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.