The Medieval Review 16.01.14

Buc, Philippe. Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence, and the West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. viii, 445. $49.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4685-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Warren Brown
California Institute of Technology

This is a remarkable book. Buc takes us through two millennia of western Christian and what he calls "post-Christian" (i.e. post-Enlightenment) attitudes towards violence, in order to explore how Christianity has left its imprint on western violence in the modern period. He asks whether the West's Christian heritage can account for the idiosyncrasies of its violence, not in terms of how it is actually carried out, but rather in terms of the motives and ideologies behind it. He argues that violence is woven into early and medieval Christianity's conceptual frameworks and language. He then points out direct continuities between Christian violence in the past and both Christian and "godless" violence (in the literal sense of the word, not the judgmental) in various modern presents, as well as lulls, revivals and reinventions. He vigorously disputes arguments that modern western violence has become desacralized; he argues throughout that it is easier to understand if one places it against the backdrop of the Christian longue durée from which it emerged.

The book takes no prisoners. This is Buc thinking out loud, at the highest level. He assumes that his readers have the same knowledge and intellectual ability that he has, and therefore that he need not explain every reference he makes to people, events, or ideas. He jumps widely in space and time, from point to point and from example to example as his arguments require, sometimes in the same paragraph. We find ourselves moving back and forth inter alia from St. Augustine to the Spanish Civil War, to the First Crusade and the Gregorian Reform, to the American and French Revolutions, to the Stalinist Soviet Union, to Germany's Red Army Faction, and to the American War on Terror. The sicarii, Raymond d'Aguilers, Gratian, John Brown, Rousseau, Sartre, and George W. Bush, among others, put in appearances, as do the Christian conservatives Lt.-General William Boykin and Timothy LaHaye (author of the Left Behind and Babylon Rising book series).

Buc takes as his point of departure the apparent contradiction between pacifism and violence in Christian culture. In pre-modern Christianity he sees no contradiction at all; late antique and medieval Christian theology both produced violence and made it legitimate (68-70). Central was the contrast between the Old Testament and the New. For the Church Fathers, the division between a bellicose Old Testament and a pacifist New Testament pointed to a corresponding division in sacred history: God's time was divided into two parts, respectively devoted to war and peace, vengeance and mercy. At the end of sacred history violence would come once more; Christ/God would judge all people and take violent vengeance for men's sins. In the Middle Ages, this distinction was picked up and perpetuated, among others by the twelfth-century canonist Gratian (73). It legitimated violence by medieval actors against those they perceived to be God's enemies; the violent slaughter of Muslims by members of the First Crusade, for example, (105) prefigured God's final, violent judgment. Though there were medieval counter-voices--e.g., Sigibert of Gembloux protesting that Pope Paschal II's call to Holy War against the Emperor Henry IV was "an unacceptable lapse into Old Testament mores" (82)--only in the modern period, starting with Wycliffe, can one start to see a current of Christian pacifism based on the argument that the Old Testament was to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally (82-84).

However, the old theology of sacred history did not disappear. It reappeared not only in religious contexts, but also in transformed and repurposed form in apparently secular or even anti-Christian ones. God was replaced by a quasi-personified History. Man became History's agent, and History would render violent judgment on those who had resisted its march. To Karl Marx, for example, History was man's work--but at the same time it was the judge, with the proletariat as its executioner (261).

In the Christian tradition, Buc notes, the idea that Christianity's worldview and values apply universally and should therefore be exported appears regularly alongside that of Christian exceptionalism (55). This pairing is clearly visible, for example, in the earliest acts of the martyrs. It is also visible in a radically different context, in the ideology of the German Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhof Gang of the 1970s and 80s. The RAF claimed at one and the same time both universality and election. Buc argues that this is key to understanding it: " reinscribes the RAF's godless ideology within the figures of thought of Christianity," their terrorist violence becomes "thinkable." Seen from this perspective, terrorism was therefore not at all "culturally exogenous" to German society (147). Echoes of the pairing can also be heard in the language used to justify American interventions abroad: American exceptionalism combined with the duty to spread American ideals and values, especially liberty and democracy, to all peoples (e.g. 50, 55).

