Sacred Texts - Modern Issues: Just War: Justified or oxymoron?

A spring 2009 Trialogue Event for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, seminarians, students, and those interested in interfaith learning.

held Sunday, April 26, 2009
The Brossman Center at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

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 today in a 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.

About Our Presenters


Yehezkel LandauYehezkel Landau is Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary. After earning an AB from Harvard University (1971) and an MTS from Harvard Divinity School (1976), Landau immigrated to Israel in 1978. A dual Israeli-American citizen, his work has been in the fields of interfaith education and Jewish-Arab peacemaking. He lectures internationally on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and Middle East peace issues, has authored numerous journal articles, co-edited the book Voices From Jerusalem: Jews and Christians Reflect on The Holy Land (Paulist Press, 1992), and Healing the Holy Land: Interreligious Peacebuilding in Israel/Palestine (United States Institute of Peace, Sept. 2003). At Hartford Seminary, Professor Landau directs an interfaith training program for Jews, Christians, and Muslims called “Building Abrahamic Partnerships.”


Imam AbdullahImam Abdullah Antepli completed his basic training and education in his native Turkey. From 1996 to 2003, he worked on a variety of faith-based humanitarian and relief projects in Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia with the Association of Social and Economic Solidarity with Pacific Countries. He is the founder and executive board member of the Muslim Chaplains Association and a member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. From 2003 to 2005, he served as the first Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan University. He then moved to Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he was the associate director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program & Interfaith Relations, as well as an adjunct faculty member. Now, as the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, he is one of a handful of full-time Muslim chaplains at U.S. colleges and universities. Imam Abdullah also serves as an adjunct faculty member in the Duke Divinity School and will teach courses on Islam. 


Rob ArnerRob Arner is a PhD student at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, concentrating his studies in the field of theological ethics. A member of the Society of Christian Ethics, he advocates for a consistently pro-life ethic that respects the dignity of the imago Dei in all of God’s children. He also teaches Religion and Ethics at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and has been teaching “The Cross and the Sword: Theological Ethics of Violence and Peacemaking” at LTSP. Arner joined the Mennonite Church USA several years ago out of his personal conviction of the rightness of that church body’s Christocentric peace activism. 


Our panel of respondents will be Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director of the Religious Studies program and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, PA; and Imam Dr. Abdul-Malik Ali, Masjidut Taqwa Mosque, Trenton, NJ, and Islamic Chaplain at Rider University, Trenton, NJ. 

About Our Sponsors

This event continues an interreligious educational initiative begun last year with a series of conversations at the seminary called "Tough Texts." In addition to the Center for Interreligious Dialogue at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), our sponsors include The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia; the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (Northwest Philadelphia); the Philadelphia Dialogue Forum; the Institute for Interreligious, Intercultural Dialogue at Temple University, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (Wyncote, PA).

This program is made possible in part by a grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Division for Global Mission, and other donors.