November 01, 2004

I didn't do anything for Reformation Day, even church. I kind of ran out of ideas for church visits, or at least ideas that interested me very much. But, as it happened, I've been reading a book for an article I'm doing that is set in the Italian Renaissance in Luther's era. (Since I try to keep work as far from the blog as possible, I'll leave it that vague.)

The picture the book -- which is not primarily concerned with religion -- paints of the Catholic Church at the time is of an institution at the peak of corruption. The Church seems to have been pretty much folded into the European nobility's system of nepotism, back-scratching and infighting, with Vatican positions being finagled by top Italian families such as the Borgias and the Medicis. And most of the clerics have concubines, so they have their own children with interests to promote. When the sternly moral pope Adrian IV has his brief reign he's almost universally hated, because no one can extract favors from him.

Reading this I can also understand the anti-aestheticism of the Protestants of the age. Generally I'm in favor of great art and beautiful things, and don't think God demands ugliness, but the Italian renaissance art craze bordered on idolatry. One prince rewarded the discoverer of some ancient Roman sculpture with a lifetimes annuity for both himself and his son, and threw of triumphal parade for his sculpture through the streets of his capital city. Such was not that unusual, apparently, and the clergy indulged in it as well.

But when the Lutherans do finally put in an appearance, it is, shall we say, a far from salutory one. The Holy Roman Emperor (who ruled what is now Germany, despite the name) musters a massive army to invade Italy, and it marches unhindered to the outskirts of Rome. The intimidated Pope makes a deal with the emperor, but the troops, who have been promised booty for their trouble, rebel against their commander and march on Rome anyway.

A terrifying orgy of violence follows, in which some 10,000 Romans were killed. The book implies this has little to do with religion, and a lot to do with avarice and the general wildness that seems to afflict groups of young men with weapons. But clearly a lot of rage is directed at the organs of Catholicism:

They walked into Saint Peter's and killed those who sought refuge there. They searched for monks, priests, bishops, old nuns, and slew them ... Young nuns were auctioned off, violated by one hoodlum after another, the killed ... Many artists, such as Marcantonio Raimondi, were tortured by the Lutherans because they had painted pictures of the Madonna. The only reason the Vatican Library escaped destruction was that the Prince of Orange had established his headquarters there. Much of the papal treasury disappeared. Raphael's Stanze was used as stables. The special rage of the soldiers was directed against the cardinals: their wealth was stolen from the poor, they shouted. Guicciardini wrote that the cardinals "unable to raise all the ransom demanded were so tortured that they died, then and there, or within a few days."

Reading the whole sickening episode was all the more disturbing because of the similar events in Liberia going on now. Fortunately the violence hasn't reached that kind of scale, but the setup is similar: a clash between religious factions that degenerates into bands of roving young men venting their inner savagery.

Of course, the soldiers who sacked Rome had reason to be angry, as the picture of clerical corruption painted in the rest of the book makes clear. But, much as we Americans like to romanticize rebellion (our country was founded on it, after all), it does tend to unleash something in human nature that flies out of the control of high-minded reformers.

Reading all this brought to mind John Howard Yoder's writings on the idea of "being subject" that appears in the New Testament. As I summarized here, Yoder saw Jesus as an example of subjection as well as revolution:

Man's subordination to these Powers is what makes him human, for if they did not exist there would be no history nor society nor humanity... Like all men, he [Jesus] too was subject (but in this case quite willingly) to these powers. He accepted his own status of submission. But morally he broke their rules by refusing to support them in their self-glorification; and that is why they killed him. ... He did not fear even death. Therefore his cross is a victory, is the confirmation that he was free from the rebellious pretensions of the creaturely condition.

I think Yoder has a good point. It is tempting to see Jesus as a "rebel" in the modern mold -- he zaps Pharisees with one-liners, speaks truth to power, talks of the poor inheriting the earth and the rich being humbled. But he was not encouraging anyone to act out the resentments they'd been building up against the authorities. His pointed befriending of tax collectors, in fact, flew in the face of such resentments. Instead he counsels his disciples to fight evil with good -- to help the poor, to love their enemies, and to suffer martyrdom equably.

Many people I know take Paul's writings about subjection to authority as either a remnant of his damnable pharisaism or as later addition by someone else in the Constantinian era. But it seems just as likely to me that the new church, like all revolutionary movements it seems, attracted a certain contingent of folks who saw it as an opportunity to let out their inner 12-year-old's fantasies of living with no rules. "'All things are lawful for me', but not all things are beneficial," warns Paul, quoting the Corinthians' words back at them.

