Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution
BY JOHN HOWARD YODER BRAZOS PRESS, £14.99
ohn Howard Yoder’s sharp insights into the various ways Christians think about war unsettle the reader. He challenges basic assumptions, such as the fact that we start with our point of view in a given conflict: “If instead we began with the basic presumption that our way of seeing it is the wrong way, that is, if we began with a biblical doctrine of sin, then the system would not work.” Yoder challenges the very idea of “just war” or Christian-sanctioned war. He undermines the assumption that warring parties can somehow come to agreement as to the basics that make a war just. War must be “legitimate,” “humane,” a “last resort,” and “proportionate,” and those involved must avoid “evil”.
The problem, Yoder notes, is that these words mean different things to different people. Opposing parties of a civil or revolutionary war, for instance, will have different notions of authority, including the prerogative to judge what “good” and “evil” are. In fact, this deep disagreement could be the very basis for the war in the first place: “If a problem is bad enough to fight a war, then the people involved will not have the same view; there will be no common sense about the basic issues,” he notes.
In analysing the history of Christian pacifism and different theological opinions about war, Yoder remains highly sceptical of any theory that allows for military action. After the Emperor Constantine had legalised the religion, and then made it the empire’s official faith, theologians assumed that the good guys, the Christians, would win in battle. Christians were supported by God, and were fighting holy wars. Since they were Christians, the wars they fought were necessarily religious wars. Again, Yoder challenges this theology with his own pacifist view: “If we assume that the good normally do not win, then the whole just war system becomes unmanageable.” Yoder accuses these pro-war Christians of misreading the basic Easter story, which is the triumph of Christ through defeat on the Cross. Christian Attitudes to War contains some painful conclusions for readers comfortable with war, not only regarding the belief that the good guys always win.
Christians operating under a just war theory hold an erroneous view of history, Yoder explains. They believe that God has given them a mandate to take charge of history. In fact, such people feel that they have a duty to fight for God and change history to their – to God’s – design. This attitude, which Yoder challenges, is not only a part of the thinking of some American neo-cons today, but permeates Christian history. Yoder shows the reader that the pre-modern just war system was at its heart anti-Christian. Regarding war, “the source of moral knowledge obviously is other than Jesus in the New Testament in the material sense, because just war theory tells us to do things that Jesus in the New Testament did not tell us to do”. Jesus was a radical pacifist, and Christians err by fighting in his name.
Despite these un-Christian theories of war Yoder shows some positives about the post-Constantinian worldview. The medieval Church worked hard to prevent local feudal wars from getting out of control, which frequently threatened to happen given the violence of the period. The knights possessed no “blank cheque” but had to fight each other under certain guidelines. They had to recognise the dignity of their opponents, since all were Christians. They couldn’t torture or bear false witness, though ambush was permitted because it didn’t constitute a lie per se.
Medieval war, then, was not anarchy because Christendom called the warring parties to appeal to the Pope and Emperor. Such a system no longer exists; no highest moral authority is in place for appeal. Modern warfare is anarchy, Yoder suggests.
While readers can get lost in the long history and ethical theories Yoder discusses, he consistently uncovers subtle though significant issues that have contributed to Chris tian just war theory. Often he focuses on the post-Constantinian Church, and the profound, epochmaking transformation it underwent.
With the mass entrance of the Roman empire’s population into the Church people had “a less profound understanding of the Jesus movement they have joined”. Christianity was now the religion of the state rather than a demanding, rigid, ethical lifestyle. Believers no longer saw themselves as leading heroic lives, ready to be thrown to the lions, Yoder notes. Christian spirituality went mainstream and relaxed. It took in many elements of the culture that it hadn’t previously, including a more ready acceptance of war.
Yoder helps the reader see that the Reformation broke up the medieval consensus and encouraged a more anarchic war system by giving Protestant princes full power within their realm; they no longer had to listen to their bishops, who, if Protestant, were now effectively their employees. The Church previously had constituted an independent, judgmental power that checked princely war ambitions and brutality.
Yoder reserves his most provocative words for Christians when he highlights the medieval Jewish community as the one group that lived the heroic, selfless, peaceful ideals that Jesus had preached.
Contrary to common opinion, most ancient Jews had not rebelled against the Roman Empire and lived peaceful lives. That the most peaceful, Christlike group during the postConstantinian era have been the Jews shows the extent to which Christians have not listened to the core teachings of Jesus, at least according to Yoder.