Month: November 2010

Yoder on Peace and War in the Middle Ages

John Howard Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos, 2009) is a posthumously published, edited version of the notes Yoder distributed for his course in the subject.

In chapter 8 ‘The Career of the Just War’ and chapter 9 ‘The Peace Dimension of Medieval Moral Concern’, I am startled by his analysis of peace and war in the middle ages – but then, being startled is one of the joys of reading Yoder, and something I should have expected by now. He is always re-reading and reframing things we take for granted.

The early church was pacifist; the Constantinian church compromised this position, but Yoder describes various ways in which violence and war were restrained in the Middle Ages (476-1453), and parts of the church embodied a peace witness. These include:

  • Holy times and places – fighting was forbidden in certain places (cemeteries) and at certain times (Good Friday, after sunset)
  • Penitents – when a person confessed to a major offence, they might commit several months of their life around being a penitent, perhaps going on a pilgrimage as a penitent. A penitent was to be nonviolent and unarmed. ‘In the life of medieval Europe, therefore, people renouncing violence because they were Christian were a visible minority.’ (p.119)
  • Priests admonished princes when they went too far. There was an element of accountability.

Yoder argues that the shifts involved in the Reformation actually increased the church’s support of war:

Protestants have been taught to think of the Reformation of the sixteenth century as undoing the mistakes of the Middle Ages – papacy, sacraments, justification by works, and other things. But on the morality of war, our model for interpreting the Reformation has to be turned around. The Protestant Reformation goes further in the direction of making war acceptable. (115)

  • The Reformation dismantled the confession and penance, both of which restrained bloodshed.
  • The Reformation desacralized the world – everything was equally holy, or equally unholy; there were no holy places or holy times to avoid bloodshed.
  • Instead of the priest admonishing the prince, the chaplain emerges: ‘In the Reformation, the Protestant chaplain increasingly gives a religious mandate to what people do, whether it is celebrating marriages or justifying causes and crusades… The preachers are the people to make the case for the next war.’ (p.119)
  • The Reformation created nationalism as we know it today. Wars in the Middle Ages occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. Both parties ‘were at home in the same world, had the same moral heritage, and used the same yardsticks. They had a sense of being part of a wider civilization… The Reformation broke up the unity of the church and of the empire. It set aside the notion that enemy nations and adversary institutions have a claim on us. The beginning of nationalism in the modern sense – the notion that a nation constitutes a moral unit with no accountability to a wider community or culture – is a product of the Protestant Reformation.’ (p. 120-121)

    The obvious objection is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Yoder spends a couple of pages dealing with them, but not with the same questions we have in mind, and so his explanation is not satisfactory. He looks at how the Crusades were justified by priests (and the limits – not always followed – which they placed on them) and the sense in which the Crusades were a synthesis of the holy war and the just war. He seems unaware of the damage the existence of the Crusades do to his case for the Middle Ages being a period where the church’s understanding of just war and its practices restrained war.

    However, the value of these chapters is as a corrective to the generalisations we tend to make about period of histories, including the assumption amongst evangelicals that the Reformation was purely and simply a turn for the better. It is also an instructive study of the ways in which, in the midst of a church which is not pacifist, we might hope for restraints on war and violence and practices which promote peace.