What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (III): Saint Ambrose’s Holy War Against Infidels

Note: This article is page III of a series on the Christian just war tradition.  If you haven’t already, might I suggest that you first read page I (the introduction) and page II (about the early Church).

Saint Ambrose (Fourth Century)

The relationship between Christianity and imperialism traces itself all the way back to the early Church fathers who enlisted themselves as “prayer warriors” for the Roman armies (read page II: Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?).  However, even though they prayed for the success and preservation of the Pax Romana, the early Christians felt uncomfortable serving as soldiers in a largely pagan military.

This changed with the conversion to Christianity of Rome’s emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD).  Wim Smit writes on p.108 of Just War and Terrorism:

With the reign of Constantine (306-337) and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the attitude of most Christians towards military service changed. The question no longer was: can service to God be reconciled with service to the emperor, but what kind of conditions and rules should be satisfied during battle? This revolution in Christian thought started with Ambrose…and was later systematised by his pupil Augustine (354), who can be seen as the founder of the just war tradition.

Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD) served as a Roman imperial officer and sought to justify the Empire’s wars.  Prof. Christopher Tyerman writes on p.33 of God’s War:

The conversion of Constantine and the final recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in 381 prompted the emergence of a set of limited principles of Christian just war which, by virtue of being fought by the Faithful, could be regarded as holy. The identification of the Roman empire with the church of God allowed Christians to see in the secular state their protector, the pax Romana being synonymous with Christian Peace. For the state, to its temporal hostes were added enemies of the Faith, pagan barbarians and, more immediately dangerous, religious heretics within the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, historian of Constantine’s conversion, in the early fourth century reconciled traditional Christian pacifism with the new duties of the Christian citizen by pointing to the distinction between the clergy, immune from military service, and the laity, now fully encouraged to wage the just wars for the Christian empire. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), as befitted a former imperial official, consolidated this symbiosis of the Graeco-Roman and Christian: Rome and Christianity were indissolubly united, their fates inextricably linked. Thus the war of one was that of the other, all Rome’s wars were just in the same way that those of the Old Testament Israelites have been; even heresy could be depicted as treason. Ambrose’s version of the Christian empire and the wars to protect it which constituted perhaps the earliest formulation of Christian warfare was, therefore, based on the union of church and state; hatred of foreigners in the shape of barbarians and other external foes; and a sharp intolerance towards dissent and internal debate, religious and political.

The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “anyone who is not Greek.”  The Romans expanded the word to refer to anyone outside of the Greco-Roman world.  It was thought that the “civilized world” referred to the Roman Empire, which was surrounded by “barbarians.”  Prof. Glen Warren Bowersock writes on p.334 of Late Antiquity:

The term barbarian[ was] derived from Greek ideals of cultural “otherness”…The image of barbaricum began at the frontiers…There was the idea of a wall around the empire, separating Rome from the other gentes [nations]…Every “good” emperor set up inscriptions of himself as domitor gentium barbararum [conqueror of the barbarian nations]…Barbarians were contemptible, unworthy enemies…Many stereotypes were simply ethnocentric [racist]…Barbarians were natural slaves, animals, faithless, dishonest, treasonable, arrogant, drunken sots…

Christians were not detached from the construction of these images…Some, like Ambrose, projected barbarians as drunks and faithless savages…

The pax Romana had to be “defended” against these “barbarians,” something which was done by conquering their lands.  This imperial mentality was, from the very start, accepted by Christianity.  The early Church fathers, for example, believed that “God ordained the imperial powers” to “advanc[e] the gospel;” they appreciated “the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.” The “barbarians” surrounding the Roman Empire threatened not just the state, but also the Church; their paganism and heresy was a threat against true belief.  Therefore, war against them had to be justified.  Who better to justify this than the former imperial officer Ambrose of Milan?  Prof. Frederick H. Russell writes on p.13 of The Just War in the Middle Ages:

The fuller development of a Christian just war theory was futhered in the writings of Ambrose, a new kind of Christian. Trained in imperial administration and the former prefect in Milan, Ambrose brought a Roman political orientation to his ministry…The courage of soldiers who defended the Empire against barbarians…was full of justice, and Ambrose prayed for the success of imperial armies.

