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    History Politics Theology - Ecclesiology: Pacifism

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    No discussion of Yoder would be complete without yet another review of the question of pacifism.  But this is no tangent from the present discussion.  God calls kings to inhabit His city.  He promises that they will respond.  When they do, do they remain kings?  Can they be disciples of Jesus while exercising worldly power?  Here I pose again both of my questions: What if they ask? What if they listen?  Must we, as Yoder claims, tell them to lay down the sword?

    Once again, history first.  Mark charges that I played a nasty and blatant rhetorical trick by loading Yoder and his followers with an unbearable burden of proof.  This only appears to be a rhetorical ploy because Mark isolates the argument about pacifism and ignores the larger question I was examining.  I spent several chapters of my book testing several of Yoder’s historical claims about the discontinuity between the early church and the Constantinian church.  Everyone acknowledges that the church especially in her relation to the empire changed in the fourth century.  I wanted to know if the change was of a magnitude to justify Yoder’s talk about a “fall,” about “apostasy,” about an all but universal embrace of “heresy,” the heresy of Constantinianism.  I examined three issues: the church’s attitude toward the Roman empire, Christian views on war and violence, and the church’s understanding of Christian mission.  The issue was not the pacifism of the early church per se, but the shape of the church’s first millennium of history.

    Using a nuanced and sophisticated redaction of the Anabaptist historical script, Yoder makes strong claims about early church consensus.  As he frequently does, he complicates the question in several useful ways.  He notes that the term “pacifist” is equivocal, reminds his readers that there are multiple forms and sites of normativity in social groups like the church, and acknowledges that we have limited access to what Christians thought and taught about war and violence in the early centuries.  Despite these qualifiers, he confidently claims to know that early church tradition is a tradition of non-violence.  He regularly makes unqualified statements to this effect.  Christian pacifism was not isolated but an expression of a worldview and lifestyle that “eschews Caesar’s wars.”[1]  Yoder claims that one of the arguments against violence was this: “Caesar takes life. He sheds blood, and life is sacred.”  Therefore Christians cannot fight for Caesar.  Nonviolence was inherent in their total view of Rome and of the world: “Their rejection of the shedding of blood was one coherent part of the whole.”[2]  He repeatedly makes the bald claim that “early Christians were pacifists.”[3]  In the late second century, the “major voices from this period” – Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian – “were all pacifists” who “put their pacifism within a global rejection of the Caesar system.”  They knew that Christians were in the army, but they universally believed that “It was wrong,” wrong because it violated the tradition.  Tertullian’s arguments against Christians in the Roman military were “contradicted only by people who did not know the tradition or who were unfaithful to it.”[4]  We find the first explicit evidence of Christians in the Roman army around 170, but even then “nobody approved of their staying in the army.”  Yet they were not excommunicated because “the church was getting less rigorous about discipline.”[5]

    Yoder, in short, claims to know the mind and practice of the earliest Christians in some depth and detail, and he makes stark claims about how later Christians renounced the early tradition.  To make that story-line convincing, he must demonstrate a high degree of agreement among early Christians on the issue of war.  To take the last point: To justify his claim that the church was becoming lax in its discipline in 170 (at the very time that we have the clearest “pacifist” voices raised), Yoder has to prove that Christians who fought in the military were excommunicated earlier.  But he provides no evidence of this at all, only assertions.  If Yoder is to justify his claim that the church began to “tolerate apostasy” – the apostasy of killing in war – he has to provide evidence of earlier intolerance.  If he is going to tell a fall story, he needs a very clear and persuasive account of the “from which.”

