Violence for Jesus (or: How the Church Went Rogue), Part 3

Crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, c. 800

Last time in this series, we looked at the nationalization of the church in the era of Constantine and his successors, which led to a cozier relationship between Christians and all aspects of the state, including the military. After prohibiting soldiers from being baptized in the second century, military service was explicitly allowed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 – in fact, the council prohibited Christians from rejecting military service during peacetime.

We ended with Augustine, who in arguing against the ultra-rigorist Donatists, developed the notion of ex operate operatum, that sacraments like baptism are worked by the work – the baptism itself does the work of saving, not the person doing the baptizing. That worked well as a defense against throwing an unknown number of people out of the church because of the failings of an unknown number of priests.

But of course, doctrines that make sense in one context sometimes develop into something quite differently. Such was the case after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The last Roman emperor – that is, the emperor based in Rome – was deposed in 476, although the Roman Empire itself continued in Constantinople for many centuries. Nevertheless, the decentralized collection of Germanic states that made up the former territories of the Roman empire led to a different understanding of the faith of Rome, which those states did eventually adopt.

Among those states were some small political entities, run by the pope himself, stretching across central Italy. The bishop of Rome as a political ruler led to entanglements with the various Germanic rulers, depending on the relative strengths of the personalities and offices involved. The first and most significant of these interactions was with Clovis, king of the Franks.

Clovis reigned from 466-511, expanding the Frankish kingdom from its original base in what is now northern France all the way to the Pyrenees in the south and into modern-day western Germany. Clovis, married to a Christian at the arrangement of Avitus, bishop of Vienne, prayed to the Christian God to help him defeat another Germanic tribe. When he won the battle, he converted – as did – coincidentally enough, I’m sure – 3,000 of his soldiers. So set the precedent for mass conversion, as well as a continuation of the notion that God would bless the military exploits of his people.

It was Clovis’ distant successor, Charlemagne, who marked the next major step forward in the church’s acceptance of military violence. Charlemagne took the throne of the Franks in 768, and over the next two decades fought constantly with the Saxons, a neighboring Germanic tribe. Missionaries for decades had attempted to evangelize the Saxons with little success, so Charlemagne, one of history’s greatest warriors who expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire encompassing much of western Europe, brought Christianity at the point of a sword. Missions became a primary reason for warfare, and he required all conquered people to be baptized.

This was acceptable because of ex operate operatum. No longer was baptism effective regardless of the baptizer; it was now effective regardless of the willingness of the baptized. A church council from the early 780s made baptism of Saxon infants mandatory, and hiding a child was punishable by death. In the end, policy under Charlemagne was forcible to the point of unintentional hilarity: A person could be forcibly baptized under almost any situation except one – if he was actively trying to kill you at the time of baptism.

By 1066, the church was fully involved in the military policy of the states. In the thoroughly political dispute between Harold of England and William the Norman over who should hold the throne at Westminster, William won support of the pope for his invasion of England, which killed many men and permanently reshaped English society. Nevertheless, participants in the action were required to undergo penance for the killing they undertook.

That was a far cry from papal policy just 30 years later, when Pope Urban II promised remission of sins for anyone who participated in the military campaign to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule. We’ll look at this, the first Crusade, next time.

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