Prof. Russell writes further:

To the Roman animosity toward the barbarian was added the element of religious animosity between believer and unbeliever, thus rendering the internal and external threats to the Pax Romana more politically explosive. To point the way out of this crisis Ambrose about 378 the De Fide Christiana for the Emperor Gratian, who was at the time attempting to consolidate Roman authority on the Danube after the defeat of the Arian Valens by the Visigoths. Ambrose assured Gratian of victory, for it had been foretold in the prophecies of Ezekiel and confirmed by Gratian’s faith. Ambrose even identified Gog, the wicked enemy of Ezekiel’s prophecies, with the contemporary Goths, who were thereby destined to destruction.

The just war theory was thus generated as a way “to point the way out of this crisis,” the crisis being the need “to consolidate Roman authority.”  More specifically, civil wars and rebellions within the Empire were to be forbidden, whereas Rome’s foreign wars to be justified.  Indeed, the emerging doctrine was to be applied to fellow Christians in order to prevent themselves from fighting each other when they could be fighting the infidel instead.  Prof. Alex J. Bellamy writes on p.24 of Just Wars:

Ambrose was the first thinker systematically to blend Christian teachings with Roman law and philosophy (Johnson 1987:54). He followed Cicero in acknowledging the possibility of justifiable wars and recognizing the difference between abhorrent civil wars and wars fought against barbarians (Swift 1970:533-4). Wars against barbarians, Ambrose argued, were legitimate because they protected both the empire and the Christian orthodoxy.

Ambrose, the first thinker behind the just war theory, justified his belief in two ways: (1) He was inspired by the wars in the Old Testament, and (2) He argued that Jesus’s non-violent teachings in the New Testament applied only to individuals but not to states.  Prof. Bellamy writes:

Ambrose argued that there were two grounds for justifying war. First, he found evidence in the Old Testament to support the view that not only was violence sometimes justified in order to protect others from harm, it was sometimes required on moral grounds or even directly commanded by God (Swift 1970:535). Second, Ambrose agreed dthat Jesus’ teaching forbade an individual from killing another in self-defence…Nevertheless he argued that whilst an individual may not kill to save himself, he must act in the defense of others…

Ambrose argued that “wars could only be fought in self-defense (broadly understood, as in the Roman tradition), when directly commanded by God, or in defence of religious orthodoxy”(Ibid.).  He ”demanded that the state should not tolerate any religion other than Christianity” (p.112 of Ralph Blumenau’s Philosophy and Living).  Heretics and pagans should be fought, both within and outside the Empire.

Ambrose melded the Church to the state’s powerful military.  ”Ambrose proposed that the incorporation of nails from the Cross into the imperial helmet and bridle symbolised Christianity’s support for enduring secular military authority” (p.77-78 of Prof. Michael Witby’s Rome at War).  He ”used Christianity to uphold imperial power” (Ibid.), but also used the imperial power to uphold Christianity.  The Church provided the state with the religious justification for war.  The Church, in return, benefited from these wars by using the state to enforce the faith and punish “barbarians” (pagans and heretics). Prof. Mary L. Foster writes on p.156 of Peace and War:

Ambrose, former praetorian prefect and then bishop of Milan (339-397)[ was] the first to formulate a “Christian ethic of war.” He drew upon the Stoics, particularly Cicero (106-43 B.C.), and legitimized the view by referring to holy wars spoken of in the Old Testament from Abraham and Moses to Maccaebus. Ambrose further justified the view by arguing that Christianity was, and must be, protected against the barbarians by the armed force of the Roman Empire. Both Augustine and Ambrose saw the Christian Empire as empowered to resist paganism and heresy.

For Ambrose, wars fought against pagans and heretics were, by definition, just: “if a Christian general fought a pagan army, he had a just cause” (Prof. Joseph F. Kelly on p.164 of The World of the Early Christians).  In fact, the machinery of the state should be used to conquer the world under the banner of Christianity.  Prof. Reinhard Bendix writes on p.244 of Embattled Reason:

Ambrose justified war against those who do not belong to the community of the faithful [pagans and heretics]…Warlike actions are justified [against the non-believer]…The goal of Ambrose was to establish a universal faith. All people should be brothers in the common, Christian faith, even if wars against non-believers were needed to accomplish this ideal…

Discrimination against pagans was justified in the eyes of Christian Fathers like Ambrose by the absolute belief in Christ as the only road to salvation. Accordingly, it is man’s religious duty to proclaim, and fight for, this truth in the whole world. Ambrose wrote his commentary decades after Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world, recognized and supported publicly. With this support, Ambrose could presuppose a universal ethic based on a shared belief in [the Christian] God and on that basis fight in the name of the church against the heathens who were still the great majority [outside of the Roman Empire].

