Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is there room for pacifism in Judaism and Islam?

A Quaker can be a pacifist on the basis of his religion. Maybe a Christian can too “Turn the other cheek.”  Jews and Muslims can not be.  It is quite clear that our scriptural and legal traditions view violence as a reasonable and often unavoidable  means of resolving human conflict. Both traditions set limits on who you may hurt, when you may hurt and the conditions under which you can hurt them.  Both traditions are very realistic about recognizing the ugliness that violence raises in its participants, the possible abuses that place in time of war. Both traditions strive to manage that.  They create limited room for dividing the spoils (which in ancient times certainly included humans as property) and for the harm of non-combatants who happen to be in the way.  Judaism and Islam both decry the intentional attack on innocents and the wanton destruction of property.  We are not pacifist religions in principle. In practice though, I wonder however whether the nature of violence in the modern age, may not call us to be pacifists, in practice.

The scriptures, narratives, examples and legal precedents upon which both Jewish and Islamic legal traditions base their rulings on war and violence are largely ancient and medieval and nature.  They speak of a time of  relatively small scale warfare.  Armies lined up against other armies or perhaps small groups of insurgents fought guerilla wars with larger armies. Combatants were clear and well-defined.  Weapons were smaller. There were stones, knives, hatchets,  swords, bows, long-bows, cross bows and eventually cannon and muskets. These  short range weapons required a virtual face to face engagement with the enemy.  Even in the heat of battle, it would be hard to forget the humanity of your opponent. Though tragic, such wars were necessarily limited in scope and damage. They were wars that could be won. Territory could be conquered and successfully held.  In one to one engagement with the enemy, the killing of non-combatants was certainly possibly but not likely.  Commanders fought at the head of their troops.  When those in power face the same imminent danger as their troops, it can create powerful incentives to make peace (or accept submission).

In modern warfare,  we move further and further from face to face engagement. The incentives for peace are largely gone. The war makers are in boardrooms far removed from their battlefields. Aerial bombings and the use of unmanned drones alienate even the soldier from the heat of battle, reducing the enemy to pixels on a screen. The  drone soldier who prowls the plains of Afghanistan for his targets from the air-conditioned comfort of Las Vegas knows nothing of the ancient “nobility” of war or has any reason to avoid its savagery .  Big powerful weapons from assault rifles to cluster bombs make “collateral damage” the killing of innocents and absolute certainty.  As human beings crowd themselves into denser and denser population centers, war begins to look more and more like shooting rats in a barrel. Collective punishment also becomes a certainty. Nuclear and biological weapons make the wanton destruction of environment an inevitable consequence of pulling those triggers. There is little face-too-face engagement to humanize the enemy. The horrors of war make less impression on minds and hearts awash in endless dramatized violence.
The limitations that our religious traditions put on the practice of violence have effectively become meaningless today. If war was ever noble, it can’t be now.  Jews carry the image of the God-commanded struggle to conquer The Land in the time of Joshua. Muslims see the glory days of Islamic expansion, the violent struggles of the early Muslim community.  Americans fantasize about the conquering of the West, the brave cowboy.  I have come to believe that  F-16s, drones, assault rifles, bunker-busters, cluster bombs, phosphorous weapons, and biological weapons have rendered all of that a quaint fantasy.  The goals and values that our religions teach us can no longer be furthered by modern war. 

If the facts on the ground make the limitation on violence an impossibility, we have two possibilities;  to obliterate those limitations or to embrace some kind of collective practical pacifism. The movement has clearly been to do the former.  The definition of non-combatant becomes more and more narrow. Scholars will find reasons to consider children and women as “legitimate targets.”  They dig deep into our complex traditions to find texts to defend the indefensible We invent euphemisms like “collateral damage” to cover up our wanton destruction of human life and human environment.

I am not really a pacifist. I recognize that people sometimes have to defend themselves. I would use violence to defend myself, my family, or others from harm.   I am not prepared to argue that somehow it would have been better not to fight the Nazis.  (The inevitable challenge.) I humbly recognize that my faith acknowledges the legitimate use of violence and I take that very seriously.  At the same time, I can’t ignore the growing disconnect between the kind of warfare we see in the real world and any possibility of building the  world that both Judaism and Islam envision, a world devoted to the service of God in peace.
I am struggling  and now sharing the struggle with you. I look forward to your reasoned, polite, heart-felt thoughts and comments.


  1. Lee, I just wrote a long reply, but when I tried to publish it, it disappeared. My main point was that I agree with you completely. I also want to say that Christians don't have a good record of following the Prince of Peace. I feel a heaviness now about my upcoming trip to Israel/Palestine. How can I be a peacemaker there. I want to be more than a tourist or anthropologist, but I'm not sure how. I feel a need for God's help and would certainly appreciate your prayers. It's 1:15 a.m. here n St. Petersburg and the sky is almost dark.

  2. I don't think that pacifism in the strict Christian sense has a place in either Judaism or Islam. However both religions require violence only to be used with proper sanction and within clearly defined rules.

  3. As a Christian minister I do not believe there is consensus regarding what it means to be a peace maker. Followers of Jesus have traditionally held three different positions regarding participation in war: 1) Crusade - which is all out advocacy 2) The Just War Theory that stipulates that wars must be just in their causes, conduct, and conclusions and 3) Pacificism - refusal to participate in war.
    Personally I am a nuclear pacifist. I believe that nuclear weapons are so massively destructive that they should never be used. Like Mr. Weissman, I would resort to violence if it were the last means of protecting my loved ones from violence.
    I struggle to know what it means to be a peacemaker in different settings. I think it means much more than non-participation in war. It includes many efforts to be thoughtfully inclusive, to learn from others whose views are different from my own, to be an at tentative listener and a civil commentator. I stand in need of God's forgiveness for not always practicing what I preach and I have a lot to learn from my Muslim and Jewish sisters and brothers.

  4. This reminds me of an episode of MASH where a US pilot who was engaged in high level bombings of North Koreans is shot down and faces them in the MASH hospital. He is shocked by what he sees as bodies of people injured and killed by his raid are brought in. He said that it felt like a game when he was bombing these people until he was confronted by the consequences of his actions. How much more true that is today.

  5. There isnt room for Pacifism in the face of Opression or Wrong event 2 others but there is room for For Mercy & Forgiveness

  6. Mr. (Rabbi?) Weissman, thank you for this excellent post. I have shared it with my friends on Facebook, and pray that many others see it as well ... I find your reasoning quite compelling.

    If I may, I would offer some thoughts from the perspective of a Christian who is concerned that many Christians who claim to hold to the "Just War" theory propounded by Augustine, fail adequately to consider its strictures either in the cause or conduct of war. These are excellently laid out in a book by Lee C. Camp entitled "Who Is My Enemy?" which I review on my own blog.