My, how the church has changed.
Historically speaking, pacifism appears the unquestioned stance of the New Testament and the early church. Before the age of Constantine and the onset of Christendom, the church fathers held a consistently strong line against Christian participation in war and violence. One can find exceptions of course, but the norm is expressed by Arnobius. To explain the Pax Romana of the early fourth century, he pointed toward the peaceable nature of Christians:
For since we in such numbers have learned from the precepts and laws of Christ not to repay evil with evil, to endure injury rather than to inflict it, to shed our own blood rather than to stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world now long owes to Christ this blessing that savage ferocity has been softened and hostile hands have refrained from the blood of a kindred creature. (Quoted in Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace)
With the arrival of “Christian nations,” questions arose about how Christians should defend themselves and wage wars. Thus arose the Christian idea of just warfare, thinking based not upon the New Testament but upon classical Greek thought. War became a necessary evil for Christians, and killing still required penance and forgiveness. Augustine fleshed out this thinking. Unlike the early Christians who held that they were called to be the peaceable kingdom of Christ here on earth, Augustine saw that the earthly kingdom of Christ was far from perfect. He believed Jesus’s teachings were an ideal but that his “perfect faith” would only be lived out when our corruptible bodies put on incorruptibility. To him, attitudes were more important than actions. As long as one had love in their heart, outward actions of violence could indeed be in keeping with the will of God as long as they were accompanied by mournful repentance.
The Middle Ages brought about a new stream of Christian thought, that of the crusade. Unlike just wars—fought to right apparent wrongs and restore peace between states—crusades were fought on behalf of God against “wicked races” or “perverted” ideologies. Here, leaders appealed not to the New Testament but to the conquest of Canaan and to the Maccabean period. The goal of a crusade was not the restoration of peace but rather the annihilation of infidels. Unlike a just war, fighting under a crusade was not merely a necessary evil. In the crusading mindset, Christian leaders advised their soldiers that killing was God’s desire, that they were waging war on God’s behalf. To them, there was nothing wrong about bloodshed undertaken on God’s behalf.
By the 1800s, Christians had become so accustomed to warfare that Mark Twain famously derided the bloodthirsty talk of American clergy with this satirical “prayer”:
O Lord our Father, our young patriots go forth to battle. Be Thou near them. … O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells. … Blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet. We ask it in the spirit of love, of him who is the source of Love, and who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
The double standards of “Christian warfare” had become intolerably obvious to critics like Twain. These contradictions and challenges have continued to our present day. It’s a messy world in which we live, and 1,700 years of Christendom have left some ugly stains on the beautiful fabric of Christianity. What are Christians to do? Are we to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the harsh realities of global conflicts?
Some contemporary Christian leaders are continuing the crusading stance of the Middle Ages. They lay claim to a Christian nation’s supposed duty to annihilate the infidel.
The following clip is from the powerful First Baptist Church in Dallas. Robert Jeffress stood before his church to preach on November 15, 2015, just two days after the Paris terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theater. These were his comments:
Jeffress misconstrued several key pieces of New Testament teaching to make his point. Most importantly, however, his use of the word “we” reveals everything. For Robert Jeffress, “we” refers not the Christian people of God from 1 Pet 2:9-10 or Eph 2:11-22 or Gal 3:27-28. For Jeffress, his use of the word “we” is about Americans. Jeffress has totally and completely wed his faith with his American culture. For him, there is no difference between being a true American and a Christian.
Let’s not debate whether America actually was a Christian nation. Just look at present reality. Study after study today demonstrates that fewer people are attending church. The Nones (i.e., no religious preference) are the fastest growing religious demographic in the US.
At a time when the church needs to be a counter-cultural witness to the resurrected way of life, we don’t need more church leaders who sell out to their culture. The church has lost its dominant position in Western society. It is by no means an impotent force, but its mission has been deeply compromised by an abandonment of the gospel in favor of cultural accommodation. Our “salt has lost its saltiness.”
It is for this reason that I think the church ought to reclaim its heritage of non-violence and aversion for taking human life. This should not be a crusading stance against those who think or act differently. Instead, it should serve as a counter-cultural witness for the “holy nation” built on the cornerstone of Jesus and the foundation of the apostles and prophets. As GK Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Do you care enough about our witness to hear my pragmatic plea for Christian pacifism? If so, then perhaps our Christian descendants will one day echo the words of Arnobius: “The ungrateful world now long owes to Christ this blessing that savage ferocity has been softened and hostile hands have refrained from the blood of a kindred creature.” If not, then I fear the world will never know the peaceable kingdom of Jesus.
Jason Locke is the preaching minister for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California. He has been in full-time ministry since 1994, serving first as a church-planter in Prague, Czech Republic, and later as a university pastor at West Virginia University. Jason has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee Technological University and has advanced degrees from Abilene Christian University, including an MDiv and DMin. Jason has been married to Julie since 1992. They have two sons, Jericho and Jacob.