May 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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How Is Peace a Religious or Spiritual Value in Your Faith?

Dennis R. Koehn


I have been interested in religion and peacemaking ever since I was age 16 in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson was waging the American War in Vietnam. I remember hearing stories about my Mennonite pacifist grandfather who resisted war from within the army during World War I, and I knew that my father served as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service camps for several years during World War II. In January 1970, with Richard Nixon in the White House, I turned 18 and decided to publicly refuse to register for the military draft. I wrote a long letter in February that year to my draft board with copies to the president, my senator and congressional representative. During the next several years, I experienced an FBI investigation, arrest, trial, appeal and 18 months of incarceration in a federal prison near Denver, Colorado.

In February 2004, 34 years after that letter to my draft board, I looked at the many wars around the globe, saw the role of religion in supporting war and outlined a research prospectus which I titled “Gods of War: How Nations Invent Divine Sanction for Killing.” For the past seven years, I have been pursuing this research agenda. I have thought a lot about the relationship between peace, spiritual values and religious belief.

Many religious groups, but especially the orthodox versions of most religions, claim that they alone have the key to human salvation and that peace is possible only within their prescribed orthodoxy. People who hold conservative beliefs are often very suspicious of outsiders and are easily threatened by those outsiders. Orthodox groups often believe that their god commands them to use all means necessary to preserve their sacred beliefs and way of life, including the use of war. In this way, religion fuels the fires of fear and war.

In contrast to narrow orthodoxy, I believe that many humans today can support a generous understanding of religion and salvation. I have come to see religion as a human attempt to “find our place within our largest story.” I believe that most humans attempt to find meaning within a communal story that speaks to the purpose of life. These grand stories can be religious, nationalistic, racial, scientific or political. Within these large narratives, we seek well-being and salvation, which I have come to see generally as “being at peace with life.” Many different stories give humans a sense of belonging in the world and being at peace. In contrast, all claims to possess the only way to salvation are distorted human constructs and are all delusional.

This salvation of “being at peace with life” has an important dimension that often is not recognized. Many people live with internal conflicts and tensions. When self-awareness is low, one pole of an internal conflict can be projected onto others in the external environment. Jesus saw this when he taught that we should remove the log from our own eyes before trying to remove the splinter from the eye of someone else. When individuals and groups do not recognize their own selfishness and aggression, they can project these traits onto others, sometimes labeling them as evil and as enemies. It takes a high level of maturity to manage our internal tensions and create peace within ourselves.

Nearly all religions and political ideologies claim to support peace. The leaders of great religious movements claim their own versions of peace and justice: Confucius, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and others. The leaders of powerful nations and empires claim to bring peace and security: Cyrus in ancient Persia, Julius Caesar and Emperor Constantine in Rome, Napoleon’s attempt to unify Europe, patriots in revolutionary America, Christian missionaries leading the way for Spanish and British empires, Lenin in revolutionary Russia, Hitler in imperial Germany, Mao Tse-tung in China, Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, George W. Bush’s attempt to remake Iraq and the Middle East, etc. Most influential national leaders create rhetoric and rationale for power and war, claiming to serve the values of peace, security and justice. Each of these leaders was able to mobilize millions of people to fight wars to pursue their vision of peace and security.

There are, however, minority traditions that add an important qualifying condition in the quest for peace and justice: that the means must be non-violent, that the life and choice of others must be respected. I find the roots of these minority movements in Lao Tzu of ancient Taoism; Siddhartha Guatama, the enlightened Buddha; and Jesus of Nazareth. These ancient founders of religious traditions have modern counterparts. The most visible 20th century leaders of non-violent movements for peace and justice were Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. (It is interesting to note that none were whites of European origin.)

For me, the decisive element in a well-integrated concept of peace is a commitment to non-violence and a refusal to kill human beings. I think of myself as a non-violent peace activist in the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King tradition. I am willing to engage in debates within the historical criteria of just war theory, but I think it is much more fruitful to debate strategies for creating a just peace. Public and international policy is best founded in a diverse citizenry on empirical information and pragmatic results. Idealistic visions inform our individual convictions, but public debate must draw on common knowledge and values and concrete results.

In the 21st century, great global conflicts are inevitable. Around seven billion people inhabit a planet with finite resources. We will see intensifying competition for water, energy and food. The globalization of communication and commerce threatens provincial orthodoxies and traditional identities. Groups are “circling their wagons” and fighting against the encroaching tentacles of modernity.

The great decision facing America and all humanity is whether we will invest in institutions that will mediate inevitable conflicts non-violently or whether we will invest in increasingly destructive and costly technologies of war. I see this as one of the most important challenges facing people in all religious traditions but especially Americans because we spend as much on military forces as the rest of the world combined. America has about 3 percent to 4 percent of the world’s population and has about 50 percent of the world’s military expenditures. I think this accurately reflects the core values of most Americans, which is very alarming. America is an imperial force in the world, commanding scarce resources wherever possible.

One final note on religious faith: All theistic traditions have found ways to interpret god as supporting wars in the interest of the sponsoring religious or national group. I see these theological constructions as self-serving idolatry. God has been construed, manipulated and co-opted to serve social class, national and imperial interests. These gods are mere idols created by men (yes, males) to further their selfish ideological interests. We must protest all attempts to justify war in the name of god. The only valid way of depicting God, I believe, is as a generous lover of all humans and the natural order that sustains life, a God who seeks peace without violence.

* Dennis R. Koehn is a member of Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council in Chicago and holds a Ph.D. with an academic focus on religion and war from Chicago Theological Seminary. Readers may contact him at <> .