To me the early Christian attitude toward war is summed up in a first-millennium chant that directly addressed the question of war and peace. Like most of the Gregorian repertoire, it wasn’t necessarily written at any particular time. It was carried forward through time, long before there was printing or even musical notation, purely as a matter of repetition and tradition. That is to say, these songs developed organically, much like folk songs, except that they were used in the liturgical life of the Church.
But we can say with confidence that it was probably sung in the early middle ages, and it was popular enough to be carried forward even unto the modern age. It has a particular poignancy in our time. It addresses the powerlessness and helplessness we all feel during war, particularly wars that we have not caused and do not want to fight but are nonetheless costly to us in terms of money and cultural wreckage. Sometimes we lose family members.
The subtext of the chant implies an awareness that Hell itself is unleashed in times of war, and there is only one way to fight Hell and that is through divine intervention. We must turn to God in our quest for peace, since no one else is powerful enough to stop war. Nor were the Christians under the illusion that governments can bring peace or that governments are truly fighting for us. Not governments, not soldiers, not politicians — only God serves the interest of peace and is powerful enough to put an end to the madness.
Here are the words:
Da pacem, Domine, in diebus nostris
Quia non est alius
Qui pugnet pro nobis
Nisi tu Deus noster.
Give peace, O Lord, in our time
Because there is no one else
Who will fight for us
If not You, our God.
The beautiful thing here is that the melody itself, written in the minor mode II, illustrates the sad sense that events are out of control. So we pray and beg for assistance. (For readers who are musicians, the clamp thing at the beginning of the 4-line staff is “fa” or f, and the scale follows from that, and it is all on the white keys except for the flat on Ti or Bb. The dots mean that you double the length of the note, and the underline mark means to give the note expression.)
Here is the music (and you can follow along with this very shabby version I’ve recorded at this MP3):