Tuesday, May 24, 2011

St. Augustine's Justification of War

I was reading T.S. Asbridge's essay on the crusader community at Antioch and I found his comment that the justification for wars like the Crusades were found in St. Augustine's City of God. So, we can lay some of the blame for the Crusades on St. Augustine. Fine by me. Sounds about right since I don't recall any passages in the Bible that, in spite of some of the goings on in the Old Testament, actually state that war is okay. 'Thou shalt not kill' seems pretty clear and there is no '...except in cases of ....' added to that commandment but what do I know. I come from a long line of Anabaptists and an anti-war stance has probably been bred into my DNA.
While I was plugging away at this very influential book, I noticed Book I, chapter 21, entitled 'of the cases in which we may put men to death without incurring the guilt of murder'. This must be the passage. It follows a discussion of suicides who are rape victims. Augustine, very generously, says that if a violated woman commits suicide "who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them" but he did not encourage women to do so since the stain for the violation rests on the abuser not the victim. Pity more people didn't pay attention to this part of Augustine. I almost feel like I might grow to like him but there is still a whole lot of book left in which he can annoy me so I won't be hasty about that.
Book I, chapter 21 states there are two exceptions to that prohibition - 'thou shalt not kill' - and those exceptions are made by divine authority justified by a general law or by a special commission. The special commission makes the person who kills 'a sword in the hand of the person who uses him' and not morally responsible for the death. So then, would he say the sin for all those deaths in the Crusades would then be laid upon the popes who called for them? Interesting thought. He went on to say that "those who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such person have by no means violated the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill".
I know, huh?
First off - 'wisdom of government' is an oxymoron. Is there such a thing? 'Divine command' - do we really know what God wants? The pope is God's representative on earth but many, many popes have been such deeply flawed individuals that one could question if they speak for God at all. God himself is silent on this point. Augustine did not point out what laws this war is in conformity to. There are wars in the Old Testament and it seems at times these wars are waged with God's permission or even command but it does not appear to be explicitly so, not that I know the Bible well enough to say this for certain. He did not define what he meant by 'wicked men'; if we are talking pedophiles, you won't get any argument from me.
He gave three examples of killing that were directly ordered by God - the command given to Abraham to slay Isaac, Jephthah who killed his own daughter because he swore to sacrifice the first thing he met if he was victorious in war, and Samson who had been given secret instructions to pull down the building and crush his enemies. So, we could give him that. If God appears and tells you that you have to do this thing, then you better do it but the question remains - does the Pope then have the right to issue commands like this on God's behalf? I think not and, in Augustine's time, the office of the Bishop of Rome was still evolving and very different from what it is today so he did not comment on what the Pope may do in this case.

I am using the Marcus Dods translation, which looks to be out of copyright at the moment. yay.

7 comments:

anachronist said...

are wars in the Old Testament and it seems at times these wars are waged with God's permission or even command but it does not appear to be explicitly so, not that I know the Bible well enough to say this for certain.

You must think of the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites. Yes, the God was pretty merciless ordering from time to time the slaughter of anybody from the enemy's camp, sometimes even the animals. Apparently these people were very wicked. I don't know - I wasn't there- and who I am to judge the God Almighty?

Havig said so there is nothing like a "just" war - not when any collateral damage or friendly fire is involved.

The Red Witch said...

The cruelty of various passages in the Old Testament is horrid. I think I would refuse a command to stone a man, his children and his entire household over the theft of a few spoils. After I posted this, I remembered reading about A-chan and the valley of Achor in Judges. And Exodus contains the laws of Moses which includes the death penalty for some offences.
I think just war is when you are defending yourself from attack.

anachronist said...

The cruelty of various passages in the Old Testament is horrid. I think I would refuse a command to stone a man, his children and his entire household over the theft of a few spoils.

Well, they endangered the whole community by doing so; because of them the Israeli soldiers were defeated. They also defied the God and his laws. These were harsh times and your life wasn't worth much. On the other hand God spared Rachab the prostitute from Jericho just because she helped Israeli scouts.

I think just war is when you are defending yourself from attack.

It is only self-defence. War is when you counter-attack.

The Red Witch said...

@They also defied the God and his laws.

Only A-chan did and, for that, his children, family and even household slaves had to die. I couldn't participate in such a travesty. I would be damned along with him then. We could spend hours discussing the illogicalness of many passages in the Old Testament. I think all we need to know is 'people matter, not things' and 'we should all be nicer to each other and share more what we have' and it'll all be good.

anachronist said...

You are definitely right (let me just add here that, as far as I remember, A-chan family got a choice: either stay by him (what they did) or separate and survive).

The Red Witch said...

@A-chan family got a choice

Not in the King James Bible. I never liked the killing of all the men in Shechem either. Can I pass judgement on God? I think so since there are people clearly committing transgressions that don't get punished and others who are most severely punished for minor crimes. I have a hard time with that like George Carlin says "because he loves you."
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo&feature=related

anachronist said...

I never liked the killing of all the men in Shechem either.

Definitely not one of the more pleasant scenes but I don't remember God ordering that. Correct me if I am mistaken but it was after the rape of Dinah, the curious daughter of Jacob, right? Anyway, discussing it now is like opening a can of worms. "Because he loves you" is such a trite argument.