Ambrose declared an all-out war against paganism, and recruited the Roman emperors to do so.  ”No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose,” who was “a major influence upon both [Emperors] Gratian and Valentinian II” (Ted Byfield on p.92 of Darkness Descends).  In a letter addressed to the Roman emperor, Ambrose wrote:

Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes fo the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith. For there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth the true God, that is, the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things. For he alone is the true God, who is to be worshiped from the bottom of the heart, ‘for the gods of the heathen,’ as Scripture says, ‘are devils.’ (Ibid., p.93)

Here, we see a reciprocal relationship emerging between the Church and Roman state.  The Church legitimated Roman wars to expand the Empire and protect its hegemony, so long as the state enforced the Christian religion by fighting against heretics and pagans.

Jews, for example, were infidels worthy of death.  James Carroll writes on p.104 of Jerusalem, Jerusalem that Ambrose “wanted to kill Jews (since, after all, Christian heretics were being killed for denying details of orthodoxy, while Jews rejected the whole of it).”

Prof. Madeleine P. Cosman writes on pp.262-263 of the Handbook to Life in the Medieval World (Vol.3):

The church’s attitude toward war would indelibly be changed by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the so-called Edict of Milan (313), which recognized Christianity as a religion that could be practiced openly; church and state could now be conjoined in the same cause. A momentous meeting in the year 397 of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (d. 397), and the emperor Gratian resulted in the declaration of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant outlawing of other “pagan superstitions.” Church leaders began to encourage rulers to wage a holy war on pagans for the sake of God and the church to defend the empire from heretical “traitors.”

There is much discussion, even in some scholarly circles, about “just war” vs. “holy war.”  I have read countless books where Western authors write of how it “was only during the Crusades that the Christians developed the concept of ‘holy war’ like the Islamic concept of jihad.”  These are all bogus discussions.  Quite clearly, the Christian just war tradition was the legitimization of “a holy war on pagans” from its very inception.  This is the case starting with the originator of the doctrine itself, Saint Ambrose, who harnessed imperial power to promote the Christian faith, a partnership that would outlast the Roman Empire itself.

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Disclaimer:

None of this is meant to characterize Christianity as inherently violent.  Rather, it is meant to disabuse people of the notion that Christianity’s just war tradition has been any less troublesome than Islam’s jihad tradition.  This article is part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which answers the question (answered incorrectly by most Americans): Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (II): Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?

Note: This article is page II of a series on the Christian just war tradition.  If you haven’t already, might I suggest that you first read page I (the introduction): What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (I)

The First Three Centuries (0-313 A.D.)

It is often argued that Jesus Christ (7–2 BC to 30–36 AD) preached pacifism and that this was the stance of the early Church.  According to this standard narrative, the Church “fell from Grace” with the conversion of Constantine and it was only then that pacifism was abandoned.   Such conventional wisdom, however, is not very accurate.

As for Jesus of the Bible, a closer analysis shows that he was not opposed to violence (see: Jesus Loves His Enemies…And Then Kills Them All).  He was (basically) non-violent during his lifetime, all the way up until he was nailed to the cross.  At that time, Jesus was not in a position of authority, power, or capacity to do otherwise.  He was at the mercy of his enemies.

However, in the Bible itself Jesus promises to kill all his enemies when he returns.  At that point in time, he would no longer be a persecuted preacher but a “Warrior King” commanding large armies of both heavenly and earthly beings.  How can it then be said that Jesus of the Bible believed in pacifism?  His use of non-violent means was temporal and tactical, not principled and value-based.

It hardly matters what people do when they are not in a position to do otherwise.  It is once they are in a position of power and authority that what they do really matters.  Imagine, for instance, if the Dalai Lama practiced non-violence while his people were still under Chinese authority but at the same time he issued proclamations that he would wage war against the Chinese and kill all their leaders once his country is liberated.  Would anyone think of him as pacifist if this were the case?

