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In the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monastery in the town of Cluny, in the Burgundy region of France, implemented a modest civic policy that soon made its way across the feudal communities of Western Europe and was practiced, in some fashion or another, for nearly five hundred years. The Benedictines called their arrangement the “Peace of God” or the “Truce of God.” The Peace of God measure mandated the suspension of all warfare during certain days of the week as well as high holy days and liturgical seasons. Initially, the Truce of God stipulated the cessation of all violence from Saturday night until prime on Monday. Soon after, the Truce extended the law to lay down arms from Wednesday night through Monday morning of every week. The fall of the Holy Roman Empire and the rise of the feudal system in the early Middle Ages meant that most of Europe was in a state of endemic war between rival lords, landlords, and acquisitive knights with the poor very often conscripted to serve interests other than their own.
The experiment known as the “Peace of God” grew out of the Benedictines’ recognition that the Lordship of the Crucified Jesus, which Christians professed on Sunday, carried with it practical implications for how Christians lived Monday through Saturday. Indeed that feudal lords accepted the premise behind the Truce of God, however reluctantly or imperfectly they did so, shows their acknowledgement that how Christians live Monday through Saturday risks invalidating the truth claims they make on Sunday. Of course, the Decalogue forbids God’s People from the killing of anyone, but even in the Middle Ages Christians realized their willingness to wreak violence upon other Christians rendered their worship of the Prince of Peace unintelligible.
That is, it falsified their faith.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. The poster had been published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and, overtop an arresting image of two people in grief embracing one another, the text on the poster says, “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Every year for over twenty years, Stanley likes to share, students would knock on his door. Angry and offended by the poster, they’d say to Stanley, “This makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anybody.”
“The Mennonites called it a modest proposal,” Stanley always replies, “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
On the theory that you’ve got to start somewhere, in the Middle Ages the Benedictines took the practical step of banning warfare and violence from sundown on Wednesday to sunup on Monday. If Christians were going to disobey their Lord and contradict their baptismal covenant they were now limited to three days a week in which to do it. As Roland Bainton reports in his book, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, the Truce of God in the eleventh century included an oath in which the Christian swore:
“I will not attack a villain or villainess or servants or merchants for ransom. I will not take a mule or a horse male or female or a colt in pasture from any man from the month of March to the feast of the All Saints unless to recover a debt. I will not attack noble ladies traveling without husband nor their maids, nor widows or nuns unless it is their fault. From the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter I will not attack an unarmed knight.”
Just imagine the oath if the Benedictines had had to account for the people in their parish using Twitter.
Naturally, Christians during the Middle Ages observed the Peace of God with varying levels of consistency. In retrospect, the Peace of God is a mixture of naive earnestness and cynicism. It’s rather funny yet somehow very characteristic of the Church, but it is more than a comical bit of mediaeval eccentricity. Behind the Peace of God, as Rowan Williams writes, “lay the recognition that for baptized Christians, sharers in the Body of Christ, to be in a state of antagonism with one another is horrible and ridiculous.”
What strikes us as the mild ludicrousness of the Peace of God experiment pales, however, in comparison with the absurdity of people, who could in principle kneel side by side to share the communion of Christ’s body and blood, while also plotting vengeance and violence against each other. Mediaeval Christians seem very odd to most of us today, and nothing is helped by romanticizing them. But there are points at which they really do challenge us very sharply. They had a certain instinctive sense that worship was not a matter simply of belief, but both declared and actualized certain policies for meaningful living. Rather than rationalize and self-justify why our Monday through Saturday commitments do not comport with our Sunday morning claim that Jesus is Lord, Rowan Williams says, it would be better to renounce our faith altogether and sin boldly. Or, as Christians in the Middle Ages did, we can make modest attempts that gesture towards lives that make no sense if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.
Admittedly, a policy that essentially says Christians, you’re forbidden from killing each other but if you’re going to kill each other, then you can only kill each from Monday to Hump Day strikes us today as absurd. The absurdity of the Peace of God is not unlike the policy, during the same period, when crusaders who had returned from the Holy Land were required to submit to a process of confession and penitence before they could be restored to the eucharistic life of the Church. It’s true the Church of the Crusades had justified war in the name of the Prince of Peace; nonetheless, the Church retained the recognition that participation in war, even if the campaign was deemed just or necessary, remains sin for which the solider needed to seek reconciliation.
Yes, on the one hand, an experiment like the Peace of God is absurd. Christians must not kill one another; therefore, Christians can only kill one another Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the close of business— that’s absurd. On the other hand—- show of hands— who would survey the carnage of our partisan trench warfare and not vote for a modest proposal like the Peace of God? Anyone? Because— just before God’s commandment not to kill is one about not having any idols that claim allegiance owed to God alone [guilty], and just after God’s command not to kill is one about not bearing false witness about our neighbor, which, when it comes to politics, I’ve seen a whole lot of you, dear reader, do on Facebook.
So seriously, who would veto a modest proposal like the medieval Peace of God updated for our partisan, tribal times?
Who would not consider it a modest step towards the good if for four days of every week Christians in American fasted from Fox News and/or MSNBC?
Just imagine, if Evangelical Christians could band together and convince Donald Trump to tweet only Monday through Wednesday.
What if, from Wednesday night through the Sabbath, Christians in America committed NOT to share, send, post, retweet, or whatever they call it on Parler anything that
How about for 5/7 of the week Christians dedicated themselves to not being dicks on social media in the name of “freedom of speech?” More critical to Christians than the first amendment, after all, is the second table of the Law. The obligation not to lie transcends the freedom to say whatever the hell we want. Christians should be the last people in the public square parroting Pilate’s question, “How do we know what truth really is?”
Or why not take a sabbatical for the balance of the week and cease demonizing the press. After all, you don’t think your doctor’s party or your lawyer’s political convictions impair their ability to treat you or represent you. They’re professionals with a vocation, and vocations, as opposed to careers, come with a code of ethics. Try, for more days than not during the week, to give journalists the same benefit of the doubt.
Imagine if, for four days out of seven, every week— or maybe just start with Advent— Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left laid down their digital weapons, turned their hashtags into likes, and ceased to other one another.
Unless Christianity really is just a vehicle for your political ideology, then who would not vote for a modest experiment like the Peace of God?
It wouldn’t be a perfect solution to our partisan warfare.
But that’s fine, because the mission of the Church is not to make America great.
It wouldn’t be a perfect solution to our cultural combat.
But it would be a reminder for four days of every week that who we are and what we do (or excuse) the other three days is not who we will be or what we will do in eternity.
Ancient experiments like the Peace of God or the restoration of crusaders might strike us as absurd, as idealistic as they are inconsistent, yet I think they are instantiations of Christian convictions. Even if we cannot practice perfectly the everyday implications of our faith, we ought nevertheless to gesture towards them in concrete ways.
So that when Christ comes again with his Kingdom, we do not make the same mistake that Israel’s best and the brightest made in the first century.
Namely, fail to recognize our Lord.
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