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Religion: A Cause of War or a Means of Peace?

Religion: A Cause of War or a Means of Peace?

Major General Tim Cross explores why perennial questions about identity and purpose so often lie at the heart of the debate on religion and violence. 31/08/2018

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Over my forty–odd years’ service in the Army, I experienced the reality and brutality of warfare; the gangsters, protection rackets, greed and desire for power. In places like Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East, I experienced at first hand the bitterness of religious, ethnic and cultural bigotry that divides our world and the brutality that flows from it, and watched enough mass graves being dug up to know that there are rarely such things as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in the business of violence.

In all these places, there was inevitably much debate about the connection between religion and violence, with some arguing that religion:

· Is the major source of violence; if we seek a more peaceful world we must abolish religion.

· Is not a source of violence. People are made violent by things like fear, glory, and what Hobbes described as the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’. Religion therefore has nothing to do with it; manipulative leaders may motivate people to wage wars or inspire them to heroic acts of self–sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to fight.

· Is indeed the cause of violence, but not ours; we are for peace, they are for war.

 My experiences over forty years in the Army tell me that in reality none of these is true.

 For the first, two academics (Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod) surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10% involved religion at all.[1] And a BBC ‘God and War’ survey found that religion played some part in 40% of conflicts, but usually only a small one.[2]

But to argue that religion has nothing to do with violence is clearly nonsense; all too often, states or terrorists invoke holy war, condemning unbelievers to death, committing murder while declaring that ‘God is Great’. All too often, religions seek peace on their own terms – a recipe for war. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all try to define themselves in terms of being a religion for peace, but all have given rise to violence at some points in their history.

Thirdly, almost invariably people regard ‘their’ group as superior to others, be that an army regiment or a football team. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self–esteem and they will work hard to confirm their sense of superiority – and violently defend it.

The problem is that those regimes that have attempted to eliminate religion (Communism/National Socialism, etc.) have not produced peace and tranquillity. Those secularists or atheists today who argue that we no longer need religion because we have science and technology; or that we no longer need prayer when we are ill because we have doctors; or that we no longer need to confess because we have anti–depressant drugs, psychotherapy and the market place to bury ourselves in are at best misguided. As Jonathan Sacks says in his recent book ‘Not in God’s Name’, science only tells us how, not ‘why’. Technology gives us power but doesn’t tell us how best to use that power; the market gives us choice but no idea how best to exercise that choice.

Jonathan reinforces my own view that all of this is tied up in the search for identity, and it is in that search that we can find a peace. I was once told that to live a contented life we need three things: a real sense of identity, a strong sense of purpose and a deep sense of faith. Identity – who am I? Purpose – why am I here? And faith – how should I live my life? The trouble with the secularisation of everything is that it has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning, and it is hard to live life without meaning.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, in the middle of my years in the military I became a Christian as a result of visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and being faced with what I now call the ‘Killer Question’: just exactly who is this man Jesus Christ? The guide that day – which happened to be Easter Sunday and my thirtieth birthday – was a retired British Army colonel, and he challenged me to forget about religion and concentrate on Jesus. Which I did – and the truth is that I’m not a great fan of religion, or actually the Church as a whole – but I am a fan of Jesus.

I have seen enough of the abuse of it to know that religion can indeed be a cause for war, but the lack of it doesn’t solve the problem. Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden was the decision that he wanted to be his own god, to turn his back on the Creator and live life for the purpose of his own pleasure. That sin – the belief that the world has to revolve around me and my clan, my tribe, my culture, my ethnicity, my faith – leads us to all sorts of selfish behaviours, including mass killings in both war and peace.

Becoming more religious won’t solve the problem, but becoming people of faith can indeed be a means of peace rather than a cause of war. For me – and for perhaps a surprising number of soldiers, sailors and airmen and women – in Jesus I have found the answers to the questions of identity and purpose. And in Him I have found a peace that the world cannot give, indeed largely doesn’t understand.

[1] Alan Axelrod and Charles Phillips (2004) Encyclopedia of Wars Facts on File Library of World History

[2] Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen, (2003) God and War: An Audit & An Exploration Department of Peace Studies University of Bradford. Available at:

Image of The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem. “Perhaps somewhat ironically, in the middle of my years in the military I became a Christian as a result of visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and being faced with what I now call the ‘Killer Question’: just exactly who is this man Jesus Christ?Image by Grant Barclay under a creative commons licence. 

Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE

Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE

Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE was commissioned into the British Army in 1971, and commanded at every level. Retiring in January 2007 he was the Army Adviser to the UK House of Commons Defence Committee for 7 years until 2014. Amongst a broad portfolio Tim is a Local Lay Minister in the Church of England and works with Theos. An itinerant preacher and international speaker he is engaged across UK/International business, academia and the charity/humanitarian world.
A Tutor at the Leadership Trust, he sits on the Ethics Board of a major UK technology company and is a Visiting/Honorary Professor at 3 UK Universities.

Watch, listen to or read more from Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE

Posted 31 August 2018

Military, Religion, Secularism


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