Erasmus on Christianity and War

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“I simply admit that I have written some rather distasteful things for the purpose of frightening Christians away from the insanity of war, for I observed that the largest part of the evils of the Christian community take their origin from the wars which we have seen for all too many years.” ~ Erasmus

In the first of my articles on Erasmus (“Erasmus on the Evils of War”), I wrote a brief introduction to Erasmus and his works on war and peace that should be read to better understand what Erasmus has to say here about Christianity and war.

Erasmus had much to say regarding Christianity and war. This is especially relevant today considering the level of Christian support for the U.S. government’s wars and military interventions.

In his The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus condemns Christian war fever:

Even if we allow that some wars are just, yet since we see that all mankind is plagued by this madness, it should be the role of wise priests to turn the minds of people and princes to other things. Nowadays we often see them as very firebrands of war. Bishops are not ashamed to frequent the camp; the cross is there, the body of Christ is there, the heavenly sacraments become mixed up in this worse than hellish business, and the symbols of perfect charity are brought into these bloody conflicts. Still more absurd, Christ is present in both camps, as if fighting against himself. It is not enough for war to be permitted between Christians; it must also be accorded the supreme honour.

The Hebrews were allowed to engage in war, but with God’s permission. On the other hand, our oracle, which re-echoes again and again in the pages of the Gospel, argues against war—and yet we make war with more wild enthusiasm than the Hebrews.

I would merely exhort the princes who bear the name of Christian to set aside all trumped-up claims and spurious pretexts and apply themselves seriously and whole-heartedly to making an end of this long-standing and terrible mania among Christians for war, and to establishing peace and harmony among those who are united by so many common interests.

In one of his most celebrated works on war and peace, A Complaint of Peace, Erasmus laments the Christian propensity for war:

I will pass over the tragedies of bygone wars; let us just recall events of the past then years. Where in the world has there not been savage warfare on land and sea? What land has not been soaked in Christian blood, what river or sea not stained with human gore? And (shameful to say) the cruelty of the fighting exceeds that of the Jews, of the heathen, and of wild beasts. The kind of wars the Jews carried on against their foreign foes should have been fought by the Christians against evil, but as things are they ally themselves with evil to make war on their fellow man.

Animals do not usually fight unless maddened by hunger or concern for their young. But amongst Christians, what injury is too slight to seem a suitable occasion for war?

Erasmus has very harsh words soldiers fighting under the banner of the cross:

They carry the cross as their standard; the godless soldier, the mercenary paid a fixed sum in cash for butchery and slaughter, bears the sign of the cross, so that what alone could lead man away from war has become its symbol.

What is the cross to you, villainous soldier? Serpents, wolves, and tigers were better suited to your spirit and conduct. The cross is the symbol of him who won his victory not by fighting, but by dying, who when he came did not destroy, but saved; the cross could teach you better than anything the enemies with whom you have to deal, if you are truly a Christian, and how they must be overcome. But you carry the banner of salvation as you hasten to destroy your brother, to kill in the name of the cross one who was saved by it.

Finally, and what is most absurd of all, the cross is displayed in both camps, in both battle-lines, and the sacraments are administered on both sides. What anomaly is this, when the cross fights the cross and Christ makes war on Christ! This symbol is one to strike terror into the enemies of the name of Christ. Why do they now attack what they should revere—these men who deserve not the crucifix but crucifixion?

Erasmus mocks the idea of soldiers taking the sacraments and praying:

Worse still, think how men take part in the mystery of the holy sacraments (for these too are brought into the camps), which all should revere and which are the special symbol of the closest union between Christians, and then run straight into battle, cruel swords drawn to plunge into their brothers’ vitals; and how they make Christ the witness (if Christ can bring himself to be present) of the wickedest of all crimes, the one most acceptable to the spirits of evil.