    Yoder cannot demonstrate the kind of consensus he needs to make the story convincing, and the evidence he does cite is inadequate and often suspect.  He explains the famous decree of the Council of Arles (“Concerning those who lay down their weapons in peacetime it is resolved that they be excluded from fellowship”) by distinguishing between making war and peacetime “social management” or police carried out by Roman soldiers.  He is right that “soldiers were seldom warriors,” but he discretely obscures the violence of Roman “police work” with the anachronistically bureaucratic phrase “social management.”[6]  He claims that the life of Martin of Tours illustrates the difference between policing and war since Martin was “ready to serve in peacetime but not in battle,” yet by the time Martin famously renounced military service he had been in the Roman army, as a baptized believer, for about two decades and was likely an officer.[7]  Yoder cites three late second-century fathers who maintained the Christian “tradition” of non-violence, and dismisses their opponents with the comment that “We have no record that they ever argued their case.”[8]  But in the preceding pages of Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace where he summarizes this tradition Yoder cites no patristic texts and names no representatives of what he claims is an all-but-universal tradition.  He notes that no critic of pacifism can “bring to the surface a single text” from the first century and a half that supports Christian involvement in war, but Yoder provides no texts from that period that articulate the “tradition” of pacifism  Silence could indicate that there was a widespread approval of Christian involvement in the military as the opposite.  Something apparently “went without saying,” but what went without saying?

    Mark encourages me not to look to Yoder for detailed historical arguments about early Christian views on war.  Many, however, do look to Yoder, which is why I spent so much time on what he says.  I am happy to comply with Mark’s suggestion and look to experts, but when I review the evidence available to me again, I come to the same conclusion: While the early Christians were certainly not militarist like, say, American evangelicals, and while many Christians were perhaps pacifists of one variety or another, Christian views on war and violence were not uniform.  Against his intentions, Jean-Michel Hornus’s careful and honest book on early Christian attitudes to war demonstrates to me that there was no “tradition” of non-violence in the early centuries.  For instance: While he finds only slight evidence from tomb inscriptions that Christians were in the military, Hornus concedes Roland Bainton’s point that “their presence in Christian burial grounds implies at least an implicit consent on the part of the believing community.”[9]  So some churches apparently regarded military service as a vocation compatible with Christian faith.  Cyprian is often cited as a committed pacifist, but the only passage Hornus cites is highly ambiguous.[10]  Hornus cites Basil’s account of meeting a Christian solider: “We have come to know a man who proves that even in military life one may preserve the perfection of love for God.”[11]  Leonard Swift’s conclusion seems sound to me: “in the period before Constantine . . . both pacifist and non-pacifist positions existed side by side and  . . . neither was able to supplant the other.”[12]

    To reiterate, my point here is not primarily about early Christian pacifism.  What is at stake is the shape of the church’s history.  To make that narrative persuasive, Yoder has to prove that the early church was unified in its views on war.  He has not done that, and I know of no one who has.  Yoder’s claims about early Christian consensus are overconfident, and that overconfidence is very damaging to his entire edifice.  If there was no “tradition” of non-violence, then the evidence of Constantinian “apostasy” is seriously weakened.

    History is one thing, but views on this question depend a great deal on how the Bible is read.  If the Bible is uniformly, or almost uniformly, pacifist, then we might plot a pacifist trajectory into the following centuries.  I am convinced, however, that the Bible is not pacifist.  We can start with the soldier stories of the New Testament.  Of course, as Mark notes, the passages that show John and Jesus and Peter and Paul interacting with soldiers are about John and Jesus and the kingdom, but in fact there are Roman soldiers present, in some cases high-raking ones.  In no instance are the soldiers told to abandon their positions in the Roman military.  I have heard the argument in response that they did not need to be told; the Roman army would eventually have weeded them out.  Perhaps, but we cannot know.  What we do know is that, for instance, Cornelius was a centurion and a Gentile God-fearer before he met Peter, that he and his household received the Spirit, and that Peter said nothing whatever to indicate that his calling was illegitimate for a believer.  If non-violence was as near the heart of Jesus’ message and kingdom as Yoder suggests, this is a remarkable oversight.[13]

