Throughout history, religion has often been used to justify violence and war. However, not all religions actively engage in or condone violence. Some faiths have strong pacifist traditions or teachings that prohibit violence, even in self-defense. In this article, we will examine some of the major world religions that have traditionally embraced nonviolence and avoided participating in war.
Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes nonviolence, self-control, and asceticism. The Jain philosophy holds that all living beings, even microscopic organisms, have an eternal soul and should be treated with respect. As a result, Jains are strict vegetarians and take great precautions to avoid harming any living creature.
Jains refuse to engage in any occupation that could harm other beings, including farming or industrial activities. Jain monks and nuns adhere to incredibly strict vows of nonviolence. For instance, they wear face masks to avoid breathing in tiny insects and sweep the ground before walking to avoid stepping on any creature.
Because of their radical commitment to nonviolence, Jains are completely pacifist and reject all use of force, even for self-defense. Jain teaching unambiguously prohibits warfare and sees participation in war as antithetical to spiritual progress. There are no examples from Jain history of Jains participating in or supporting military violence.
- Jainism is an ancient Indian religion dating back over 2,500 years.
- Jains practice absolute nonviolence towards all living beings.
- Jain monks and nuns adhere to strict vows of pacifism and avoidance of harm.
- Jain teachings strongly reject all violence and war.
- There are no historical examples of Jains participating in war.
The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, practices pacifism and nonviolent resistance. Quakerism emerged as a new Christian movement in England in the 17th century.
Quakers believe that there is an inner light or spirit of God within every person. This leads them to reject violence and war, which they see as incompatible with following Jesus’ message of love and peace. Quakers also emphasize simplicity, integrity, and equality among people.
Early Quakers were persecuted for their conscientious objection to war. Even today, Quakers refuse to join the military, serve in combat roles, or contribute weapons to war efforts. Many Quakers have been willing to go to prison rather than comply with conscription laws.
While Quakers aim to avoid violence, they are not passive. Quakers have a long tradition of social justice activism and nonviolent resistance to injustice. For example, Quakers played a major role in the abolition movement against slavery.
- Quakerism began in England in the 1650s.
- Quakers believe in an inner light and equality among people.
- They refuse participation in war or contribution to war efforts.
- Many Quakers have gone to prison rather than comply with draft laws.
- Quakers have a strong tradition of nonviolent activism.
Anabaptists are a radical Christian movement that emerged during the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s. They believed that mainstream Protestant reformers like Martin Luther did not take their reforms far enough.
The Anabaptists practiced adult baptism to symbolize free choice to follow Christ. This set them in opposition to the mainstream churches that baptized infants. The term “Anabaptist” means “re-baptizer” and was originally a slur applied to the group by their critics.
One key Anabaptist belief was pacifism based on Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek when struck. Prominent Anabaptist leader Menno Simons taught that followers of Jesus should not participate in warfare or hold government office.
As a result of their radical beliefs, Anabaptists faced widespread persecution. Thousands were killed in Europe for refusing to bear arms. Most Anabaptists eventually fled to North America to escape this violence.
The Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites are spiritual descendants of the historic Anabaptists. These “peace churches” still practice conscientious objection to war along with simple, peaceful lifestyles centered on their Christian faith.
- Anabaptists were 16th-century radical reformers who practiced adult baptism.
- They refused to align with any government or bear arms.
- Anabaptist commitment to pacifism resulted in intense persecution.
- Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites trace their roots to Anabaptists.
- They remain strongly pacifist today.
Buddhism’s founder Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, condemned violence and war. He taught his followers to avoid all violence, even in self-defense, and to always have good will for all living creatures.
These teachings on nonviolence and compassion lie at the heart of Buddhist doctrine. Buddhists also believe strongly in karma – the principle that intentional acts will have consequences equal to the deed. This causes them to avoid violence so as not to bring negative consequences upon themselves.
While Buddhism spread throughout Asia, its influence often pacified warrior cultures and tribes. Buddhist monasteries trained warriors in nonviolence and countries where Buddhism predominated had historically lower levels of warfare and violence.
That said, Buddhists have sometimes compromised on full pacifism. When under threat from outside invasion, Buddhists in Tibet, China, Japan and other nations have at times resorted to armed resistance. However, full-scale warfare has always been seen as a last resort.
Overall, Buddhism stands out among the world’s major faiths for its consistent emphasis on nonviolence, compassion, and disapproval of killing, even in self-defense. Prominent Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama continue to be strong advocates of nonviolent resistance and international peace efforts.
- Buddha rejected violence under all circumstances.
- Buddhists believe nonviolence brings good karma.
- Historically, Buddhist nations had low levels of warfare and violence.
- While sometimes compromised, pacifism is central to Buddhist teachings.
- Leaders like the Dalai Lama champion nonviolence.
The Bahá’í Faith, founded in 19th century Persia, actively works for world peace and international unity.
Central to Baha’i teachings is the principle of the oneness of humanity – all people are spiritually united and equal. As a result, killing even one person is equivalent to killing all people.
Bahá’ís believe humanity is now entering a new age of unity in which prejudice and warfare will be abolished. They work proactively to establish a permanent world peace.
While the Baha’i accept that self-defense is justified, they forbid their members from taking part in partisan politics or joining any violent uprising. Bahá’ís also refuse military service except in medical or noncombat roles.
Bahá’ís have faced oppression in many Middle Eastern countries due to their progressive social teachings. However, they have adhered firmly to nonviolent resistance even in the face of persecution.
- Bahá’ís believe all people are spiritually united.
- They actively work to establish world peace and unity.
- While self-defense is permitted, they avoid partisan politics and violence.
- Bahá’ís refuse combat roles and military service.
- They have remained nonviolent even when oppressed and persecuted.
Smaller pacifist religions
In addition to these larger faiths, there are a number of smaller religious groups throughout the world that take an official stance of pacifism and nonviolent resistance:
- Doukhobors: A Russian Christian sect who fled persecution for their pacifism, moving to Canada in 1899.
- Molokans: Small Russian pacifist Christian groups that split from the Russian Orthodox church in the 1500s.
- Moravians: A Protestant Christian denomination established in 1457 that pursues nonviolence and reconciliation.
- Shakers: A nearly extinct American religious sect with roots in the Quaker faith best known for pacifism.
There are also many religious leaders and reformers throughout history from pacifist traditions who have actively promoted nonviolence. These include Gandhi in Hinduism, Badshah Khan in Islam, and Thich Nhat Hanh in Buddhism.
So while many major religions like Christianity or Islam have been used to justify war and violence, traditions of pacifism have existed even within these larger faiths. And some smaller religions continue to embrace nonviolence as a core tenet of their belief systems.
Most of the world’s major religions arose thousands of years ago in violent times when war was common and unavoidable. But despite these conditions of their founding, religions like Jainism, Quaker Christianity, Anabaptism, Buddhism, and the Bahá’í Faith have maintained commitments to nonviolence and pacifism.
These faiths serve as reminders that while conflict seems inevitable, there are always alternatives to brutality, oppression and bloodshed. Their histories illuminate that organized religion need not be a cause of division and violence.
When modern warfare possesses the capacity to destroy humanity and civilization itself, the principles of conscientious objection, nonviolent activism and universal peace espoused by these pacifist religious groups appear increasingly prophetic and worthy of emulation.