Christian Pacifism and Just War Pragmatism – Part 1

Starting with Saint Augustine Christianity had always had a concept of ”Just War, ” whereas Christian pacifism has always been a force in Christianity, historically the “Just War” theology won over. The conservative religious journal “first things” published an article recently By William Doino Jr. where he defends the Catholic “Just War” theory against what he calls “The Pacifist Temptation.” The temptation he’s referring to a conference held by the Pontifical Council for Justice and peace and the Pax Christi movement, which led to a declaration by Pax Christi that appealed to a commitment to Nonviolence and insisted that there cannot be such a thing as “Just War.”

I fall along the Christian pacifist side of the debate, not for any practical, political, or existential reasons, but for purely theological reasons. However, I think the Pax Christi statement misses the mark, even though I agree, more or less, with its conclusion. Doino’s response is almost entirely a practical one, the idea being that one has a right to defend one’s self from aggression, and that the pacifist line would have led to the world being run by totalitarians.

There are two questions to be asked here. The first is what was the relationship of the earliest Christians to violence and warfare and the State/Military? The other is what is the relationship between the Christian and the State? The latter is often overlooked in the argument, which is a shame, because it’s a vital question, and one cannot answer the first question without looking at the second. Doinio hints at it slightly when he says:

It is one thing to honor individual Christians who cannot in good conscience take up arms and are willing to suffer for their beliefs. It is quite another to encourage movements which call on democratic societies to conform to pacifist demands—in the face of tyrants and mass-murderers—and are blind to the incalculable suffering pacifist policies would lead to.

Here there’s a slight distinction being made, but an important one, how a Christian is called to act may not hold for the State, but then there is a further question, can a State be “Christian” any a meaningful sense of the word? Can a Christian separate his personal ethics from his role in civic society? Are States moral entities that have a role in the Christian world? To answer these questions, we have to go to the historical question of the earliest Christians and their relationship to violence, warfare and the State.

Doino cites this article as a historical argument defending pacifism, and this article and this article arguing against it. The first article arguing against pacifism deals with whether or not Jesus was a pacifist. The argument basically is that Jesus at times was aggressive, never condemned soldiers, he agreed with his father, and he is depicted in Revelation as a Warrior. The first argument depends on Jesus driving out the money changers and merchants from the temple, what that has to do with killing on the behalf of the state isn’t said, kicking people out, even aggressively, and driving out their animals with whips, is not analogous to killing in war on behalf of the state. It also depends on Luke 22:36, a silly argument, I dealt with before when Reza Aslan brought it up, in short, the whole point of that command is tied in with his later lesson he gives to one who actually uses the sword, the moral of the story is one of non-violence.

The Second argument is true; Jesus healed a centurion’s servant and said he had greater faith than all of Israel, never condemning him being a soldier. That is true, but neither does Jesus condone it, in fact he says nothing of it, other than the soldier has faith in his putting faith in Jesus, that’s it. The fact as a Roman Soldier, chances are, he would have also taken part in pagan rituals, chances are he worshiped other Gods, that doesn’t mean Jesus condoned those things either simply because he didn’t directly condemn them. In fact we find Jesus speaking with sinners and tax collectors praising their faith, without condoning their actions, but also, often without specifically condemning their sins (Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 15:1-7). However, we get from his teachings principles that would move those to change, from the soldier to the tax collectors and sinners.

The third argument basically misunderstands the nature of Old Testament warfare. Nowhere in the Old Testament was warfare justified for any national purpose. In fact most of the warfare sanctioned by God in the Old Testament was God fighting (or heavily aiding in fighting) on behalf of Israel for a specific purpose. John Howard Yoder in his book “The Politics of Jesus” says:

We must conclude that the faith of the pious Israelite nourished by a body of what the cultural anthropologists will call “legend.” The central themes of which were that God himself will take care of his people

And after quoting Deuteronomy 28:7 he says:

And that therefore the Israelites’ preoccupation with their own power as the instrument of their own surviving or prevailing is misdirected.

The fact is, the ancient world was full of war, and the nation of Israel was a covenant people, the state was a covenant state with a specific purpose, to hold the land, and the bring about the messiah which would bring about the messianic age. In fact, in support of John Yoder’s claim, one of the most prominent laws for the Israelite military was restricting its force (Deuteronomy 17:16, see also Deuteronomy 20:1).

However, the very purpose of the limited warfare, which God allowed and blessed, for that specific purpose, ended with Christ. The nation of Israel represented through a state was no longer holder of a covenant with God, rather it was the (small c) catholic Church through Christ, as explained by us by Paul (Galatians 3:27,29, Galatians 6:15,15 and Romans 2:28,29) and Peter (1 Peter 2:7-10).

