This Is a Religious War

James Schall, S.J. is professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University and is the author of many books. For more of Fr. Schall's work please visit his website.

(This article courtesy of Gilbert!, the Magazine of G.K. Chesterton.)

Of course, as we learned soon enough, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was directly related to the courage of ordinary businessmen. Once they knew from their wives or families on cell-phones that the hijackers meant a wholly new kind of terror, they did what they could. They saved others, no doubt those of us somewhere in Washington, if not themselves.

But in going down, these brave men upheld the standard of honor and courage in a way we can only admire and hope we are worthy of. No doubt the reason the passengers and crew did not try to storm the earlier planes was that under orders, they assumed that this was like any other hijacking, that they would go to some airport and negotiate. The notion of crashing the planes into buildings was so far from anyone's mind, any normal mind, that any other reaction but angered compliance would seem irrational. Had they known, no doubt some would have done the same as those brave men on the United Airlines plane in Pennsylvania.

A letter to the Wall Street Journal on September 17 charges that adherents of all three religions of Middle East origin, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, are equally fanatics; that the very idea of thinking that something of God is worth dying for is itself the cause of these recent catastrophes. I fear we will hear more and more of this view, as if somehow the belief that nothing much is that important will give us a peaceful life in this world. It won't.

G.K. Chesterton remarked that “war is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you.” We may or may not believe that Islam is the peaceful religion it now claims itself to be, at least in America. We do know that some of its adherents, perhaps many, have a strange way of carrying out their peaceful intentions. Is there some authority in Islam that can assure us definitively that the actions we have witnessed are theoretical, that is, theological heresies, things Islam rejects and opposes? Whatever else they believed, it seems that those who carried out this plot, this very successful, yet still very cowardly plot, believed they were performing a holy act. Were they? Will someone who believes in Islam tell us that this is not true, and more importantly, bring to justice those who did these things?

We must know these things. Why can Catholic priests not say Mass in Saudi Arabia, an ally of ours? Why did Catholic soldiers in the Iraqi War have to leave their rosaries at home? Why are Christians persecuted and killed in so many Muslim states? It is not enough to hear that the problem is simply “the terrorists,” as if these terrorists were somehow another religion wholly alien to their origin. As far as I know, no Muslim country was ever “converted” by peaceful means. Historically, they were taken by force, usually from Christians, who finally decided to fight back with only partial success.

“The refined people seem to think that there is something unpleasant and profane about making war religious,” Chesterton wrote in The Glass Walking Stick. “I should say that there ought to be no war except religious war. If war is irreligious, it is immoral. No man ought ever to fight at all unless he is prepared to put his quarrel before that invisible court of Arbitration with which all religion is concerned. Unless he thinks he is vitally, eternally, cosmically in the right, he is wrong to fire off a pocket-pistol.” Is this a “religious” war in Chesterton's sense? Indeed it is.

Perhaps for the first time in modern history, it is necessary that Islam tell us what it is really about. No doubt the man in Los Angeles (where else?) who wrote the letter deploring the track record of the three religions and their apparent relation to wars has a right to be disgusted. Presumably, he would have no reason to “fire a pocket-pistol” in a world freed of the three religions. But I doubt it. His view is as dogmatic as any of the religious views, perhaps more so as it admits no consideration of the others.

So what we have before us in these days, behind everything else, is almost the opposite of what we have been seeing in the ecumenical movement. We are seeing how religions are different, not alike. That is, we are confronted with the question of which religion, or non-religion, is true.

“War is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing them from being settled for you.” If we do lose this war to those who blow us up at home, then at least we must know what principles will govern us, the principles that justified blowing us up.

“No man ought ever to fight at all unless he is willing to put his quarrel before that invisible court of Arbitration with which all religion is concerned.” The alternative is a world in which nothing is worth taking seriously, because nothing is serious, nothing is worth fighting for, because nothing is worth anything. Our present task is simply trying to prevent the matter from being settled for us.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) was a Jesuit philosopher, teacher, and author. He taught political science at Georgetown University for many years and delivered numerous articles, speeches, and interviews. His books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures.

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