Ukraine conflict religion and war THINK IAFOR

May 10, 2016

Dr. Brian A. Victoria explores the nature of the relationship between religion and war, and the implications of it on our “shared humanity”, in a Keynote Address at The Asian Conference on Ethics, Religion and Philosophy 2016 held in Kobe, Japan.

I begin with two quotations, the first by historian Rick Shenkman: “Tribal ethnocentrism . . . is in evidence everywhere, in all countries and at all times.” Note that the “tribal ethnocentrism” Shenkman refers to is not the tribalism of primitive societies but, rather, the strong tendency of groups, typically nations in the modern world, to prioritize the needs, aka “national interests,” of their group above the needs of competing groups. This may also be described as a form of “group ego,” “group self-centeredness” or simply “group selfishness.”

Next, let us suppose that “group ego” is wedded to “religion”, even religions whose doctrines recognize the fundamental human equality of all human beings, regardless of ethnic, gender or any other form of individual difference. What will happen?

One of America’s foremost scholars of religion, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, alludes to the result of religion mixed together with “tribal conflicts” as follows:

Positive thinkers and public relations officers for the faiths would repudiate this notion or evade the fact. They want religion to be nothing but gospel, good news. Apologists for the faiths usually minimize the distress that can come with religion or that religion can produce. You will not read about the destructive element in religious impulses in the advertisements for the church of your choice. Yet if the pursuit of truth is still to be cherished as a foundational theme in the academy, one must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills. Or, if, as the gun lobbies say of weapons—that they do not kill; people do—one must say of religion that if it does not kill, many of its forms and expressions motivate people to kill. Experts on what motivates the scores of wars or, as some would have it, “tribal conflicts,” today know that not only do many belligerent partisans wear names like “Protestant” and “Catholic,” “Shi’ite” and “Sunni,” “Jewish” and “Sikh,” but leaders and followers alike fire on the demonized Other, the enemy, in the name of God or the gods. (2)

Needless to say, the latter quote would be welcomed by few of the world’s faithful. Although, for good reason, Islamic fundamentalism or associated terrorism is currently the focus of the world’s attention, it is significant that Marty does not view the problem as belonging to any one particular religion, but to all religions across the board.

Should there be observers who deny that “religion kills,” Islamic or otherwise, the following picture dramatically demonstrates that, at the very least, some religions clearly inspire/motivate its adherents to kill. Is Islam the sole religion to do so?

ISIS-David-Haines-2014-9-13-THINK War and religion

Image released by Islamic State of captured British aid worker David Haines

While it might be attractive to identify the man in black as, as the very least, a “religious fanatic” if not a “fiend” or even “evil incarnate,” the following quotation from French mathematician, physicist and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) reminds us once again that the vexing issue of religious violence is not the province of any one faith:

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

Regrettably, the “universality” of so-called “holy war” is a viewpoint that my own research compels me to embrace. Readers interested in my understanding of the universal dimensions of this problem are invited to review a previous article available on the Web entitled:

“Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding.” (3)

By this point, if not before, some readers may be thinking “this guy has it in for religion, ignoring its potential for reconciling foes and restoring peace if not actually preventing war.” In response, the author would be the first to admit that religion does admit of this possibility as demonstrated, among other historical incidents, by a singular event that occurred during one of humankind’s greatest bloodlettings, WWI.

The Christmas Truce of WWI

The particular incident described here occurred in December 1914. Known in history books as the Christmas Truce of WWI, the guns fell silent for many German, English and French soldiers on the Western Front beginning on Christmas Eve. With hesitation, and only after many requests for the other side to come over, the bitter enemies trudged out into the infamous no man’s land between their trenches to exchange holiday greetings, cigarettes and food. This was a spontaneous, unofficial ceasefire unsanctioned by any military headquarters on any side.

As the following actual photographs reveal, the truce continued at numerous locations on the fighting lines into Christmas Day itself, including even decidedly non-lethal soccer games.