Therefore, the justification for violence falls flat, there is no state that has a covenant relationship with God, through which God acts to fulfil his purpose, thus the justification for the violence (which was almost always done through the power of God rather than human military might) doesn’t exist anymore.

The last argument, that Jesus himself is depicted as a warrior in Revelation is really neither here nor there. Revelation, is speaking of divine intervention against the powers of this world, it’s eschatological, not normative for the moral practice of Christians.

The second article arguing against pacifism is a historical argument about what the first Christian’s relationship was to war and violence. The article cites various scholars who more or less say consensus that the early Church was pacifist has been challenged in recent times, or that the consensus is no longer clear.

However, looking at the earliest extra-biblical evidence we have, it becomes clear that Christians did not join the military for very principled reasons. For this issue I think looking at the original sources would be helpful, especially pre-Nicaean sources. The reason I want to focus on the Pre-Nicaean sources is not only that they are closer to the Primitive Church; it’s also because once Christianity became the religion of the emperors, there was suddenly a large incentive to find theological justifications for warfare and soldiering. That being said, it is interesting that the first Christian Emperor only got baptized at his deathbed, so could it be that he figured one could not be an emperor, and a warrior, as well as a Christian? I think that is a reasonable theory, of course as Emperor, he was still the Pagan High Priest, offering sacrifices at the Pagan Temples, so it’s not completely clear why he waited so long.

Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian theologians gives us an early Christian perspective on warfare in “De Corona” chapter 11:

Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?

And Later:

Nowhere does the Christian change his character. There is one gospel, and the same Jesus, who will one day deny every one who denies, and acknowledge every one who acknowledges God—who will save, too, the life which has been lost for His sake; but, on the other hand, destroy that which for gain has been saved to His dishonour.

It’s clear that Tertullian believed being a Christian and a Soldier were incompatible, and he believed this on sound theological grounds. As he points out it is obvious that killing is wrong according to Jesus’ moral teachings, there can be almost no question that compassion, love and forgiveness were central to Jesus’ message. It is also the case that for a Christian, according to Tertullian, these standards are universal, they don’t change based on one’s position, or the legal status of the actions under the state. What about those who were Soldiers and became Christians? Such as the Roman Centurion Cornelius whose conversion is recorded in acts? Tertullian answers that as well, he says:

Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept.

We don’t know what happened with Cornelius after his conversion, whether he left the Roman Army, whether he remained by refused to do anything that would go against Christian morality, or whether he remained and just ignored Christian morality. However, we know what Tertullian would have instructed him to do, abandon his position. This is completely clear, there is no two ways about it, Tertullian thought that being a Soldier was not compatible with being a Christian, and if one was a soldier and wanted to become a Christian, he would have to give up being a soldier. This Sentiment is also found in Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” chapter 19:

But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters— God and Cæsar.

Very clear, however, this time Tertullian uses a different logic. It’s not only the moral teachings of Jesus which would prohibit a Christian from committing violence, in any context of situation, but rather it’s also the fact that soldiering requires one to align oneself with Cesar, to serve him as a master, and one cannot serve both man and Christ. Tertullian even says that even if there were no sacrifices involved (Ancient Roman armies had a lot of pagan rituals involved), it would still be wrong given the principles found in Jesus’ moral teachings and his Lordship.

Another early Christian writer that shines some light directly on this issue is Lactantius, writing around the time of Constantine. In his work “Divine Institutes” Book 6 chapter 20, he says:

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.

It is absolutely clear here that the prohibition against violence applies regardless of the legal status of said violence. Not only does Lactanius say that physically engaging in violence is incompatible with Christianity, even charging someone with a crime which would result in Capital Punishment would be wrong. This is how seriously many early Christians took the moral teachings found in the New Testament. We get Similar evidence from Origin, who, in his argument with Celsus (Contra Celsus Book 8 Ch. 73-75), confirms that Christians do not engage in warfare, or even accept public office, but are not revolutionaries and promote good citizenship, even praying for the public officials, who themselves persecute Christians.

However, there is evidence that there were Christians in the military (for example Tertullian himself admits this in His Apology Chapter 5), so what are we to make of this? We have a few options we can go with. We could say that different Christians taught different things as regards to warfare and the military, but as far as I know, there was no argument for a Just War theory prior to Augustine of Hippo. We could say that they pulled a Constantine, they were sympathetic to Christianity, but not baptized, or we could say they were, but they just didn’t follow all the moral precepts. Either way, the fact that there were Christians in the Roman Army, does not negate the fact that early Christian theology was against the military and Christians being part of the military.

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Christian Pacifism and Just War Pragmatism – Part 1

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