A Modest Proposal

I came across this quote this morning from Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536).  Erasmus, who is sometimes described as “the prince of the humanists,” was a reforming voice within the church in the 16th century, although he never formally broke from Rome.  His critical edition of the Greek New Testament was highly influential for Reformers across the continent.  Unfortunately, the Magisterial Reformers in appealing to the secular authorities for assistance in reforming the church in some ways contributed to the further entrenchment of the competing national loyalties Erasmus is attempting to combat in this quotation:

“Above all else let peace be sincerely desired. The populace is now incited to war by insinuations and propaganda, by claims that the Englishman is the natural enemy of the Frenchman and the like.  Why should an Englishman as an Englishman bear ill will to a Frenchman and not rather good will as a man to a man and a Christian to a Christian? How can anything as frivolous as a name outweigh the ties of nature and the bonds of Christianity? The Rhine separates the French from the German but it cannot divide the Christian from the Christian. The Pyrenees lie between the French and the Spaniards but cannot break the indissoluble bond of the communion of the church. A little strip of sea cuts off the English from the French, but though the Atlantic rolls between it could not sever those joined by nature and still more indissolubly cemented by grace. In private life one will bear with something in a brother-in-law only because he is a brother-in-law, and cannot one then bear anything in another because he is a brother in Christ? If nothing else will move your majesties, not the sense of nature, not respect for religion, not such frightful calamity, let the power of the Christian name bring you to concord. How much of the world is Christian? In the midst of the non-Christian world Christians are as a city set upon a hill to give light, but how will they move the heathen to embrace the faith when they so contend among themselves?  If we would bring the Turks to Christianity we must first be Christians.” 1

The quote reminds me of the poster from the Mennonite Central Committee which Stanley Hauerwas posted on his office door and to which he often refers in his work.  The text on the poster reads:  “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill one another.”2

  1. Desiderius Erasmus, Erasmus of Christendom, trans. Roland Bainton (1982), quoted in For All the Saints: A Prayer Book for and by the Church, Vol. 3, ed. Frederick J. Schumacher and Dorothy A. Zelenko (Delhi, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2006), 1158-59.
  2. Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 55.

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