As for the early Church, the characterization of it as pacifist is also problematic.  Modern scholarship has moved away from this outdated conception.  For example, Prof. James Turner Johnson, considered “one of the most influential contemporary interpreters of the [just war] tradition today,” notes that the “evidence presents a picture not of a single doctrine [within the early Church], but of plurality; not of universal rejection of war and military service, but of a mixture of acceptance and rejection of these phenomena in different sectors of the Christian world” (p.17 of Johnson’s The Quest for Peace).

There was no one view among early Church fathers with regard to war and military service.  Instead, the evidence suggests that there existed a multitude of views on this issue, a fact that “challenges the conventional view of the early church [as uniformly pacifist]” (Prof. J. Daryl Charles on p.108 of War, Peace, and Christianity).  Prof. James Turner Johnson, Prof. J. Daryl Charles, and many others have argued the point that even those Church fathers who were opposed to military service were so not because of a principled belief in pacifism but (1) because they believed the return of Jesus to be imminent and (2) because being a part of the pagan Roman military would involve idolatry.

Prof.  J. Daryl Charles notes that the early Church’s abstention from military service was due to “the predominance of a conspicuously otherworldly expectation–the expectation of the coming of Christ’s kingdom” and the “rejection of idolatrous practices within the Roman army” (Ibid., pp.109-110).  Neither reason could be used to support a principled belief in pacifism.  As for the first reason, this implies that the early Church was not opposed to the use of violence, only that they were waiting to use it upon Christ’s return (an event they believed would occur imminently, even in their own lifetimes).  If, for example, the Tamil Tigers abstained from violence until their leader was released from jail, would anyone believe this to be support for pacifism?

Furthermore, this “otherworldly” attitude applied not just to military service but to all “worldly matters.”  They were in a state of “praying continually, watching and fasting, preaching to all they could reach, paying no heed to worldly matters, as things with which they had nothing to do, only accepting from those whom they taught as much as was absolutely necessary for life” (p.86 of Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones’ The Church of England, Vol. 1).  They did not involve themselves in matters of state at all, including but not limited to military service.  One cannot equate this to a belief in pacifism any more than it would mean a rejection of governance.

In other words, just because early Christians did not believe that they themselves should not participate in such functions did not mean they thought it was wrong for others to do so.  For example, many Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel enroll in religious schools and are thus exempted from military service.  As religious students and rabbis, they believe that their lives should be dedicated to Jewish studies and many expect the rest of society to support them.  But even though they themselves refuse to serve in the military, many of them strongly support the Israeli military and indiscriminate violence against Palestinians.  When other Israelis criticize them as chickenhawks for refusing to serve in the military (even as they push Israel to perpetual war), the standard response by these Ultra-Orthodox Jews is that they serve the IDF in a religious capacity: they pray for the military’s success.  No rational person would have the temerity to say that these Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pacifist.  They might not want to go to war themselves, but they are certainly not opposed to it.

Likewise, the early Church was not opposed to war or the Roman military itself; they just didn’t want any “worldly” function in it themselves.  The Church fathers actually prayed for the success of the Roman military in its imperial wars against “barbarians.”  Here, we see the emergence of a theme that emerged with the early Church and sustained itself throughout Christian history:  the support for European imperialism.  Prof. Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez writes on p.78 of The Encyclopedia of Religion and War:

In fact, numerous Christian writers in the first three centuries already affirmed that God ordained the existing imperial powers, including their coercive functions, for maintaining order, restraining sin, and advancing the gospel. The injunction of Paul to “be subject to the governing authorities” whose authority has been “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV; cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17) was echoed in the writings of Justin, Tertullian, and Origen (185?-254?). Each author acknowledged the benefits of Roman order as part of God’s plan and assured the authorities of Christian support and prayers.

Prof. Palmer-Fernandez goes on to say that “these early writers were also expressing appreciation for the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.”

The Church fathers saw themselves very much in the same way that Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel see themselves, and as pagan Roman priests in that time also did.  Prof. Darrell Cole writes in a section entitled “Fighting Through Prayer” in his book When God Says War is Right:

The Christian pacifism movement claims Origen (A.D. 185-254) as a hero, but it’s hard to decide whether the term “pacifist” can truly and fairly be applied to him, at least in the way we think of it today. To modern ears, pacifism means the complete rejection of warfare as an inherently immoral practice. This was not Origen’s view, though he was certainly opposed to Christians becoming soldiers.

