Christians and war

One of the issues on which the early Christians were at variance with the Grsco-Roman world was participation in war. For the first three centuries no Christian writing which has survived to our time condoned Christian participation in war. Some Christians held that for them all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or as executioners, was unlawful. At one stage in its history the influential Church of Alexandria seems to have looked askance upon receiving soldiers into its membership and to have permitted enlistment in the legions only in exceptional circumstances. Hippotytus, prominent in Rome, in putting down in writing what he believed to be the apostolic tradition and so the authentic Christian teaching, maintained that when he applied for admission to the Christian fellowship a soldier must refuse to kill men even if he were commanded by his superiors to do so and must also not take an oath, and that military commanders must resign if they were to continue as catechumens. A catechumen or baptized person, so Hippolytus said, who sought to enlist as a soldier must be cut off from the Church. Tertullian argued against Christians being members of the Roman armies on the ground that this brought one under a master other than Christ, that it entailed taking the sword, and that, even when the army was used for police purposes in peace time, it made necessary the infliction of punishment, when all revenge was forbidden to the Christian. He said that in disarming Peter Christ ungirded every soldier. Another consideration which weighed against service in the armies was the strong possibility chat as a soldier the Christian would be required to take part in idolatrous rites. Some Christians would permit service in the legions in times or areas of peace when the function of the army was that of the police, but frowned upon it in war.

So clear was the opposition of the early Christians to bearing arms that Celsus, in his famous attack on them, declared that if all were to do as did the Christians the Empire would fall victim to the wildest and most lawless barbarians. In replying, Origen did not deny that Christians were pacifists. Indeed, he said that Christians do not fight under the Emperor "although he require it." Instead he argued that if all were to become Christians, the barbarians would also be Christian, and that even now, when Christians were in the minority, their love, labour, and prayers were doing more than Roman arms to preserve the realm.

For the early Christians, pacifism was largely theoretical, for they were chiefly from groups other than those from which the legions were recruited and they did not have the responsibility for formulating state policy.

In spite of the general trend among Christians towards pacifism, in the third century the numbers of Christians serving in the legions seem to have increased. This was especially the case on the frontiers, menaced as they were by invasion, and in the West.

Moreover, after the Emperors had espoused Christianity and they and Christian officials were charged with the responsibility for the body politic and for making decisions for the government, the attitude of the majority of Christians towards war changed. Christians now began to believe that some wars are just. That was the position taken by Ambrose. Augustine elaborated the theoretical basis for a just war. He held that wickedness must be restrained, by force if necessary, and that the sword of the magistrate is divinely commissioned. Not all wars are just. To be just, so Augustine said, a war must be waged under the authority of the prince, it must have as its object the punishment of injustice and the restoration of peace, and it must be fought without vindictiveness and without unnecessary violence. It must also be carried on with inward love. Yet without the authority of the prince, Augustine taught, the civilian must not use force to defend even his own life. The clergy and the monks were to be entirely exempt from military service. It was this principle of a righteous or just war which was held by a large proportion of Christians in subsequent centuries.

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