I am frankly fed-up with the threat of the use of force in the chatter we’re hearing today coming from church people condoning the January 6th insurrection and implying violence may be necessary to “save America.” I understand the impulse. But I find it discouraging that we have gotten to the place where people feel justified by their faith to condone violence against others.
But deciding between violence & non-violence has a storied church history divided into two periods. It goes back nearly two millennia with the turn from the nearly 300-years of the apostolic church (approx. 27 to 313 C.E.) to the Constantinian Church (from 313 to the present).
The difference? As Yale New Testament scholar Roland Bainton’s writes in his book Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey, the church during the apostolic era proclaimed a gospel of non-violence. They took seriously Jesus’ statements from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemy,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Pray for those who persecute you.” Ephesians talks of “putting on the whole armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, and the helmet of salvation” as a play on words to repudiate Roman militancy and to emphasize the peace Jesus advocated in his teachings.
For the church’s first 300 years Christians refused to take up arms. This was a time of martyrdom, of Christians vs. lions with the lions winning. But before being devoured, Christians amazed Roman Coliseum crowds singing hymns. Such early Christian pacifism in our own day seems unimaginable, Martin Luther King, Jr’s non-violent civil rights movement notwithstanding.
But something of titanic consequence happened under the Emperor Constantine. Prior emperors tolerated Christianity, even though they despised any religion that would challenge the emperor’s authority as a figure of worship. In the early Fourth Century Constantine realized Christianity had grown out of imperial control with the number of Christians growing geometrically. And so, Constantine chose to get in front of the parade. He became a Christian.
Much debate has occurred as to the sincerity of his “conversion.” The consensus of historians is that his conversion was more a matter of political expedience, than experience. But Constantine’s deft move to embrace Christianity became a turning point for the church. The church largely repudiated its 300-year-long embrace of non-violence for what is known as “The Just War Theory,” which developed shortly after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity and defined the church’s approach to war and peace ever since.
The author of this theory was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa and still considered the greatest theologian in Christian history. His criteria for invoking “Just War?”:
1) Having just cause, being a last resort, 2) Being declared by a proper authority, 3) possessing right intention, 4) Having a reasonable chance of success, and 5) the end being proportional to the means used.
These criteria argued in favor of America’s decisions to enter WWII after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s invasion of Afghanistan to prevent the nation from becoming a cradle for terrorists like Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. All these actions met the above criteria, though the second War in Iraq did not, due to its pre-emption.
But the mixing of war and Christians-going-to-war has not always made for a happy marriage, nor has it always followed these criteria. Christianity has often ignored them along with Jesus’ message “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Followers of Christ from the Middle Ages to today have often forgotten or ignored Jesus’ non-violent message. The list of violations is long: Numerous pogroms against Jews during the Crusades and in 19th & 20th century Russia, the Spanish Inquisition slaying those who refused to convert to Christianity in the 1460’s, and the Thirty Years War in central Europe between Christians and Protestants killing over 8 million in the 1630’s. The zenith of Christian cruelty was Hitler’s Final Solution when 6 million Jews lost their lives, not counting innumerable Christians and other combatants. Hitler utilized Lutheran theology to justify his actions.
Today’s followers of Christ, who glibly speak of justification for violence for the purpose of saving the nation have distorted the intentions behind Augustine’s Just War Theory, even if the theory is partly complicit as an outgrowth of Constantine’s will for absolute power.
Worse yet, Christians who justify violent action against other races, genders, religions, nations, political parties etc., violate the basic precepts the prophets and Jesus set forth. These precepts counsel peace and reconciliation with the enemy. But these churches and their members easily mask political motivation behind jargon of spiritual motivation. They co-opt their faith & their integrity to serve Caesar’s quest for absolute power. It is a naked form of idolatry.
And yet, there are alternative Christian voices, pondering return to the early apostolic non-violent ways. Many scholars view the turn from the apostolic to the Constantinian Church as an on-going tragedy skewing the vision of the peaceful reign of God Jesus proclaimed.
Constantinian Christianity, still alive and well, explains much church decline. Young adults, assuming all Christianity have given up the gospel for secular, political purposes shun the church. It isn’t just that they consider church “boring.” They see the church missing the mark of values they rightly believe are Christian: inclusivity, diversity, open hearts & open-mindedness.
Repudiating Constantinian Christianity and returning to a non-violent, apostolic way of being church, may well lead us out of the woods toward new life & growth as Jesus proclaimed.
But I believe this church, Shawnee Community Christian Church, is on the right track. In the larger frame, along with restoring New Testament apostolic Christianity, our denomination’s founders repudiated disunity over what they considered as matters contributing to church conflict, like creeds. As we’ve often quoted in René’s and my time with you, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”
As an Open & Affirming church SCCC’s speaks of loving the neighbor. For us the neighbor is anyone and everyone seeking welcome from God’s people. New people aren’t looking for long lists of “Do’s” & “Don’ts!” They are looking for peace in their lives. They want to know if they can be accepted just as they are, which this church does very well.
Still, it is all too easy for us all to be seduced by the hysterical jingoistic & Darwinian impulse to believe life and faith are nothing more than zero-sum games where there must always be winners and losers. It is all too easy to mistake Jesus as just another power-hungry preacher and competitor in evangelical Christianity’s version of “Game of Thrones.” It is easy to project our human longing for personal control and power onto Jesus and imagine his understanding of power as Constantinian, not apostolic. Jesus’s use of power is invitational not coercive. It is reconciling not retaliatory.
But we need to pay attention. For, as Jesus warns in Matthew 7:5: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” These are the liars, cheaters, and thieves of our time who say they know Jesus, but don’t have a clue. As he continues, “Let those who have ears, hear.”
For God is always trying to reveal God’s peaceable reign to us, if we are but willing to listen to God’s voice quietly whispering love and peace. For, “Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God.”
Shalom, Peace to one and all!