Gott mitt uns!
Informed readers may recognize some or all of the phrases above. In case there are any you’re not familiar with, here’s a quick primer on what each of them means:
“Deo vindice” is Latin for “God will defend us” or “God is our vindicator”. It was the motto of the slaveholding Confederate States of America, and was engraved on their official seal. The CSA firmly believed that the Christian God was on their side in the American Civil War, and made repeated proclamations to that effect. The Confederate senator Thomas Semmes, in proposing this motto, took pains to stress that the CSA had “deviated in the most emphatic manner from the spirit that presided over the construction of the Constitution of the United States, which is silent on the subject of the Deity”, and he clearly expected this invocation to bring his side victory.
“Gott mitt uns” is, of course, German for “God is with us”, and was a patriotic slogan of the Nazi Party. (Remember this the next time some Christian apologist brings up the disgusting lie that the Nazis were atheistic.) It appeared on the insignia of the Waffen SS – the “brown shirts” – the armed paramilitary wing of the Schutzstaffel, which was the security organization of the Nazi Party itself. According to Karl Wolff, general of the Waffen SS, the organization’s oath of loyalty was based on the model of the Jesuits’ oath of absolute obedience to the Pope.
“Deus vult” is Latin for “God wills it”, and was supposedly the cry of the crowd after Pope Urban’s speech in 1095 inaugurating the First Crusade. What would follow were two hundred years of savage religious warfare between Christians and Muslims, in which soldiers on both sides were promised paradise if they died a martyr’s death in combat. The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, following which they proceeded to massacre almost all the inhabitants of the city. According to one, probably exaggerated account, the blood of the slain flowed as high as the horses’ bridles. Although they began in the Middle East, the Crusades soon became an excuse for Christians to persecute and slaughter heretical sects in Europe as well.
“Allahu akhbar” is Arabic for “God is greatest”, the Muslim profession of faith known as the takbir. Although it’s also used in peaceful contexts, it’s become infamous for its use by Islamists who shout it triumphantly as they slaughter the innocent or give their lives in suicide terrorism. In recent months, it’s appeared in numerous jihadist videos made in Iraq, the rallying cry of those who cut off the heads of captives on camera.
Despite their origins in different languages and cultures, all four of these phrases express basically the same proposition: that God is on our side and will grant us victory over our enemies. Under all four of these mottoes, armies have marched to war, secure in their faith that the Almighty was championing their cause and would permit them to slay their foes with terrible slaughter.
The terrible, destructive consequences of this belief are almost impossible to overstate. I shudder to imagine all the rivers of blood that have been shed by the armies who made these words their banner. If we could look back through history – if we could see how many battlefields these words have reigned over, how many soldiers cried them righteously while plunging their bright weapons into flesh, how many people’s bodies were broken and mangled by fervent believers piously muttering them the whole time – it all seems to blur together, a vast shadow of hatred and horror.
I grant that religion has motivated many acts of love and compassion. Nevertheless, the hate which it can inspire is more vicious and persistent than any other kind. Although there are many causes of war, I know of no others that can last literally for millennia. Over long stretches of time, governments change, national rivalries fade, ethnic groups mingle, and cultural identities become fluid and porous. It is religion and religion alone that allows adherents to persist in a shared identity – and a shared enmity – for centuries on end, with ancient grudges and the memory of old atrocities transmitted faithfully through the generations with undiminished intensity.
In the past few decades, we’ve seen religious warfare erupt all over the world. In Iraq, there’s emerged a swamp of sectarian strife and bloodshed, where armed gangs rule the streets and rival sects clash in a chronic low-level civil war. The power vacuum created by the U.S. occupation reawoke religious rivalries that had long been dormant, but the Iraq quagmire is just the most visible outbreak of a larger conflict simmering across the Muslim world, as Salafist Sunni fanatics wage war on heretical Shi’ites in the name of doctrinal purity and the Shi’ites answer with violence and death squads of their own. In Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia, and now spreading into Europe, Islamist zealots wage war on the innocent and seek to create a theocracy ruled by terror.
An even older, and still lingering, religious conflict comes from the Christian memory of hatred of the Jews. According to the New Testament, Pontius Pilate wanted to release Jesus, only to be forced to take action by the Jewish crowds who shouted, “Crucify him! His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). That ancient blood libel has spawned endless parades of prejudice and bigotry over the centuries and has inspired Christians to spill oceans of Jewish blood in retribution for the supposed death of one. It has given rise to pogroms, ghettoes, inquisitions. In medieval Europe, Jews were savagely persecuted and hounded from place to place, accused of bizarre and ludicrous crimes such as driving nails through stolen communion wafers to further torture Christ, or kidnapping Christian children to drain their blood for use in Passover matzoh. Ultimately, these ages of hate culminated in Hitler’s ovens and gas chambers, as the blood libel was born anew to serve the delusions of Nazi racial superiority. After a war that killed millions, anti-Semitism has been driven underground, but it has not vanished.
And even this is not the oldest ongoing religious war. That infamy belongs to the land of Israel/Palestine, where Zionist Jews still believe in the promises of land which God allegedly made to Abraham over four thousand years ago. That seed bears its bitter fruit to this day, as Palestinians and Israelis continue to spill each other’s blood over the divisive issue of who will own the land where both groups stake a claim.
How can we put an end to the deadly certainty that inspires holy war? One proposed solution, possibly the most famous, is Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted aphorism that we should not be concerned with whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.
However, I’ve never thought this statement was especially profound. What does it even mean? Presumably, if we want to know whether we are on God’s side, we should pray and search the scriptures to find out what God wants. How is that any different from what all the crusaders and jihadists throughout history did? They certainly believed that they were doing what God wanted; many of them quoted scripture and church teaching to that end. If we accept that religious text and tradition can be any kind of reliable guide to God’s will, then we must accept that those sources often do teach violence and warfare.
Another possible solution to this problem is to retreat into mysticism – to proclaim that God is so completely ineffable, so fundamentally unlike us, that we can know nothing about him and thus can never use a claim of his will as a basis for action. And while a few religious scholars have embraced this philosophy, it seems highly doubtful that the majority will ever accept such a hollow and substanceless belief. People believe in God because they want comfort, support, protection – not a distant, unknowable spirit about whom we can say nothing meaningful. And so long as people continue to believe in a personal god with definite desires, that belief will likely be used to justify violence and division.
There’s one final solution that I’ve heard a few times. It is this: we can accept that we’re fallible humans, that we don’t know everything, and that anyone who tries to claim certain and absolute knowledge of God’s will is likely mistaken. And if we can never claim total certainty about God’s will, we can certainly never proclaim that God wants us to slaughter the infidels.
This might be a good solution, except that it flies in the face of the fundamental underlying basis of religion. Throughout recorded history, the spokesmen of faith have taught that belief without evidence, and especially firm and resolute belief without evidence, is a praiseworthy and virtuous character trait. In fact, religion often seems to consider a belief more virtuous in proportion to the amount of evidence against it. This is a perniciously self-sustaining meme, for as the evidence mounts against the scriptural story, it only inspires believers to cling to it all the more tightly.
It seems that as long as belief in God persists, this problem will recur. The hatred which religious partisans have for each other is literally undying. Frankly, I’d leave them to each other and say good riddance, if it weren’t for the fact that the rest of us are caught in between them, and innocent people who did not ask to be part of these battles inevitably end up suffering for their sake.
Images: Confederate seal in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Nazi belt buckle image by Daderot, released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license