Book Review: Joseph R. Hoffman, ed., The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (NY: Prometheus 2006).

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

Rage “thrives in the darkness,” warns contributor Charles K. Bellinger. But even in its most ubiquitous and persistent form, that which is religiously inspired, he insists, violence “will be defeated by being understood.”

Some will howl “liberal fallacy!” in response to intellectuals who tout education as the remedy for social ills. Undoubtedly, such persons would decry the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, the members of which recently declared that religious violence naturally and, in fact, unavoidably results when credulous worshipers are taught to honor religion as a benevolent force.

The Just War and Jihad joins a mottled abundance of recently published literature exploring religion’s penchant for aggression. This collection of more than a dozen essays, however, sides unhesitatingly with studies that seek not merely to reconcile religion, but rather to unravel and, in prominent instances, eradicate it.

Joseph Hoffman, editor, Wells College professor of religion, and chair of the CSER, scolds religious reformers, observing that the God of Abraham simply “must be understood in terms of two words: exclusivity and judgment.”  The monotheistic “liberal,” Hoffman quips, can deny his faith’s inherent violence only by “ignoring the gun in the closet or simply being ignorant of the fact his father didn’t throw it out.”

Thus, the classic chronologizing strategy of alleging that a particular religion has, to some extent, advanced past its violent pedigree exposes only that tradition’s persistent psychological sway and not its essential goodness.  Whatever their intentions, like their fundamentalist counterparts, reformers inevitably pass and express judgment that some religious beliefs outshine others.  Defining an enemy, Hoffman concludes, “has been the overarching theme of the monotheistic traditions since their vague beginnings some 3500 years ago.”

Carol Delaney offers machismo as the beating heart that has long pumped violence into and out of the monotheistic corpus, particularly with regard to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.  That Abraham, the paradigmatic father, felt entitled to take his son’s life and that he never consulted Isaac or Isaac’s mother before deciding to do so, is indicative of monotheism’s ill-fated obsession with a “patriarchal theosocial order” over which each of the “sibling faiths” will continue to battle.  Rather than fixating on obedience to authority, Delaney argues, we ought to emphasize personal and shared responsibility.

The religious dynamic in contemporary warfare has never been seriously addressed, claims Pauletta Otis.  “[P]resent in all conflict,” religion tends to intensify the brutality and lethality of war, and delay, if not permanently suspend, its resolution.

Religion manifests itself in three major non-state initiated forms of violence, Otis adds.  For the religious terrorist, “violence first and foremost is a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to a theological imperative.”  Typically disdainful of moral norms, such persons are willing if not eager to sacrifice innocent lives to their transcendent objective.

Either causal or contributive, religion provides an “identity factor” in ethnic conflicts, such as those that have recently plagued Sri Lanka, Ireland and Uganda.  Some have long predicted, of course, the exacerbation of regional ethnic conflicts into global “clash of civilizations” scenarios.

The most dreadful variety of religious violence imaginable, however, is genocide.  Unsurprisingly, these crusades characteristically result from a breach in or complete absence of a wall of separation between religion and government.  Citing a recent examination of the Rwandan genocide, Otis concludes that attempted exterminations are more likely to occur in contexts where governments either supply financial support to churches or favor them through official policy.  Again, scriptural emphasis on submission to authority plays a significant role.

Perhaps fearing terrorism, political destabilization or even nuclear annihilation, Europeans, Chinese and Indians seem to be reassessing the holy threat.  Religion’s potent though often-misapprehended function in warfare is now a global reality.  As Otis affirms, the world is overdue for a “systematic and critical study of how religion impacts war and how war impacts religion.”

Although, as Joyce E. Salisbury notes, early Christianity’s policy on imperial war was inconsistent and based more on anxiety over idolatry than reluctance toward violence, the tradition’s long and, thus far, uninterrupted partnership with government began in earnest when Constantine signed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE.  This infamous alignment between what Roger Williams would later call the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World compelled Christian leaders to accept, even embrace, organized violence and to demarcate the boundaries of a just war.

In general terms, of course, divine alliance defined righteous belligerence.  That distinction alone, however, proved unhelpful to those attempting to discern justice or to defend any given faction in the context of an intra-faith battle.   Predictably, the question ultimately turned on an official determination of orthodoxy rather than merit.

But it was Augustine’s definition of “just war” that became the foundation for all future discussions on the subject.  Donatism and the schism in North Africa frustrated Augustine tremendously, Salisbury explains, driving the Christian patriarch to brazenly preach the virtues of bloodshed.

To enjoy divine sanction, Augustine declared, a war must be waged with just cause, with good intentions (purportedly benefiting all parties), and under the leadership of legitimate authority.  Again, legitimacy was determined by orthodoxy, which, in turn, depended on power.  Similarly, both justice and beneficence bowed to Augustine’s insistence on religious and political unity.  Thus, an otherwise properly initiated attack or even torture was said to profit dissenting victims because the aggressor’s intent was to rehabilitate supposed heresy.

To Augustine, the modern concept of collateral damage was immaterial.  “What mattered wasn’t that some innocents died,” Salisbury argues, “but that they not die in vain.”  In this sense, at least, the Bishop’s influence has proven disturbingly enduring.

In the end, of course, Augustine’s just war criteria were entirely too vague to be credible or even useful.  The Arians besieged the African churches in 429 CE and, in the seventh century, the Muslims invaded.  “Augustine was wrong,” Salisbury concludes.  “[R]eligious reasoning did not make [his war] a virtuous war, nor did it make it a successful war.”  Claiming divine sanction “may make the conduct easier, but it makes a compromised resolution of the war almost impossible.  ‘Holy wars’ are notoriously difficult to end.”

Collectively, The Just War and Jihad is an informative but relatively undemanding text.  Each author explores intriguing intellectual questions.  Most of them manage to illuminate salient social issues and intelligently so.  Nevertheless, no contributor offers a serious, viable theory as to how the admittedly knotty predicament of religiously inspired violence might be ameliorated, much less resolved.

The tangle of religious aggression can be and, to a great extent, has been unraveled.  But can any informed person rationally conclude that all religion should be and, if so, that it could be eradicated?  Saying as much is seductively simple.  But, as a strategy, it is neither sober nor constructive.

If the measure of any book is its ability to arouse curiosity, then this text, as a whole, performs commendably.  But if, in fact, education is the only available means to a peaceful end, this book, along with a throng of others like it, achieves little more for concerned readers than providing them with a compelling motive for advanced study and confronting them with the realization that they have no time to waste.


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