Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

War and Peace, Byzantine style

I was recently reading Stephen Runciman’s magisterial History of the Crusades for a little relaxing summer reading, and I found myself coming across all kinds of fascinating pieces of church history. I was particularly struck by Runciman’s discussion of the difference between attitudes toward war in Western and Eastern Christendom, which offers some very instructive examples for the Church today’s attempts to develop a clear stance on war and violence. We often think as if there were no alternative to either pacifism or our traditional Western Christian attitudes toward war. Pacifists allege that traditional Christian attitudes have welcomed war and violence as a means of accomplishing God’s will—it’s that attitude that leads to things like the Crusades, they allege. And they have a good point—for all the theoretical restraint of the Just War Theory, Western Christianity in practice has had little qualms about going to war, and has often even tried to surround it with an aura of holiness. Advocates of this stance insist that as soon as you start acting like war is a bad thing, then you create a society of weakness that will collapse before the first invader. Runciman’s assessment suggests an alternative, in the practice of Byzantine Christianity.

Its great canonist, Saint Basil, while he realized that the soldier must obey orders, yet maintained that anyone guilty of killing in war should refrain for three years from taking communion as a sign of repentance. This counsel was too strict. The Byzantine soldier was not in fact treated as a murderer. But his profession brought him no glamour. Death in battle was not considered glorious, nor was death in battle against the infidel considered martyrdom; the martyr died armed only with his faith. To fight against the infidel was deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable; to fight against fellow-Christians was doubly bad. Indeed, Byzantine history was remarkably free of wars of aggression. Justinian’s campaigns had been undertaken to liberate Romans from heretic barbarian governors, Basil II’s against the Bulgars to recover imperial provinces and to remove a danger that menaced Constantinople. Peaceful methods were always preferable, even if they involved tortuous diplomacy or the payment of money. To western historians, accustomed to admire martial valour, the actions of many Byzantine statesmen appear cowardly or sly; but the motive was usually a genuine desire to avoid bloodshed. The princess Anna Comnena, one of the most typical of Byzantines, makes it clear in her history that, deep as was her interest in military questions and much as she appreciated her father’s successes in battle, she considered war a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure.


“Deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable”; “a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure”—this sounds exactly right—the painful tension that we must endure in this time between the times, when peace on earth has been declared but not established. This anti-martial culture that the Church in Byzantium fostered is truly remarkable, especially when you consider the history of the Eastern Empire, which was essentially under siege for the entirety of its 1,100-year history, first by the Sassanian Persians, and then by a succession of vicious Islamic invaders. In most societies that are constantly under threat, the culture becomes militarized, so that men of war have the most honored place in society, the primary role in government, the central roles in literature and art, and military concerns come to dominate all other priorities of society (Tolkien insightfully depicts this historical phenomenon in the kingdom of Gondor…Faramir’s lament in The Window on the West is especially interesting). That a nation as perpetually at war as Byzantium resisted this militarization, resisted the temptation to glorify war and the warrior, and resisted it indeed for eleven centuries, is a remarkable testimony to the powerful witness of the Church, and a rebuke to all who doubt that the Church could successfully preach a message of peace. It is also a stinging rebuke of Western Christendom, where despite the lack of many continuing external threats that required defensive war, the culture was very militarized.

Runciman describes the “less enlightened” Western point of view a bit one-sidedly, but his assessment is fair overall:
the military society that had emerged in the West out of the barbarian invasions
inevitably sought to justify its habitual pastime. The code of chivalry that was developing, supported by popular epics, gave prestige to the military hero; and the pacifist acquired a disrepute from which he has never recovered. Against this sentiment the Church could do little. It sought, rather, to direct bellicose energy into paths that would lead to its own advantage. The holy war, that is to say, war in the interests of the Church, became permissible, even desirable.


The experience of Byzantium also refutes the idea that a bias towards peace, that considering war to be “a shameful thing,” will lead to weakness and make a people the prey of the first invader that comes along. Though hating war, the Byzantines defended their people when necessary, and they did so doggedly and tenaciously, lasting longer than any empire in world history. Their eschewal of offensive warfare did not send signals of weakness and invite enemies; on the contrary, it was probably this strategy—of preferring a live-and-let-live policy with their Islamic neighbors, rather than a Crusader strategy—that allowed them to endure so long. All they had to do was weather each wave of invasion for a few years, and soon the Moslems would turn to more interesting pursuits, like fighting one another, and leave the peace-loving Byzantines alone for a hundred years or so. This also suggests an interesting lesson for Christians today who think the only way to deal with Muslims on the other side of the world is to fight them until they submit.

Hauerwas shrewdly remarks in an essay entitled "Courage Exemplified" from the Hauerwas Reader:

While we think just warriors are wrong, they might not be--another way of saying that we think the just war position as articulated by an Augustine or a Paul Ramsey is a significant challenge to our own Christian pacifism and is theological to its core. Just warriors and pacifists within the Christian church must be committed to continued engagements that teach them not only to recognize their differences but also their similarities, similarities that make them far more like one another than the standard realists' accounts of war that rule our contemporary culture and that have taken a firm hold in the church.

