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[Chalice] Theologizing Warfare [Chalice]

Presented February 24, 2013, by Dr. Joe Messina

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For reflection: A passage from the Bhagavad Gita (5th or 4th century BCE?)
Dejected between Two Armies

Arjuna told his charioteer:
"Krishna,
halt my chariot
between the armies!

Far enough for me to see
these men who lust for war,
ready to fight with me
in the strain of battle . . . .

Dejected, filled with strange pity,
he said this:
"Krishna, I see my kinsmen
gathered here, wanting war.

My limbs sink,
my mouth is parched,
my body trembles, the hair bristles on my flesh . . .

my mind reels.

I see omens of chaos,
Krishna; I see no good in killing my kinsmen
in battle. . . .
I do not want to kill them
even if I am killed, Krishna;
not for kingship of all three worlds,
much less for the earth! . . .

Evil will haunt us if we kill them,
though their bows are drawn to kill. . . .

If Dritarashtra's armed sons
kill me in battle when I am unarmed
and offer no resistance,
it will be my reward."

Saying this in time of war,
Arjuna slumped into the chariot
and laid down his bow and arrows
his mind tormented by grief.


(Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller)

Since my talk is about theologizing warfare, the readings I've chosen all bear on that subject.

First reading, from the Book of Revelation:

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty [pa?t???a´t??]. Revelation 19:11-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

Second reading, from Pope Urban II's call to the First Crusade, in the version of the speech given by Robert the Monk in his History of the Crusade to Jerusalem:

When Pope Urban had said these and many similar things in his elegant discourse, he so stirred . . . all who were there that they cried out, "It is God's will! It is God's will!" When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven he gave thanks to God and, with his hand commanding silence, said:

"Most beloved brethren, . . . unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is God's will! It is God's will!"

Third reading, from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:

The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Earlier, I read a passage from the Baghavad Gita. This Hindu text in its entirety bears powerfully on the problem I'm going to try to cast some light on today. In the passage I read, Arjuna, the Indian prince whose heart sinks as he faces war, models for us a moving response to the problems of killing and making sense of killing. He must do both of these things before his god and with the help of his god, here in the form of Krishna, his charioteer in battle. War and killing, for Arjuna, take the form of a personal moral crisis that is at the same time a theological one. It is his god who must help Arjuna to make what sense he can of war. It is his god who must justify, and indeed sanctify, slaughter.

When we go to war, as we have from time to time, we show that we are uneasy with just killing one another by trying to justify the killing. Nowadays the justification is usually ideological. Ideological justification, however, borders on another sort of justification, the theological, and shares some features with it. Theological justification in its most naïve form has this attraction, that it simplifies reality. Instead of the complex and entangled emotions of real life, it offers us the simplicity of uncompromising passions. It overcomes the aversion to killing one another and to being killed by taking these actions out of the mundane realm and into the realm of the sacred. We try to make the killing and the dying sacred: we try to sacralize warfare. That's what I want to try to talk about today: the theologies of warfare we have devised to help us make sense of and sometimes to sanctify our resort to violence and slaughter.

Though the action of the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu text we've reflecting on, involves both divine and human characters, it's the human characters who are the chief actors in the epic story, and human history is the chief concern. The action of the Gita s not what I would call sheer myth, by which I mean a story in which the gods are the sole actors; if humans are present at all, they play a secondary role, sometimes as witnesses or celebrants of the great deeds of the gods. The Babylonian creation story, Enuma elis, is an example of sheer myth. The hero is the god Marduk, who slays Tiamat, who is chaos, not as a concept but as a divine though monstrous being, a watery chaos monster. The point of the story is that the cosmos owes its existence to a terrible struggle between the good Marduk and the bad chaos-monster Tiamat. That is, the cosmos originates in an act of primordial violence: one god kills another and even recycles her corpse into stuff for his act of creation.

Now, though this story is about the deeds of gods, it reflects the fundamental attitudes and beliefs of the human culture that told it -- that in fact celebrated it in annual recitations at the Babylonian New Year's festival in the temple at Babylon. Paul Ricouer makes this important point about the relation of the tale to human action: "human violence is justified by the primeval violence"; when people go to war, they're imitating the gods.

