We are always making God our accomplice,
that we may legalise our own iniquities. Every successful
massacre is consecrated by a Te Deum, and the clergy have
never been wanting in benedictions for any victorious
Henri-Fréderic Amiel (1821-1881),
is not only God himself who takes part in war. The word host,
as in the phrase heavenly host, means army. God is
Lord of hosts, Commander-in-Chief of heavenly armies.
Sometimes members of these armies, saints and angels, join earthly
battles on the divinely endorsed side. Such heavenly forces
joined the Christian forces to kill the Emperor Julian. Later,
they joined the Crusades, and they joined numerous European
wars. They even turned up during World War I. The "Angel
of Mons", for example, took an active part in offensives,
and spent the rest of its time looking after the dead abandoned
in no-man's -land.
The Angel of Mons seems to have been Protestant. Roman Catholics
had their own army of heavenly saints, including warrior patron
saints. St Martin of Tours is the patron saint of soldiers,
St Maurice of armies, and St Michael of battle.
(A First World War postcard)
Two angels of Mons, with swords, protecting British soldiers
Artillery has its own patron saint, St Barbara, and there are
many others. Even arms
dealers have their own patron saint, St Adrian of Nicomedia.
The Virgin Mary also takes a keen interest in war, invariably
supporting the Roman Catholic side. She was occasionally seen
cheering on the crusaders. She still holds a number of military
honours and titles, awarded for her help in war. A couple of
years after the defeat of the Turks at the battle of Lapanto
in 1571, she was awarded the title Our Lady of Victory
by Pope Pius V. He said that the battle had been given to God's
side because of the intercession of Mary, obtained by the use
of rosaries. She also delivered victory in the Spanish Civil
War, and it was for this help that Franco promoted her to field
rank in the Spanish army.
Victories were easy to attribute to God, but defeats were more
problematical. The Crusades had raised serious questions about
God's reliability. These holy wars were inspired by God and
had been promised his full support. When they had pressed forward
to take the crusaders" oath during the First Crusade, volunteers
had shouted Dieu le veult ("God wills it").
The Pope told them that God had put these words into their mouths.
Deus le volt, a more international version of the phrase,
became the crusaders" war cry.
the Crusades failed, Christians started to wonder why it was
that God had inspired them to win back the Holy Land with visions
and miraculous signs, and then frustrated them at every turn.
On occasion God had even sent earthquakes to destroy Christian
defences. In the early days clerics had deduced that Christian
failures were divine punishments for crusaders" crimes
and vices, but St Louis had been regarded as an ideal Christian
yet got nowhere as a crusader. By contrast, the Emperor Frederick,
one of the few successes, was an enemy of the Pope and was widely
believed to be an atheist.
Was it possible that God had changed his mind? Some crusaders
had defected to the enemy and converted to Islam. How could
that be explained? Was it possible that God had never been behind
these Christian exploits in the first place? Again, why were
so many crusaders allowed to die in such distressing circumstances,
and for nothing? And why did the all-seeing deity allow the
survivors to introduce the Black Death to Christian Europe on
their return? Many aspects of the Crusades encouraged scepticism.
The spread of humanism in Italy was largely a response to the
enormities and disasters of the Crusades, and especially to
the Fourth Crusade.
Similar problems arose every time a Christian army lost a battle,
which happened around 50 per cent of the time when Christians
fought non-Christians, and 100 per cent of the time when Christians
fought their fellow Christians. Victorious Christians always
knew who to thank, but defeated ones needed someone to blame.
Like other Christian nations the English knew that God was on
their side. Shakespeare's "cry God for Harry, England and
saint George" represented a common view that the trio of
king, country and national saint were all God's personal friends.
Why else should the English have won at the battle of Crécy
except that God wanted them to win? Throughout the Hundred Years"
War the victors attributed every victory to the hand of God.
The losers sometimes wondered if the victors were right, but
generally found alternative explanations. Since it could be
taken for granted that God was on their side, it was an easy
step to deduce that the Devil was on the side of their enemies.
So it was that one side imagined Joan of Arc to be an agent
of God, while the other imagined her to be an agent of Satan.
When her side was losing, the Church had her burned as a heretic
transvestite, and when her side fared better the same Church
posthumously rehabilitated her and later made her a saint.