The only work where Origen was concerned with Christian participation in warfare is the polemical Contra Celsum written in response to a Roman philosopher named Celsus…[He argued] that all Christians should be give the same considerations as those in the pagan priesthood who were not required to give physical service in the military, but instead served the cause by praying for the emperor and the soldiers to triumph in battle.

[Origen wrote:] And, of course, in war time you do not enlist your priests. If this is a resonable procedure, how much more so is it for Christians to fight as priests and worshipers of God while others fight as soldiers. Though they keep their right hands clean, the Christians fight through their prayers to God on behalf of those doing battle in a just cause and on behalf of an emperor who is ruling justly in order that all opposition and hostility toward those who are acting rightly may be eliminated. (VIII.73)

Moreover, Origen added, Christians supplied an irreplaceable aid to the emperor. By overcoming in prayer the very demons that cause wars, Christians actually help more than soldiers. So even though Christians did not go on campaign with the emperor, they did go to battle for him “by raising a special army of piety through our petitions to God” (VIII.73).

This support and prayer for Rome’s military was at a time when the imperial armies were ever expanding the Empire’s borders.  During this time, the Roman Empire was involved in many wars: in the first three centuries A.D., Roman legions conquered lands in modern day Germany, Britain, Wales, Scotland, Romania, etc.   Also included in these conquests (and prayed for by the Church) was the conquest of parts of the Middle East.

The early Christians remained passive participants in the military effort not for long.  In fact, the “evidence…is fairly strong that from A.D. 170 onward there were significant members of Christians in the [Roman] army, and ‘the numbers of these Chrisitans began to grow, despite occassional efforts to purge Christians from the army [by the Romans], through the second and third centuries into the age of Constantine. We may estimate the number of Christian soldiers at the beginning of the fourth century in the tens of thousands’” (p.112 of Prof. J. Daryl Charles’ War, Peace, and Christianity; he is quoting Johnson’s The Quest for Peace).

Once Constantine converted to Christianity, the early Christians no longer faced the barrier to military service they once had: they no longer needed to fear indulging in the pagan practices of the military.  Furthermore, by this time, the Church had realized that Jesus Christ may not be coming back as soon as they thought.  As such, it is no surprise that soon afterward Christian theologians would formally tackle the issue of war.  Is this not a strong indication that it was the issue of paganism, not a principled adherence to pacifism, that compelled the early Church to be so uneasy with military participation?

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According to the “fall from Grace” theory, the Church suddenly changed its views about pacifism with the conversion of Constantine.  If this were really the case, then the question arises: of what relevance is early Christianity’s supposed pacifism during a time when it was not in a position of power?  What does it say about such a belief if, the moment Christianity assumed power, this “pacifism” was suddenly abandoned for a policy of imperialism?

The truth is that there wasn’t a sudden reversal of opinion, but rather a gradual development of an idea that had already taken root with the early Church.  With the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the West’s imperial power and Christianity would formally fuse together.  It would be, as we shall see, a bond that would endure the test of time.

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Disclaimer:

As I mentioned in the introduction, my intention is not to demonize the entire faith of Christianity.  There exists no shortage of Christians today who endorse pacifism and oppose America’s unjust wars in the Muslim world.  Such people have my utmost respect.  If some of them base their pacifism in their belief that the early Church was pacifist, I don’t see any reason to expend energy trying to set the record straight.  I only chose to address this issue since some anti-Muslim Christians forced my hand by continually arguing this point (the early Church was pacifist, look how peaceful our religion is compared to Islam, etc.).

Having said that, I don’t think pacifist Christians should think any of this should stand in the way of their pacifist beliefs.  As I mentioned earlier, the early Church fathers seemed to differ among themselves.  Anti-military views certainly existed, and even if one cannot find clearly principled pacifism, this is still a starting point that the modern-day Christian can draw on.

Furthermore, I think people of all religions–Jews, Christians, and Muslims–would be a whole lot better off if they didn’t feel the need to validate their beliefs by looking at how their religion was practiced in a mythical “golden age” of the past.  This very much limits freedom of thought and religious interpretation.  What is needed are new, more merciful and compassionate readings of the text.