All of this brings me to a recent post by A.K.M. Adam, who gives voice to an idea that's been floating in the back of my head for a while:

The pacifistís opposition to war becomes operative only at the extremity of human behavior ó whereas the real work of pacifism takes place day by day. Margaretís going to argue that Augustinian truthfulness provides a model of how we can envision pacifism as a way of life, inasmuch as Augustine both prohibits deception and discusses how people can live in a world where deception prevails. We noted that our familyís commitment to pacifism has affected our relations with one another, our behavior relative to neighbors and co-workers, our involvement in church and other spheres, much more than it has affected our attitude toward (for instance) the ongoing conquest of Iraq. Someone who says that pacifism is cheap when you donít actually have to participate in war or face harsh consequences for your refusal, may not have considered sufficiently the cost of trying to live a life characterized by aiming at harmony and cooperation in a culture overwhelmingly defined by competition, rivalry, and conflict. Thatís all the more true to the extent that anything we say or do risks supplying the grounds for an accusation from a hostile inquisitor (of whom I find a surprising number).

Pacifism is more than not serving in the army: itís living as an emissary of peace in exile in a land of contentiousness. When you begin with treating your spouse and children, your neighbors and students in a way governed by the blessing of peace, of course war is unthinkable ó but thereís so much more to be done before the question of war even comes up.

I was thinking about this when I was watching the Olympics this summer. Is competitive sport antithetical to the kingdom? How about watching political events as if they were sport? How about treating your debates with your friends and acquaintances as sport? By this standard, how much of a pacifist is someone like Stanley Hauerwas, really? The love of combat, the desire to win, takes many forms. And perhaps it is never more tempting than when you take up combat against combat itself.

Posted by Camassia at November 01, 2004 12:23 PM | TrackBack

I think it comes down to pacifism being one expression of a desire for simplicity. Renaissance art is "complicated" as compared to the relative simplicity of Gothic art. War is complicated compared to peace, which is most evident only where it is lacking. Competition involves complicated strategies and machinations, whereas cultivating one's own garden does not. To move toward peace is to move away from the manifold and toward the One.

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2004 05:34 AM

I don't think pacifism is necessarily more simple than violence, or that simplicity is the root value for all pacifists. (It usually seems to have more to do with trusting God and loving your neighbor.) It sounds like the cooperative approach that A.K.M. Adam is striving for is actually more complicated than, say, "every man for himself," which is really a pretty simple approach (animals can do it!). What you seem to be talking about is monasticism, which entails pacifism but is not synonymous with it.

Posted by: Camassia on November 2, 2004 07:52 AM

I'd say that war is more complicated than peace for the same reason that truth is less complicated than lies (oh, what tangled webs...)

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2004 08:18 AM

I think Hauerwas might admit that he often isn't a very good pacifist at all, but that's why he has to keep calling himself one:

"I say I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch. I'm a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I've got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it's too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what I know is true but that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all. That's part of what nonviolence is--the attempt to make our lives vulnerable to others in a way that we need one another. To be against war--which is clearly violent--is a good place to start. But you never know where the violence is in your own life. To say you're nonviolent is not some position of self-righteousness--you kill and I don't. It's rather to make your life available to others in a way that they can help you discover ways you're implicated in violence that you hadn't even noticed."

Posted by: Jennifer on November 2, 2004 09:54 AM

A friend of mine cracked me up when he said about there being "too much hate in the anti-hate crowd". But seriously, thanks for the thought-provoking post. The temptation to see politics as a sporting event with bigger consequences is ever present.

It's almost like something is built-in. In elementary school we were taught that every story had to have a protagonist and an antagonist and there had to be conflict. And I remember thinking, "Why? Why does there have to be conflict?"

I don't doubt that being a pacifist must be extremely difficult if only for the scorn heaped upon by others. But it seems easy in one respect: a clear conscience. Supporting a war is almost always an exercise in self-doubts and "what ifs?". Where war is concerned, being a pacifist presumably alleviates the need for decision-making.

Posted by: TSO on November 2, 2004 10:27 AM

And I remember thinking, "Why? Why does there have to be conflict?"

Because one three-thousand-word slice of life vignette is really all Western Civilization needs.

Posted by: Tom on November 2, 2004 12:17 PM
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