Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pacifism isn't just for hippies: Non-violence and the early church

Friday was a crazy day and I wasn't able to get on here to post the second blog in the pacifism series. I know only like 12 people read this thing regularly but it's important for me to be consistent, so from here on out I'm going to try really hard to be on time with this series.

Before we continue any further I think it would be good to clarify what I mean when I say pacifism. When most people refer to pacifism they're referring to an opposition to war and violence. While that's a pretty sturdy definition, I'd like to add a few things here for our uses. For the majority of this series when I use the word pacifism, I'll be thinking of Christian pacifism. This particular brand is not passive, it's not content to sit on it's hands with a mere declaration of "war is wrong". It is active, it seeks to counter the powers of war and violence with love and sacrifice. I know this is a lot to fit into one definition, but I just think it's important to emphasize that the pacifism I'll be spending my time writing about is active.

A little history to get us started:
In the almost three hundred years between the ascension of Christ and beginning of the Emperor Constantine's reign (314 AD) , the early Christian church was known for their radical pacifism. Many of the most well known church fathers were outspoken about the issue. Tertullian, who was actually a Roman centurion's son, converted to Christianity in 197 AD and quickly began efforts to convert soldier's so they would refuse to fight, saying later, "The divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword." Justin wrote,  "We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One." (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4 about 160 AD). Many such writers, including Origen and St. Ignatius similarly called for the abolition of warfare, which they only saw happening once the church embraced the teachings of Jesus to turn the other cheek, love one's enemies, and do good to those who do evil. As Mark Kurlansky points out in his book, Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, "Such determined love and goodness was not meant to be pacifistic but a program for actively fighting evil."

I bring the early church up because I want to emphasize the fact that, on the whole, active non-violence is not something new to Christ followers. It's not a product of the new emergent church. It wasn't born out of liberal theology. It has been woven into our collective tapestry of belief since the time when Jesus came to earth and shook everything up. For early followers it was important enough to die for. The death of Jesus still fresh on their memories, his admonitions to pick up their own crosses and follow Him still ringing in their ears, these believers knew in a way that we will never know how high a cost they might be called upon to pay. Saying you were a Christian in these times meant becoming a fool in the eyes of the "establishment". Everything about them was counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, but everything they did was to be soaked in love. Their lives were not too high a cost to pay in order to achieve this, and indeed some of them paid dearly.
Paul famously said in Philippians 1:20-21,
 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Paul knew that the purest form of Christ's exaltation in his body was through the extreme love, forgiveness and ultimately, sacrifice that He displayed for the world. And Paul was content either to live to show it or die to show it.

I have lots more thoughts that will stem from this first installment. You might be wondering, if pacifism was so prevalent in the early church why is it so rare now? We'll get to that. We'll also get deeper into the ideas of sacrifice and what our rights are as Christ followers. But for now, since I can't think of a better way to wind this one down, I will leave you with a question to ponder until next week:

Why do you think the Church has seemingly derailed from the practices of non-violence and pacifism over the course of history?


  1. I like where you are going with this discussion Charissa. It seems non-violence has lost relevancy in the church today, which saddens me because it seems that the first century church radically embraced this belief. I also like that you are quick to point out that Christian pacifism is not a passive reaction to war and injustice.

    In response to your question, what have you read or seen that has made you believe that the church has derailed from the practices of non-violence? No leader of the church has the power to wage war like the popes did hundreds of years ago, so I am assuming you are referring to how right wing politics has seemingly choked out the message of non-violence in many churches, especially in the south. This is a hard discussion to have considering we live in a country with the largest military in the world, where our leaders claim their belief in Christ while waging war overseas.

  2. This is insightful Charissa. I agree, Pacifism is seen as a bad word these days only because people need to feel that justice is served, and they are not willing to wait on God to serve it. Pride is the root of this view, and God speaks very strongly against pride. If we could only see the amazing grace that God has given us we would able to put aside our pride and be able to love one another no matter what that person has done to us. I appreciate you writing on this, you are very articulate.