The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ


I am aware of the difficulties involved in preparing and holding a meeting of this kind. You have come from far away leaving pending work and urgent matters. The topic is complex and may be approached from many different points of view. Combining academic expertise on peace studies and conflict resolution with very diverse and different experiences is not easy. Bringing together academicians, activists, men and women of different cultures, Jesuits and lay partners is a commendable but difficult proposition. The logistics involved in preparing the meeting have been daunting: finding a place with an atmosphere of prayerful reflection and an ambience of relaxation and peace; preparing all the sessions, and taking care of the required infrastructure. I would like to express my gratitude to all the participants as well as to all those who have made this meeting possible. The fact that all of you are here is already an achievement!


I am also aware that you have set for yourselves a very important and ambitious goal. You want to reflect together on the issues of conflict, war and peace. You have tried to engage in a discernment process that is both individual and communitarian. With the help of three cases from Chad, India and Colombia, you have looked at new aspects of the conflicts and peace initiatives dotting the entire face of the earth.


You have also prepared a document for me in which you narrate your experiences during these days, collect the lights and shadows you have encountered, and offer some recommendations in the hope that they can be of help to the entire body of the Society and our apostolic partners in serving the Lord. I would like to assure you that I shall study the document and find the most appropriate way to share it with the whole Society.


In a preamble to my main thrust this morning I shall first outline the recent history of a growing understanding among religious leaders of their role as peacemakers, proceed to trace the link between war and peace through the etymology of words, and finally, turn to the ethics that should govern our minds and conduct in a context where wars are fought in the name of religion




Our world grows increasingly interconnected and, different as we are, we need to come together to ensure peace. A beginning was made on 27 October 1986 when John Paul II invited leaders from all the world religions to Assisi to pray for peace in a world becoming more and more violent.


“The coming together of so many religious leaders to pray is in itself an invitation today to the world to become aware that there exists another dimension of peace and another way of promoting it which is not a result of negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining. It is the result of prayer, which, in the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacities alone.” (Address of John Paul II to the representatives of the Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities gathered in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer, 27 October 1986).


Some twenty years later, at a meeting of religious leaders held 23-25 May 2005 at Tarrytown (New York), the following statement was made:


“We agree that the Christian and Muslim traditions are unambiguous on the sanctity of human life and on the protection of all forms of creation including the environment … We therefore believe that the common position held by both of our traditions … asks for the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.”


On 11 September 2005, men and women of different religions came together at a meeting organised by the community of Sant’Egidio in Lyon (France) to strengthen a humanism of peace. Without peace the world becomes inhuman. The meeting reiterated that religions refuse violence, war and terrorism because the name of God is “Peace.” No war can ever be holy. The way of peace is a dialogue that makes the foreigner a friend.


Let me turn from history to semantics. Looking at the words so often used in the discourse of war and peace today we find that semantics has some light to throw on the matter. In the Semitic languages a noun represents the semantic field to which it belongs. For example, in Arabic the word ‘salám’ is related to the concepts of soundness, well-being, safety, security, and peace. In Arabic the term ‘jihad’ (fight, battle) comes from the term ‘jahada,’ which finds its place in the semantic field of concepts related to the verbs ‘endeavour,’ ‘labour,’ and to take pains. In Tunis the same term translates as both ‘asceticism’ and ‘to fight for justice.’


We may also note that in Indo-European languages nouns are used in phrases that reveal how the semantic fields of war and peace are inextricably bound up with each other. Language is a sign of a culture’s grasp of reality. For example, ‘war’ becomes a way of protecting something or somebody. Already the Romans in their writing had coined the well-known phrase: ‘there is no other way of ensuring peace than preparing for war.’ Since Münich 1938, the term ‘appeasement’ has come to mean a way of making concessions just to stay out of war and be at peace. If words reflect reality, the semantics of war and peace can prove how closely interwoven are the conditions of war and peace. We use normally expressions like ‘to fight for peace,’ a ‘just war.’ The Crusaders used the expression: ‘It is God’s will.’



Three ethical perspectives on war and peace


In the present context of peace efforts three expressions recur: ‘peace-ethics,’ ‘war-ethics,’ and the more general ethics brought to the situation of war. All three of them raise the issue of right moral conduct in critical situations. I take each of these expressions and perspectives in turn.




All the religions have given rise to peace-movements, even radical ones. This perspective is what I call an ethic of peace, or an ethics that gives priority to peace over war. A point of reference could be Buddhism: there is a commandment to protect all life in all situations and conditions and not allow others to kill or to be killed. (SuttaNipala, 394). No sacrifice of animals, no entering a meadow so as to avoid killing the insects, no fishing and no hunting, no cleaning of water so as to avoid killing even the microbes. Prince Gautama was aware how difficult and unrealistic it would be to impose the law of non-violence on the many princes around him, all called to defend the borders of their kingdoms. But still, in the three treatises of the Buddha addressed to war soldiers, he insists that killing is always forbidden, even in the case of defending natural borders: “Heroism in war leads to a special hell.” Peace-ethics can always be seen from a negative perspective as denying the aggressive side of human reality, and as indifferent to situations of injustice and misery.




