What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (III): Saint Ambrose’s Holy War Against Infidels

Note: This article is page III of a series on the Christian just war tradition.  If you haven’t already, might I suggest that you first read page I (the introduction) and page II (about the early Church).  

Saint Ambrose (Fourth Century)

The relationship between Christianity and imperialism traces itself all the way back to the early Church fathers who enlisted themselves as “prayer warriors” for the Roman armies (read page II: Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?).  However, even though they prayed for the success and preservation of the Pax Romana, the early Christians felt uncomfortable serving as soldiers in a largely pagan military.

This changed with the conversion to Christianity of Rome’s emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD).  Wim Smit writes on p.108 of Just War and Terrorism:

With the reign of Constantine (306-337) and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the attitude of most Christians towards military service changed. The question no longer was: can service to God be reconciled with service to the emperor, but what kind of conditions and rules should be satisfied during battle? This revolution in Christian thought started with Ambrose…and was later systematised by his pupil Augustine (354), who can be seen as the founder of the just war tradition.

Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD) served as a Roman imperial officer and sought to justify the Empire’s wars.  Prof. Christopher Tyerman writes on p.33 of God’s War:

The conversion of Constantine and the final recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in 381 prompted the emergence of a set of limited principles of Christian just war which, by virtue of being fought by the Faithful, could be regarded as holy. The identification of the Roman empire with the church of God allowed Christians to see in the secular state their protector, the pax Romana being synonymous with Christian Peace. For the state, to its temporal hostes were added enemies of the Faith, pagan barbarians and, more immediately dangerous, religious heretics within the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, historian of Constantine’s conversion, in the early fourth century reconciled traditional Christian pacifism with the new duties of the Christian citizen by pointing to the distinction between the clergy, immune from military service, and the laity, now fully encouraged to wage the just wars for the Christian empire. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), as befitted a former imperial official, consolidated this symbiosis of the Graeco-Roman and Christian: Rome and Christianity were indissolubly united, their fates inextricably linked. Thus the war of one was that of the other, all Rome’s wars were just in the same way that those of the Old Testament Israelites have been; even heresy could be depicted as treason. Ambrose’s version of the Christian empire and the wars to protect it which constituted perhaps the earliest formulation of Christian warfare was, therefore, based on the union of church and state; hatred of foreigners in the shape of barbarians and other external foes; and a sharp intolerance towards dissent and internal debate, religious and political.

The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “anyone who is not Greek.”  The Romans expanded the word to refer to anyone outside of the Greco-Roman world.  It was thought that the “civilized world” referred to the Roman Empire, which was surrounded by “barbarians.”  Prof. Glen Warren Bowersock writes on p.334 of Late Antiquity:

The term barbarian[ was] derived from Greek ideals of cultural “otherness”…The image of barbaricum began at the frontiers…There was the idea of a wall around the empire, separating Rome from the other gentes [nations]…Every “good” emperor set up inscriptions of himself as domitor gentium barbararum [conqueror of the barbarian nations]…Barbarians were contemptible, unworthy enemies…Many stereotypes were simply ethnocentric [racist]…Barbarians were natural slaves, animals, faithless, dishonest, treasonable, arrogant, drunken sots…

Christians were not detached from the construction of these images…Some, like Ambrose, projected barbarians as drunks and faithless savages…

The pax Romana had to be “defended” against these “barbarians,” something which was done by conquering their lands.  This imperial mentality was, from the very start, accepted by Christianity.  The early Church fathers, for example, believed that “God ordained the imperial powers” to “advanc[e] the gospel;” they appreciated “the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.”  The “barbarians” surrounding the Roman Empire threatened not just the state, but also the Church; their paganism and heresy was a threat against true belief.  Therefore, war against them had to be justified.  Who better to justify this than the former imperial officer Ambrose of Milan?  Prof. Frederick H. Russell writes on p.13 of The Just War in the Middle Ages:

The fuller development of a Christian just war theory was futhered in the writings of Ambrose, a new kind of Christian. Trained in imperial administration and the former prefect in Milan, Ambrose brought a Roman political orientation to his ministry…The courage of soldiers who defended the Empire against barbarians…was full of justice, and Ambrose prayed for the success of imperial armies.

Prof. Russell writes further:

To the Roman animosity toward the barbarian was added the element of religious animosity between believer and unbeliever, thus rendering the internal and external threats to the Pax Romana more politically explosive. To point the way out of this crisis Ambrose about 378 the De Fide Christiana for the Emperor Gratian, who was at the time attempting to consolidate Roman authority on the Danube after the defeat of the Arian Valens by the Visigoths. Ambrose assured Gratian of victory, for it had been foretold in the prophecies of Ezekiel and confirmed by Gratian’s faith. Ambrose even identified Gog, the wicked enemy of Ezekiel’s prophecies, with the contemporary Goths, who were thereby destined to destruction.

The just war theory was thus generated as a way “to point the way out of this crisis,” the crisis being the need “to consolidate Roman authority.”  More specifically, civil wars and rebellions within the Empire were to be forbidden, whereas Rome’s foreign wars to be justified.  Indeed, the emerging doctrine was to be applied to fellow Christians in order to prevent themselves from fighting each other when they could be fighting the infidel instead.  Prof. Alex J. Bellamy writes on p.24 of Just Wars:

Ambrose was the first thinker systematically to blend Christian teachings with Roman law and philosophy (Johnson 1987:54). He followed Cicero in acknowledging the possibility of justifiable wars and recognizing the difference between abhorrent civil wars and wars fought against barbarians (Swift 1970:533-4). Wars against barbarians, Ambrose argued, were legitimate because they protected both the empire and the Christian orthodoxy.

