Church and war – Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus died on July 12, 1536. In his 1517 work, Complaint of Peace, he criticized war and the tendency of church leaders to support and encourage wars – a prophetic voice in an age of warrior popes and bishops.

What possible consistency can there be between a miter and a helmet, a pastoral staff and a sabre? between the volume of the gospel and a shield and buckler? How can it be consistent to salute the people with the words, “peace be with you,” and, at the same time, to be exciting the whole world to bloody war! with the lips to speak peace, and with the hand, and every power of action, to be urging on havoc?
Dare you describe Christ as a reconciler, a Prince of Peace, and yet palliate or commend war, with the same tongue – which in truth, is nothing less than to sound the trumpet before Christ and Satan at the same time? Do you presume, reverend sir, with your hood and surplice on, to stimulate the simple, inoffensive people to war, when they come to church, expecting to hear from your mouth the gospel of peace?
Are you not apprehensive, lest what was said by those who announced the coming of Christ, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings glad tidings of peace; who brings tidings of good, who brings tidings of salvation!” should be reversed, and addressed to you in this manner: “How foul is the tongue of priests; exhorting to war, inciting to evil, and urging men to destruction.” Think of the incongruous idea, a bloody priest!

The battles and wars fought during the past ten years were fought for causes which did not concern the common person.

There are times when Peace must be purchased. If one considers the tremendous destruction of people and property – it is cheap at any price.

We must look for peace by purging the very sources of war – false ambitions and evil desires.

Let us examine the self-evident fact that this world of ours is the Fatherland of the human race.

A brilliant mind, with an acerbic pen, Erasmus was a friend of Saints Thomas More and John Fischer, the English Renaissance scholars and martyrs.

A priest and theological scholar, he edited Greek and Latin versions of the New Testament. He was a true Renaissance humanist and wrote “In Praise of Folly” which lampooned traditions, even in the church. The work was dedicated to Thomas More.

He longed for reform on the church and, at first, looked with some sympathy on Luther. But he later criticized Luther, including Luther’s treatise on the bondage of the will.

A renegade in his time, he would still be considered one today, even as his friend St. Thomas More is often used in ecclesiastical battles on religious liberty.  Erasmus would portably have written quite sarcastically of this. He had very little tolerance for fools.

In high school or college I did a paper on Erasmus which saw him as one who was seeking a reform of the Church but who rejected Luther’s path. Erasmus sought a different path to change and to Christian life. I found him an intriguing figure. Sad to say I never really followed up with a careful study of his works.

Yet his words on war still touch me – as food for meditation in a world where religion is often used by politicians in ways that promote values opposed to the Kingdom of God. Preachers, subservient to political and economic elites, still praise war and look down on the poor.

We all need to follow Erasmus’ advice:

We must look for peace by purging the very sources of war – false ambitions and evil desires.

Let us examine the self-evident fact that this world of ours is the Fatherland of the human race.


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