If peace ethics upholds peace at all cost, it must be noted that all religions have also been ‘home’ to war-tendencies, war-movements, even radical ones. Violence has been considered to be the only efficient way to make human society better, more just and more peaceful. It is from this perspective that we talk of a ‘war-ethic.’


An obvious point of reference are ‘the people of the book’: the Torah, the Gospel, and the Koran. It appears that war was part of the normal situation in the Near East  both ancient and modern Near East: the Lord God fights with his people, and if necessary, against his people. The fact, however, that the three monotheistic religions focus exclusively on one God, excluding even by force all other gods, should not be considered the reason why the three religions of the book bear witness to the cruel reality of violence and war. Non-Semitic religions also sanctify the religious character of war; for instance, in the Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to take up arms for a just cause on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.


Radical war-ethics may be found today in the ‘theology of terror’ proclaimed by the movement of Osama bin Laden and groups like the Taliban and the Hizb al Taharir (Islamic Liberation Party), founded in Jerusalem in 1953. From this point of view, there is no way to pursue the goal, to impose and promote good and do away and forbid evil other than through terrorism, and armed struggle. The religious motivation of such radical war-ethics lies in a very selective reading of the Koran’s discourse on war. The Koran states “fight those in the way of God who fight you, but do not be aggressive. God does not like aggression (2, 190).” Hence, in the Hadith tradition all kinds of limits were suggested so as to defend non-combatants, and other limits were worked out by Islamic legal scholarship. But the extreme radical position maintains that as long as God’s law does not rule everywhere, especially in the land of Islam, and as long as the United States and all their Muslim and non-Muslim allies wage war on God, it is every believer’s duty to destroy evil radically, driven by a blind and unbending hatred of the ‘West.’ This selective, unilateral and partial reading of the ‘holy book’ can motivate terrorism, but the following quotation clarifies how much more important it is to build bridges than to claim exclusive moral righteousness:


“For too long we Muslims have been sticking fingers in our ears and chanting ‘Islam means peace’ to drown out the negative noise from our holy book. Far better to own up to it. Not erase or revise, just recognise it and thereby join moderate Jews and Christian in confessing the ‘sins of Scripture’ as an American Bishop says about the Bible. In doing so, Muslims would show a thoughtful side that builds trust with the wider communities of the West” (Irshad Manji, Time July 25, 2005 p. 60).


I have thus far tried to show how war and peace are bound together. I turn finally to the bearing of ethics on war and conflict-ridden situations to ask whether it is possible to move towards a just and loving ethic that takes account of all living persons.


Ethics of peace brought to war.


In the Assisi meeting of January 2002 the representatives of the world religions confessed that no one can kill in the name of God. In the first commandment of a Decalogue for peace, John Paul II, in a letter addressed to all Heads of States, expressed the agreement reached by all religious leaders:


We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion, and, as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or of religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.” (Letter of John Paul II to all the Heads of State and Government of the world and Decalogue of Assisi for Peace, 24 February 2002).


At the recent meeting with Muslim religious leaders in August 2005 in Cologne (Germany) Benedict XVI condemned every kind of terrorism:


Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence” (Address of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Cologne, Saturday, 20 August 2005).





On the basis of the above we may draw some conclusions.


1.        Radical war-ethics is to be condemned, even while we recognise that violence is everywhere and in every thing. It is part of our human nature: it will be always present if we defend ourselves, our very being, as different from other beings. The act of creation makes us different, roots us in diversity (Gn. 1), a diversity that reflects God’s riches and that should enrich humanity. We, however, use our differences (religions, race) to attack one another and to motivate violence. Religions have to recognise that in their diversity they have motivated conflicts and violence. In this violent context that seems to surround human beings, peace-ethics may seem ‘unrealistic,’ but it does not exclude the fact that religions can and should be peacemakers.


2.        In spite of all the violence in the three monotheistic Holy Books, under God’s educational guidance, there is an increasing awareness that a peace-ethics can set the conditions under which war may be possible. From a mentality that allows the taking of a human life for a lost eye, the Books move to the moral progress of an eye only for an eye – retaliation – and finally, to the appeal to give your life to save another human life. Religions can build up trust through dialogue and compassion, solidarity and cross-cultural understanding.


3.        This increasing peace awareness fosters reflection on a just war, which can defend humanity against arbitrary or intentional acts of war. It would not be ethical to refuse to use limited violent means to help people in danger of death. The awareness is also growing that a peace without justice is not peace. This makes us see clearly the roots of violence: cultural marginalisation, economic injustice, and political domination. These unjust situations can generate violence that is easily expressed in religions rhetoric. Religion is a card that can easily be played to foster violence, even if religion as such is not involved.


4.        We need to remember that in situations of war the peacemaker is blessed (Mt 5: 5). According to the Christian approach, a person ought always to be ready to take the first step. In his peace-making efforts he should exclude nobody, but include all as ‘neighbours.’ He should be willing to forgive and to give his own life out of love, following the way of Christ in the midst of violence. Christ never said, ‘don’t have enemies,’ but he said, ‘love them.’ To bring peace in war conditions is to announce the message of love in a violent world, in the Pascal faith that, in the end, not hate but love will have the last word.



 Santa Severa, Rome,

Friday, 16 September 2005