They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Micah 4:3)
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 for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God. — Hippolytus of Rome
Ron Sider is one of the most influential activist theologians in the Western church; his 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has been read by over 400 000 people and has been ranked as one of the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals by Christianity Today. This same magazine has now made an interview with Sider because of the publication of his new book The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment.
As the title suggests, Sider looks at the writings from the church fathers and other early Christian documents to see what they thought about killing. And as we previously have written on this blog, he found that they were pacifists. They were against all forms of killing; war, abortion and capital punishment – which should confuse the traditional left-right political paradigm a lot.
Just war-proponents sometimes argue that the reason most church fathers argued that Christians shouldn’t join the military was that idolatry was so common in the Roman army. This, Sider says, is not true:
Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don’t do, and they’ll cite the Micah passage or Jesus’ “love your enemies” to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don’t kill is the foundation.
The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn’t join the army and go to war is that they didn’t kill. But it’s also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it’s not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.
Another counter-argument against Christian pacifism is that there are examples of Christians in the army even during this period. However, Sider argues that this was not sanctioned by church leadership but, on the contrary, criticised by it:
By the last decade of the third century and the first decade of the fourth, it’s clear that there were growing numbers of Christians in the military. Here’s how I understand that disconnect between what every extant Christian writer we have says, Christians don’t kill, and the growing frequency of Christians in the military: There has always been a disconnect between what Christian teachers have said and what average Christians did.
Sider is not pleased with how non-pacifist church historians have changed the evidence to support their theology:
[What] I found striking is the extent to which modern just-war writers are actually not careful with the evidence. One example is Peter Leithart’s recent, quite good book on Constantine. Unfortunately, he goes as far as to say that Origen and Tertullian represented a “small, articulate minority” in the Christian church. There’s just absolutely no evidence to support that. Every single Christian writer we have up until Constantine who talks about killing says that Christians don’t kill. So it astonishes me that contemporary writers are that careless with the actual evidence.
The same thing would be true with what I take to be the best, most careful work on this whole topic from the just-war side: John Helgeland says that the evidence for, say, Roland Bainton’s position is small, divided, and ambiguous. Yes, it’s small in the sense that there aren’t a whole bunch of big treatises on it, although there is an entire treatise by Tertullian, and there is quite an extensive discussion by Origen. To say it’s divided is simply not true. Every single text that we have on the topic says that Christians don’t kill. And it’s not ambiguous, except that in the later third century we have substantial numbers of Christians in the military. In terms of practice, it’s divided, but in terms of the statements of Christian writers, it’s not divided at all.
- Guides to the Early Church Fathers (insightscoop.typepad.com)
- Logos Early Church History Resources (1689reformedbaptist.wordpress.com)
- Courage the cowardly emotion: An argument for Pacifism (liamc56.wordpress.com)
- How Mennonites Reinvented Non-Conformity and Non-Resistance, 1908-2008 (usreligion.blogspot.com)