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Pacifism And Justification Of Violence By Claiming The Support Of God During The Middle Ages

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A major characteristic Europe during the Middle Ages was the frequency of wars, minor conflicts, and skirmishes between local princes and between kings. However, in the Bible, Jesus often displayed pacifist views of violence. In Matthew 26:52, for example, when Jesus was about to be arrested, he told his follower to ‘Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” How did Medieval rulers and thinkers justify violence while reconciling with their faith? This paper shows that they did so by claiming divine support for their cause. Since in Christian belief God is always just, they concluded that wars which God support are indisputably justified.

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St. Augustine was one of the first to attempt reconciling war with Christian faith. He argued that if the conductor of war has the right attitude, the right cause, and the right authorization, the war can be justified. By right attitude he probably meant that during the conduct of war those fighting should not enjoy violence and should not lust for dominance. Conveniently, he explained the pacifism Jesus expressed when he said “turn the other cheek” or “put your sword back in its place” by interpreting it as an attitude instead of a literal act. By right cause, he seems to say that war can and should be used to punish wrongdoing by the opposing side, in either the past or present. This was used by Pope Urban II, as we will see later, to justify the Crusades. Finally, he said that the war must be sanctioned by the right authority, that is, by a monarch or by God himself. What Augustine actually did, however, was uniting the cause with the authority through the command of God: “whatever is good is so by divine blessing, and whatever is bad is so by divine judgement.” John Lagan points out that by doing so he relegates the moral independence of human individuals and leaves us “fundamentally passive in the workings of divine providence.” This is again demonstrated in his argument that soldiers are not guilty for following the wrong commands of their superiors. However, since God cannot will what is unjust, any war supported by God is, by definition, justified. Using Biblical the example of the War of Moses, he substantiates his assertion that it is possible for war to be sanctioned by God.

As the Roman Empire disintegrated and Western Europe came under the rule of German princes, the connection between faith and violence was further strengthened. Certain historians even concluded that the christianization of these princes “injected a new ‘Germanic’ acceptance of warfare and warrior life into the Latin faith”. This view finds support in the myth of the conversion of Clovis I, the king who first united all Frankish tribes. The myth claims that Clovis willingly converted to Christianity after he won a battle he was about to lose after praying to God and asking for his support. The myth seems to suggest that God is not repelled by violence, and in some cases even supports it in return for faith. Similarly, Donal Kagay described how in the War of the Two Pedros the belligerent Kings both sought to justify their cause by claiming divine support and recognized that God “is the true lord and governor of battles”. There is a subtle difference between the attitudes towards God and war expressed in these cases and the attitude of St. Augustine. In these cases God is much more present on the battlefield, much more connected with warfare itself, while in St. Augustine’s writings he was treated most as a source of justification and authority only.

This development of connection between God and War reached the peak under the reforming popes. Pope Gregory VII, in particular, sought to build an army of the Church and claimed that anyone who fought for the Church will receive indulgence. In doing so, the church sanctified violence also by claiming God’s support. By 1095, Urban II was able to draw from the entire tradition of Christian Just War doctrine when he called for the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont:

“The Turks and Arabs have attacked…and occupied more and more land of those Christians. They have killed and captured many, destroyed churches, and devastated the empire. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends…Christ commands it”.

We see first that this declaration follows Augustine’s idea of a punitive war: the Crusade is just because it punishes the Turks and Arabs who did wrong by killing Christians and destroying their churches. Second, we notice that he invokes not only divine sanction, but divine command to justify the war. Third, the warriors are rewarded with indulgence for fighting in this war. However, it is unclear whether the Pope actually believed in this justification or was simply using it as a political tool to gain secular influence.

In sum, the Christian just war doctrine was based off the idea of “right authority” first suggested by St. Augustine, which eventually meant God’s support or command. The idea is that since God is by definition good and just, any war he supports must be so as well. The unification of Germanic warrior culture with Christianity might have diluted the pacifism expressed by Jesus in many parts of the Bible, which was practically impossible under the chaotic political environment of the middle ages. The result is that Popes and princes alike justified their war by claiming the support of God.  

09 March 2021

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