Derby News Comment

Christian attitude to War; Is it a matter of religion or just human behaviour?

Screen-shot-2013-10-28-at-12.34.09-AM-620x400This week, Dr Alan Billings presented an interesting thesis at Derby Cathedral on the changing attitude of Christianity towards war under the title, “The Dove, the Fig Leaf, and the Sword”. The title alluded to the 3 positions on the spectrum from pacifism to militarism that Christianity has occupied over the last 2000 years.

In the early days of Christianity, the religion was philosophically opposed to violence, despite some aggressive and bellicose passages within the Old Testament. For the first 300 years the Christian faith was remote from any seats of power, and with the comfort of that objectivity was able to maintain the status of “Dove”.

In the 4th Century the leading people in the Roman State were converting to Christianity. They were seeking guidance from their religious mentors, who also started to become an integral part of the state structure. In this role they had to accept that it was necessary to defend the empire and, in order to do so, one needed and army which, inevitably became involved in wars. The Christian leaders needed to rethink their position to war, and in which circumstances it was considered acceptable. This gave rise to the notion of a “Just war”. This concept was underpinned by the principles of the war being “righteous”, by being the “act of last resort”, with a reasonable chance of success, the violence being “proportionate”, and the conflict being between active combatants ( not civilians). This was resulting in the Church having to take morally convenient standpoints. This was already far removed from pacifism.

By the time of the Crusades in the 11th Century, all ethical rules had disappeared. All was acceptable in the pursuit of bringing people “back to the faith” . It was presented by Pope Urban II as “God’s will”, and those who participated were told that they would gain salvation.

The events in Jerusalem, were described by the chronicler and priest Raymond d’ Agiles:

“The amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible… Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies… others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames…Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers… The city was filled with corpses and blood.”

It is shocking how a pacifist religion had rationalized this kind of behavior.

Throughout the following centuries as the Church and State were inextricably linked, the nationalistic wars were also fundamentally religious. This was most evident, so recently as the First World War where it was portrayed as between “Christ or Kaiser”. In Paul Tyner’s book of the same name in 1915 he espouses:

“It is not possible longer to loiter in the valley of indecision. Every man and every woman of us must enlist under the banner of Christ, or under the banner of the Kaiser….Lack of decision for Christ is practically decision for Christ’s adversary”

“This day of men of Britain are your souls required of you! This is the Day of Judgment indeed, the great winnowing out of the chaff from the wheat. Now are you summoned by the Almighty to arise and stand in your true places as warriors for God and the Right”

This sounds very Crusade like – but in this case, Christianity was behind both sides.

After the first World War, people turned their back on Christianity, and focussed more on pacifism which, in part, was responsible for why the appeasement of Hitler was popular. Whilst some aspects of the Second World War can be understood in terms of a “Just War”, the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cannot. The nature of war, killing millions of civilians, had finally become an accepted strategy.

In the last 60 years Christianity has become more distant from the State, and is re-adopting the concept of “Just War”. It is questionable if it will ever become one of pure pacifism again. Perhaps it should as a moral counter-balance to the politicians who seem, at times, to be losing their way.

Dr Billings reflected on how Christianity had managed to be discriminating in its interpretation of violent passages in the Bible, and does not use it is as justification for war. This was contrasted with Islam, where the literal reading of the words in the Koran were being exploited in the acts of people today. He suggested that Islam needs to go through a process of critical reappraisal of its text to take a more modern perspective on these critical passages.

Although Dr Billings didn’t talk about Islam much beyond the above comment, it was clear that his thesis had strongly resonated with the way that Islam is working today. The ordinary Muslim in the street that practices the religion in line with the true faith is peaceful. When it becomes close to the concept of a State, then extreme violence is justified in the name of the religion – like, beheadings.

Perhaps Dr Billing’s thesis was more about how human behaviour is contorted by religion rather than it being peculiar to any particular faith?

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