Jesus blesses Saint George, dressed
as a knight
and holding his sword like a cross,
with his shield by his side bearing the arms of England
(Stained glass window, Howden Minster)
Christians invariably saw themselves as God's agents, helping
him to do what he (and they) wanted to do here on Earth. They
informed God about the activities of their rivals, so that these
rivals could be punished. The opening lines of the bull of excommunication
against Martin Luther read: "Arise, O Lord, and judge thy
cause. A wild boar hath invaded thy vineyard". Luther was
equally secure in the knowledge that God had invited him into
the vineyard to help cultivate it. For centuries to come Roman
Catholics believed God to be on their side against the Protestants,
while the Protestants believed him to be on their side against
The Agincourt Carol in its original 15th-century
English, gives thanks to God for the English victory that
he wrought. It begins:
Owre kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyvalry
There God for hym wrought mervelusly
Wherefore Englonde may calle and cry
The commanders of the Spanish Armada were no less certain of
God's favour than their English counterparts. The winds that
helped defeat the Spanish were attributed by the English to
God: "The Lord blew, and they were scattered", and
they thanked God for his help. This divine help proved that
God approved not only of England but also of its new Protestant
Church. The Spanish view was not, however, that they themselves
must have been on the wrong side after all, and that they should
convert to Protestantism. Like other forces inspired by God,
they were initially disconcerted when they lost, but it did
not take long to find an explanation. God was merely providing
a temporary setback to punish them for lack of faith and zeal.
Armada Medal, bearing the inscription
Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt
("Jehovah" in Hebrew - the rest in Latin) -
"God Blew and they were scattered"
In 1688 the weather favoured William of Orange when he came
to England heralding the Glorious Revolution. Why was King James's
fleet first trapped by a storm and then becalmed, while William
sailed by to a safe landing and rapturous welcome. For William's
supporters, the answer was obvious. It was a "Protestant
It has always been clear enough to Quakers that God does
not approve of war and is not partisan in earthly disputes.
Almost all other Christians over the centuries have taken
a different view. Each faction has been convinced that
it had God on its side. Like Roman Catholics and moderate
Protestants, Cromwell and his army of Puritans, Presbyterians
and other dissenters had no doubt at all that God was
on their side. They carried bibles, sang hymns, and said
prayers before battle. Their victories were attributed
to God. After one battle Cromwell noted of their defeated
Christian enemies that "God made them as stubble
to our swords". But his successors were much less
willing to explain the restoration of the monarchy in
1660 using the same sort of reasoning. Had God changed
sides? Or had he just lost interest? The sad incomprehension
of 1,000 losing generals is summed up by Louis XIV's plaintive
question after his defeat at Blenheim: "How could
God do this to me after all I have done for him?"*.
This is not as one might think
Saint George, but Prince Albert Victor Christian
Edward (The Duke of Clarence and Avondale), as Saint
George, by John Lisle, Buckingham Palace, London
Churchmen still have no doubt that God plays an active role
in war, until they find themselves on the losing side, in which
case it is rare to hear them acclaiming God's part in their
defeat. One way to avoid this problem is to adopt a new position,
which became acceptable in the twentieth century, that God approves
of peace rather than war. Yet this position can also prove embarrassing.
In 1938 Neville Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Hitler
in Munich to declare "peace in our time". The then
Archbishop of Canterbury explained this as an answer to the
great volume of prayer that had been rising to God. God, he
said, had saved us from war. He did not mention the fact that
the volume was not quite high enough to save the Czechs from
war. Nor did he mention that it was not going to be sufficient
to prevent a world war the following year. More curiously still,
God revealed an entirely different picture to senior European
Roman Catholic clerics. In Austria, for example, the arrival
of Hitler's army was hailed as the work of divine providence.
God still helps one side or another in wars backed or conducted
by less sophisticated theologians. The departure of the British
soldiers from Cyprus was hailed as God's will by Orthodox priests,
although the subsequent arrival of Turkish soldiers for some
reason was not hailed as God's will. God also takes sides in
coups d"état. General Rabuka, a Methodist acting
under instructions from God, led a coup in Fiji in the 1980s.
His government disenfranchised those of Indian descent and introduced
wholesome new Christian laws about the Sabbath. One of his stated
aims was to convert Hindus. God not only takes sides in coups,
he also plays an active part in them, on whichever side he considers
the more Christian. He was responsible for helping to put down
an attempted coup against the government of the Philippines,
according to the leader of that country's Catholic community,
Cardinal Sinn, speaking on 8 th December 1989.
The old problems have still not gone away, and churchmen still
have to explain to grieving widows and orphans why God incited
a war in which he assured victory, but failed to keep his word,
and instead arranged for men to be killed for nothing, leaving
countless grieving mothers, widows and orphans. The problem
is the same as that 1,000 years ago, and so is the solution.
Speaking in St Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 1950 Monsignor
William Green assured those whose sons had died in the Korean
War that death in battle was part of God's plan for populating
the kingdom of Heaven*,
the same explanation as that given for the debacle of the Crusades.
More Christian Violence and Warfare
More "Angels of Mons" fighting
on the side of the British
More "Angels of Mons" fighting
on the side of the British.
Here they seem to be killing Germans, even though the
German army was overwhelmingly Christian
More "Angels of Mons" fighting
on the side of the British