Tell me, how can the soldier during divine worship pray in the words “Our Father”? What impudence, to dare call on God as Father, when you are making for your brother’s throat! “Hallowed be thy name.” How could the name of God be less hallowed than by your violence towards each other? “Thy kingdom come.” Is this how you pray, when you are planning so much bloodshed to get a kingdom for yourself? “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But God’s will is for peace, and you are preparing for war. Do you ask for daily bread from our common Father when you burn your brother’s crops and would prefer them to be lost to you rather than to benefit him? And then, how can you say ”Forgive us the debts we owe, as we forgive those who are indebted to us,” you who are hurrying to murder your kin? You pray to be spared the danger of being put to the test, but you risk danger to yourself so that you can endanger your brother. Do you beg to be delivered from the evil on while you are plotting the worst of evils against your brother at his prompting?

Erasmus explains the proper role of ministers and churches when it comes to war:

Today the trophies stained with the blood of those whom Christ shed his own blood to save are set up in churches between the statues of the apostles and martyrs, as if in future it will be an act of piety to create a martyr, not to become one. It would have been quite sufficient to set these up and preserve them in the market-place or some armoury; it is wholly improper for what has been polluted by bloodshed to be received into holy churches which should be kept pure and undefiled. Priests dedicated to God should intervene in wars only to put a stop to them.

Meanwhile the bishops should carry out their duties, the priests be true priests, the monks be mindful of their profession, and the theologians teach what is worthy of Christ. Let all combine against war, all be watch-dogs and speak out against it. In private and in public they must preach, proclaim, and inculcate one thing: peace. Then if they cannot prevent a conflict to settle the issue, they must certainly not approve or take part, let they should be responsible for giving a good name to so criminal or at least so questionable a practice.

Erasmus was especially concerned about how Muslims (the Turks) viewed Christians waging war:

What misery war brings! The victor commits parricide, the vanquished dies, none the less guilty of parricide because he also attempted it. Then they curse the Turks for being godless and unchristian, as if they could be Christians themselves while committing these crimes or as if there could be anything more agreeable for the Turks than the sight of Christians putting each other to the sword. The Turks, so they say, offer sacrifice to demons, but these spirits find no victim so acceptable as one Christian killed by another; so aren’t you doing the same as the Turks?

If we want to convert the Turks to the Christian faith, we must first be Christians ourselves. They will never be believers in Christ when they can see things as they are today—violence, the very thing Christ most abominated, being employed more savagely between Christians than anywhere else.

We see this same concern in some of Erasmus’s letters. To Antoon van Bergen he wondered: “What do you imagine the Turks think upon hearing that Christian princes rage so widely against one another for the sake of a mere title to sovereignty?” In a letter to Riccardo Bartolini regarding war with the French, Erasmus asks: “But suppose we were indeed victorious, what could better answer the wishes of the Turks and any who hate the name of Christ even more than they do, than for the fairest and strongest portion of the Christian world to be laid waste with fire and sword, and the flower of our religion to be shamefully trodden under foot?” We see a similar thought in a letter to Francis I, the king of France: “We execrate and revile the Turks continually; yet what more agreeable spectacle could be set before the Turks—or any nation, if one exists, which hates the name of Christian even more—than the sight of the three most prosperous monarchs of all Europe engaged in suicidal strife? I can hardly convince myself that any Turk could be so savage as to call down upon the Christians more evils that they inflict by turns upon themselves.” And in a letter to Pope Leo X, Erasmus wrote:

For to the war against wickedness we are summoned beyond a doubt by Christ and spurred on by Paul; but to fight the Turks we get no instructions from Christ and no encouragement from the apostles. Suppose we grant that both campaigns must be fought; greater effort at least must be devoted to the war which was declared by that Spirit from Heaven than to the one set on foot by man. Who knows? Christ himself with his apostles and martyrs subdued the whole earth by doing good, by long-suffering, by the teaching of holiness; shall we not be better advised to overcome the Turks by the piety of our lives rather than by arms, so that Christian dominance may be defended in the same way in which it was acquired?

