Remember playing the “telephone game” when you were little? You know, someone comes up with a statement and whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, who then repeats what they heard to the next person down the line, and so on and so on.
And if you remember playing this game, then you remember how funny it was when the last person to get the message finally tells everyone else what strange sentence they heard at the end of the line. Most of the time, the statement began as something like, “The baker made an apple pie” and ended up as “Your face makes me wanna cry.” They rhyme, but they aren’t really the same thing.
And even as a 7-year-old, I learned something simple. It’s best to get information right from the source, because over time and even through good intentions (except for that one kid in my class who was always trying to purposely screw up the telephone message), the information evolves into something possibly different than what was intended.
We are involved right now in a discussion about violence and whether or not Christians should ever engage in it, even to protect their own life. And I know that many Christians today have some strong opinions on this matter, but I would like to caution us to rethink our stance in light of the telephone game.
You see, I come from a church tradition that while honoring and learning from the history of church through the centuries, looks to the early church and The SOURCE (Jesus) as its primary ideal and guide.
As we approach this topic, however, we may have done a rather poor job of maintaining this approach.
I would like to suggest that many of the currently popular rationalizations of a “just war” or engagement in any sort of violence is due in large part to a long running game of church telephone, in which we’ve diverted a bit from the original SOURCE. So far are we from the source, in fact, that we consider The SOURCE to be too radical and our modern, westernized ways to be more progressive and advanced. Surely we must use violence sometimes? Our cause is just! How can we achieve the greatest peace for the most people if not by using violence to defeat the foes?
The message still sounds understandable and we can rationalize it, but maybe it isn’t at all what The SOURCE intended or what those who heard the message first understood.
Somewhere along the way, Jesus’ message of a different type of kingdom that did not rely on the power methods of this world has evolved all the way into our current and prevalent situation of syncretism between church and state (or national pride).
So, as we journey back to “the origins” we have already seen how The SOURCE (Jesus) consistently and regularly commanded us to forsake violence and how His life was the greatest testimony to a power absent of coercion and violence. (see previous post here)
Today, we will look at how the first 300 years of people in the telephone line behind him understood His message. And although 300 years sounds like a long time, it is but a brief beginning in a movement that has stretch into its 3rd millennium.
Here is how violence was understood for the first followers of this Christ.
The Witness of the FIRST CHRISTIANS:
The Early Church position ruled out violence as an option, even in self-defense. The evidence for this is overwhelming and includes the story of Stephen found in Acts 7:59-60. In the story Stephen is stoned to death for his faith, but even at the moment before death, he forgives his assailants for their crime.
A similar story is found later in the book of Acts when Paul is also violently attacked for his beliefs, and yet does not seek revenge:
The crowd stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
(Acts 14:19-22 NIV)
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, he writes of the importance of non-retaliation, even in the face of death:
It seems to me that God has put us on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. Yet when we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.
(1 Corinthians 4:9-13 NIV)
Beyond what we find in the New Testament, there is great consensus among the people that immediately followed in the next several hundred years. As demonstrated by the following quotes, no Early Church father interpreted Jesus’ teachings as advocating anything but strict nonviolence:
“The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.“
—Tertullian’s On Idolatry
“Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.”
—Origen Contra Celsius Book VII
“Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence.”
—Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV
“As simple and quiet sisters, peace and love require no arms. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 12 of Book 1
“In their wars, therefore, the Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedaemonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 4 of Book 2
“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.”
—Clement of Alexandria
“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”
—Tatian’s Address to the Greeks 11
“We who formerly used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.”
—The First Apology of Justin Martyr 39
“Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.”
—The Apology of Aristides 15
“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
“There is nothing better than peace, in which all warfare of things in heaven and things on earth is abolished.”
—Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians 13
“The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” These people formed their swords and war lances into plowshares,” that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting, so when they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.”
“We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ. For by his means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception…would lend an ear for a while to his salutary and peaceful rules,…the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony.”
“Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!”
—Cyprian of Carthage
“Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.”
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes
“We have rejected such spectacles as the Coliseum. How then, when we do not even look on killing lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”
—Athenagoras of Athens’ A Plea for the Christians 35
Strong statements, huh? Apparently the first Christians were pretty clear on what they heard from the life and words of Jesus regarding this topic.
Consider that for three entire centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, almost completely universally, Christians believed that even self-defense violence was inappropriate for followers of Christ.
So what changed?
Most notably, the Roman Emporer, Constantine.
Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Εν Τουτω Νικα” (“by this, conquer!”), Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro), and thereafter they were victorious.
From this moment on, Christianity becomes the dominant religion of the Roman empire. And whatever his motives (genuine spiritual conversion or political genius), Constantine changes the landscape of Christianity. It is no longer a persecuted minority, but a powerful, state-supported, military-leading civic religion.
You can nearly draw a line in history with this event as the place the telephone message changed.
Violence was absent from the lives of the earliest followers of Christ and only by the military subversion of Christianity by the emperor, Constantine, did violence (for national purposes or any other) enter into Christianity. The church following this event was culturally conditioned to accept the merger of empire and “Christianity” and found ways to rationalize this “new power” that soon became the “norm” at the expense of its previously radical stance on violence. And it became a marked departure from what Christ and the original followers had taught and modeled.
Now, certainly God is mightier than a game of telephone and His message has been preserved in His church. But, I suggest that rather significant components of this message are now held in minority in Western Christianity.
Anyway, lots more to think about. I know for some of you this is a difficult thing to wrestle with. It calls into a question a lot of your life and assumptions. My heart goes out to those of you who have served or are currently serving in the military. My goal is not to make you feel less “Christian”. You are loved by God and by me regardless of where you come out on this issue.
However, the church must always be thinking and examining our message. Where there have been compromises to our culture, we must return to THE SOURCE and reform.
So, though it is uncomfortable, keep thinking. And I’ll be praying for you…
(for the complete series on “Jesus & Non-violence” see the right sidebar of this blog)