Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

    subscribe to
  • RSS

Augustine on mercy in war

Guantanamo. Civil trials for terrorists -- or, ahem, depending on your political stripe, for "freedom fighters."

There's much debate these days on what to do with prisoners of war. But the very fact these guys are even alive is due to a view of human dignity traceable to Christian revelation. Put another way, you don't hear of the other side these days fretting about what to do with their prisoners.

No, they use their own people as human bombs.

In Augustine's day, the idea of having mercy on your enemy was a novel idea, and, after the sack of Rome in 410 AD, Augustine made clear where this idea came from. What is remarkable is that the enemy in Augustine's day seems to have practiced mercy during war much more than some enemies today:

All the devastation, the butchery, the plundering, the conflagrations, and all the recent anguish which accompanied the recent disaster at Rome were in accordance with the general practice of warfare. But there was something which established a new custom,
something which changed the whole aspect of the scene; the savagery of the barbarians took on such an aspect of gentleness that the largest basilicas were selected and set aside to be filled with people to be spared by the enemy. No one was violently used there, no one snatched away. Many were to be brought there for liberation by merciful foes; none were to be taken from there into captivity even by cruel enemies. This is to be attributed to the name of Christ and the influence of Christianity. Anyone who fails to see this is blind; anyone who sees it and fails to give praise for it is thankless; anyone who tries to stop another from giving praise is a madman. Let us hope that no one with any sense will ascribe the credit for this to the brutal nature of the barbarians. Their fierce and savage minds were terrified, restrained, and miraculously controlled by him who long ago said, through his prophet, "I will visit their iniquities with a rod, and their sins with scourges: but I will not disperse my mercy from them."


City of God, Book I, Section 7. Translated by Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1984), 12-13.


Post a Comment