Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA
PEACE AND FAITH Antiwar activism and Christianity have been hand-in-hand for centuriesThis was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on March 15, 2003.
by David B. Miller, pastor, University Mennonite Church, State College, PA
The CDT's article on the faith based peace movement evoked strong responses from Rob Johnson, Rev. Gabriel Morley, and Connie DiAndreth. Their letters revealed a passionate concern for the suffering of the Iraqi people, which I share. Their writing also revealed serious misconceptions about Christians who are committed to the way of nonviolence. I write to bring both historical perspective and clarity on some of the issues they raised.
Christians who are committed to nonviolence do not ground their commitment in a liberal political agenda, nor is it the result of having "been blackmailed by celebrities, relativists, fatalists and terrorists..." The commitment to nonviolence is rooted in a radical commitment to the meaning of the confession "Jesus is Lord". We understand that to name Christ as Lord means to submit ourselves to seek to do what Jesus taught in word and deed. We do not claim perfection, but neither can we place the claim of nation above the commitment to Christ as Lord.
The text of Matthew 10:34 was quoted, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." On the surface, one would imagine that Jesus is authorizing lethal force. However, read in context the passage means the opposite, Jesus tells his disciples to anticipate bitter resistance, but to "not fear those who can kill the body" for "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." They are never authorized to kill, but told to be ready to lay down there own lives.
Most serious scholars of church history today agree that for the first three centuries of the Christian church, Christians rejected not only emperor worship and idolatry but also participation in the military. Obedience to the gospel, the early church held, was consistent only with a position of nonresistance and not serving in the military. Yale church historian Roland Bainton writes, "From the end of the New Testament period to the decade 170-180 there is no evidence whatever of Christians in the army. All of the East and West repudiated participation in warfare for Christians." None of the Christian leaders in the pre-Constantinian era (313 AD) approved of a military career for disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Christians that were found in the military prior to Constantine were predominately persons who were already soldiers at the time of their Christian conversion. These were given strict instructions - "A soldier of the government must be told not to execute men; if he should be ordered to do it, he shall not do it. He must be told not to take the military oath. If he will not agree let him be rejected [from baptism]. ... If a catechumen or baptized Christian wishes to become a soldier, let him be cast out." Hippolytus, Apostolic Traditions, ca. 200 AD)
It is linguistically correct that the injunction against killing in the ten commandments is better translated, "You shall not murder", rather than the more generic, "you shall not kill". However, the early church, in the light of Jesus' teaching, understood this to include a prohibition against state sanctioned killing - either capitol punishment or warfare. Tertullian, in the early second century wrote "Inquiry is made..whether a believer is able to turn himself into military service... But how will a Christian war, indeed how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? ... The Lord in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier."
The early church believed that the vision of the prophets Micah (4:3) and Isaiah 2:4 was to be realized in their life in the world. Justin Martyr (ca. 150 AD) declared, "We who were full of war and murder of one another and all wickedness have each changed his warlike instruments - swords into plowshares and spears into agricultural instruments."
Christians only began to 'make peace with war' following the accession of Constantine to the Imperial throne. In a mere seventy five years Christians went from being outlaws, condemned and persecuted for their faith to those who wielded imperial power. At this critical juncture most rationalized away the teaching of Jesus and the subsequent instructions of the fathers of the early church and put in its stead a pragmatic, constrained use of lethal power (just war) in the cause of justice and order. Jesus' teachings came to be viewed as only applicable in the realm of private behavior. In the wake of this rationalization came forced conversions, the inquisition and the persecution of so-called heretics. This fateful shift in ethics made way for a series of wars of 'liberation' that we know of as the crusades. How different would relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims be today if this killing under the banner of the church never taken place?
Christians who are committed to following Christ nonviolently in the way of the cross are often told to be silent and be grateful for those who have, by their lives, won them the freedom to believe and worship freely. We do not deny the sacrifice that others have made! However, what is often ignored in this statement is that the concept of religious freedom and the separation of church and state was first held, not by those who justify the use of violence, but by those committed to nonviolence. The Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers, and Dunkards (Church of the Brethren) nonviolently gave their lives by the thousands, dying at the hands of nationalist Christians in Europe who believed that they were carrying out the will of God by killing other Christians.
It is usually assumed that invoking the example of Hitler and Nazi Germany trumps all arguments and silences those committed to nonviolence. I have no question that Hitler needed to be stopped, but there is no reason to begin our ethical reasoning with Hitler in 1939. Indeed, had the Christians, who were the clear majority population of Germany, continued in the teachings of Jesus, there would have been no army for Hitler to raise. The same texts calling for obedience to state authority and going to war (such as Romans 13) are routinely invoked on both sides of a war. It is then left to the victors to declare that God was on their side.
Make no mistake about it - in this present crisis, we clearly see the evil done by Saddam Hussein. The nations of the world are right in demanding that Saddam disarm. But we also have heard from Iraqi Christians who have appealed to Christians in America to pray and work for peace. They remind us that the books of the New Testament and the leaders of the early church that taught those who followed Christ to follow in the way of nonviolence did so under the reality of persecution and suffering. We are free, even commanded to lay down our lives for other, but we are not permitted to take the life of another. This is the path we are constrained to follow.