I must look, however briefly, at Hebrew Scripture for what it may suggest about divine and human violence. Scholars have pointed out that besides the major creation stories in Genesis 1-3 there are vestiges in this scripture of a story of a cosmic battle that Yahweh, the Lord, fought with chaos monsters like Tiamat; like the Babylonian story, this one told about creation rising out of primeval violence. Nearer to hand than a prehistory of cosmic violence was human history, in which Yahweh often played the part of warrior for his people. Thus the song in Exodus celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds includes these verses:

I will sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory,
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. . . .
Yahweh is a warrior;
Yahweh is his name.

If divine violence can justify human violence, verses like these are full of foreboding. The holy wars of extermination that Israel fought in its campaign to dominate in the land that had been promised to them may be seen as linked to their image of Yahweh as god of war, a god whose salvific action might manifest itself not in the spirit but in war and slaughter.

I want to touch on the passage from Christian scripture that I read earlier.

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; . . . He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. Revelation 19:11-15

This passage also suggests cosmic violence, but here it occurs at the end of time. If this passage about the end time is juxtaposed with those passages in Hebrew scripture which refer to a violent beginning of things, then what we see is a world coming into being and a world ceasing to be through violence and war. Divine warfare ends things as it began them.

What's also interesting about this passage for me as I pursue the idea of theologized warfare is that all of this cosmic violence is presented as an instrument of justice. The rider on the horse "in righteousness judges and makes war." He leads the armies of heaven; he wields a sword and a rod of iron; since he is a righteous judge, he may give full vent to the furious emotions of war, treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God. This fury of the wrath of God is wielded, we've been told, in righteousness.

How far is it from this to Pope Urban's call to the First Crusade? How far from this to the knights' battle cry, "It is God's will"?

Here again is the end of Urban's speech: ". . . I say to you that God, who implanted this [war cry] in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is God's will! It is God's will!" I wonder how to describe this speech. Is it political oratory? If so, it's imbued with strong religious feeling. Is it religious oratory? If so, it's saturated with politics. However we describe it, note this:

"For the first time in Christian history, violence was defined as a religious act, as a source of grace," says one historian (Carroll, Constantine's Sword, 240). Another says this is an explicit ". . . sanctification of warfare" (Ashbridge, The First Crusade, 21). Yet a third says that the crusades contributed "to the growth and spread of a new religious institution, the military order of knighthood. It was the most explicit crystallization of militant Christianity" (J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe, 170).

In the crusaders' formulation, war is a religious event which God wants and in which God fights. Participation in war has become a God-given duty. ABD 6, 873a, 877a.

For the Crusaders, God was the clear and unchallengeable master of history, and his providential oversight of his faithful people in his church ensured victory in holy war against heathen hordes. Though the divine warrior did not wage the battle himself, as he had against Pharaoh and his army in Exodus, he nonetheless made his supernatural oversight apparent by miracles, portents, and punishments. The final victory was assured, even if it had to await the consummation of all things in the cosmic battle at the end of time. Meanwhile, the crusaders could wage war in the certainty that they fought for right and their enemies for wrong; if they fell in this war, they were assured of a martyr's crown. They had fought God's war for him, the war that he willed; they were God's warriors, their furious war emotions and deeds sanctified by conscription into God's service.

Though they fought God's war for him, he was not just a bystander. In the crusaders' romance, their own heroism was absolute, unsullied by any irony, but it would not be enough against the odds were it not for God's wondrous interventions. So from the siege of Antioch, which the crusaders had taken earlier, we have the story of the miraculous finding of the lance that pierced Christ's side as he hung on the cross and the subsequent miraculous victory of the Christian knights against vastly superior forces.

In a tine and place closer to ours, during the siege of the Alamo in 1836, Commander Travis wrote, "The Lord is on our side -- When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn -- We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves." A miraculous, or at least marvelous, intervention by the Lord, his sign to those he favors.

The course I'm following runs from straight, uncut myth, stories in which all action is viewed as the action of the gods; to romance, in which the actors are human but reality is subject to miraculous intervention and open to sure signs of God's favor; and finally to what we might call the mode and era of irony (I think I'm borrowing from Northrop Frye here.) As we move out of mythic modes of story-telling, gods recede into the background -- their activity becomes more complex and appears more mysterious. In their world of romance, the crusaders had no doubts: they knew what God willed. In the ironic era, it becomes infinitely harder to make claims to know what divinity is up to in human history, which has revealed a mysterious depth in which we glimpse, or think we glimpse, only dark and unclear forms.

