Holy Words and Holy Wars

Within the sacred texts of many religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones there are written words, statements, and verses that incite its readership to commit violence and literally annihilate infidels, apostates, and enemy peoples. These holy books, being the literal and inspired word of God, are considered by true believers as infallible, true, and historic in the stories they tell, the lessons they teach, and of course, and the validity of the religions they preach.

This begs the question of whether violent verses and passages from the great holy works of the Torah, Bible, and Quran truly inspire religious zealots to rationalize and commit violence in the name of religion.

Though religious fundamentalism, warfare, or sanctioned violence is not a new topic of academic query, understanding of religiously inspired terrorism is. Religion has been utilized by many terrorist organizations as a vital way of vindicating of their political ideologies, goals, and ultimately, their violent activities. Thus, it is vital for policymakers and warfighters to contextualize and understand religious scripture’s utility as an important aspect of a terrorist’s psyche and motivations.

In this essay, I will analyze passages taken from the Old Testament which espouse and support militant zealotry, uncover historic cases of religious warfare and conquest, and lastly, I will commentate about how words written during the Bronze Age have contemporary consequences in the modern world.

I. The Ghosts of the Canaan and Amalek

In this essay, I have chosen to use examples from the Judaism and Christianity as the fulcrum of my analysis of scriptural inspired violence. This is due to the accessibility of these scriptures, because many of the contemporary followers of these religions have taken a less bellicose stance in rationalizing (and favoring) religious wars than their religiously fervent forefathers, and lastly, the untapped potential for extremists to utilize these texts for violent ends.

From the Old Testament, there are two particularly important scriptural references that support religiously inspired violent activity, the Book of Joshua and the Book of Deuteronomy. In the following text are excerpts from both of those books that implicitly give religious sanctity towards the validation of holy war and violence:

In the Cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.”- Deuteronomy Chapter 20

“Thou shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; though shalt not forget it.” – Deuteronomy Chapter 25

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old… with the edge of the sword.” –Joshua Chapter 6

“For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favor, but that he might destroy them, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Joshua Chapter 11:20

In both Deuteronomy and Joshua, God makes a covenant with the Hebrews that awards the militant faithful with divine glory, homeland and slaves whilst God smites apostates and non-believers to Herem warfare. According to Laying Down the Sword, Herem warfare, “is placing the city under ban. Under this code, every living thing found in the city, everything that breathes should be slaughter in a kind of mass human sacrifice.” (Jenkins 7). In such a way, when God commits to the banning of the city, it is the literal annihilation of a race of men and replacing those defeated with the chosen people of God, the Jews.

Aside from Herem warfare, there is the concept of the defeated peoples of the Old Testament who were singled out by God for Herem. In a short, exhaustive list of those banned by God are the following: Amalekites, Bashanites, Canaanites, Midianite, and the Zimri.

Most notably, for Hebrews, Amalekites are the equivalent of the Christian anti-Christ and for the Christians the annihilation of the Canaanites and Amalekites are the model for later the Crusades, religious warfare during the reformation, and lastly, for European imperialism.

In conclusion, from these highly militant passages, God commands for both the early Hebrews and implies their Christian successors have the God given right to commit genocide, enslave, and inherit the homeland from conquered peoples.

II. God’s Burden

From the textual understanding of these Biblical sources, there is without question that throughout history the Bible has great utility in validating many human atrocities such as genocidal regimes, enslavement, and conquest.

In this section, the West will be my focal point as throughout their historical experience they have a lengthy history of meting stone, sword, and rifle against “the other” because of religion.

The most obvious usage of the Bible is for the purposes of extirpation, which is literally means “To pull by the roots” or even more subversively, “local extinction of a race”. If one was to abide by Deuteronomy or Joshua’s conquering verses, it would be divinely valid to exterminate whole races, take their lands as your own, and procreate more of your chosen people.

For Britain, it was the White Man’s Burden. For America, it was Manifest Destiny. For the Hitler’s Germany, it was Lebensraum.

Thus, it’s actually useful to label a people as a Canaanite to justify of Holy War. It’s been done throughout history, such as the labeling of Pagans during the Roman Era, Muslims during the Crusades; Protestants and Catholics (and vice versa) during the Reformation, Aboriginal peoples during the Imperial Era (especially the Spanish Empire in the Americas), and Germany’s persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.

For many Westerners (myself included), I find it appalling that the Bible has been referenced during these bloody campaigns as both a rationale and cover story for Western atrocities from throughout our history.  However, non-Abrahamic religions also have been used for imperialistic purposes, such as militant Buddhism and Shinto as a moral rationale for the Japanese imperialism in the Greater East-Asia Prosperity Sphere during the Second World War’s Pacific Theater and China during its Dynastic Era.

III. Contemporary Problems of Violence Passages from the Bible

With the advent of the Enlightenment to the modern era, many of the militarist passages of the Old Testament has been downplayed or forgotten, but it has been shown many times that the passages from Deuteronomy and Joshua refuse to fade away and die in the modern world.

In the West, for example, there is a rise of right wing, nationalist movements in advanced democracies such as France (National Front), Great Brittan (BNP), some parts of Germany and other parts of Europe (particularly the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia). With the influx of immigrants from their former colonial empires, there’s been a rise of racial resentment, which is an environment that is ripe for religious irregular warfare.

A non-Western example of Christian militarism is the Lord’s Resistance Army, an irregular military force in Central Africa which is involved famously with enslaving and training child soldiers and genocide.

Lastly, an outlet for the proliferation of religious violence can be found in man’s last frontier: the internet. Popularly, Islamist and Jihadist propaganda have been used in this manner, but there is are Judeo-Christian equivalents that have been using language similar to Herem and Deuteronomic warfare such as Christian Zionist, Haredim (an ultra orthodox Jewish Zionist Movement), and other hardline movements.

In this essay, I have highlighted troubling passages from the Old Testament that are problematic in the modern age, their historical applications, and lastly, the modern utilizers of such language.  Given that there are working examples of the darker sides of religious expression, it’s important for the national security apparatus to be vigilant of such extremism because unlike those from more classical extremes (i.e. Jihadist), the threat of those influenced by Joshua or Deuteronomy don’t fit traditional profiles of a religious warrior (or terrorist).

In the final analysis, I don’t believe we can completely trust in ethnocentric views that all Muslims (or Arabs, for that matter) are terrorists and all Judeo-Christians are saints. However, at the end of the day, it’s important for us to understand the context of religious violence, whether it is historical or modern, because such information gives us a better understanding of the potential threats to our national security.