This confirms my growing suspicion that it is missing the main point of folks like Hauerwas or Jones to get mired down in debate between just war and pacifism. And folks who get up in arms about pacifism from a "just war" perspective are usually far from the true just war tradition. None of the wars any of us are familiar with, and which modern Christian "pacifists" have condemned, come close to fitting traditional just war criteria. It seems to me that there is an important decision to be made between the two options, but it is one that the church can postpone for a while...in the meantime, she should be united in her condemnation of the wars we’ve seen for the last couple centuries.

Poverty and Riches in Acts

In the midst of discussions surrounding the late unpleasantness (or the Great Decapitation), one local leader remarked that we needed to be careful about taking all that stuff about Jesus’s ministry to the poor and our call to sacrifice to the poor “too literally.” Rather, we should let the rest of the New Testament be our interpretive guide, and follow the lead of the book of Acts, which, as the sequel to Luke, shows the fulfillment of Jesus’s ministry in the life of the early Church. When we look at it this way, “we see that the ministry to the poor is essentially a metaphor for the preaching the gospel to the Gentiles; indeed, I don’t think ministry to the poor is mentioned once in the book of Acts.”
Now, at the risk of seeming obsessed with this issue, I will try to demonstrate again how flatly such a statement contradicts the Biblical witness.


It is certainly true that, in the latter part of Acts, Luke focuses on the wide-ranging missionary journeys of Paul, and is more interested in explaining the range of his journeys and the methods of his evangelism than the way his newly-founded Christian communities functioned. However, this is not, I think, because Luke thinks it does not matter how the communities functioned, but rather because he has already displayed this to us in the earlier chapters, and so he sees no need to go through all the details multiple times. And when we turn to those earlier chapters, we find, far from “no mention of ministry to the poor,” what seems on the contrary to be almost an obsession with it. Indeed, I think Luke would be shocked to hear of any dichotomy between “preaching the gospel” and “ministry to the poor,” since such a dichotomy contradicts the picture of gospel preaching that we see in Acts 2-6. I will first quote from the verses that follow Peter’s first great sermon in Acts:
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” Now, hang on a moment, Luke! What’s all this about having all their goods in common? First of all, that seems a rather stupid Marxist thing to do; but aside from that, why are you making such a big deal of this? I mean, repenting and believing the gospel means making Jesus the Lord of your life, getting rid of your sins, beginning to live a pure life, learning to worship him properly. I see that you talk about “breaking of bread,” which seems to be the Sacrament, and “prayer,” so worship is mentioned, but you talk about it almost as if it were just an extension of this new economic community of “togetherness” that has been formed. It seems like there should be a lot of more important results of the gospel than all this property-selling stuff.”

But the protesting reader is probably willing to give Luke the benefit of the doubt…he probably didn’t mean to give it so much emphasis. But then comes chapter four. Peter and John have just been released after another controversial sermon, and Luke summarizes for us the results of their recent preaching and the growth of the new community: “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.”

Whoa, wait a minute, Luke! Now, you’ve mentioned some important things about what the gospel brings: the congregation was of one heart and one soul—that’s good—unity in the Spirit and all; the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was on them all—that’s great—teaching the doctrines of the faith, growth in grace and all. But Luke, you seem to be mixing these things up with these odd Marxist notions of shared property. Is that what it means to be of one heart and one soul—to share property? Is that was “grace” means—to sell all your stuff and give to the poor? Come now, Luke.

The theme continues into chapter six, where we learn that there has been a problem in this sharing of goods—the Hellenistic Jews are being overlooked. This is a very important issue in Luke’s mind, and all the apostles consider that it is important enough that they should appoint new ministers to attend to these needs in the Church. More evidence of how important these issues are can be found in how fiercely those who have not renounced Mammon are opposed. In chapter five, Ananias and Saphira try to deceive the apostles about how much of their possessions they are giving away, and they are killed for it! And in chapter eight, Philip the deacon encounters an anti-deacon of sorts in Simon Magus, who, instead of ministering the gospel by giving away money, is trying to gain money by ministering the gospel, and he receives a remarkably fierce condemnation from Philip.

Now, it is certainly true that these themes drop off the radar in the latter part of Acts, but I hardly think this is because the apostles have changed their mind about what’s important; rather, Luke is taking these things for granted—this is what a Christian church is supposed to look like, and we are to assume the same sort of thing is happening when Paul preaches the Gospel. Indeed, the Epistles suggest that this is the case, as Paul repeatedly insists in many letters that rich and poor must be equal in the Church, and seems nearly obsessed with taking a collection from the Gentile churches to aid the poor in Jerusalem.