Christian violence, both experienced and inflicted, was accordingly--like much modern terrorist and state-sponsored violence--aimed at effecting political and/or religious change. Martyrdom, for example, not only focused on individual salvation but also addressed a wider community--either a non-believing audience, the martyr's own community, or both (248). The suffering that martyrs experienced inspired sympathy and conversion. The miracles performed by God on their behalf, or through them after their deaths, not only did the same but more importantly destroyed or inspired fear in His enemies. The Crusades represent the classic example of this attitude. Death on the Christian battlefield brought about individual martyrdom and salvation. Yet the campaigns were propelled by the conviction that fulfilling Christ's will required imposing by force a new set of religious and political conditions in their target areas (249). Such violence could also be turned on the Christian community itself. A righteous minority that saw its own society at risk could act if necessary against the wishes of the majority; the cause of Christian order justified violence by the minority to impose God's order on a deluded or indifferent population. Many medieval Christian reformers separated themselves from the wider Christian community while believing that they struggled for its salvation, and were willing to employ violence to achieve their aims.

This attitude maps easily onto early modern and modern reform movements that aimed to save a wider political community from itself. The purge in December 1648 of a royalist majority from the British parliament by members of the New Model Army was justified as the action of a virtuous minority (206). During the French Revolution, Rousseau wrote that "whoever refuses to obey the general will...shall be forced to be free" (234). The RAF sought to liberate Germans, especially the German proletariat, from their own blindness: "The bombs [that we use] against the repressive [state] apparatus, we also chuck into the consciousness of the masses" (233). In the twenty-first century United States, the same idea is visible in Christianizing political polemic. At the Good Shepherd Church in Sandy, Oregon in 2003, Lt.-General William Boykin admitted that the majority of Americans had not voted for George W. Bush for President in the disputed election of 2000. However, God had intervened with a miracle: "God put [Bush] there for a time like this," to engage in combat against the devil and his human agents that were responsible for the attacks of 9/11. God's hand ensured that a righteous minority had prevailed in order to save the whole (211-212).

When general salvation was at stake, pity and mercy were treacherous; they risked the salvation of the many for the sake of mercy to a few. St. Augustine proclaimed: "Where there is terror there is salvation...Oh merciful cruelty" (82). Where Christianity was abandoned, and History replaced God as judge, the same nevertheless applied. To the radical journalist and theorist of the French Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, the salvation of the many required the blood sacrifice of the few. To act otherwise was to indulge in a "false humanity" (277). A section of the Sans-Culottes begged in a petition in 1793, "For the love of humankind, be inhuman" (82).

Deep structures within western Christian theology, Buc suggests, incline westerners to connect external war for the sake of bringing freedom with internal purification not only of society but also of the self. Medieval Christianity saw itself as struggling simultaneously against enemies outside of Christendom, the dangerous within (e.g. Jews and heretics), and individual sin (91); Christian society would only be truly free and truly at peace when these struggles had been won. Raymond d'Aguilar's account of the First Crusade interprets the expedition and the suffering its members endured both as martyrdom and as an internal purge (170). So too in the modern period. John Brown offered a classic martyr narrative aimed both at slavery and at a "guilty land" whose crimes would "never be purged away but with blood" (160). For French revolutionaries, the regeneration of France was unthinkable without a purgation of social vices and the reconstruction of the individual self; the need for both justified violence and terror (108). The Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, facing execution in 1938 at the hands of Stalin's government, represented his death as both martyrdom for the sake of Communism and a personal cleansing of his own sins against the Party. This played into a Bolshevik ideology of purification, both of the party and the individual, which Stalin exploited as he eliminated his opponents (161-167).

Buc also finds early Christian analogs for the modern western attitude that terrorists are insane. Both early Christians and their medieval counterparts believed that people could be possessed by good and bad powers. Those who committed offenses against the Church or the Christian people are represented as possessed by demons. The Enlightenment critique of the Middle Ages did not end these tropes; it simply adapted them by projecting negative possession onto those willing to kill and to die for religion. Tyranny too became a symptom of madness, a madness that could, however, be extirpated by righteous zeal (132). In the wake of the Enlightenment, the developing disciplines of sociology and psychology collapsed both positive and negative possession into a single, secular "ensemble of the mad" (128). The combination of this with Enlightenment judgments of religiously motivated violence "authorize our own era's commonplace that terrorists and suicide-martyrs are fit to be tied" (143).

