Saturday, October 30, 2010

Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution

By John Howard Yoder, 472 pages, Brazos Press.

Late American theologian Yoder offers a truly magisterial account of Christian views of war, from the earliest times to the present. As a Mennonite, he wrote from the pacifist slant, questioning the basic assumptions that Christian thinkers used to hold up their war theories.

Almost from the beginning, Yoder notes, Christians offered varying theories of war. Ambrose of Milan had the courage to take the emperor to task for brutality in war. Conversely, St. Augustine looked to Joshua, the troubling Old Testament book that covered the violent entrance of Israel into the Holy Land, fighting a brutal war against the Canaanites: Joshua "represents for Augustine the possibility that a war is commanded by a divine imperative. A given nation should be chastised by God's representatives in the name of vengeance or the honor of God," Yoder notes.

This kind of justification dehumanizes the enemy, and makes martyrs out of the "good," "holy" warriors. Even defeat is holy, since the war was fought in the name of God. The enemies have no rights, as they are enemies not only of the holy warriors, but of God.

Yoder minces no words in showing how Christianity often gained greatly from the wars of Christian rulers such as Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella, who after kicking the Moors out of Grenada in 1492 "went on with the same sense of mission to subjugate the Indies. The governments of Spain and Portugal, Columbus, and the pope continued to see that enterprise as an apostolic undertaking. It was not subject to the ordinary restraint of just cause or legitimate authority, because 'savages' have no rights."

Yoder does not only criticize the Catholic Church. For much of the Middle Ages, in fact, the papacy and local bishops acted as a constraint on the never-ending local wars that always threatened to get out of control. The Church outlawed torture and lying, and never allowed a blank check on violence. Yoder points out that the medieval church was largely a pacifist church.

A great strength of this book is Yoder's critical analysis of his own Protestant tradition. The Protestant Reformation unleashed great potential for violence because the pope no longer had a universal voice. The local Protestant leaders were now employees of the princes, so could hardly criticize his wars. In fact, these churchmen sanctified the prince's warring, making for a more violent age.

Christian Attitudes to War unsettles the reader, as with the chapter on the Jews. Yoder argues that the Jews of Jesus' time were largely pacifists, and that the Jews who wanted revolt against the Romans were in the minority. This minority, and not the Jewish establishment, revolted against the Romans in 66-70.

Yoder argues that the Jews became even more pacifist after the fall of Jerusalem in 135 AD. Yoder makes the following observation, which like so many of his thoughts in Christian Attitudes to War, deeply challenges the Christian reader:

"[M]edieval Judaism demonstrated the sociological viability of the ethic of Jesus. In terms of actual ethical performance, Judaism represents the most important medieval sect living the ethic of Jesus under Christendom."

Whether readers agree or disagree with Yoder, his writings will challenge their already-held beliefs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Charlemagne Dates

