Welcome back ladies and gents! We are now on to the Tradition section of our series on A Theology of Non-Violence. Since it is always helpful to consider Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience when forming our theology, I’ve spent some time in the previous blog posts discussing the biblical and logical reasons why I believe that Christians should never fall into the mistaken belief that violence is ever the right choice. If you have not yet had the chance to read my arguments from Scripture and Reason, I suggest you do so.
So, let’s get started. Sadly, I cannot cover every bit of the past two millennia of church history, but I can provide a brief overview that will (hopefully) show where we as the church went wrong.
As we all know, Christianity started with Jesus of Nazareth. As I argued before, Jesus was unequivocal in his teaching on non-violence. He even took this teaching all the way to the grave where he died while praying for the forgiveness of the very people torturing him to death (Lk 23:34). Sometime after his resurrection and the day of Pentecost, Stephen followed in his footsteps by also dying pacifistically, and also praying for the forgiveness of his murderers (Acts 7:60). And this, my friends, kick started the global spread of Christianity. Interestingly enough, however, for the first three hundred years of Christianity, Christians didn’t use violence. Actually, quite the opposite – we became widely known for dying. In fact, the idea of dying became so closely associated with Christians that the very word for witnessing (martureo) became synonymous with being murdered (hence the English, martyr). And that’s just how things were for roughly three centuries.
Then something very strange happened. With the dawn of the fourth century, we began to see guys like Saint George, who was both a Christian and a soldier, and Saint Nicolas, who slapped someone at a church council meeting. Admittedly, Saint George was mostly just a palace guard, and Saint Nicolas was sorry for his misconduct. But this was only the beginning. After Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., which effectually stopped the state-sanctioned persecution of Christians, he called together the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., where jolly ol’ Saint Nick had his little outburst. Roughly half a century later (380 A.D.) Christianity is made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Five years later (385 A.D.), Christians are now killing people whose beliefs they deem heretical, starting with Priscillian. Now that we have political power, Christians outlaw all pagan religions in the empire in 392 A.D. Roughly around this time, Saint Augustine comes along and starts teaching the notion that since Christians have now gained the political power of the sword, then God must want them to use it to rid the world of pagan influence. And since that doesn’t line up very well with Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, Augustine couples this with the idea that you don’t necessarily have to actloving toward your enemies – you can just love them in your heart while doing violence to them (an idea that still remains in the minds of many modern Christians).
So, as you can see, things escalated rather quickly (in the grand scheme of things). Within less than a century we went from being killed to killing, and things don’t get much better from there. Without going into too much detail, here are just some of the highlights –
In the 9th century, Charlemagne leads a largely successful military campaign against the Islamic Moors helping to establish a unified Christendom (the earthly kingdom of Christianity). Though hailed by the Roman papacy as a hero, Charlemagne left a legacy of violence that would set the tone for much of how western Christians would conduct themselves over the next several centuries.
From the 11th to the 13th century, Christendom (following Charlemagne’s example) led a series of Crusades against Muslims in the Middle East. Many of Christianity’s most embarrassing moments came in the form of war crimes committed by the crusaders in the name of Jesus. After three centuries of spilling blood in an attempt to reclaim the holy lands, we left much of the Middle East still under Islamic control and much of the Muslim world with a bad taste in their mouths when it came to the name of Jesus Christ. To this day, the violence of the crusades is still a sore spot for many Muslims who might otherwise be more open to Christianity.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal began their Inquisitions to rid the western world from the blight of heresies, pagan beliefs, and the infernal Jewish influence by means of torture, coercion, and executions. Remember now, these are self-proclaimed Christians who believe that their actions are just as justified in the eyes of Christ as those of anyone who uses violence for “good” reasons. After all, in a sense they were just protecting their homes. And aren’t damnable influences that could lead thousands of your fellow countrymen to an eternity in hell more of a threat than someone simply breaking into your home to do harm to your physical body?
The 16th and 17th centuries saw the rise of the Protestant Reformation, which brought with it liberation from Roman papacy, the theology of justification by grace, and such shining examples of Christian brotherhood as the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War, and the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. And these are just the big ones! This doesn’t even account for all the little skirmishes, as well as the witch-hunts that went on well into the 18th century.
Now, as disheartening and upsetting as all of this may be, there is one golden thread in the blood-stained tapestry of Christian history – the Anabaptist movement. This is where we get our modern Brethren, Amish, and Mennonites from. Beginning in the 16th century alongside the Protestant Reformation, to this day the Anabaptist tradition is the only theological tradition in Christianity that has no blood on its hands. It is the only tradition that never persecuted another people group. This makes sense since the belief in non-violence is at the core of Anabaptism.
Time for an object lesson – in 2007, volunteer security guard Jeanne Assam shot gunman Matthew Murray as he entered New Life Church in Colorado Springs where Murray wounded three victims and killed two. Pastor Brady Boyd, along with many others, called Assam a “hero” for her actions. Conversely, skepticism arose as many people began to wonder why a church would have gun-toting security guards in the first place. (For an insightful article on why megachurches often have armed security, check out this article)
Now consider that in 2006, gunman Charles Roberts shot ten young Amish girls in their schoolhouse (killing five) before turning the gun on himself. How did the Amish community respond? Well, they told their children, “We must not think evil of this man,” reminding them “He had a mother and a wife and a soul.” They went to Roberts’ family that very day and comforted them, holding Roberts’ father as he sobbed and setting up a charitable fund for the killer’s family. In fact, while being held hostage two of the victims pleaded with Roberts to kill them first in the hopes of stalling him long enough for the others to survive. The media was shocked by how loving and forgiving the victims were. Far from responding with any kind of malice, it would seem that there was no trace of hate or vengeance toward the killer. Some people were so scandalized by how loving and self-sacrificing the Amish were that they began to criticize the Amish for how quickly and completely they forgave.
Now, you tell me, which of the above two examples looks most like Jesus? Which of the above two examples most closely follows the teachings of Jesus? And, which of the above two examples most closely resembles the earliest Christians?
Toward the beginning of this post, I said, “for the first three hundred years of Christianity, Christians didn’t use violence.” Much to my embarrassment, this statement is not entirely true. A friend of mine (thanks Jeremy) sent me a link to an article that points out how certain groups of Christians did in fact participate in the military and use violence after 173 AD and prior to Emperor Constantine making Christianity legal. (If you’d like to read that article, click here) So, while my previous statement may not have been entirely accurate, I would still maintain (along with the majority of Christian scholarship) that the church before Constantine was for the most part committed to unconditional non-violence.