In his War Against the Turks, Erasmus says that war “must not be made an excuse for undermining the freedoms and the laws of the states, or of the Christian kings and princes. As far as possible the immunity of the churches must be preserved so that, while we make ill-starred plans to ensure peace on the Turkish front, we do not harass all Christendom with civil war and, while destroying the Turks’ tyranny, bring a new tyranny, worse than the Turks’, upon ourselves.” He believed that “the best solution of all would be to conquer the Turks’ empire in the same way that the apostles conquered all the nations of earth for their emperor, Christ.” Erasmus is appalled that “the mass of Christians wrongly believes that anyone is allowed to kill a Turk, as one would a mad dog, for no better reason that that he is a Turk.” He explains that “if this were true, then anyone would be allowed to kill a Jew, but anyone who ventured to do that would not escape punishment under civil law.” This is because “the Christian magistrate will punish Jews who break the laws of the state, to which they are subject; but they are not put to death because of their religion, since Christianity is spread by persuasion, not force; it is sown like seed, not pushed down people’s throats.”

In the second book of his Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Erasmus points out that “even if civilized men make war, it is not the mark of Christian men to do so, seeing that the Christian faith is peace pure and simple.”

“A contest carried on by words, not arms,” says Erasmus in his comments on the adage “War without tears,” is alone “worthy of wise men; anything else is fit for wild beasts, and for gladiators, a species I myself set below he beasts.” “And yet,” continues Erasmus, “no one would have believed, did we not see it with our own eyes, how much this method of making war appeals to Christian princes.” These princes “fight with machines such as no pagans with all their ferocity and no barbarians invented.”

It is his extended comments on the adage “War is a treat for those who have not tried it,” that Erasmus is most famous for. He says a number of things there about Christianity and war:

We are continually at war, nation clashes with nation, kingdom with kingdom, city with city, prince with prince, people with people and, as even the heathen admit is wicked, relative with relative, kinsman with kinsman, brother with brother, son with father; finally, worse in my opinion than all these, Christian with fellow man, and worst of all, I must add reluctantly, Christian with Christian. And men are so blind in their thinking that no one is surprised at this, no one denounces it. There are some who applaud it, make a glorious parade of it, call it “holy” when it is worse than hellish, and inflame rulers already crazed with fury, pouring oil on the fire, as they say. One uses the sanctity of the pulpit to promise pardon for all sins committed by those who fight under his prince’s flag. Another declaims, “Invincible prince, if you only continue your present support of religion, God will fight on your side.” A third promises certain victory, and distorts the words of the prophets to a wicked purpose with his interpretations of “You will not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the demon of midday,” and “A thousand will fall at your side, and ten thousand on your right,” and “You will walk upon the asp and the basilisk, and tread underfoot the lion and the dragon.” In short, the whole of this mystical psalm was perverted to apply to profane things, to fit the case of this or that ruler.

So the decrepit make war, priests make war, monks make war, and we involve Christ in something so diabolical! Two armies advance on each other and both carry the standard of the cross, which in itself could teach them how appropriate it is to conquer Christians. From that heavenly banner, which represents the complete and ineffable union of all Christians, they rush to mutual slaughter; and of this wicked deed we make Christ the witness and the author. Where is the kingdom of the devil if it is not in war? Why do we drag Christ into this when he would be more at home in any brothel than in a war? Paul the Apostle considers it unworthy that any dispute should arise among Christians that needs a judge to settle the case. What if he could see us making war the whole world over, for such trivial reasons, more savagely than any pagans fought, more cruelly than any barbarians? What if he could see that this is done with the authority, encouragement, and help of representative of the pope—the peacemaker, the unifier of all things—of those who greet the people with the sign of peace?

But admitting that the heathen might have been brought to this state of madness by stupidity, anger, ambition, greed, or barbarity, or, as I more readily suppose, by the Furies sent from Hell, where did we get the idea that Christian should draw a bloody sword on Christian? It is called parricide if one brother kills another, but Christian is united with Christian more closely than any blood brother, unless the bonds of nature are tighter than those of Christ. What an absurdity that there should be almost continuous warfare between those whom the church holds under one roof, who boast of being members of the same body with the same head, who is Christ.