714 Pepin of Herstal, father of Charles Martel, (maior domo) dies, leaving an infant grandson; his illegitimate son Charles Martel begins to exercise power in Austrasia
733 Charles Martel stops a Muslim army on the way to looting Tours
739 Willibrord (b. 658) dies
741 Charles Martel dies
751 Ravenna falls to the Lombards
751 Peppin III (d. 768) recognized by Pope Zachary as king of the Franks
752 Pepin anointed king by St. Boniface
753 (July) Peppin and his sons Charles and Carloman consecrated at St. Denis
754 Pepin crowned king of the Franks by Pope Zachary in Frankish territory; papacy granted lands by the Frankish king comprising the papal lands
768 Death of Pippin
771 Death of Carloman
773 Lombard king Desiderius threatens Pope Hadrian I, who appeals to King Charles
773 Charles defeats Lombards in the Alps; besieges Desiderius in Pavia
774 (Easter) Charles in Rome (first time for a Frankish king); founding of the Papal States (suspicious sources; not likely)
774 (after Easter) Charles in Pavia: received the surrender of the city and Desiderius
774 Charles proclaimed king of the Lombards
778 Charlemagne attacks Zaragoza
778 Ludwig born
781 (Easter) Charles visits Rome; Charles' son Pepin baptized by Pope Hadrian, then crowned king of the Lombards; Louis crowned king of the Aquitanians (3 years old)
782 Charles meets Alcuin in Pavia; invites the scholar to the court
782 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded at Verden on orders of Charlemagne
785 and 801 northern Catalonia taken from Arab rule
785 Widukind's baptism
785 Capitulary on the Region of Saxony
785-6 Revolts in Hesse and Thuringia
786 Assembly of the realm in Worms
787 Charles in Ravenna
787 Second Council of Nicaea
787 Tassilo becomes Charles' vassal
789 Oaths to Charlemagne because of 785-6 revolts
789 Admonitio generales
791 Campaign against the Avars
791-2 Regensburg (Weihnachten, Osterfest)
792 Pepin, Charlemagne's son, disinherited, tonsured and sent to a monastery (Prüm)
792 Charlemagne fought no war
792-3 Famine: Italy, Provence, Burgundy, part of France
793 War in Aquitaine
794 Establishes court/capital at Aachen
794 Frankfurt Assembly; Libri Carolini
794 (Sept) Against the Saxons (Paderborn)
794 Charles' 4th wife, Fastrada, dies
795 Avar chieftain Tudun asks to be baptized along with his followers
795-6 Avars attacked, including the Ring
797 Imperial Assembly, Aachen; Attacked the Saxons
797 Salzburg an archbishopric, as a center of evangelization of the Avars
804 Alcuin dies
809 Council at Aachen
811 Pippin, son of Charlemagne, dies in Prüm
812 Inquiry into baptism in the empire
813 Charlemagne summons Louis to Aachen and has him crown himself emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
826 Theodulf, bishop of Orleans, dies
768-772-Pope Stephen III
772-795 Hadrian I
Leo III (795-816)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

City of Refuge: A Biblical Novel of the Ancient Past

By Valerie Farber,, 393 pages.

The religious laws of ancient Israel were tough but fair, according to City of Refuge, a novel set in the decades after the Israelite settlement of the Promised Land. Two young boys tease a tied-up ox into delirium until the animal breaks free and kills the children. Given the boys' behavior, the ox-owner is spared his own life by the strict, well-run court of religious elders and priests, but the ox must die.

Farber shows that this serves legal but also psychological needs, as the anger of the bereaved families falls on the animal rather than on the family who owned the animal. The narrative moves the story along in a fast-paced though detailed manner:

"An excited mob of townspeople followed the vindictive procession. The Nadav clan, helpless and friendless, shuffled at the back of the mob. Though they recoiled from the sight of the animal being led to its death, they couldn't depart from the scene."

As poor farmers, they would now have to plow the hard, rocky terrain without the ox, further impoverishing them. Thus Farber's presentation of the religious law shows the human side, as its judgments not only save the village from an extended clan fight, but also fail to compensate the family losing the animal.

Farber offers a great way for readers young and old to learn about the social and religious life of ancient Israel. City of Refuge tells the story of people struggling to remain faithful to the covenant with God through social, economic, and romantic pressures. Living the law of the Israelite tradition was a complicated matter.

The priest Tzaddok's daughter, Bat-Shachar, has an independent, defiant streak that, mixed with her naivety, leads her to trust too deeply in the family's reckless Canaanite servant Basmat, who attends Baal fertility cults where humans are sacrificed to satisfy the bloodlust of the gods.

Yet the nation's youth, including Bat-Shachar most of the time, take their traditions and duties seriously. Two lifelong friends, Yerachmiel and Tzuriel, hope to train as blacksmiths and make the weapons necessary to defend their nation against the Canaanites. They want to learn the mystery of iron, by which Israel's enemies have been dominating the Chosen People, so journey for days in search of the famous smith Shraya, who becomes their mentor and a father-figure.

The underlying message of City of Refuge comes through clearly: we are called to be faithful to our traditions and vocations. We must serve our people and our faith. Thus even though Bat-Shachar resists her father's choice of husband for her, she does so while struggling to obey tradition. She eventually finds the pious and honorable Tzuriel to marry, and the union is blessed by her father.

City of Refuge depicts a time when religion demanded honor and justice in God's name, quite at odds with the feelings-oriented therapeutic Christianity to which many subscribe today.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Nativity Collection: Six Stories that Share the Smiles, the Heart, and the Hope of Christmas

By Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 128 pages.

A charming book with warm-hearted illustrations and photos about Christmas, The Nativity Collection tries to put the Christianity back into Christmas. Gifts are not valuable because they are expensive, but because they are an extension of the person, a gift from the heart.
Christmas is about giving of the self, just as Christ gave himself.

