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Pierre Whalon Headshot

Jaw-Jaw or War-War?

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Winston Churchill famously said, "It is better to jaw-jaw than war-war." Clearly, it is only when dialogue has ceased that the fighting can begin. But it is equally true that two sides -- nations, religions, tribes -- are either on the path to peace, or the path to war. There is no third way -- none.

René Girard, that great student of human motivation, describes in his new book, Battling to the End (original title Achever Clausewitz*) how war starts from mimetic rivalry, following the classic theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz. He described it clearly in his unfinished treatise, On War. As hostile feelings and intention between two peoples grow (the ground of war), "reciprocal actions" (Wechselwirkung) take place. In these reciprocal actions, Clausewitz fears a possible escalation to extremes (Äußersten), from "armed observation" (bewaffneten Beobachtung) to absolute war, but believes that counterweights to extreme action (such as fear of the enemy's potential for destruction, the "friction" of real elements (terrain, logistics, commanders' will, etc.), and the "fog of war" will always forestall such an eventuality. Underlying every conflict, Clausewitz detected a "strange triad" (eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit): "primordial violence, hatred, and enmity"; forces like "friction" and "the play of chance and probability"; and war "as an instrument of policy."

Since the beginnings of Islam, Christianity has been in a difficult relationship with it. When we are celebrating what we have in common, we are on the road to peace. When we perceive our differences as rivalry, we are starting down the road to war. In the 21st century, war is waged less and less between nation-states, but through terrorist groups who serve as proxies. There is certainly enough reason to wonder whether we have once again allowed "violence, hatred, and enmity" to surface in our relations as religions.

Of course, this is an abstraction. Religions do not relate, people do. But as we see fanatics hounding Christians out of the Middle East -- ancestral lands they have lived in centuries before Muhammad's birth -- the question becomes, whom are we dealing with? The killings of two government officials in Pakistan, seemingly with impunity if not outright approval, because they opposed the draconian blasphemy laws in force in that country ups the ante. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Monday last to the Pakistani government, "Do not imagine this can be 'managed' or tolerated."

Those of us who have been "jaw-jaw"-ing have even more items to talk about. In America, there is a growing movement to reject Islam out of hand. Peter King, the congressman chairing the Homeland Security Committee for the House of Representatives, is holding hearings on the place of Islam in America. In Europe, David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have denounced multiculturalism as a failure. There are disturbing trends being instrumentalized all around, Muslims praying in the streets of Paris, North Africans being discriminated against in Spain.

Are these not the "reciprocal actions" Clausewitz and Girard warn against? The threat of violence against moderates on both sides silences the voices of reason, those who understand best the value of dialogue.

This writer had the privilege to be part of the Washington Christian-Muslim Summit, which made a step toward the commitment of religious leaders to act for peace. But we need more and deeper dialogue with Muslims, in America and elsewhere. We Christians have something to explain to our dialogue partners, namely, that we have come a long way from our own tendency to murder everyone who disagreed with us. There were the pogroms against the Jews that indirectly helped the Holocaust to occur. The wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries decimated Europe -- at least a third of the population was slaughtered in the name of the Prince of Peace. This laid the groundwork for the rise of modern atheism.

And there were the Crusades. They were an unabashed denial and betrayal of Jesus Christ as well, as western Christians used the conquest of Jerusalem by a Muslim army as an excuse for war. We must recall not only the slaughter of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, but also the sack of Constantinople by Christians against other Christians.

We learned two things from our history: first, no religion should ever run the state, for it will end up being corrupted by the exercise of power. Islam is not exempt from this principle, by any means, as history shows very clearly. Neither is Judaism or any other religion. State atheism has the worst record of all. Second, no one should ever be put to death because of religion. Every human being must be free to encounter the divine on his or her terms, as Article 18 of the United Nations Charter states, and which all the Middle Eastern nations have signed. These two principles, written as it were in an ocean of human blood, are universal. They alone can stay the rise of hatred, if respected.