Ambrose, the first thinker behind the just war theory, justified his belief in two ways: (1) He was inspired by the wars in the Old Testament, and (2) He argued that Jesus’s non-violent teachings in the New Testament applied only to individuals but not to states.  Prof. Bellamy writes:

Ambrose argued that there were two grounds for justifying war. First, he found evidence in the Old Testament to support the view that not only was violence sometimes justified in order to protect others from harm, it was sometimes required on moral grounds or even directly commanded by God (Swift 1970:535). Second, Ambrose agreed dthat Jesus’ teaching forbade an individual from killing another in self-defence…Nevertheless he argued that whilst an individual may not kill to save himself, he must act in the defense of others…

Ambrose argued that “wars could only be fought in self-defense (broadly understood, as in the Roman tradition), when directly commanded by God, or in defence of religious orthodoxy”(Ibid.).  He ”demanded that the state should not tolerate any religion other than Christianity” (p.112 of Ralph Blumenau’s Philosophy and Living).  Heretics and pagans should be fought, both within and outside the Empire.

Ambrose melded the Church to the state’s powerful military.  ”Ambrose proposed that the incorporation of nails from the Cross into the imperial helmet and bridle symbolised Christianity’s support for enduring secular military authority” (p.77-78 of Prof. Michael Witby’s Rome at War).  He ”used Christianity to uphold imperial power” (Ibid.), but also used the imperial power to uphold Christianity.  The Church provided the state with the religious justification for war.  The Church, in return, benefited from these wars by using the state to enforce the faith and punish “barbarians” (pagans and heretics). Prof. Mary L. Foster writes on p.156 of Peace and War:

Ambrose, former praetorian prefect and then bishop of Milan (339-397)[ was] the first to formulate a “Christian ethic of war.” He drew upon the Stoics, particularly Cicero (106-43 B.C.), and legitimized the view by referring to holy wars spoken of in the Old Testament from Abraham and Moses to Maccaebus. Ambrose further justified the view by arguing that Christianity was, and must be, protected against the barbarians by the armed force of the Roman Empire. Both Augustine and Ambrose saw the Christian Empire as empowered to resist paganism and heresy.

For Ambrose, wars fought against pagans and heretics were, by definition, just: “if a Christian general fought a pagan army, he had a just cause” (Prof. Joseph F. Kelly on p.164 of The World of the Early Christians).  In fact, the machinery of the state should be used to conquer the world under the banner of Christianity.  Prof. Reinhard Bendix writes on p.244 of Embattled Reason:

Ambrose justified war against those who do not belong to the community of the faithful [pagans and heretics]…Warlike actions are justified [against the non-believer]…The goal of Ambrose was to establish a universal faith. All people should be brothers in the common, Christian faith, even if wars against non-believers were needed to accomplish this ideal…

Discrimination against pagans was justified in the eyes of Christian Fathers like Ambrose by the absolute belief in Christ as the only road to salvation. Accordingly, it is man’s religious duty to proclaim, and fight for, this truth in the whole world. Ambrose wrote his commentary decades after Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world, recognized and supported publicly. With this support, Ambrose could presuppose a universal ethic based on a shared belief in [the Christian] God and on that basis fight in the name of the church against the heathens who were still the great majority [outside of the Roman Empire].

Ambrose declared an all-out war against paganism, and recruited the Roman emperors to do so.  ”No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose,” who was “a major influence upon both [Emperors] Gratian and Valentinian II” (Ted Byfield on p.92 of Darkness Descends).  In a letter addressed to the Roman emperor, Ambrose wrote:

Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes fo the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith. For there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth the true God, that is, the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things. For he alone is the true God, who is to be worshiped from the bottom of the heart, ‘for the gods of the heathen,’ as Scripture says, ‘are devils.’ (Ibid., p.93)

Here, we see a reciprocal relationship emerging between the Church and Roman state.  The Church legitimated Roman wars to expand the Empire and protect its hegemony, so long as the state enforced the Christian religion by fighting against heretics and pagans.

Jews, for example, were infidels worthy of death.  James Carroll writes on p.104 of Jerusalem, Jerusalem that Ambrose “wanted to kill Jews (since, after all, Christian heretics were being killed for denying details of orthodoxy, while Jews rejected the whole of it).”

Prof. Madeleine P. Cosman writes on pp.262-263 of the Handbook to Life in the Medieval World (Vol.3):

The church’s attitude toward war would indelibly be changed by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the so-called Edict of Milan (313), which recognized Christianity as a religion that could be practiced openly; church and state could now be conjoined in the same cause. A momentous meeting in the year 397 of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (d. 397), and the emperor Gratian resulted in the declaration of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant outlawing of other “pagan superstitions.” Church leaders began to encourage rulers to wage a holy war on pagans for the sake of God and the church to defend the empire from heretical “traitors.”

There is much discussion, even in some scholarly circles, about “just war” vs. “holy war.”  I have read countless books where Western authors write of how it “was only during the Crusades that the Christians developed the concept of ‘holy war’ like the Islamic concept of jihad.”  These are all bogus discussions.  Quite clearly, the Christian just war tradition was the legitimization of “a holy war on pagans” from its very inception.  This is the case starting with the originator of the doctrine itself, Saint Ambrose, who harnessed imperial power to promote the Christian faith, a partnership that would outlast the Roman Empire itself.

*  *  *  *  *

Disclaimer:

None of this is meant to characterize Christianity as inherently violent.  Rather, it is meant to disabuse people of the notion that Christianity’s just war tradition has been any less troublesome than Islam’s jihad tradition.  This article is part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which answers the question (answered incorrectly by most Americans): Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

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