Christian Peacemaking – Pacifism in the Early Church

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 22, Advent 2001
Ronald G. Musto

The early church understood the meaning of peace in the New Testament as a positive and creative force—the fruit of love. Its peacemaking was not based on a specifically political opposition to an unjust state, on the abhorrence of idolatry, or on apocalyptic expectations, but on the gospel command to make peace that was the basis for all these attitudes. From the early second century, when the New Testament was being completed, to the end of the Constantinian period the tradition of specific opposition to war is continuous.

Ignatius of Antioch (c 107), for example, wrote that ‘nothing is better than peace, by which all war of those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.’ He instructed his listeners in behaviour toward their enemies: ‘toward their anger be gentle, toward their boasting be meek… against their savageness be mild, not being eager to imitate them… and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.’

Justin Martyr (c 100-c 165), who died during persecutions under the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, makes the same point clearly in his Apology to Emperor Antonius Pius and in his Dialogue with Trypho: the Christians, convened from war and violence, have turned swords into plowshares and ‘cultivate piety, justice, and love of mankind.’ Rather than deny this faith under persecution they ‘prefer to die acknowledging it.’

Tatian, a Syrian convert of Justin, asserts the same principles in his Discourse to the Greeks (c 160). Political power, wealth, and military office are all rejected; war is equated with murder. In his Embassy Regarding the Christians, written to Marcus Aurelius (c 177) at the time of the emperor’s persecutions and the massacre of Christians at Lyons, Athenagoras explains that Christians refuse to kill, even with just cause, and that watching the capital punishment of criminals condemned to be killed in the gladiatorial shows would be the same as taking part in murder.

The middle of the third century was a period of material and economic crisis: plagues, famines, economic collapse, political instability, and barbarian invasion nearly brought the empire to an end. A series of soldier-emperors from the Danubian border restored order. They renewed the intellectual and physical attacks on the Christian Church. Christian apologists, however, continued to stress the theme of peacemaking. In Octavius, the earliest known work of Latin Christian literature, Municius Felix starkly contrasts the ethic of the Romans with that of the Christians. ‘All the Romans hold, occupy, and possess is the spoil of outrage. Their temples are full of loot, drawn from the ruin of cities, the plunder of gods, and the slaughter of priests.’ As for the Christians, ‘It is not right for us even to see or hear of a man being killed.’

Clement of Alexandria (c 150 – c 210), like Justin Martyr, attempted to win over the Hellenic world through a synthesis of philosophy and revelation and accepted the Roman world for the benefits it offered. Nevertheless his message in Exhortation to the Gentiles (chap 11), Miscellanies (4-6, 4.8.6 1), and Christ the Educator (I.12) is plain and consistent: Christians are educated not for war, but for peace. They are soldiers of peace and handle the arms of peace, justice, faith, and salvation. Justice and peace need no arms except the word of God, and ‘nowhere will they inflict wounds.’

Perhaps the most controversial Christian of this era is the North African apologist, Tertullian (c 160-c 220). A lawyer converted by the example of martyrdom, Tertullian composed increasingly critical rhetorical polemics against Roman values

The consistency of Tertullian’s writings on peace has been demonstrated in both his later works and in the Apology and other works of the orthodox period, including On Patience (chap 3), Agaimt Marcion (3.14), and Against the Nations. These texts demonstrate a clear unity of theme: the Lord has cursed the sword forever, the duty of the Christian is to suffer death rather than inflict it, and the sword can never produce truth, gentleness, or justice.

