Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Christ our Hope: Part 5 - Witness of Early Christianity

This is Part 5 of a series entitled Christ our Hope in the Face of Violence and our Witness to Nonviolent Love. Part 1 served as an introduction and Part 2 considered God as a God of Peace in the Old Testament. Part 3 and Part 4 began to consider what Christ has to say on the issue of violence and war.


Up until the time of Constantine, history bears witness to the lives of the first Christians’ taking to heart Jesus’ “third way” and rejecting violence in all situations. In their writing and in their lives Christians lived out Jesus’ commands to love to their enemies, to pray for them, to turn the other cheek, and in following his example, to pray for their enemies while being persecuted unto death in a witness to the efficacy and power of Jesus’ kenotic love. We do not here have time to explore the witness thoroughly, but a few poignant quotes and testimonies will suffice.

The Didache, considered to be the teachings of the Apostles, opens with a paraphrasing of Jesus’ non-violent commands in the Sermon on the Mount:

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference. Now this is the way of life: First, you must love God who made you, and second, your neighbor as yourself. And whatever you want people to refrain from doing to you, you must not do to them. What these maxims teach is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Moreover fast for those who persecute you…and you will be perfect…Do not hate anybody; but reprove some, pray for others, and still others love more than your own life.”34

Clearly, the Apostles seem to be fully embracing Jesus’ witness of self-sacrificial love, exhorting their flock to be willing to sacrifice their lives out of love of others. Furthermore, their exhortation to love others more than one’s life is given in the context of those whom one might be tempted to hate, whom one might need to reprove, for whom one might need to pray. The Apostles are not calling Christians to merely die for Christ, although that is certainly primary; they are calling us to be willing to die out love for our enemies. St. Clement of Alexandria begins to clarify the difference between non-Christians and Christians. In this regard he shows that Christians no longer spend time training for war or in violent disputes. “We [Christians] are being educated not in war, but in peace... [For] man is really a [peaceful] instrument…we have made use of one instrument, the peaceful Word only, wherewith we honor God.”35 St. Clement calls us to respond with the Good News of Jesus Christ, but in order to do so we must be educated in peace.

This insight will have bearings on our conclusion. We could quote many more Church Fathers, and nearly all will speak similarly toward violence and Christian involvement in war. Before moving on however, we should reference a few of the Church fathers on specific issues: It is noteworthy that nowhere in patristics do we see any reference to using violence (or anything else) to defend the rights of others.

Tertullian, for example, accepts unreservedly that he would not use violence to avenge wrongs committed against him; therefore he never even considers using violence to avenge the wrongs committed against another.36 37 Cadoux explains well that, in spite of this, the early Christians were guilty of neither selfish negligence, nor cowardice38; rather, they lived and died in the image of Christ, reflecting his love and his refusal to avenge the deaths of John the Baptist39 or the slaughtered Galileans.40

In moving the discussion further towards war, we can refer to Origen. Writing around 248 in Contra Celsus, he admits the possibility of a just-war for non-Christian peoples,41 but consistently maintains that Christians should not take part, adding “[Jesus] nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to any one, however wicked.”42 Origen’s approach to the role of Christians living as citizens in a non-Christian country at war can provide a prophetic witness to our current call. We shall have cause revisit this later.

We have found, in our brief examination of the first two centuries of Christianity, that the followers of Christ indeed interpreted Jesus’ teachings to love the enemy, pray for the persecutor, and turn the other cheek literally. Christians, who had no power on their own and were not in any official way bonded to the state, received Christ’s call and responded generously with love of God and love of neighbor. Furthermore, for the early Christians these were not mere Christian idealisms. To be Christian was to be a man of peace, a man who had no weapon but the Word of the Christ and the Spirit of Love. So when did Christian’s begin to accept and participate in wars?


The first we see of a major development of a Christian “just war” theory43 is in St. Augustine’s City of God. Augustine began writing around 413, and much had changed for Christians since the time of Origen and Tertullian. Constantine had risen to power, thus ending the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire, had been baptized, and died. Shortly thereafter, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Herein lies a great temptation for Christendom. Christians are no longer merely an oft persecuted minority sect in a powerful Empire.