As such, Christmas, family- and friend-oriented, also calls us to reach out to others. It is other-centered, as these stories tell. One elderly lady, with a badly-faded memory, has her family given back to her in an unexpected manner. In another story, a child leads the way to a better perspective. Adults have forgotten the important things, and are reminded by kids in humorous, humbling, matter-of-fact ways.

Occasionally, as a story tells, it is the older one who remembers the important things, after decades of forgetfulness. The symbols of Christmas, such as the Christ child or a lamb, suddenly speak with great meaning and clarity, and someone's spiritual life is awakened. Someone grasps the meaning of Christmas and Christ's work in a dramatic, rediscovered way.

The stories recount how Christmas' meaning is forgotten, then remembered again and again, and how this fresh understanding leads to new life and holiness.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting the Old Testament: What it meant to them, What it means for us

By Steven L. Bridge, 227 pages, Hendrickson Publishers.

Steven Bridge challenges us to connect with the Old Testament by entering into the time and culture of its authors and initial audience: "[W]e modern readers of the OT are eavesdropping on ancient conversations – conversations that took place in foreign tongues throughout distant lands more than two millennia ago."

The contexts out of which these documents arose, then, are long gone. "To compensate," writes Bridge, "many readers resort to doing what many eavesdroppers have done: they construct their own meanings."

Many fundamentalist, end-times preachers find all sorts of modern-day scenarios in the Bible, and its prophetic books in particular, including Daniel. Yet, Bridge argues, rather than interpreting the Book of Daniel like this, we need to understand why this book is so strange.

For one reason, it was written at a time of political violence, so Daniel had to announce his political program in coded language, including the language of strange dreams. Yet behind this odd approach is the belief in God's goodness for Israel. History, directed by God, has meaning and purpose. Israel's suffering at the hands of the tyrant Antiochus would come to an end.

Daniel is, then, a book of great faith in God and a call to hope. Hope and faithfulness to God in the darkest hour is a central virtue for Judaism and Christianity. Bridge notes that for Daniel, "It all had a purpose. It had been foreseen and preordained (or at least, permitted) by God for the good of God's people. Even Antiochus's persecutions achieved a greater good. In the long run, they served to 'refine' the faith of the Jews."

Getting the Old Testament is a rewarding read because it moves from one difficult biblical story to another, such as the devastation of the Great Flood. How can we have faith in a loving God who does such violence to humans and all creation? Bridge takes us into the historical context, showing that the Near East was full of stories of a great Flood, including in the Gilgamesh epic. The ancient Near East culture to which ancient Israel belonged believed that natural phenomena were caused by gods. Most of these gods thought little of humanity, and caused the Flood for petty, nasty, or no good reasons.

The Hebrew writers wanted to explain the Flood from the perspective of their theology. Rather than denying that the Flood had taken place, which would have been absurd considering that people accepted it as fact, the writers found a motive.

God did it because of His concern for justice. At the end, His great mercy won out, and He promised no new Floods. A covenant with Noah was established instead, giving a second chance to humanity. The biblical writers here, as elsewhere, also portray God as being close to His creation, in contrast to the distant gods of other Near Eastern peoples.

Getting the Old Testament shows how the theology of the Hebrew writings always sought to emphasize God's goodness, justice, and power. Despite the many contradictions and confusing stories of the Old Testament, this underlying constant is always present, and served as the blueprint for the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Road to Siena: The Essential Biography of St. Catherine

By Edmund G. Gardner, 205 pages, Paraclete Press.

"In [Pope] Clement VI, the corruption of this era of the papacy was personified. Learned, eloquent, and magnanimous, his private life was scandalous. The luxury and prodigality of his court was so extreme that he would have taxed all Christendom if he had been able to," writes Gardner in his often spell-binding journey through the life of Catherine of Siena and the disastrous fourteenth century during which she lived.

With the papacy in Avignon, France, and a political vacuum in Rome, Italy had reached a crisis point, with constant fighting among the city states, and a war of words between the papacy and various states, including powerful Florence. Catherine's mysticism called her out of herself and her comfortable middle class family. Her journey paralleled aspects of Francis of Assisi's: Her business-oriented family didn't understand, and therefore opposed, her vocation. Yet God had called her to heal Church corruption. Her inner relationship with God gave her a power over other people, which led to countless conversions. She remained ever faithful to the Church and the papacy in a time of great heresies.