By knowing the reality of one’s tradition, reformist believers will be better equipped to deal with the arguments raised by right-wing followers who will bring up a lot of the same points I brought up to justify their beliefs.  See, for instance, this article by none other than “Dr.” Robert Morey.  Reformist, liberal adherents of religion will be in a stronger theological position if they base their views in fact instead of myth.  Instead of always needing to validate your beliefs by citing some guy who lived hundreds of years ago, why not just use a much simpler line of argumentation like the following:

The early Church had a mixed view with regard to war, with a portion of them rejecting military service.  After reflecting on the issue myself, I tend to be on the pacifist side.  My own reasons might not be the exact same as those held by earlier Christians, but there is much overlap.  Furthermore, I don’t need to be 100% beholden to their views.

Simple.

To be continued…

What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (I)

This article is part 11 of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series. Please read my “disclaimer”, which explains my intentions behind writing this article: The Understanding Jihad Series: Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

It is common to hear comparisons between  the so-called “just war tradition” in Christianity and the jihad of Islam.  We are told that Jesus of the New Testament was non-violent and that the early Church was pacifist.  According to this standard narrative, it was only with Constantine that the Church “fell from Grace” and accepted a very limited concept of defensive war, one that sought to limit, restrain, and constrain war.  We are told that the violent acts committed by Christians throughout history were done in contradiction to this doctrine.

Many Westerners seem to be under the impression that we can draw a straight line from the ancient Greeks to St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Hugo Grotius to modern international law.  This very selective, cursory, and incomplete understanding of history creates a very “generous” depiction of Christian tradition.  Once this mythical and fabricated history is created, it is compared to the jihad tradition of Islam.  No such “generous” depictions of Islamic tradition are harbored; if anything, the most cynical view possible is taken.

Such an unfair comparison–coupled with a completely Western perspective on contemporary world affairs–begs the question: why is Islam so violent?  Why is the Islamic tradition so much more warlike than the Christian one?

Many right-wing Christians and even secular people of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” exhibit a great deal of religious arrogance, especially when it comes to this subject.  Repeatedly, we are told to compare the supposedly peaceful Christian just war tradition with the allegedly brutal Islamic jihad tradition.

Occasionally, Christian polemicists have some level of shame and recognize that the history of Christianity has been marred by war and violence: the Crusades, the ethnic cleansing of the Americas, and the colonial enterprise come to mind.  We are assured, however, that these occurrences were “in direct contradiction” to official church doctrine.  This is what career Islamophobe Robert Spencer argues, for instance, in his book Islam Unveiled.  This is, we are told, completely unlike the Islamic offenses throughout history, which were supposedly in line with traditional Islamic thought.

In this article series, I will prove that this understanding of the Christian just war tradition is mythical, fanciful, and misleading.  Throughout history, there were serious shortcomings to the Christian understanding of just war–both in matters of jus ad bellum (the right to wage war) and jus in bello (right conduct during war).  Specifically, just war doctrine was restricted to Christians and Europeans.  Its constraints simply did not apply to “infidels”, “pagans”, “heathens”, “barbarians”, and “primitives”.  The Christian just war tradition was not just exclusivist but through-and-through racist.

One could reasonably argue that such a critique suffers from a modern bias: using contemporary standards to evaluate pre-modern societies is not something I generally encourage.  Yet, if we insist on critiquing historical Islam based on such standards, then surely we should be willing to apply the same to Christianity.

Additionally, this shortcoming–the lack of application of the just war principles to infidels–is hardly a tertiary issue.  Instead, it lies at the very heart of the comparison that is continually invoked between Christianity and Islam.  One could only imagine, for instance, the reaction of anti-Muslim critics if the dictates of war ethic in Islam were applicable to fellow Muslims only.  Had this been the case, such a thing would not be seen as a mere “shortcoming” but indicative of the “Islamic supremacist attitude.”  This wouldn’t be understood as something that could be relegated to a footnote or a few sentences buried somewhere deep in a huge text (which is the case with books talking about the Christian just war tradition).  Instead, pages and pages would be written about the injustices of the Islamic principles of war.