Jesus’ focus on ministry to the poor, and giving away of possessions, is not some odd anomaly, but provides the marching orders for the Church, as Acts clearly demonstrates. It is hard to see how anyone could so thoroughly miss this in Acts, and these statements about poverty in Scripture that I have tried to refute in some of these posts can’t help but make you wonder what kind of worldview can make American Christianity so blind to the concerns of Scripture on these issues.

An Epistemological Oddity

So much for peace…I’m afraid that the upcoming move to Scotland has rather snowed us under these last couple weeks. So now I’ll be putting up quite a barrage of posts that have been swimming around in my head, and I haven’t had the chance to put up.

First, a quick response to David Morris's comment about my "Epistemological Epiphany." I have a problem with replying to comments immediately, and so eventually I have to reply in a whole new post, because I figure that no one would ever look down to the old post to find the comment by now.

David suggested that Swinburne's assessment really was accurate, because, if the chips were down, if God asked me which opinion I believed, my own or Dr. Leithart's, I would say, "Dr. Leithart's," since I thought it was more likely to be true. But I really don't think so.

I think (at least, on a number of important issues--say, holiness, or political theology) I would doggedly hold to my own belief, even if on an objective assessment, I thought it more likely on balance that Dr. Leithart was correct, since he was so much more knowledgeable (assuming such an objective assessment were even possible). Now, perhaps I am alone in this. Perhaps I have not discovered an epistemological epiphany, but rather merely that I am an epistemological oddity, thoroughly seduced by Kierkegaard.

But, in any case, my main point is the same as the conclusion David comes to--even though Swinburne's analysis may be correct in certain cases, it is scarcely the whole picture and is of very limited usefulness.

Leithart on Sacred Places

So, having just postponed any discussion of the holiness of place, I noticed that Dr. Leithart has just posted on the issue here, quoting sources which support my guesses and my friend Bradley's research. Hooray.

Once again the happy peaceful summer with loads of spare time for reading and such doesn't materialize. Two summers ago, I got smitten with a girl, chased her to an Anglican conference in Texas, and got smitten with Anglicanism too, and the combination preoccupied me for the rest of the summer...but that summer was relatively peaceful compared to last summer. Last summer, I returned from my honeymoon to learn that my book proposal had been accepted, so I added book-writing to my 50 hours a week of work. Then I went to the Anglican conference again and had my paradigms completely exploded, and the aftermath of that was long hours of writing and debating all the way through September...especially when that James Jordan piece entered the arena. Then this summer, I knew there'd be a lot to do with getting ready to move to Edinburgh, but I had looked for a few free weeks to meditate and write on issues that had come up in the past term, but which the busy schedule of school left no time for.

Alas, it was not to be...the day after we returned from our anniversary trip was the announcement of the Great Decapitation.
For anyone reading who's not from Moscow, a brief explanation may be necessary. After two years of opposition to his calls to refocus the church's mission around ministry to the poor, and for the Church to abandon her prostitution to libertarian capitalism, and six months of being forbidden to teach, associate pastor Doug Jones resigned from his position at the church, his headship of Canon Press, Credenda/Agenda, Sabbath House (the mercy ministry he started), and all his responsibilities at New Saint Andrews College. So I've been wading through the fallout of that tragedy (or, some would no doubt say, creating fallout) for the last three weeks. Yesterday, finally, was the last meeting, I think, and perhaps I can have just a little peace.

But if packing for Edinburgh leaves me any spare time, it looks like most of my reading and writing will be on issues of Mammon and political theology again. Holiness and all that may have to wait for next summer. Oh well
And here is the rest of it.

An Epistemological Epiphany

The other day, I woke up and lay in bed reflecting, which is rare for me...normally, I just lie there, doing nothing in particular. But this reflection was particularly interesting...I was thinking about the issues on which I find myself disagreeing with my mentor, Dr. Leithart...issues of ecclesiology, sacramentology, this whole question of holiness, etc. And I realized that, objectively, I believe that, on those issues, it is more likely that he is correct than that I am correct. But I do not therefore cease to disagree and to hold my beliefs.
This was a very striking realization, for it calls into question a fundamental assumption of much epistemology. Richard Swinburne, in particular, in his analysis of Christian belief, argues that to believe in something is to believe that it is more likely to be true than any of the alternatives. If faced with the options of opinion X, and opinion Y, although there may be all kinds of irrational factors influencing my conclusion, I will ultimately judge that, say, opinion Y is more likely to be true than opinion X, and I will thus believe Y. Or, alternatively, I will be unable to judge that either is more likely than the other, and so will withhold belief. For me, at least, this analysis simply doesn't work, and I am highly suspicious that I am not the only one who has encountered such counterexamples.
This suggests that, as I long felt, Kierkegaard is right to insist that faith is a passion, a much more sophisticated bundle of emotion and reason and will than Swinburne's cut-and-dried probability judgments. Way to go Soren!

Newer Posts Older Posts Home