This means that Muslims must re-examine their own traditions, if we are to find the road to peace. We Christians have a tool developed over the past two hundred-fifty years. I am referring to what is generally known as the historical-critical method of examining the Bible.

This method examines the sacred texts from the point of view of historians and literary critics. Line up the four Gospels so that you can read them all at once, what is called a synopsis. Soon any reader will begin to notice how similar they all are, and how divergent as well. Matthew, Mark and Luke are more similar -- John stands out. Matthew and Luke seem to follow Mark, though each adds some materials of his own, and the two have material in common that Mark does not. How did these happen? What might they mean? Another kind of historical criticism collects and compares ancient manuscripts so as to compile texts that are as faithful to the originals as possible. Still another looks at ancient languages like Ugaritic and Aramaic to see what might lie under the finished Hebrew and Greek texts.

While some Christians complain that scholars using these methods are too skeptical, most Christians accept the value of historiography and literary studies of our Scriptures. We can now establish the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth and demonstrate that the origins of the Church began with him, specifically, immediately after his death. We can show that our biblical texts have far more historical backing and accuracy than any other writings of the ancient world. Of course, none of this is ground for believing in Jesus Christ, but it discredits the claims of real skeptics that, for instance, Jesus never existed, that the New Testament is a fraud, or that the Church was an invention of Saul of Tarsus or later people.

By the same token, these studies undermine fundamentalistic readings of the Bible.

Many scholars, including some Muslims, have begun to examine the Quran and the origins of Islam with similar techniques. Their work is increasingly available. For example, Etienne-Marie Gallez has published a massive two-volume investigation of the origins of what eventually became Islam. (Le messie et son prophète : Aux origines de l'Islam ) Among the findings of these scholars is the strong influence of Ebionite and Nazorean Christians on the earliest Muslims. These people read hardly any of the New Testament, and lived in expectation of a military-political Messiah on earth who would establish their religion around the world by force. The rise of the Damascus caliphate also strongly influenced the editing of what became the Holy Quran, as the interests of the caliphs were highlighted in the succeeding editions. There is also the collecting of the hadith, sayings of the Prophet, over centuries, and how they changed.

The name Muhammad occurs only four times in the Quran, and twice he is called Ahmad. Why? How did he come to be seen as the central figure, the last Prophet? Why is the story of Caliph U'mar (Omar)'s peaceful conquest of Jerusalem in 634 completely contradicted by other historical sources of the time? What do these mean? These are the types of questions that the historical-critical method raises in relation to Islam.

They are questions that we Christians need to ask our Muslim brothers and sisters to examine for themselves. It is not for us to presume that we can know the answers for them. But unless our dialogues are conducted not only in the respect that we are all people of faith -- the real ground we all share -- but also a quest to find the truth together, "jaw-jaw" will eventually be silenced, and new wars of religion will become inevitable. The fundamentalisms that are distorted versions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are setting down the first leg of the strange and terrible triad of war, enmity between peoples. The movements of intolerance in the Middle East, mirrored by developing movements in the West, are the modern equivalent of armed observation. Terrorists perform "reciprocal actions" that can rise to total war.

Clausewitz, argues Girard, glimpsed the horror of total annihilation, but only as a theoretical possibility. He believed in the rational pursuit by political leaders of national interests, famously stating that "War is merely a prolongation of policy/politics (Politik) by other means." Furthermore, he thought that total war was impossible due to the logistics of "friction". But weapons technology has come a very long way since the Napoleonic wars that nurtured Clausewitz's vision, and nation-states have declined in the face of globalization. Total annihilation is now a real threat.

Is that what the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wants? Does Allah require us to destroy our planet, and ourselves with it? This is of course unthinkable, and yet we both have found ways to think lesser versions of it in the past. Christians and Muslims need to jaw-jaw a lot more, a lot more deeply, and more sincerely, if we are to be people on the road to peace. There are certainly risks that must be taken. However, the alternative is so horrible that the risks are minimal by comparison.

My review of Achever Clausewitz can be found here.