Nor was opposition to violence restricted to radical circles in this period. The Apostolic Tradition, a series of canons for the conduct of the Roman church attributed to Hippolytus (c 160 – c236) and widely used in the East, offers a contemporary’s confirmation of Tertullian’s thought. Several general principles emerge from the Apostolic Tradition’s list of forbidden professions: Christians may not hold military governorships or magistracies because of the role these offices play in executing capital punishment; Christians who join the army are to he excommunicated, ‘for they have despised God’; gladiators and their trainers must resign their posts or be rejected from the church; and finally, ‘a soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath; if he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected.’ This text implies the presence of Christians or potential converts to Christianity in the Roman army, but its wider meaning is far more important: Christians are forbidden to enter or to remain in occupations that employ violence.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c 254) is the most important figure of the next generation. Origen shared the apologists’ desire to promote Christianity to the Greco-Roman intellectual. Generally favourable to Rome and the benefits of the Pax Romana, he wrote in a world threatened by barbarians from without, a world increasingly hostile to what it saw as the Christian lack of patriotism. Origen’s best known apologetic is Against Celsus, a reply to a Greek intellectual’s treatise against the Christians. Written around A.D. 178, the treatise has been lost except for the portions quoted by Origen and others. In his reply Origen spells out the Christian response of peacemaking in a violent world. He argues that even if Christians support Rome, they must still be prepared to die for their beliefs. In answer to Celsus’ compelling call to defend the empire and its benefits, Origen replies that Christians who have beaten swords into ploughshares cannot take up the sword, ‘having become children of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.’

About the same time, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c 200-258), wrote in the same spirit of activist peacemaking. In his treatises On the Value of Patience (chap 14), To Donatus (VI.10), On the Dress of Vergins (chap 11), and in his Letters (1.6; 56.3) Cyprian consistently reminds his congregation that killing is a mortal sin. God made iron for cultivating fields and not for killing, taking a life ranked with adultery and deceit as mortal sins, and the bloodied hand is unfit to receive the sacrament, that is, the one who kills is excommunicated. Cyprian’s injunctions did not apply simply to private morality. He notes with scorn that although society views the murder of one person as a heinous crime, it considers the murder of thousands on a general’s order during war a great virtue (Letter I.6). Rather than inflict injury, Cyprian urged Christians to suffer martyrdom as a witness to peace.

Another African, Arnobius, composed Against the Nations between 290 and 300. The book condemns Rome’s tyranny, greed and violence. Contrasting the way of God to that of the empire, Arnobius concludes that God cannot possibly accept militarism; it is against the very nature of his being.

The last part of the third century saw the Great Persecution under Diocletian, renewed civil war, the accession of Constantine, and finally the so-called Peace of the Church with the empire. The acceptance of Rome in a Christian context brought the rise of a new Christian patriotism exemplified by Eusebius and Lactantius. Some assert that from that point on the gospel message of peace was lost amid approbation of the just war by a church all too eager to celebrate the victory of Christianity. Although this is true to an extent, Christian acceptance of the Roman Empire dates back to New Testament times and is not really new in this period. Neither should we ignore the continuing tradition of Christian peacemaking and active resistance to political tyranny that survived the Constantinian settlement with the church.

Among the framers of the Peace of the Church was Lactantius, a member of the inner circle of the emperor Diocletian (284-305) who was known for his brilliant attempt to renew ancient Roman forms of social, political, and religious life. The views of Lactantius on violence and peacemaking are fully consistent with the tradition of the early church:

‘God prohibits killing…and so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier—for justice itself is his military service—not to accuse anyone of capital offence, because it makes no difference whether you kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden. And so… no exceptions ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be a sacrosanct creature.’

Lactantius extends the prohibition to violence even to the act of attending capital punishment, a view already expressed by Athenagoras and Municius Felix. The Divine Institutes is a fundamental work of Christian social and political criticism. In its apocalyptic vision of the late Roman Empire, it was to influence Christian thought for centuries. Lactantius’ condemnation of Roman ‘riches, honours, powers, and kingdoms’ was fundamental. His portrait of Roman history as evil was a prelude to his vision of the empire’s division and collapse amid political chaos and natural disaster. As with all apocalyptics, Lactantius’ vision contained a social, political, and religious criticism of his age and a call for Christians to ‘seek after justice’ in order to ‘attain the reward of virtue promised by the Lord.’

Thus a continuous tradition of peacemaking stretches from the New Testament to the foundation of the Christian empire and the era of the barbarian invasions. This tradition combines a strong and active opposition to the values of Roman society with a commitment to their nonviolent overthrow.

An extract from The Catholic Peace Tradition, Ronald G Musto, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1986, p 34-38.

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