Friday, May 20, 2011

The birth-place of Just War and the decline of Christian pacifism

This week for the pacifism series I'd like to return to a little history. A few weeks ago I asked the question: "Why do you think the Church has seemingly derailed from the practices of non-violence and pacifism over the course of history?" A few people had some good answers regarding the Church as it is today, but I think a better question would have been, 'What started us off the path of non-violence?' That is chiefly what we will be dealing with today.

In the year 312 Constantine I, who was in the number two position under the emperor, was struggling to climb the ranks and prove himself as a worthy replacement for the big man. He had a decisive battle coming up against one of his greatest competitors, Maxentius. During this period of history a big emphasis was put on belief in magic, dark spells, unseen spirits and the like. As Constantine prepared for battle he felt a great need to up the ante beyond military might alone since he believed the opposing rulers of Rome had rallied the forces of black magic on their side. One night Constantine had a dream where Christ appeared and commanded him to carry the sign of the cross into battle. For the first time in history, soldiers went into battle with an emblem of Christianity painted on their shields. Had it been a generation earlier, it would have been an unspeakable blasphemy for Believers. Before heading into battle Constantine was said to have seen a flaming cross in the sky with the words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer". Constantine won the battle. He became the ruler of the Western half of the Roman empire. But even more importantly, Christianity received a new role: it was no longer illegal in the Roman empire. From Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, "Constantine became the Christian emperor, the defender of Christianity, and, as such, forever changed the character of the religion as he promoted it and used it to solidify his power. Whether he himself embraced the religion or simply used it politically has been debated by historians ever since."

It seems to me that when religion (Christianity for our purposes) gets mixed with the goals and aspirations of a nation-state, the religion will conform to meet the expectations of the state not the other way around. "One bad apple ruins the bunch" or more poignantly as Tony Campolo stated it, "It’s like mixing ice cream and horse manure. It doesn’t really affect the manure but it really messes up the ice cream." 

We will never know what dreams Constantine dreamed, what visions he saw, or if any of them actually were from God. But we have history to see that many outrageous and counter-Christian ideas have come from people claiming to have a mandate from God. We look away embarrassed at the mention of the Crusades or the white Christians of the South using the Bible to prove their right to own slaves. I'm sure it was easy for the Christians during Constantine's reign to start letting things slip. After all, his mandate effectively ended the persecution that had defined the early church. Why not compromise a little to maintain their own security? The emperor was able to give the Church what had never previously had: political power. And the church slowly became drunk on it.

Yet, if you look at the life of Jesus, you realize he made a point of doing things completely opposite of how people expected (and wanted) him to. He flipped things upside down. He said crazy things like, "If you want to save your life you will lose it" and "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." When Peter tried to defend him from a group of soldiers that wanted to put him on the cross he said, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" At all times Jesus could have had power over every authority and government on the face of the earth, but he chose instead a path that would change hearts instead of behavior. 

What do you think of Constantine's visions? How do you think history would have played out differently if he had lost the battle? 


  1. I think of David and Goliath. He called on the name of God and killed a giant. David did not die in battle. He died of old age.God called him a man after my own heart. There are things worth fighting and dieing for. Larry Marble

  2. Somebody else would have co-opted the faith, and we'd be in the same boat today! The human tendency is for power to justify itself by claiming some association with deity. That's on every scale, from a monarch being crowned by a bishop down to a kid who enlists in the military "for God and country."