Holy War as a theme in World History: A Prolegomenon to Further Research

Holy War as a theme in World History: A Prolegomenon to Further Research

By Alfred Andrea

Paper given at the New England Historical Association Fall Conference (2008)

Introduction: Every now and then one experiences an academic or intellectual epiphany. One came to me while visiting Capital Normal University in Beijing several years ago. On the spur of the moment, I was asked to address graduate students in its Global History Center on the topic of “Holy War in World History.” Given but a few hours of preparation time, I was forced to sit down and to think beyond such comfortable and well known categories as crusade and jihad, areas of my supposed expertise. In the context of this challenge and pressure—after all, who wants to look bad in front of graduate students?— I began to see that holy war, when looked at globally and beyond the confines of Christianity and Islam, has many manifestations and textures. Indeed, it is an historical phenomenon with many faces and found in a wide variety of cultures.

My new research, which goes far beyond the theology and practice of holy war within Christianity and Islam, is still in its early stages, but today I propose to offer some preliminary thoughts on holy war as a global phenomenon and, as time allows, to discuss in a bit of detail the crusades.

Let us first understand that holy war is not necessarily physical violence on Earth performed by humans against other humans in the name of religion. Holy war can be merely a metaphor. Indeed, many religions use the metaphor of war as a symbol for religious or spiritual struggle. Jains, for example, who preach ahimsa, or radical non-violence, refer to anyone who has conquered the evil within himself as a Jina, or conqueror. Such a conquest, as was the case with the victory of their great sixth-century BCE teacher, the Mahavira, or Great Hero, is purely a spiritual conquest. On their part, Christians hear in church the words of St Paul as recorded in the New Testament: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Christians hearing these words understand that Paul used the metaphor of military service to explain the privations imposed upon Christians and the singlemindedness demanded of them as they fight evil on a spiritual plane. Paul did not expect to be understood as encouraging early Christians to join the Roman legions. Likewise, this mosaic in Ravenna, Italy, created around the year 500, shows Christ dressed as a Roman general stamping out evil, as symbolized by the snake and the lion. It is pure metaphor.

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