The passage from Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural will help me to make my point.

The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

I note some key ideas in this wonderful, somber passage:

The Almighty has his own purposes, in this war and in general. They are not necessarily the same as ours.

Quoting Scripture (Matt. 18:7), Lincoln accepts the inescapability of what the King James translators call "offenses" [s?a´da???] Offenses such as slavery must come, but woe to those people, North and South, by whom it came. Slavery is an offense that came to be because of us -- we are the actors, the responsible moral agents -- and the "us" is both sides, North and South. There is no dualistic mentality here. Lincoln resists the strong temptation which so many of his contemporaries succumbed to, to see things in black and white: we are right, and they are wrong; we are God's crusaders, wielding his terrible swift sword, they are the objects of his just wrath. Yet I think Lincoln does think that we are experiencing God in this scourge of war, only not in the simple way we might wish to. And it is a historical God that we experience, a God who works in and through history by means of human instruments who may or may not know what they do.

Lincoln works the raw experience of his countrymen engaged in civil war into the form of historical tragedy -- into a powerful tragic vision with roots in the Bible; in particular, I would point to the historical books 1 & 2 Samuel & I and 2 Kings. From these he might have taken a tragic historical theme. He would have seen how a deep past of human passion and urgency, of steps taken freely but in ignorance of where they might lead, might culminate in disaster. He would have seen how in the depths of time a mystery of retributive justice works itself out, and a mystery of suffering, in which a whole nation pays a terrible price for its crimes in history.

Earlier in the Inaugural Address Lincoln says of the war, "All dreaded it, all sought to avert it." Yet "the war came." Those words, "and the war came," strike us hard. They are somber, they ring like hammer-blows of fate.

In a letter written about a year earlier, Lincoln wrote, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. [Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864.]

Lincoln gives us the sense that we are caught in a web we wove but do not control. Though we wove it we are caught in it, a prey in our own snare.

How can it be that the war came? No one wanted it, and yet it came; war is a human endeavor, but no human being wanted it, and yet it came. No one wanted it, and yet we could not not war. War here seems almost a personification, or not quite: a thingification, a thing with its own will, or its own momentum. The ancients would have called it a fate, something from outside us yet somehow continuous with ourselves and our furies, a destiny which we didn't knowingly choose but which we cannot not follow.

But Lincoln did not speak of fate or destiny. In that letter I just quoted, he went on to say of the war, "God alone can claim it."

I remember disagreeing with a Lincoln scholar about a key point. I spoke of Lincoln's fatalism. He maintained that Lincoln was not a fatalist but a believer in Providence. I think our two points of view can be reconciled, but as I see it the reconciliation requires that we take a dark and somber view of providence.

In this view war is an aspect of God's care of the world--his care that it be a just world. This is not the justice of myth, or the justice of romance. It is the terrible justice of reality. War serves a moral purpose in an inescapably moral reality, because God's attribute of justice is built into the historical process. In this view, it may not be going too far to say that history is not for man's sake but for justice's sake.

Lincoln's is the most powerful theologizing of war I know, the most religiously intense, the most open to theological wonder, and the most humble. It invokes God, but not to lay war off on him. I think it puts responsibility for the war squarely on us, but not simplistically. For Lincoln, and for me, human reality is inescapably moral reality. Lincoln believed that this was so because God was just and righteous. Some of us may have a different belief about the ground of moral reality. Nonetheless, I think we all have a strong desire for justice and a strong urge to pursue justice even through the frustratingly slow workings of time that we call history. The justice Lincoln thought he saw in war was retributive: a drop of blood drawn by the lash of slavery paid by another drawn with the sword. But justice does not have to be payback. Justice may also be distributive: giving to each and all their due of social love, place, and honor. This justice we can pursue in peace. The challenge we face is to maintain steadfastly and convincingly that there are always alternatives to pursuing it through war. We may thus begin to hope to free ourselves and our gods from a harsh destiny. We have hardly begun to take up that challenge.

©2013 Dr. Joe Messina

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Messina, Dr. Joe 2013. Theologizing Warfare, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20130224.shtml (accessed December 10, 2018).

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