This double standard between believer and infidel, were it to exist in the Islamic tradition (and it does, to an extent), would become the focus of discussion.  But when it comes to the Judeo-Christian tradition, such things are relegated to “by the way” points that are minimized, ignored, or simply forgotten.  Western understandings of the Christian just war tradition create a narrative by cherry-picking views here and there to create a moral trajectory that is extremely generous to that tradition.  Meanwhile, Islamic and Eastern traditions are viewed with Orientalist lenses, focusing on the injustices and flaws (particularly with regard to religious minorities).  This of course may be a result of a primarily Eurocentric view of history: how did their war ethic affect people that were like me?

Yet, if we wanted to extrapolate an overarching theme of the Christian just war tradition, it would have to be this: the Christian just war tradition did not limit war (as is commonly argued) but instead, for the most part, served to justify the conquest and dispossession of indigenous populations. This was not merely a case of misapplying or exploiting doctrines.  Rather, the doctrines were themselves expounded in a way so as to facilitate such applications.  Many of history’s famous just war theorists were generating such theories to provide the moral arguments to justify colonial conquest.  The tradition was more about justifying wars than about limiting violence to just wars.  The Christian acts of violence throughout history were not in spite of Church doctrine; they were more often than not because of it.

Why is it that, even in some scholarly books, the Christian just war tradition towards fellow believers is compared to the Islamic attitudes towards war with unbelievers? Either the Christian treatment of Christians should be compared to the Islamic treatment of Muslims, or alternatively the Christian treatment of infidels should be compared to the Islamic treatment of the same.  It is the unfair comparison between apples and oranges that serves to reinforce this warped understanding of the matter.

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An error we must avoid is conflating the modern-day just war doctrine with the historical Christian just war tradition.  Although St. Augustine laid down some principles that, through a long process of evolution, found themselves in today’s doctrine, it should be noted that Augustine’s views of just war were, by today’s standards, extremely unjust.  One must compare this proto-doctrine with what was practiced in traditional Islam, instead of retroactively superimposing the modern concept of just war onto Augustine.

Indeed, “one of the most influential contemporary interpreters of the [just war] tradition today, James Turner Johnson, goes so far as to say that to all intents and purposes, ‘there is no just war doctrine, in the classic form as we know it today, in either Augustine or the theologians or canonists of the high Middle Ages. This doctrine in its classic form [as we know it today], including both a jus ad bellum…and a jus in bello…does not exist before the end of the middle ages. Conservatively, it is incorrect to speak of classic just war doctrine existing before about 1500″ (Prof. Nicholas Rengger on p.34 of War: Essays in Political Philosophy).

In other words, for 1500 years–roughly seventy-five percent of Christian history–there was no real just war doctrine. Shouldn’t this fact be stated when comparing Christian and Islamic traditions?  The just war doctrine–as we know it today–arose during a time when the Christian Church’s power was waning, hardly something for Christians to boast about.

And even after that–lest our opponents be tempted to use this fact to their advantage (that the Christian world distanced itself from the Church unlike in the Islamic world)–the just war doctrine that was established continued to be applied, from both a doctrinal standpoint and on-the-ground, to only Christians/Europeans.  This continued to be the case in the sixteenth century and all the way through the nineteenth century.

It was only for a fleeting moment in the twentieth century that just war doctrine became universal.  It is an irony that in no other century was just war theory so horrifically violated, and this by the Western world (with the United States dropping two atomic bombs on civilian populations).

This brings us to the situation today: Jewish and Christian neocons and extreme Zionists in the United States and Israel are leading the charge against the just war doctrine, trying to use legal means to change it to accommodate the War on of Terror.  Many of our opponents are the most vociferous proponents of doing away with such quaint principles as just war, at least when it comes to dealing with Muslims.

Is it this fleeting moment in Christian history, in which for a fraction of a second the just war doctrine really existed, that our opponents use to bash Muslims over the head with?

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The standard meme among Islamophobes–and wrongfully accepted by the majority of Americans–has been that Islam is exceptionally violent–certainly more violent than Judaism and Christianity.  When we look at the scriptural sources, however, this does not bear out: the Bible is far more violent than the Quran (see parts 123456-i6-ii6-iii6-iv789-i, and 9-ii of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series.)