Christmas-truce religion and war THINK IAFOR

Soldiers from all three nations posing for the camera

First world war soldiers playing football

A friendly game of soccer. Winning side unknown.

As these photographs dramatically demonstrate, it was possible for religion, in this case Christianity, to overcome deadly hostility on all sides. The promise of the birth of Jesus to bring, “Peace on earth and loving mercy towards all people” (Luke 2:14) appears to have been realized. It should be noted, however, that 1914 marked the first year of the war, a period when the deep hatreds of the contending troops had yet to become entrenched. Second, inasmuch as the opposing forces shared the same basic Christian faith, including its attendant rituals, there existed a common spiritual foundation for all parties. In this respect, it is difficult to imagine the occurrence of the same phenomenon among troops who did not share a common faith.

What happened after the informal truce expired is in some ways more instructive than the truce itself. Inevitably, there was a backlash from the generals on the respective sides when they learned, for the first time, of what had happened. In their eyes, the troops involved were guilty of “fraternization with the enemy.” No longer confident in the “fighting spirit” of their troops, they rushed fresh troops who had no personal knowledge of the enemy to the frontlines. That is to say, soldiers who had not yet realized that the soldiers on the other side were essentially reflections of themselves, wanting nothing more than to safely return to their homes and loved ones as quickly as possible.

The generals were not, however, the only ones who were deeply troubled by what had occurred. The bishops who sent military chaplains to the battlefield were upset when they learned that their chaplains had conducted Christmas services on behalf of friend and foe alike. One English bishop went to the battlefield himself to send one of his chaplains involved in the incident home in disgrace while ensuring soldiers newly dispatched to the battlefield had the proper understanding of the allegedly “holy war” they were engaged in. The bishop addressed the new soldiers as follows:

Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth, I come not to bring peace but a sword,” the gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself; the forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade, a Holy War to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you, the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us; for they are not like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians, the children of God? Are those who advance, armed, hiding behind women and children, the children of God?

With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again. The Lord be with you. . . . May God Almighty bless you; the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Inasmuch as the preceding quotation is taken from a dramatized account of this incident in the 2005 film Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), the words cannot be historically verified. However, the following similar quotations are all too verifiable and serve to compliment, if not reinforce, the substance of the English bishop’s sermon. For example, the Rev. Randolph H. McKim of Washington, D.C. opined:

This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history. The holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War. . . Yes, it is Christ, the king of righteousness, who calls us up to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power [Germany].

Further, Henry B. Wright, YMCA director and former professor of Divinity at Yale, said that he could “see Jesus himself sighting down a gun-barrel and running a bayonet through an enemy’s body.” (5) Even more extremely, Rev. Courtland Meyers of Boston stated: “If the Kaiser is a Christian, the devil in Hell is a Christian, and I am an atheist!” (6)

To place this event in context it should be recalled that WWI would result in more than 38 million military and civilian casualties, with over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. Although WWI was widely promoted as “The War to End All Wars,” it was in fact only the historical precursor to WWII, the total causalities of which amounted to more than 60 million. As in WWI, German soldiers went to their deaths in their millions wearing uniforms emblazoned with the words, “Gott mit uns” (God with us).

Commenting on the unceasing involvement of religion in war, past and present, Rev. William Alberts notes:

Whether [Hitler’s] “Master Race” or “American exceptionalism,” religion has served to cloak and justify the oppression of other human beings. Hitler said, “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.” Preparing to invade a defenseless Iraq, President Bush said, “We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust them, placing our confidence in the loving god behind all of life, and all of history.” (7)

Buddhist “Religious Fanaticism”

At least in some quarters, it would be a welcome change to find that at least one world religion was an exception to what may appear to the reader to be a blanket condemnation of religion. Were such a religion to exist, many would suggest it was Buddhism, a religion not well known, at least in the Western world, for its advocacy of “Holy War.” The historical record, however, presents a different picture.

Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, for example, Inoue Enryō, Buddhist scholar-priest of the True Pure Land (Shin) sect, wrote:

Buddhism is a teaching of compassion, a teaching for living human beings. Therefore fighting on behalf of living human beings is in accord with the spirit of compassion. In the event that hostilities breakout between Japan and Russia, it is only natural that Buddhists should fight willingly, for what is this if not paying the debt of gratitude that we owe the Buddha?

In Russia state and religion are one, and there is no religious freedom. Thus, religion is used as a chain in order to unify the [Russian] people. Therefore, when they [the Russian people] see Orientals, they are told that the latter are the bitter enemies of their religion. It is for this reason that on the one hand this is a war of politics and on the other hand it is a war of religion. . . If theirs is an army of God then ours is an army of the Buddha. It is in this way that Russia is not only the enemy of our country but of the Buddha as well.(8)

In 1904 Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, claimed:

When our ideals clash, let there be no flinching, no backsliding, no undecidedness, but for ever and ever pressing onwards. In this kind of war there is nothing personal, egotistic, or individual. It is the holiest spiritual war. . . . Resting in this conviction, Buddhists carry the banner of Dharma over the dead and dying until they gain final victory. (9)

During WWII it was typical in Buddhist circles in Japan, especially among Zen leaders, to justify the mass killing accompanying warfare as expressions of Buddhist compassion and filial piety. For example, in 1943 Sōtō Zen Master Yasutani Haku’un wrote:

What should be the attitude of disciples of the Buddha, as Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, be toward the first precept that forbids the taking of life?. . . Those who understand the spirit of the Mahāyāna precepts should be able to answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil. However, in killing [the enemy] one should swallow one’s tears, bearing in mind the truth of killing yet not killing.

Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahāyāna precepts.(10)

Yet another Sōtō Zen master, Harada Sōgaku, reveals just how far Japan’s wartime Buddhist priests were willing to go in what can only be described as a fanatical and “mindless” endorsement of war:

If ordered to march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now underway]. Verse: I bow my head to the floor in reverence to those [the Imperial Japanese Army] whose nobility is without equal.(11)

While statements like the above may, at least in part, be attributed to the extreme situation Japan, a nominally Buddhist nation, found itself in during WWII, the same cannot be said for the identification of Buddhism with nationalism in contemporary Myanmar. An article by Harrison Adkins notes:

The March 2013 riots in Meiktila in central Myanmar which burnt more than 1,300 homes in Muslim neighborhoods and killed 43 people were instigated by Buddhist monks who were part of the 969 movement. The movement encourages local people to boycott trade with Muslims and shop only at Buddhist-owned stores which display the number 969, a number which symbolizes Buddha’s teachings and Buddhist practices. They view Muslims as a threat to the nation. A recent demonstration saw Buddhist monks carrying banners which read, “Not The Terrorist, But The Protector of Race, Language and The Religion.”(12)

As for Judaism

The ongoing struggle between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank is all too well known, not least of all for its attendant violence. Lesser known, however, are the pronouncements of Jewish religious leaders regarding this struggle. That said, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that, as in any religious community, there are a wide variety of opinions concerning the causes and resolution of this struggle, including both “dovish” and “hawkish” views. Representative of the latter is the following 2001 sermon given by now deceased Ovadia Yosef, former Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi and leader of Shas, an ultra-orthodox religious political party that, since 1984, has almost always formed a part of the governing coalition.

May the Holy Name visit retribution on the Arab heads, and cause their seed to be lost, and annihilate them. . . It is forbidden to have pity on them. We must give them missiles with relish, annihilate them. Evil ones, damnable ones.(13)

An even more extreme view is presented by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, a spiritual leader of Jewish settlers on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In a 2009 book entitled, The King’s Torah, Shapira wrote that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and should be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” “If we kill a gentile who has violated one of the seven commandments. . . there is nothing wrong with the murder.” Citing Jewish law as his source, Shapira declared: “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.”(14)

However unrepresentative these views of Jewish rabbis may be, they reveal yet again that religious justifications for the exercise of violence against the “other” are far from the exclusive purview of any one religion or group of faithful.

