, "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other "  (49:13)

The day featured two respondents. Jewish respondent and Professor Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, who teaches at the Rabbinical College in Wyncote, called for a pragmatic approach, noting that issues of war and peace challenge believers to struggle with "what it means to be Godly." She cited Genesis 9:6 "whoever sheds human blood will have his blood shed..." "Is war OK?" she posed. "We are conditioned by our own time and place. Sometimes you just have to hold your breath and choose."

Imam Abdul-Malik Ali, Muslim chaplain at Rider University, also referenced that texts have acknowledged that God "wants nations and tribes to know each other. There is no way that it is appropriate for humans to look down upon one another. Differences must be respected." He called for practices of restraint, avoiding becoming an aggressor, but said that self-defense is justified.  He added, however, "If you kill someone you kill a whole people. If you save someone, you save a whole people."  

Several small group discussions were a highlight of the day. The groups discussed ideas and concepts such as peacemaking ventures that may be practiced on a small group or an individual level and also the reality that many individuals are at war with themselves, which spills over to violence on many levels.  

The event, a follow-up to three similar sessions a year ago, was co-sponsored by the seminary's Faith and Life Institute and Center for Interreligious Dialogue, The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, the Philadelphia Dialogue Forum, the Institute for Interreligious, Intercultural Dialogue at Temple University and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, PA. Moderator and a key planner for the day was the Rev. Dr. David Grafton, LTSP Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at LTSP. Grafton also directs the seminary's Advanced level Degrees Program at the school. A welcome was extended by Dean J. Paul Rajashekar of LTSP.