Was there ever a war among the heathen as continuous and as cruel as among Christians? What storms have we not seen these past few years, what waves of war, what broken treaties, what bloodshed! What nation has not clashed swords with what other? And then we abominate the Turk; as if there could be any spectacle more agreeable to the Turks than what we ourselves provide for them daily with our massacres of each other.

So, if you consider the rules of military service in olden times, you will see that military service among Christians is not military service at all but brigandage.

The things done in wars between Christians are too disgusting and too cruel to be mentioned here. The fact is that we copy only the worst practices of the pagans, or rather we outdo them.

If you examine the matter more closely you will find that almost all wars between Christians have arisen either from stupidity or from malice.

In his The Handbook of the Christian Soldier, Erasmus says that “the most effective way to defeat the Turks” is for them to see “shining forth in us Christ’s teaching and example.” They need to realize that “we are not greedy for their empire, we have no thirst for their gold and no desire for their possessions, but seek nothing at all beyond their salvation and the glory of Christ.” It makes no sense, Erasmus continues, “to prove ourselves truly Christians by killing as many as we can, but by their salvation; not by sacrificing to Orcus many thousands of the infidel, but by turning as many as we can of those infidels into believers; not by cursing them with terrible execrations, but by praying religiously that heaven may send them salvation and a better state of mind.” If we “cannot put our hearts into something of the sort,” then “we shall degenerate into Turks long before we convert the Turks to our way of thinking.” Even if the chances of war are favorable to us: “The result may extend the kingdom of the pope and his cardinals; it will not extend the kingdom of Christ.” And just like today:

If one discourages the wars which we have been fighting for some centuries now for worthless objects in a worse than gentile spirit, one is blackened with false accusations of sympathy with those who say that Christian must never go to war. For we have made the authors of this view heretical because some pope appears to approve of war. But there is no black mark for him who disregards the teaching of Christ and his apostles and sounds the trumpet for a war, regardless of the reasons. Should a man point out that it would be in the true spirit of the apostles to bring the Turks over to religion by the resources of Christ rather than by force of arms, he finds himself at once suspected of teaching that when Turks attack Christians they must by no means be restrained.

In his Apology against the Patchworks of Alberto Pio, Erasmus replies to what Alberto Pio, the French diplomat and ambassador to the papacy, said that Erasmus wrote about war:

I have never declared without qualification that warfare is illicit for Christians, though these wars that we have seen so far are absolutely pagan. Folly states that war is such an atrocity that war and Christ are mutually exclusive. And this enthymeme is not preposterous: “Christ never made war; in fact, he ordered Peter to put away his sword; therefore it is not fitting for bishops, the vicars of Christ, to make war.” Likewise, “Peter, in the role of the pope, is rebuked because he tried to protect the Lord’s life with a sword; it is far less suitable for the successors of Peter to take up arms for wealth and dominion.”

And then there is this point-by-point rebuttal:

I say that all of Christian philosophy (that is, the gospels and the writings of the apostles) discourages war. Is this surprising, since they are always urging us to harmony with one another and to love even of enemies? But if all Christians were such as Christ wanted them to be, there would be no war among them, not even a quarrel.

He says: “There is no prohibition of war anywhere in the gospels.” Christ says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, etc”; and Paul says: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to anger.” “These,” he says, “are counsels.” A very large loophole! But how is it an error to want all Christians to observe all the counsels?

“But Christ,” he says, “rebuked the one who struck.” Yes, but he did not hit him back, just as Paul did not hit the high priest.

But Michael made war with the dragon. We too should wage war against Satan and sin.

Christian princes have made war. Yes, but not as Christians; they followed the same set of rules as they would if they had been pagans.

Everywhere St Jerome declares explicitly that Christians may not wage war. Pio interprets him as speaking about either unjust wars or wars undertaken frivolously. Will he not interpret my words in the same way?

I have tried to let the powerful words of Erasmus on Christianity and war speak for themselves. Let all Christians take heed.

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