Universal religion and the state

What all of the previous quotations share in common, regardless of religious affiliation, is their attempt to reconcile the needs of states seeking to employ violence with the universal and overwhelmingly peaceful tenets of the world’s major faiths. In light of the violence-prone histories of the world’s major faiths the question must be asked whether such reconciliation is even possible?

Peter Manseau, among others, suggests that reconciliation is not possible. He notes that, on the one hand, any church, mosque, synagogue, or temple is part of a community that transcends borders, asking loyalty to ideas without regard to one’s citizenship or place of origin. Yet, at the very same time, the nation simultaneously demands a competing loyalty no matter what else one believes. As numerous historical examples attest, the state inevitably emerges victorious, frequently with the aid of those religious leaders who, at least in theory, might be expected to resist. How is this possible? Are such war-affirming religious leaders no more than hypocrites?(15)

The beginning

As indicated by my Web article, “Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding” a comprehensive answer to these questions would require at least a full-length book to fully explicate. While such an exploration must await a future opportunity let me here introduce one salient feature of such an extended discussion, i.e., the birth of the “axial age.”

It was the German philosopher Karl Jaspers who first coined the term “axial age.” He used this term to refer to the time period from 800 to 200 BCE. During this 600-year period, key religious ideas sprang up independently in various places in the world, including India, the West, and China. Jaspers wrote:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, skepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.(16)

What these religious and philosophical leaders, and those who followed, shared in common was the conviction that the truths they elucidated were not just true for their own tribal, ethnic, racial or national group but were universal truths, equally valid for all peoples, everywhere and at all times. Compared with the parochial and limited focus of previous belief and thought, this was indeed a major awakening. It was an awakening not only universal in nature but focused on the wellbeing of individuals within the group or community, spiritual as well as temporal. Concern for the “salvation” of the individual had arrived.

However, a major, perhaps even fatal, flaw accompanied the arrival of the axial age. On the one hand, a new universal spiritual vision was born to replace a spiritual vision previously limited to the welfare of one’s own group. Yet, I suggest that instead of a complete replacement, the earlier limited focus was only momentarily subordinated to the universal, available for use whenever the need arose.

Understood in this light, war at either the state, or even sub-state level, provides an opportunity for, if not downright requiring, the reassertion of the tribal/ethnic/group/ or national identity over the universal, a characteristic exhibited by all of the world’s major religions. The great tragedy/delusion is that even as a limited or “tribal” mentality reasserts itself, the faithful of the world’s major religions continue to believe/insist they remain loyal to their faith’s universal tenets and its concern for the welfare of all. Hence they are able to describe the wars undertaken by their respective nations as expressions of love and compassion, a fight to rid the world of evil, and thus a “Holy War.”

Toward a solution

Is there a solution to this “flawed” thinking? In light of the immense suffering war entails, one would truly like to believe there is. At the very least, one would like to believe that at least religious leaders and their adherents alike could create a new direction. This direction would honestly recognize the nature and the source of the problem, i.e., the inherent contradiction between the limited and the universal that exists in all of the world’s major religions. Thus, to the extent that one is an adherent of any major faith it is a much “my” problem as that of others!

Second, one should consciously choose to remain faithful to the universal character of one’s religion come what may. Or if that proves impossible, at least drop the pretense of adhering to a universal faith and admit one’s adherence to one’s “tribe”/ethnic group or nation. Having done this, cease using the former to justify the latter, i.e., cease describing war, even war allegedly fought in “self-defense,” as in any sense a holy undertaking. The killing of fellow human beings has never been, nor will it ever be, a sacred act. To claim otherwise is to deny the universality of one’s faith, failing to recognize that modern warfare is always fought in the name of “national interest” which, in the final analysis, is none other than national ego or aggrandizement, or more simply, national or collective selfishness.