    Mark says that the burden of proof lies with me, as far as “biblical scholarship” is concerned, but the only biblical scholarship he cites is New Testament scholarship.  That is only half the story.  We have two trajectories to deal with, not just one – the trajectory from Old to New Testaments as well as from apostolic to post-apostolic.  Through John Nugent’s work, I have become aware of Yoder’s work on what Nugent calls the “politics of Yahweh.”  Yoder’s telling of the Old Testament has a certain power, but I am unconvinced.  Though controversial, I believe Yoder’s notion of a “Jeremiah” politics in the exilic and post-exilic period is sound, but he simplifies by characterizing post-exilic Judaism as predominantly pacifist.  Nehemiah had no army, but he stationed armed men at the wall of Jerusalem.  With the permission of the Persian king, Mordecai organized the Jews militarily to resist and slaughter their enemies.  Further, we gain insight into the apostolic view of war and violence from apostolic evaluations of Old Testament warriors.  Stephen, the first martyr, describes Moses’ killing of the Egyptian as an act of defense and “vengeance for the oppressed” (Acts 7:24).  Hebrews 11 is a neglected passage in this regard.  The writer commends a faith that is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” a faith manifest in Noah’s construction of the ark, Abram and Sarah’s patient waiting for a son, Moses’ identification with Israel instead of Pharaoh’s house.  By the same faith, he says, “the walls of Jericho fell down” (v. 30); the same faith animated the warrior-judges Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, and David (v. 32) who exercised faith in the conquest of kingdoms, by becoming mighty in war, by putting foreign armies to flight (vv. 33, 35).  If chasing away foreign armies can be an act of faith, then it would seem to follow that those who chase foreign armies can be among the faithful.

    Like Yoder, I am hostile to any reduction of the church to cheerleader or chaplain.  Like Yoder, I believe that the church exists to bear witness to power, to declare that kings must kiss the King, even to the shedding of blood.  The church is called to witness against the idols in every form and forum, no matter how well-settled those idols may be, no matter how powerful their patrons.  I believe what I say I believe when I say I believe that the church is a city, regardless of who is on the throne or in the White House.

    What if they ask? What if they listen? I posed my questions to someone recently, and his answer was, “We’ll find out when it happens.”  The burden of my book is that it has happened.  If it happens again, and we have every reason to believe it will, will we have anything to tell them?



    [1] “War as a Moral Problem in the Early Church, Harvey Leonard Dyck and Peter Brooks, eds., The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective, p. 98.

    [2] Christian Attitudes, p. 45.

    [3] Christian Attitudes, p. 47.  Also, “There is wide agreement that the Christians of the first two centuries were pacifist, at least their most articulate spokesmen” (Jewish-Christian Schism).  And, while there are various senses in which early Christians did not fit the description “pacifist,” “they were nonviolent” (War of the Lamb, p. 29).  And, “the pre-Constantinian Christians had been pacifists, rejecting the violence of army and empire” (Priestly Kingdom).  And “Christians were by and large pacifist in the first three centuries” (Priestly Kingdom).

    [4] Christian Attitudes, p. 49.

    [5] Christian Attitudes, p. 53.

    [6] In my book, I cite Ramsay MacMullen’s description of the violence carried out in “peacetime” by Roman soldiers.  Elsewhere, Yoder explains the decree of Arles by saying that the sword in question was merely “ceremonial” (Christian Attitudes, pp. 50-51).

    [7] “War as a Moral Problem,” p. 100.  For discussion of Martin, see Jean-Michel Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for me to Fight, pp. 142-148.

    [8] Christian Attitudes, p. 49.

    [9] It is Not Lawful, p. 122.

    [10] “his paternal and maternal uncles, Laurentius and Ignatius, who themselves also were once warring in the camps of the world, but were true and spiritual soldiers of God, casting down the devil by the confession of Christ, merited palms and crowns from the Lord by their illustrious passion.”  Hornus understands this to mean that “so long as a Celerinus and his companions were ‘warring in the world,’ they were serving the devil; it was only by refusing to remain under arms that they overthrew him and brought about their martyrdom” (It is Not Lawful, p. 126).  It seems to me we can draw next to nothing from this passage concerning Cyprian’s views on war.

    [11] Quoted in It Is Not Lawful, p. 127.

    [12] The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, p. 79.

    [13] A point made by Nigel Biggar.

    posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 5:01 am