Among the many other “fall back” arguments used by our opponents, we are reassured that Judaism and Christianity have “interpretive traditions” that have moved away from literal, violent understandings of Biblical passages–altogether unlike Islam (so we are told).  Robert Spencer writes on p.31 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):

When modern-day Jews and Christians read their Bibles, they simply don’t interpret the passages cited as exhorting them to violent action against unbelievers. This is due to the influence of centuries of interpretive traditions that have moved away from literalism regarding these passages. But in Islam, there is no comparable interpretive tradition. The jihad passages in the Qur’an are anything but a dead letter.

The Islamophobes then temporarily move away from quoting the scriptural sources but instead focus on comparing (1) the traditional interpretations of the canonical texts, and (2) the modern-day understandings of said texts.  In both respects, we are told, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more peaceful than the Islamic one.

In the previous article series (entitled Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?), I addressed the Jewish side of “the Judeo-Christian tradition.”  [Note: That article series is being modified before the last couple pages will be published.  I have decided to take reader input and mellow it out quite a bit, i.e. remove the images, change the title, etc.]  I proved that both traditional and contemporary Jewish understandings of the scriptural sources could hardly be used to justify the argument against Islam.

But when it comes to such matters, it might be more important to address the Christian side of the coin.  Considering that Christians are in the majority in this country, it is more common to hear right-wing Christians invoke bellicose comparisons between their faith and Islam.  Robert Spencer, an anti-Muslim Catholic polemicist, relies on this comparison routinely.

In order to shield himself from possible “counter-attack,” Spencer uses an interesting argument.  In a section entitled “Theological Equivalence” in his book Islam Unveiled, Spencer writes:

When confronted with this kind of evidence [about Islam’s violence], many Western commentators practice a theological version of “moral equivalence,” analogous to the geopolitical form which held that the Soviet Union and the United States were essentially equally free and equally oppressive.  ”Christians,” these commentators say, “have behaved the same way, and have used the Bible to justify violence.  Islam is no different: people can use it to wage war or to wage peace.”

I am one of these “Western commentators.”  Spencer cites ”the humanist Samuel Bradley” who noted that “Central America was savaged” because of “this country’s God.”  Bradley quoted “Spanish conquistador Pizarro” who slaughtered the indigenous population, by his own admission, only “by the grace of God.”

But, Spencer rejects such “theological equivalence,” arguing that Pizarro violated “the Just War principles of his own Roman Catholic Church.”  Spencer is not just arguing that the modern-day just war theory would prohibit the European conquest and dispossession of the Native Americans, but that even in the time of the conquest and dispossession itself the Church’s just war doctrine did.  He is arguing that the Christian acts of violence throughout history were “fundamentally different” than those committed by Muslims, since–according to him–the former were done against the just war doctrine of the Church, whereas the latter were endorsed by the Islamic religious establishment.

But, as I have argued above, this is patently false. The Christian just war tradition was used to justify the conquest and dispossession of the Native Americans, one of the greatest crimes in all of history.  In fact, these doctrines were formulated for that exact purpose in mind.

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Disclaimer:

Naturally, as was the case with the article series on Jewish law, there is the chance of offending well-meaning and good-hearted Christians.  Let it be known, again, that nowhere am I trying to paint the entire Christian faith or community with a broad brush.  There exists no shortage of Christians who oppose war (especially America’s current wars in the Muslim world) and who advocate peace, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Critically evaluating religious traditions can be uncomfortable, but the problems therein should not be ignored nor should we pretend they don’t exist.  Honest evaluations of the past can be the key to coming up with more tolerant answers for the present and future.

I have already discussed some of the problems with the Jewish tradition.  This article series deals with the Christian tradition.  Rest assured, however, that a future article series of mine will take a critical look at the Islamic tradition as well.  However, because Islamophobia has become so rampant and pervasive in our culture, I do not think that this should be done before we first look at the problems inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition that our society is based on.  Once that is done, we can then look at the Islamic tradition from a more nuanced, balanced, and helpful perspective.  This is the purpose of this somewhat controversial article series.

To be continued…

Update I: A reader pointed out that I made many claims above but did not back them up with proof.  I should clarify that this page is just the introductory piece to the article series and simply states what I will prove.  It is just a statement of my thesis; the proof to back the thesis up is still to come–hence, the “to be continued…