The Road to Siena gives the reader a deep, almost personal understanding of Saint Catherine by painting the political and social fabric in which she lived. Gardner helps us see the great obstacles and challenges she faced as a woman and a lay, third-order Dominican mystic.

Her power and worldly spiritual success came from her spiritual strength, according to one medieval writing noted by Gardner: "She made herself in her mind by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a secret cell, out of which she resolved never to go by reason of any external occupation." Modern therapists might say that she was, in other words, incredibly self-possessed.

She developed a powerful entourage and network of family, confessors, and those she had converted, including many priests and theologians. In 1366 she left her cell and entered public life, Gardner notes. Until her death in 1380, she traveled around Italy and up to Avignon, rarely enjoying peace in her quiet Siena. Yet not all her work was exotic: she did menial household work, visited the sick in hospitals, and even caught leprosy from lepers to whom she was ministering, until she was miraculously cured.

Catherine greatly influenced Pope Gregory XI, a "gentle, scholarly, sickly, well-meaning, but also weak and irresolute" leader. Here Gardner gives an excellent account of her mysticism as a source for her political work: "All through the summer of 1370, Catherine's soul was overwhelmed with visions of divine mysticism."

Siena's constantly quarreling leaders, as well as the pope in Avignon, waited curiously for the words of Christ coming from Catherine. She dreamed of a reform of the Church, and of a papacy that was materially poor and spiritually powerful. She called for strong measures against wicked clergymen, and the end to nepotism within the hierarchy. Gardner describes how low religious life had gone: every convent "was divided against itself and the same thing was going on outside the convents."

Under Catherine's influence not only did countless clergy convert and end their wicked ways, but the pope moved back to Rome and peace was made between Florence and the papacy. Catherine showed the political power of mysticism. Like Bernard of Clairvaux centuries earlier, she gave a religious view to politics.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origins and Contemporary Significance

Edited by David Matzko McCarthy, 213 pages, Brazos

Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum developed a "communal notion of the person in a way that is congruent with the emerging culture of rights," writes John Donovan in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church, according to the book's authors, had to face the tension of accepting and developing the notion of the dignity of the person and of human rights, on the one hand, and the fact that humans need a strong social identity and network, on the other.

One of the missions of Catholic social teaching is to speak to the modern world's over-emphasis on individual rights, but to do so without damaging those rights. Pope Leo stressed the importance of workers' rights to organize themselves into unions and other associations, independently of large corporations or the socialist state.

Popes in their important social encyclicals have consistently encouraged people's right to organize. In fact, Pope Puis XI developed the idea of subsidiarity, which claims that the best organizations are the ones closest to the people. If possible, the state should not be organizing such groups. Grassroots groups should be free and independent of such interfering from stronger social organizations.

Puis XI referred to the medieval guilds as a model for worker organization in capitalist societies. The guilds were worker associations that also provided social, educational, and religious support. Young men were trained under the rules of the guilds (including as masters of arts and theology in the new universities of the Middle Ages).

Catholic social teaching grew up in a time when St. Thomas Aquinas' theology reigned supreme, from the late nineteenth century until Vatican II. Therefore, Aquinas' notion of the natural law appears throughout Catholic social thought, including in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. The natural law is the idea that universal moral truths exist, and reason can discern these truths independently of revelation. God has written them on the human heart.

Social justice, the notion that all people are deserving of their fair share, goes back to Aristotle, who greatly influenced St. Thomas. Aristotle connected justice to good laws. Pope John Paul II, influenced by both Thomas Aquinas and by the twentieth-century's advocacy of human rights and the importance of the individual, “links the Catholic natural law tradition to the notion of promoting human freedom, the freedom of living a life according to the truth,” writes Joshua Hochschild in his chapter.

In other words, Catholic social thought is part of a holistic Catholic view that considers God, creation, and the nature of humans. The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, then, includes discussions of the Catholic view of love, such as by the current pontiff. Pope Benedict calls for the Church not to have a directly powerful role in politics, but to form Catholics so that when they as individuals get involved in politics, they pursue the proper, just ordering of society. Their Catholic faith should inform who they are as politicians. For Pope Benedict, it is the task of laypeople to pursue social justice based on how the Church has taught them to think about love, human nature, and society.