All of the above goes to support Buc's primary thesis, namely that recent secular violence "is more understandable if one heuristically translates its ideology back into religious terms" (249). At the end, briefly looking to the future, he suggests that in the "future of this Western past...martyrdom, terror, and holy war are likely to occur and likely to surprise both observers and agents. As long as the West is culturally post-Christian, fights to the death and deaths for the cause will suddenly erupt, at unexpected times and in unexpected places" (295). He suggests that the key to inhibiting this violence is to understand the mental frameworks within which it is understood and justified.

Occasionally, though rarely, Buc allows himself to editorialize. At the end of Chapter 1, he writes approvingly about Americans' sense of their mission in the world: "Without American idealism at war, no Nazi defeat. Without the American sense of mission, no intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo to stop genocide" (66). In Chapter 3, he comments that while psychoanalyzing the French terror might be safe, the method becomes dangerous when applied to modern terrorist groups. Understanding their internal world, he says, allows one to dismiss the presumption of madness and understand as coherent the discourse terrorists tried to live. This in turn, he asserts, is important for policymaking; those making policy need to see that the solution to terror is not some vast campaign of psychiatry (143, 151).

A short review cannot capture the depth and breadth of this book. To say that it is erudite is an understatement. Buc knows the sources and literature from all over his geographical and temporal map; his grasp and understanding of the relevant evidence over time and space is astonishing. Those not as well versed as he in this range of material may have some trouble following him, but will still benefit. The book will be very difficult for the general reader, though, however much she or he might be interested in what is a topical and important subject.

The book has other problems. It is not terribly well organized; to be frank, it wanders. Buc circles back to the same periods and sources over and over again in different contexts, often dealing in the same paragraph both with ideas he is introducing and those he has already discussed. He repeatedly states his book's general conclusions midstream, rather than waiting to pull them together at the end. He can be hard to follow along these circuitous paths; I occasionally found myself nonplussed by a statement that did not seem to have anything to do with the subject of a given chapter or section. Admittedly, one needs to do some springing and circling if one wants to lay bare cultural continuities over such a long period, but I sometimes had a feeling of mental whiplash.

There is, moreover, little discussion of any potential cases that might not fit his paradigms. Buc is a "lumper," and he is up front about it. He goes out of his way to say that his essay "does not assert that Christianity alone accounts for the forms that violence has taken in the West. Neither does Christianity alone explain how violence has had meaning and how it has been meaningful in this cultural ensemble...these pages have sought to isolated one factor among many--this religious tradition's character traits--and relate it to these forms, meanings, and meaningfulness" (288). This is a perfectly valid approach to a study of such temporal sweep. Nevertheless, I suspect that "splitters" interested in Christian attitudes towards violence will miss at least some discussion of attitudes that do not match modern ones.

Most problematic, however, is Buc's failure to compare western cultures with non-western ones; he has not provided us with any control that would demonstrate that what he has found is specific to the West. What is idiosyncratic about western violence and the mental and cultural frameworks within which it developed? Is all of this specifically Christian, or does it represent general human habits of thought? In only one place does he bring up an extra-Christian comparison, and only in a specific and narrow context. He asks with respect to medieval understandings of the sublime and human agency: "Are we not dealing with an 'anthropological universal' when it comes to violence for the gods?" (272). But he then moves only a short distance, to ancient Rome, to discuss links between works of Martial and those of medieval Christian authors. There is nothing that takes us outside of the west to answer the broader question to which this narrow one points. Readers will therefore be left wondering how significant Buc's arguments and conclusions really are. One might respond that the book, at 445 pages, is long enough, and to adequately respond to this critique would require a second one. I am not sure I would agree; even occasional and relatively brief comparisons, in place of some of the repetition, would have helped at least this reader see how and why what we learn from this book is important to understanding why westerners in particular think about violence the way that they do, or whether there is any "in particular" about it.

Whether or not what Buc observes is similar to or different from non-European attitudes towards violence, his picture of the (either overt or implicit) similarities between modern western and Christian violence, and against the former's assumed desacralization, is solid. It would be interesting to compare his book to Karen Armstrong's recent Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014), which seeks to separate modern violence from religion and argues that secular attitudes towards violence have influenced the religious rather than the other way around. I found Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror to be an intense and thought-provoking read; I would say that is a necessary one for all interested in both pre-modern and modern violence.

Copyright (c) 2016 Warren Brown

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login