The question remains to be answered whether it is possible for we human beings to genuinely overcome our attachment to the limited in order to realize the universal and inclusionary promise of our respective religions. Needless to say, this question transcends any one faith or even those who profess no faith, for with the advent of the nuclear age humanity has arrived at the point where its destiny (or demise) is literally in its own hands. To paraphrase a contemporary Cuban maxim, “Humanity will all survive together or none of us will survive.”

Is this the end (or only the beginning) of recognizing and acting on our shared humanity?


Image | Steve Evans


1. Shenkman, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, p. 82.
2. Marty, “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” Academe 82:6 (1996): 14.
3. Brian A. Victoria, Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Volume 1. Issue 1, Fall 2007.
4. Victoria, War and State Terrorism, p. 103.
5. Ibid., p. 103.
6. Ibid., p. 103
7. Alberts, “Christian Churches: the ‘Master Race’ and ‘American Exceptionalism’.” Available on the Web at: (accessed 17 April 2016).
8. Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, pp. 29-30.
9. Suzuki, “A Buddhist View of War.” Available on the Web at: (accessed 15 April 2016).
10. Quoted in Victoria, Zen War Stories, pp. 71-72.
11. Ibid., p. 67.
12. Akins, “No place for Islam? Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.” Available on the Web at: (accessed 16 April 2016).
13. Quoted in the newspaper Ha’aretz, 12 April 2001.
14. Quotations taken from an article by Max Blumenthal entitled, “How To Kill Goyim And Influence People: Leading Israeli Rabbis Defend Manual for Killing Non-Jews,” available on the Web at: (accessed 16 April 2016).
15. Manseau, “Obama thought he could unite a religiously divided nation. He was wrong.” Available on the Web at:…/obama-thought-he-could-unite-a-religiously-divided-nation-he-was-wrong (accessed 26 April 2016).
16. Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2.


Jaspers, Karl. (2011). Origin and Goal of History. London: Routledge.

Marty, Martin E. (1996). “An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion,” Academe 82:6: 14.

Selden, Mark and Alvin So, eds. (2003). War and State Terrorism. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shenkman, Rick. (2016). Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics. New York: Basic Books.

Victoria, Brian A. (Fall 2007). Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Volume 1. Issue 1.

(2006). Zen at War, 2nd ed.. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.

(2003). Zen War Stories. London: Routledge.

Avatar photo

About Brian Daizen Victoria

Brian Daizen Victoria is a native of Omaha, Nebraska and a 1961 graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska. He holds a MA in Buddhist Studies from Sōtō Zen sect-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo, and a PhD from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. In addition to a second, enlarged edition of Zen At War (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), Brian’s major writings include Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); an autobiographical work in Japanese entitled Gaijin de ari, Zen bozu de ari (As a Foreigner, As a Zen Priest), published by San-ichi Shobo in 1971; Zen Master Dōgen, coauthored with Prof. Yokoi Yūhō of Aichi-gakuin University (Weatherhill, 1976); and a translation of The Zen Life by Sato Koji (Weatherhill, 1972). In addition, Brian has published numerous journal articles, focusing on the relationship of not only Buddhism but religion in general, to violence and warfare. From 2005 to 2013 Brian was a Professor of Japanese Studies and director of the AEA “Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions Program” at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, OH. From 2013-2015 he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, Japan where he is writing a book tentatively entitled: Zen Terror in 1930s Japan. Brian currently continues his research as a Fellow of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies and is a fully ordained Buddhist priest in the Sōtō Zen sect.

Latest Posts By Brian Daizen Victoria


Cultural & Area Studies, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, Global, IAFOR Keynotes, In Depth, Politics, International Relations & Law, Subject Area, World


, , , , , , ,