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Holy War: A War of Compassion

Holy war is perhaps one of the most taboo phrases in (non-radically militant) religious spheres. It immediately evokes memories of terroist bombings and other crusades. War is bad. War is something we want to avoid. There isn’t any kind of war that can ultimately be good. Or is there?

What if we were to focus on the word “holy” instead of “war”? As Marcus Borg, in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, has noted, holiness in the Christian Testament isn’t about ritual cleanliness or moral codes. Rather, compassion is the holiness of God. (Sorry, no direct quote. I loaned out the book.) Above all, Christians are called to love. And, we all know that for Jesus holy love isn’t meant just for one’s friends, but extends to one’s enemies as well.

Unfortunately, it appears that followers of Jesus have been confusing holy war with violent war since before the crucifixion.

He said to them, “But now one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack, and one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22.36, NAB)

Jesus said to him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” His disciples realized what was about to happen, and they asked, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?” And one of them struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said in reply, “Stop, no more of this!” Then he touched the servant’s ear and healed him. (Luke 22.48-51, NAB)

According to the gospels, nowhere did Jesus condone slicing people up, torturing them, or killing them…and certainly not in the name of God. Indeed, those willing to draw swords against other human beings are portrayed as being moved by a spirit not aligned with the Divine. Because of this, I am a pacifist. Admittedly, there are times when violence seems to be our only option to protect the lives of the powerless. This is why good people with good intentions will pick up arms against their human sisters and brothers. I’m willing to accept the possibility that some circumstances might call for the use of violence to stop violence. Still, I am not fully convinced, so I continue to walk and advocate for my path.

Recently, I have reentered the martial arts. My art of choice: aikido. In my mind, it embodies the spirit of holy war. To begin with, the assailant is not your “enemy,” but a friend who has yet to recognize who you are. Destroying one’s friends can hardly be considered a victory, so the goal is reconciliation into one spirit. As the assailant attacks, the attacker is projecting energy from her or his center toward you. Your task is to accept that energy as a gift (making contact that does not hinder, but flows with it), nurture it (using circular motion to redirect it), and and fully embrace it (completing the transfer of energy from the assailant’s center to your own, which is now in control of the motion), thus ending the attack. It is a martial art oriented toward compassion. Of course, I’m a beginner and my articulation may be misguided, but that’s basically how I perceive it.

If aikido were used as a model for holy war (a war in which one wielded the power of compassion rather than violence), then the world would look very different. Hitler rose to power because he basically said, “Follow me and I will feed you, give you a place to live, and restore your dignity.” The result makes sense. These are basic human needs, and we court disaster when they aren’t met. I have to wonder, if Christians had stepped up before Hitler’s rise to meet those needs, how different would 20th-century history have been?

Violent war is reactive; a disastrous situation arises, boils over, and leads to mass death. Holy war is proactive; it attempts to head off violence by meeting human needs before they lead us down darker paths. Aikido is usually translated as “the way of the spirit of harmony.” I actually prefer to read it as “the way of the harmonizing spirit.” That’s ultimately what holy war is about: heading off violence through acts of life-nourishing love. It is never about violence and ensuing victory. I suspect that if ever holy war were engaged in full, it could become the war to end all wars.