Lesson 4: Violence in Christian History

If you believe, as I do, that Jesus defined the Christian lifestyle as nonviolent love, you have to contend with all the times his followers acted violently in the name of love. That involves asking when, if ever, a historical situation might justify using physical force. Most importantly, it calls for discussion seeking to discern Christ’s will in our time and place.

Scholars usually picture the Church offering an alternative pacifist community for her first 300 years. Although many think of Revelation as a violent book, the writer claims the only weapons available for Christians to oppose the Empire were the Word of God, prayer, and martyrdom. The early Jerusalem church was a Jewish sect that refused to participate in the armed revolution against Rome. And, the enteral city is dotted with churches dedicated to soldiers who were martyred after they became Christians and dropped their arms.

Things changed after Constantine recognized Christianity and gave the Church a place in conventional society. Once she was offered power, she had to assume some responsibility for maintaining order and defending her neighbors. Pacifism was replaced by control of violence. Theologians such as St. Augustine offered direction in doing this. The new privilege also led to abuse as the established church used her power to violently force all to conform to a new orthodoxy.

When the Empire moved East in the early medieval period, the Church operated as a civil government using a military. Even after Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire, popes reigned as kings, often leading armies to gain and maintain their power. The period is marked with a constant struggle between church and state. The church could satisfy the knights’ desire for battle with Crusades but also limit it by establishing more and more saints’ days when fighting was prohibited. Beyond justifying political violence, the church herself also used torture and execution to force compliance.

The many churches that emerged in the Reformation had all sorts of theories about political violence. In practice, they ranged from supporting just about anything the government did to separating into pacifist communities. Almost all participated in the religious wars that followed, battling in the name of God.

This situation pretty much remains in the modern era except the devastation is far more tremendous with our technology. Operating with any kind of a just war theory has been severely challenged with the spread of nuclear weapons. However, the problem developed before that when carpet bombing and terrorism assumed civilian causalities are a natural part of warfare.  Now, we have to ask if the nuclear age doesn’t call for advocating pacifism.

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