Curbing violence

As Christians gained influence, they came up with ideas like “Just War” and the “Peace of God”.



Holy War


As Christians gained influence, they came up with ideas like “Just War” and the “Peace of God”.


WILLIAM CAVANAUGH: The early Christians for the first three centuries assumed that what Christ’s sacrifice meant was that you would prefer to go to your death rather than shed blood. And so the early Christian church is full of martyrs, and the few Christians that joined the Roman military were most often criticised by their fellows. It’s not until the Roman emperor himself becomes a Christian in the fourth century that Christians begin to develop justifications for the shedding of blood.

JOHN DICKSON: Christians eventually became so numerous through all ranks of society, that they had to form opinions about the harsh realities of public justice, and even warfare.

By the fifth century, 400 years after Christ, there were so many Christians throughout the empire that imperial officials began to consult Christian opinion on matters of state and even on warfare. Suddenly, Christian intellectuals had to do some very quick thinking. And none was more agile, or more influential, than Aurelius Augustinus – Saint Augustine.

Augustine is considered one of the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world. He was generally opposed to warfare but he reasoned that under certain conditions war could be appropriate for a Christian ruler. There was such a thing, he said, as a “Just War”.

NIGEL BIGGAR: When we think of whether to go to war, the first thing we think about is whether there is just cause. And that would be some kind of grave injustice that needs rectifying. You’ve also got to have right intention, so in intervening am I intending to rectify the injustice? And then because war is a really hazardous and destructive business, you don’t want to do it unless you really, really have to. And if you can find peaceful means of resolving conflict you should do it. Therefore, it should always be a last resort, all other reasonable means of resolving the conflict having been exhausted.

JOHN DICKSON: Augustine taught that a war could be just, but only if it was conducted in self-defence, and with such a high regard for humanity that your enemy, if he lost, was left feeling neither humiliated nor even resentful. I’m not sure how practical that is, but as far as military theories go, it’s nice.

ROWAN WILLIAMS: Now that’s a long way from “Holy Wars”. What we sometimes don’t notice is the slippage between that and, say, the medieval crusading ideal. Augustine is saying, “Look, things are falling apart. The world is pretty difficult. There are circumstances where you have got do what isn’t ideal. If, in order to fight off marauding barbarian tribes from northern Europe, you need to take to battle – well, all right, I suppose. I mean, it’s not a good thing but the alternative is probably worse. And if you are going to do it and still remain some kind of a Christian, then for goodness sake keep in mind the following moral principles.” So, it’s a very grudging concession. It’s certainly very different from the crusader marching off to recover Jerusalem, shouting, “God wills it”.

JOHN HALDANE: There is no clear corresponding tradition in other cultures. I mean there are debates within other cultures about war, but it doesn’t look, as far as we know, as if there is a “Just War” tradition outside of the West. And it is worth saying that there is no tradition of “Just War” thought in the West that arises independently of the Christian tradition.

JUSTINE TOH: Fast-forward a few centuries and medieval Europe is an incredibly violent place. Knights would maraud across the countryside, terrorising the poor, plundering fields, villages, churches.

Christian leaders tried a number of things to curb the violence, or at least direct it into more “productive” channels.

WILLIAM CAVANAUGH: There are things like the “Truce of God” and the “Peace of God” that put certain people, and certain places, and certain times off limits from war during the Middle Ages.

JUSTINE TOH: People like the monks of the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny tried to persuade the knights to stop killing peasants, and each other, and instead, channel their energies into defending the poor and protecting pilgrims.

The bishops would gather large groups of knights and feudal lords in fields outside the city.

They’d tell them that anyone who shed the blood of a fellow Christian was spilling the blood of Christ. And they’d basically force them to take oaths, like this one.

Knight: “I will not carry off either ox or cow or any other beast of burden …”
Priest: “And?”
Knight: “I will seize neither peasant nor merchant!”
Priest: “Good …”
Knight: “And I will not take from them their pence, nor oblige them to ransom themselves, and I will not beat them to obtain their subsistence …”
Priest: “And their livestock?”
Knight: “I will seize neither horse, mare nor colt from their pasture …?”
Priest: (sighs)
Knight: “Oh! And I will not destroy or burn their houses.”

JUSTINE TOH: Not exactly a high bar!

The bishops also forbade fighting in between Wednesday evening and Monday morning. They did have to form peace militias to enforce the ban though. As a solution it wasn’t perfect, but presumably better than nothing.

These medieval attempts to contain violence had an unexpected outcome. It seems many knights did convert to a more “religious” lifestyle and come to think of their military duties as a form of service to God. It was a development that paved the way for “Holy War” – the Crusades.

THOMAS F. MADDEN: The church had been trying for some time to reduce the levels of violence in Europe which was a very violent place. They had already instituted various programs like the “Truce of God” and the “Peace of God” – these were preached all over Europe to try to reduce the violence levels. The Crusades came out of that reform movement. The idea was to convince these men who were killing each other and killing unarmed people to use the abilities that they had for something that was good. And that’s what led ultimately to the First Crusade.

JUSTINE TOH: We’ve seen quite the evolution, from the non-violence of the early Christians, to the development of a “Just War” theory and now, a full-blown “Holy War”. Taking up your cross, Jesus’ symbol of self-sacrificing love, in order to fight. It’s a pretty disturbing progression.

NICK SPENCER: The reason why Christian history contains so much coercion in there is simply because it has been so unchristian. And that will strike some people as a slippery answer, but it’s true. There is an irony, to put it very mildly, in following the Prince of Peace, who explicitly abjures violence, violently.