Some Thoughts on Phillipe Buc’s, Holy War, Martydom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West

No topic from medieval historiography resonates or sparks as much controversy in today’s world as Western Christianity’s historical attitudes towards, holy war, martyrdom, and terror. Unquestionably, the events of 11 September 2001 in New York City, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recent rise of Isis and other apocryphal groups has driven home the puissance and the dangers of groups or individuals who ‘truly’ believe in the righteousness of holy war and the rewards of martyrdom. Laymen and specialists, alike, debate with varying degrees of success about the similarities and differences between ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ historical positions towards religiously sanctified warfare and martyrdom. Into this tense and divisive environment arrives the timely new monograph by Phillip Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West.

In a rich, sophisticated, and yet ultimately, flawed study, Buc explores Christian militarism through a dizzying array of texts, time-periods, and historical cultures. A respected medieval historian, Buc specializes on the intermingling of violence, religion and politics in the medieval world. Here, however, he moves away from his speciality with varying degrees of success. Like any historian who tackles a topic that extends over two millennia, and covers cultures as diverse as the Late Roman Empire, the twelfth-century Crusader States, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and George Bush’s post-9/11 United States of America, Buc is fully aware that his methodology will open him up to a myriad of critiques. Yet he charges forward nevertheless.

Confessing in his Introduction that he will be focusing primarily on the ‘dark side of Western Christianity’ and relying on what he sees as the similarities and not the differences between these pre-modern and modern societies, Buc maintains, that that the ‘degree of regularity’—in what he describes as ‘Western Christian and post-Christian’—violence in the West make his macro-approach credible and, in fact, necessary.

Countering current consensus that posits more militant and ‘more’ violent Christianity was a  particular feature of the post-Constantinian Church,  Buc argues forcefully and convincingly that Christianity throughout its history readily paired irenic and militant ideologies. While this thesis is somewhat less revolutionary than his bibliography suggests, it is this ying and yang of pacifism and bloody militarism that forms the core of his study.

He begins by dissecting the commonly held idea that Late Roman and early Medieval Western Europeans’ fondness for Christian militarism was linked to their fondness for the Old Testament. As he correctly, points out, though imbued with pacifist themes, the New Testament also recognised the need for soldiers and, at times, supported the Roman state’s use of force. The Church Fathers were fully aware of the paradoxical pairing of militarism and pacifism in scripture. Augustine of Hippo, who like other powerful bishops regularly kept in touch with local military commanders, used the example of David to reassure the comes Africae Bonifatius that God valued the endeavours of Roman soldiers, supporting, what the bishop famously described, as just wars. Devout fifth-century Christian intellectuals like Augustine had famously come to accept that ‘good’ Christians could serve in the military and destroy Rome’s enemies without committing a sin. Yet, I must caution that Augustine’s views were far more influential in the Medieval West than they ever were during his own lifetime or and its successor the Byzantine Empire.

Certainly we need to adjust the idea that the Crusades represented a momentary lapse in a largely irenic Christendom. Despite early Christianity’s irenic tendencies, the authors of early saints’ lives frequently compared the courage and manliness of martyrs with that of Roman soldiers.[1] As I have argued in my own work, the original martyr stories focused regularly on the military aspects of their subject’s execution.[2] The authors of these lives frequently transforms a death that many Romans would have seen as passive and unmanly into a martial and manly demise. As Buc opines perceptively, ‘Christian martyrdom, far from being as a general rule pacifist or passive, was often enough bellicose and active.’ Certainly a deft intermingling of spiritual and physical warfare had always played a role in Christian ideology. From its origins, Buc further remarks, ‘Christendom struggles simultaneously against physical enemies outside, against vices inside the human being and against vicious men inside Christendom—for instance, resident Jews, false brethren (falsi fratres, see Gal. 2.4), bad clergy, perverts, heretics—and against demons’.[3]

Though Buc avoids discussing these themes in Byzantium, much of what he says needs to be absorbed by Byzantinists who tend to rely on the texts that show that Byzantium fought only imperial wars and/or defensively, while largely condemning their Muslim enemies who sought a place in heaven by killing on the battle-field. Certainly many Byzantine texts tell this irenic tale. Yet there is also contrary evidence that Byzantines engaged in holy war and, indeed, at very least were a very militant culture. These are the two sides of Christianity that Buc tries to explain.

Buc’s opines, that  though innately irenic, the smouldering embers of intolerance could and were often stoked by Christian intellectuals  into all-consuming conflagrations of bloodshed and/or warfare . Indeed, as Buc rightly cautions, in early Christian rhetoric, ‘peace, pax, did not mean the absence of conflict but victorious conflict leading to right order and justice, iustitia.’[4] In other words, though peace was preferable to war, internal enemies within the Christian church and external threats by the Empire’s foreign enemies consistently thwarted the achievement of a perfect Christian imperium. So while most Christian rulers preached pacifism and religious tolerance, they spent much of their time engaging in spiritual and material warfare.[5] This explains why during the reign of Theodosius II (ruled 408-450) Christian texts could maintain that Christ had personally ‘punished’ the Persians for their persecution of Christian within their Empire.

It also explains partly George Bush’s flawed vision circa 2001 of the middle east, as a world where American exceptionalism would create a Pax Americana based on American-Christian virtues. In this Bushian view of the Middle East unfortunately, innumerable terrorists ‘hated’ this peaceful new world….so the war machine ‘reluctantly’ fights on churning up more dead- bodies of an enemy, that though always on the seeming edge of extinction… always manages to regenerate and morph. An invincible bogeyman.

While it is clear that events like the crusades and George Bush’s Old Testament rhetoric have long roots to early periods of Roman and Church history, many scholars will be uncomfortable with the parallels Buc makes between events like the Western European medieval crusades in the Levant and modern conflicts. I would suggest, however, that his powerful chapters on the various ways Crusaders could wield religious texts to sanctify the merciless slaughter of men, women, and children labelled as infidels or heretics, helps us understand the medieval mind-set and barbaric violence of groups like Isis. I will explore in greater depth some of Buc’s stimulating chapters in my next few blogs

[1] The literature on early Christian attitudes towards violence and warfare is vast. Especially helpful overviews of early Christians’ pacifism are found in J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (New York, 1919, reprint 1982), M. Whitby, ‘Deus Nobiscum: Christianity, Warfare and Morale in Late Antiquity’, in Modus Operandi: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Rickman. (London, 1998). Cf., however, Conway (Behold the Man, pp. 160-74), for examples of militant ideology in the New Testament, especially Revelations. For the idea that a more militant and ‘more’ violent Christianity was a particular feature of the post-Constantinian Church, see F. Heim, La théologie de la victoire d’Constantin à Théodose (Paris, 1992), M. Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2005), T. Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia, 2009), B. Shaw, Sacred Violencnce: African Christians and Secratarian hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge, 2011).

[2] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, p. 110.

[3]P. Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence, and the West (Philadelphia, 2015), pp. 23, 91.

[4] Buc, ‘Christian Theology of Violence’, p. 13.

[5] For Theodosius’ protracted struggle to ensure a ‘uniformity of Christian belief and practice’, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, p. 130-91.


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