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Christianity and War

September 2, 2014

All believers consider the denomination of their choice to be the best representation of Christ. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t think so but it’s just a matter of personal preference. Aside from that there really are no independent standards by which to determine what is truly Christian and to which extent.

No matter how diverse the practices and beliefs, each denomination judges and compares purely by its own standards, be they from tradition, scripture interpretation, theology or a combination of each. There are things which are shared by all Christian denominations, but that doesn’t necessarily point to the core of Christianity, which may lay under a piles of historical rubble.

What we call Christianity today may in fact bear little resemblance to the original movement. This isn’t bad in itself, as Christianity isn’t meant to be static but there are some fundamentals that got lost along the way. Let us consider, for example, the pacifist, non violent, “love your enemies” stance. Today it is hardly discussed or even disagreed on. All major “Christian” denominations have adopted instead the concept of a “just war”. Many support military interventionism, or have in the past and the rationale for it is still in their “orthodox” theology.

The gospels unmistakably describe the founder of Christianity as an avowed pacifist, who taught his followers to be likewise. Some disagree and will quote one or two phrases that suggest the contrary but the preponderance of Christ’s words teach unequivocal pacifism. His life was an even greater demonstration of it, so there really isn’t much there to justify any Christian violence, much less a “just” war.

Think of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, on loving others as ourselves, on not rendering evil for evil, on turning the other cheek. Think on his inclusiveness and acceptance of the rejected, the outcast and yes, even the invading army. Think of his treating everyone with the same kindness and generosity. Think of his final persecution, his standing before his accusers, his answers or lack of them. Think of the ordeal he went through and his final prayer for God to forgive those who were killing him.

The message is so unmistakably pacifist. It is that of living by love and seeing humanity through the eyes of love in spite of how badly they behaved. It is truly a love above human capacity and that’s why we say that he was the son of God. That’s why we concluded that God is love.

The sample was so clear that some of the first martyrs, like Steven, also prayed for the forgiveness of their executioners. This was the form of non violence and extreme love that early Christians tried to emulate. We also have the accounts of soldiers who suffered martyrdom because they converted to Christianity and refused to fight. In that early period you couldn’t be a soldier and a Christian at the same time.

That was the Christian position until the fourth century. What happened then? Well, Christianity changed from being a minority religion, spread through personal contact, to being the officially imposed religion of an empire. It was thus forced to compromise its pacifism and adapt to the needs of a state. The empire stood on its military might and the church needed to find a theological justification for it, while maintaining the appearance of orthodoxy. It sought for scriptures that would justify war and military conquest and found them in the Old Testament. That’s how we inherited our current view of the Bible and the idea that everything in it is the “word of God”, including the horrible slaughters and violence of the Old Testament.

This stands in direct contrast to Jesus’ sample and constitutes the very rationale for which he was sent to the cross. Such a contorted view became the new orthodoxy, which justified force to maintain imperial unity, enforce doctrinal “purity” and eliminate dissenters (heretics). Presuming to be the Kingdom of God on earth, the “converted” Roman Empire sanctified the sword to “protect” itself and for the “redemption” of those who opposed themselves, mainly barbarians and heretics.

Do we ever wonder how the Christian West found its justification for colonialism, for a global policy based on military might, especially against non Christian countries? Have we ever heard how “God willed it” because it allowed missionaries to go to the conquered countries? But how Christian was that? If missionaries need armies to prepare the ground for them, then it’s the same as saying “convert or die”, especially when soldiers and preachers come together. How’s that different from a cutthroat terrorist? Is it that the “Christian” is more civilized and uses drones instead of knives?

The problem is that western Christianity, no matter how diverse, stems from a single root. It is the child of a Roman Christianity that came to power in the fourth century and forcibly eliminated the alternatives. What we now call “orthodoxy” is in effect a heresy that prevailed over the others because of its greater political backing.

Whether it is an emphasis on roman tradition or bible inerrancy, different only within a Catholic vs Protestant disputation, the root is actually the same and it is not Christ. It’s that unfortunate syncretism from the Roman Patristic era which fused politics with the Old Testament, Greek philosophy and a sprinkling of Christian ideas. That’s where violence in the name of Christ finally found its roots. That’s where the sword and the Bible came together, drowning out the voice of the gospel and inaugurating a new era of “Christian” wars, executions and tortures.

Nicolò Machiavelli might be dated but was right, and every political or religious leader knows it. It is impossible to run a country or any influential institution simply on “Christian” principles. It would not last, just as Jesus Christ did not last. The kingdoms of this world cannot be run the way in which Jesus taught to live. There is no such thing as a Christian country or a Christian institution. His kingdom is not of this world.

We may appreciate the fact that worldly powers adopted some Christian morals and ideas. We may correctly speak of the achievements and betterment of people’s lives that have come from the application of such ideas. We may also speak of the good works done by those institutions who called themselves Christian. On the other hand we cannot gloss over the horrors that were carried out in the name of Christianity.

The question is whether we can honestly define the Western world as “Christian” at all. Even its religious institutions have been deeply entwined with its violent history, from the religious wars of centuries past, to the more recent world wars and on till today. Can we truly call it Christianity?

What is Christianity? What we see today or what we read in the gospels? And what would be easier to redefine if these two are incompatible? Personally, I don’t think that so called Christian institutions deserve the name. Not as long as they remain entwined with the politics and the powers of this world, their wars and justifications for war. They might be right in saying that war cannot be avoided, but so it was in Jesus’ days and he taught differently. So, who has the right to be called Christian?

Well, we can’t change the past and Christendom has so appropriated the name and association with Christ that it’s impossible to reclaim it. Their Christ might be as different from the original as Buddha is from Mohamed but what to do? In my opinion it’s best to seek the underlying thread in the gospel accounts and follow its lead, regardless of present or past dogmas, orthodoxy or “official” theology. Too much history is linked with all that and it’s best not to carry such a burden around. Better to seek a personal knowledge of Christ and, to avoid misunderstandings, maybe best even to call Him by some other name, like Prince of Peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God

One Comment
  1. Anna permalink

    great article and so needed right now, thank you!

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