A new op-ed piece on CNN.com discusses the role of religion in war and peace. Specifically, the author highlights the peaceful mission of St. Francis of Assisi to Sultan al-Kamil as an example to be heeded by modern Christendom in an era when war is promoted, it seems, most fervently by religious groups. President Obama is brought up as an example of a modern leader who seems to have the same spirit as, but could still learn from, St. Francis.
In my opinion, the author makes an important point about the role of religion in promoting peace. This has long been ignored by commentators. Many have long thought of religion as a catalyst for war more than peace. Monotheism, especially, seems to be blamed by humanists for wars all across the world (see, for instance, Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain). This is specious argumentation on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that it is naive post hoc ergo proctor hoc reasoning. Nationalism and the need to maintain or increase political power are the reasons for the vast majority of the wars ostensibly fought in the name of religion, and the non-monotheistic empires of the pre-Christian era were far more violent and war-hungry.
People like St. Francis of Assisi and the other religious leaders mentioned in the CNN article also have an advantage that people like Obama will never have in the promotion of peace and eschewing of war: they’re not leaders of large nations. While St. Francis was able to go subjugate himself to the authority of the Egyptian sultan, the Roman emperor at the time could have done no such thing while honoring his office or serving his nation. Nor could Obama offer to exclusively serve the personal interests of the president of Iran while trying to ideologically convert his retinue. To recognize this fact is not to disbelieve Jesus when he said to love the enemy. While peace is a priority for Christianity, circumstances sometimes preclude it (see Matt 10:34). Certain stations in government can give more frequent rise to those circumstances in a person’s life.
The author concludes: “For those who want to be guided by what Jesus would do, Francis of Assisi is a good place to start.” This is good advice for those without responsibilities like those of Barack Obama, but for someone in charge of the peace and security of an ideologically diverse nation of over 300 million people, it’s not always going to be expedient. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism do not promote war. Zealous factions within each ideology sometimes do, but they neither represent their traditions nor find their motivation exclusively (or even primarily) within the tenets of their traditions. The absence of religion will no more solve the problem of war any more than communism solved the problem of poverty. We need more St. Francises to promulgate the principles of peace, but we also need to recognize the need for world leaders to balance of the promotion of peace with the defense and security of their citizens, their cultures, and their ideologies.