Throughout history, many wars have been waged with religion being their stated cause and peace as their desired outcome. In the previous article, we took a look at the history of Judaism and traced the origins of war in this religion. This time, we will search for the roots of the concept of war in Christianity, as interpreted by Karen Armstrong, a renowned modern religion writer.
In about 27 C.E., many Jews of Palestine were attracted by a new sect which, according to Armstrong, claimed to be a universal form of Judaism. The leader was a Jew by the name of Jesus (Isa), who claimed to be the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for. He quickly attracted a large following, eventually making his way from his native Galilee to Jerusalem, where he preached of the approaching Kingdom of God. Seeing in his preaching a potential political threat, Romans, who ruled Jerusalem at the time, arrested him and had him crucified, as the history of Christianity has it. Jesus’ refusal to oppose Romans, even in the face of his death, clearly testified to the pacifist nature of his teachings. He taught his followers to turn the other cheek when attacked.
After the death of Jesus, his followers continued to be peacefully practicing Jews, worshiping daily in the Temple and living according to the Torah (Taurat). What distinguished them from other Jewish sects was their belief in Jesus as the Messiah and their expectation of his second coming – his returning to the world for establishing the Kingdom of God.
A Jew by the name of Paul was to take Jesus’ teachings to a new dimension. He started preaching to the Gentiles (non-Israelite tribes or nations), transforming Christianity from a Jewish sect into a universal religion, which was to bring redemption to the entire world. Paul’s version of Christianity had no room for a holy war, because Christians were to show love even to their enemies, as Jesus had enjoined it. According to Armstrong, Paul presented “Christianity as a spiritual religion: salvation now meant liberation from sin and death, not an extermination of the enemies of God”.
Several later historical developments within Christianity can be pinned as contributing factors leading to the formation of the concept of the ‘holy war’ during the Crusades: the image of the Antichrist, movements of martyrdom and monasticism as well as St. Augustine’s philosophy of a just war.
By the end of the first century, Christianity underwent certain transformations, which introduced more violent ideas into the peaceful religion of Jesus and Paul. The author of “Revelation” (one of the books of the New Testament written later) brought back into Christianity the importance for Judaism apocalyptic tradition. He talked of cosmic battles foretold by the Jewish prophets as heralding the final triumph of Christianity, when God would send down the New Jerusalem and a new perfect world from heaven. He described God’s enemies as terrifying monsters, placing a particular emphasis on a great Beast, which would crawl out of an abyss and establish himself in the Temple. It was from this powerful image of the Beast that the later generations of Christians developed a belief in what they called the Antichrist, which became very important in the ideology of crusading. According to Armstrong, “by the time of the Crusades, European Christians firmly believed that before the final apocalypse, Antichrist would appear in Jerusalem, would set himself up in the Temple and fight the Christians there in the great battles”.
Initially, the attitude of the Roman Empire towards Christianity was not a tolerant one – they often persecuted and executed Christians who refused to sacrifice to Caesar. These persecutions eventually formed in Christians a strong sense that ‘the world’ was against them. This insecurity, according to Armstrong, led to a cult of voluntary martyrdom. The martyr was seen as the perfect Christian, “because Christ had said that giving one’s life for the beloved (Jesus) was the greatest act of love”. Eventually, the martyrdom cult acquired an aggressive dimension as martyrs started to denounce themselves to the authorities and believed that they were taking part in a cosmic battle with evil. Although martyrs passively allowed the inflicting of violence upon them, they thought of themselves as the ‘soldiers of Christ’, and considered their deaths as ‘victory’. Even though the Church tried to stop this trend of voluntary martyrdom, it never completely died out and surfaced again during the time of the Crusades.
When, years later, the persecutions stopped and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Christians faced a new dilemma: how could they be perfect Christians when there was no more opportunity for martyrdom? The answer was discovered in the movement of monasticism: radical Christians were to flee ‘the world’, which was hostile to them, and take refuge in the wilderness. Although Jesus and Paul had never promoted this type of asceticism, monks and their like-minded Christians believed that it was not possible to practice true Christian values in ‘the world’. In later centuries, Western Christians further developed the movement of monasticism by secluding themselves in monasteries which they saw as “fortresses of Christianity in a Godless world”. The monks living in them were considered as taking part in a holy war against the spiritual enemies of God. When the Crusades began, the monks became some of their most active participants.
During the early Middle Ages, Europe was under constant attacks by its enemies: barbarians destroyed the Roman Empire which was followed by the invasions of Norsemen, Muslims and Magyars. This constant threat and insecurity brought an aggressive element into the peaceful religion of Christianity. Despite all the attacks, the Church tried to keep the violence under control and remain pacifist. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire regarded war as unchristian and preferred to hire mercenaries for their wars instead of using Christian soldiers. It was their Western brethren, the Latin theologians, who developed the concept of a just war. This would enable the Christians to fight and defend themselves without guilt.
In early fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa) laid the grounds for the Christian concept of a just war. According to Armstrong, St. Augustine “decided that, while wars against other Christians were always sinful and unjust, God could sometimes inspire a Christian leader to wage war against pagans”. According to him, the difference between a pagan war and a Christian one was that it had to be inspired by love towards the enemy. The war could not be based on revenge; it had to be based on the sense of justice. Violence was to be seen as medicinal – just like disciplining a child for his own good. Although Augustine’s arguments in favour of violence were paradoxical, Christians could no longer survive without war. However, it was only during the Crusades that the involvement of Christians in warfare transformed into a ‘holy war’: in 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade for exterminating ‘the enemies of God’ – the Turks, an accursed race that had captured the holy land.
Today, the Christians are divided between two stances on war:
1) Pacifism: war cannot be justified under any circumstances;
2) Just war: war is never good but sometimes necessary and should be conducted within the limits of justice.
Compiled from Karen Armstrong’s “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” published by Anchor Books (www.anchorbooks.com)