Rather, much of the Roman Empire became Christianized. The military and the politics were now related to the faith. Emperors and governors tried to mingle political interests with Church issues, bribing priests and bishops. For the first time a significant part of the military, including the banner, became Christian. For the first time, Christians had the power, the strength, to physically, violently fight their enemies. Around this time the empire had also suffered repeated attacks from barbarians. Writing in this context, Augustine was aware of having to defend Christianity from her critics and give the philosophical and theological foundations for Christians who are active citizens in the Roman Empire.44

Augustine, developing on the thought of Cicero and the Old Testament, describes the importance of the state as a keeper of peace and defender of persons.45 Rome, as a Christian state, must, at times, be able to war in the name of God as a defender of peace. Augustine attempts to answer the nonviolent apologies of Tertullian and others by arguing that killing is not evil in and of itself; rather what matters is the disposition of the person: one must never kill with motivations of hate or vengeance, but only for God’s will, that is, with the intent to defend. Augustine correlates this perspective of the spiritual disposition46 of a soldier to that of the state,47 thus justifying violent warfare. We must note however, that for Augustine war was only justifiable if it was absolutely necessary, that is, if the state found itself compelled to fight unjust attackers after nonviolent means of settling the issue, via communicating, had failed. Augustine explains, “Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace."48

However it is precisely on this point, of necessity, that Tertullian’s argument for Christian nonviolence seems to trump Augustine’s development of a just war theory. Tertullian writes, “A state of faith admits no plea of necessity. They are under no necessity to sin…because there is a higher necessity to dread denying and to undergo martyrdom than to escape from suffering.”49 As Christians the only thing that is necessary is following Christ. Christ does not directly forbid violence or violent warfare; instead, focusing on the positive, he commands kenotic love.50

Furthermore, McGuckin, explaining St. Basil's pastoral approach to the response of his dioceses to invading barbarians and the subsequent “necessity” of a violent response writes:

All violence, local, individual, or nationally-sanctioned is here stated to be an expression of hubris that is inconsistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, and while in many circumstances that violence may be “necessary” or “unavoidable” (Basil states the only legitimate reasons as the defense of the weak and innocent) it is never “justifiable.” Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the kathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is “be penitent.” Basil’s restriction of the time of penance to three years (seemingly harsh to us moderns) was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church.**

Thus, even when Christians were pardoned on the basis of necessity and permitted to participate in a war, neither the war itself nor the violence was justified. In fact, the warriors were considered defiled and in need of penance before returning to the Altar.

Nevertheless, after Augustine, Christians were further assimilated into Rome, and wars were waged in the name of the Church. Although, Augustine’s teaching on just war was not intended to be used by the state (it was initially used by the Church for pastoral purposes to help to determine the guilt and penance for those returning from war),51before long war, even holy war, became a normal part of Christendom. Some of the wars waged in the name of the Church could be called “just,” others cannot.

The first prime example of a “Christian war”, began more than 600 years after Augustine, when, at the Council of Claremont in 1095, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade. Admittedly, this war was, in a certain sense, a war waged in defense of the Byzantine Church, which had been under persecution by Muslims. Nevertheless, the sword, which Jesus had scolded Peter for taking up, became a Christian symbol,52meanwhile “Pope Urban II had brought together an international Catholic, war-loving Légion Étrangère.53

Clearly, this is a major shift, if not a complete reversal, from the faith lived out nonviolently by the early Christians. Previously, Christians had been ridiculed and persecuting for refusing to take part in the military; now they are called “war-loving.” This general attitude was predominant for as long as the Church and the state remained cohorts.54

