14 Sep Benedict XVI on Holy War
Pope Benedict XVI’s message this week condemning violence and holy war as against the natural order of things was quite interesting. The full text is not yet available in English (here it is in German), but reportedly the Pope quoted from a 14th- and 15th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus in his speech.
“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war. I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable…. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
His message will not sit well with radical Muslims, who frequently reference the history of Christian crusades and conquest. And it is rather unfortunate that Benedict quoted from a 15th-century emperor to condemn Islamic violence and holy wars. For it immediately conjures up the Christian faith’s own troubled history with holy wars.
Indeed, one of the seminal events in world history was the conquest of the Americas to force native Americans to convert to the Christian faith. Here is a chilling excerpt from an eyewitness account dated November 16, 1532 recounting the victory by Pizarro and his 200 soldiers over Atahuallpa and his 80,000 soldiers at Cajamarca in Peru:
The … battles of the Spaniards–vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord–will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels. For this reason, and for the glory of God our Lord and for the service of the Catholic Imperial Majestiy, it has seemed good to me to write this narrative, and to send it to Your Majesty, that all may have a knowledge of what is here related. It will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His Holy guidance. It will be to the honor of our Emperor because, by reason of his great power and good fortune, such events happened in his time. It will give joy to the faithful that such battles have been won, such provinces discovered and conquered, such riches brought home for the King and for themselves; and that such terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration excited in all mankind…. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolic life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host.
Now, it is one thing for Benedict to invoke natural law to reject holy war. And Benedict may well be right that violence is incompatible with reason. But he should not invoke past centuries to justify the incompatability of violence and religion, much less invoke ancient history to condemn Muslim violence. It all but invites counterclaims by radical Islam against the history of Christian holy wars.