Less than 200 years later and over 800 years after Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas would continue the discussion of the just war theory. Aquinas adds further depth to the theology of the just war theory and further weight to its authority. For Aquinas three things are necessary for a war to be just: the war must be declared by the proper sovereign authority55, the war must be waged on those who are guilty of injustice and refuse to make recompense, and those declaring and waging must intend the advancement of the good and deterrence of evil.56 Again we must add that for Aquinas war must always be a last resort, and for a war to be just, it must answer the objections he raises in the Summa.57

The Church would remain in bed, as it were, with the state, until the Papal States were taken by force in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Since the Church has been freed from the temptation of temporal power and military force, the Magisterium has slowly begun to revert to the nonviolent love and witness of the early Christians. But it has not yet discarded the just-war theory. Let us now consider the more recent proclamations of the Church on the issues of war, peace, violence, and mercy.

Works Cited

34 The “Didache,” 1:1-4, 2:7, cited from Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (Library of Christian Classics Series), 1970, 171-172.

35 Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, 190-200 A.D, Book I Ch. xii, Book II Ch. ii. 32, Ch. iv. 42.

36 Tertullian, de Corona Militis, 211 A.D., 11 (ii. 92).

37 This is in stark contrast with the common thought of today, which assumes a legitimate defense of self and a duty to defend others, even unto death. We shall have cause to visit this thought in more detail when we consider the contemporary question of just war. (CCC 2263)

38 Cadoux, 70.

39 Matt 14:1-17

40 Luke 13:1-5

41 Origen, Contra Celsus, 248 A.D., vii, 26.

42 Ibid., iii, 7.

43 N.B. For the time being we are assuming that war includes violence, and may therefore be contrary to Jesus’ call.

44 Robert Brimlow, What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI: 2006), 23.

45 St. Augustine, City of God (Penguin Classics), (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) 19:7.

46 We can see this also in his exegesis of Matt 5:39, where he limits Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek to a mere inner disposition. Robert Brimlow, correctly I think sees this as introducing a false dichotomy into the human person. See Brimlow, p30-32 for more on this. While I think Brimlow may be correct, we shall not pursue his line of reasoning, which intends to do away with the just war theory.

47 Ibid.

48 St. Augustine, "CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 98 (St. Augustine to Boniface)," NEW ADVENT. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102098.htm (accessed April 22, 2008), clxxxix

49 Tertullian, De Corona XI.

50 Brimlow, 32.

**John McGuckin, "Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity".

51 Michael Baxter, “Just War and Pacifism,” Houston Catholic Worker, Vol XXIV, No. 3, May-June 2004.

52 H. W. Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic – A 2,000-Year History, (Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2001), 214.

53 Ibid.

54 Crocker points out another intriguing example, in addition to that of war, of the Empire’s influence on Christianity. He writes, “Christianity had distinguished itself, in the centuries before Constantine, by not making heresy a capital crime. After the empire and Christianity became one, the imperial penalty for heresy overruled Christian practice – though most of the leaders of the Catholic Church disapproved of such capital punishment.” Is it a coincidence that these two issues, war and capital punishment, were the most hotly debated topics in the development of the Catechism?

55 Here we see a subtle beginning of the move away from the pastoral focus of the just war theory.

56 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2a 2ae, Q. 40, A

57 N.B. One of Thomas’ strongest objections quotes Jesus’ aforementioned teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Aquinas refutes this on basis of necessity, which as we have noted above, Tertullian shows is faulty logic for a Christian.


Henry Karlson said...

Good post, again. I think one of the most important witnesses of how Christ's words are to be interpreted is through the early Christian witnesses who lived them out in a time and place where many people could have justified "force" against their oppressors if one follows "modern" modes of thinking.

One of the things about Augustine which I would add is that he would also say the authority to kill, in defense, is not found in the individual/person, but in the state; and one could not, on their own, act violently, and only an officer of the state, through the state, can that authority be had (even if other criteria for justice is to be had). This has many implications which come out of his thought, much which is ignored by later generations.

JB said...

Thanks again Henry,

Interesting info on Augustine. One could also add a reference Nate once pointed out to me in which Augustine apparently refers to killing in self-defense as a form of idolatry.