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Wheaton Scholar Argues the Early Church Was Pacifist
Matthew TuiningaSeptember 21, 2012
According to George Kalantzis, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and a scholar of early Christianity, the church of the first three centuries after Christ was resoundingly pacifist. Presenting some of the arguments from his forthcoming book, Kalantzis defended this claim on September 19 in a lecture at United Methodism's Candler School of Theology (Emory University) entitled “There Will (Not) Be Blood! Early Christian Attitudes Toward War and Military Service.”
At the heart of Kalantzis's lecture was his argument that Christianity and Rome embodied two radically clashing worldviews – worldviews involving not only contrary practices of religion and piety but contrary ethical commitments as well. Indeed, “the conflict between Rome and the Church was ultimately the collision of sacrificial systems.”
Rome embodied an understanding of the cosmos built on violence and ruled by gods that demand sacrifices. While the Romans tolerated various accounts of the truth they demanded that all Romans participate in those sacrifices and related cultic practices in order that the gods might be appeased and Rome prosper. That prosperity, like the cult on which it depended, was built on violence and military conquest.
Christianity, on the other hand, embodied an understanding of the cosmos shaped by Jesus' triumph over sacrifice and death through his resurrection. Early Christian writers therefore rejected participation in the Roman army or even in Roman government because it implicated them in pagan worship and because it required them to perform actions fundamentally incompatible with the way of Christ. For Christians the bloodless sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper marked participation in a kingdom that transcends national divisions.
Although Kalantzis avoided making comparisons between the early Christian context and the contemporary United States, he emphasized that in the ancient Roman world much that Americans would consider secular was viewed as irreducibly sacred.
“Political order was not a question as it has become for us, formed by the eighteenth century Enlightenment, of the functioning of the depersonalized machinery of government from which any final divine purpose or end is excluded. Rather, political order persisted in the exercise of legitimate authority, within a space that had been sacrificed, [and] therefore ultimately under the control of the gods, who willed order, and therefore peace. But in order to guarantee that peace, the Roman gods demanded sacrifice.”
This ideology of sacrifice and violence thoroughly shaped the Roman military. “To be a soldier in the Roman army was to be in religious observance, in ritual and in practice.” Soldiers entered the military through a sacramental oath and they left military service with a sacramental performance that dissolved that oath. Military service was therefore “bracketed by religious ideology, and everything in between … was based on religion. The legions never marched into battle without offering sacrifices, ever. The legions never came back from battle without honoring gifts in honor of the gods.”
Kalantzis acknowledged therefore that for early Christians “the commandments to not kill (Exodus 20 and Mark 10) and to love one's enemies (Matthew 5) were often treated within the context of proscriptions against idolatry and the relationship between Caesar and Christ.” But he insisted that the early church's opposition to military service could not be reduced to this concern.
“The religion of the Roman army was indeed a focus of key objections by Christian writers ... but we ought not to allow our own concept of religion to underestimate how fundamental Jesus' twin commandments to not kill and to love one's enemies were in the moral topography of the early Christians.”
Just as for Rome the practices of war and violence were inseparable from obeisance to the gods, so for Christians the practices of love and peacemaking were inseparable from service to their Lord Jesus. Ethics was indistinguishable from worship. To distinguish the violence and bloodshed of Rome and its armies from the religion of Rome is to make a modern and “artificial distinction” that the early Christians would not have recognized. Military service itself was viewed as incompatible with “the nonviolent character of the Christian community, and the explicit Christian aversion to bloodshed.”
In contrast to the arguments of other scholars like Peter Leithart, Kalantzis argued that there was a “strong internal coherence in the church's nonviolent stance in the first three centuries.” There is simply no evidence, he insisted, that any early Christian writers viewed military service as a legitimate option, let alone a civic duty. Kalantzis was careful to point out that the arguments of the early Christian writers were not simply theoretical to them. All of the them saw family members or friends imprisoned, tortured, or killed by persecuting authorities.
Although the emphasis of Kalantzis's lecture was on history rather than its lessons for contemporary practice, he offered theological arguments as well. “It is an incontestable fact,” he declared, “that Christ did preach nonviolence. It is also an incontestable fact that war, in the end, is merely another form of sacrificial violence.” But Kalantzis did not carefully address questions revolving around passages like Romans 13, which describes that the magistrate is given the sword by God to act as God's minister of justice, nor did he address biblical examples of Christian soldiers like the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts.
Kalantzis did remind his hearers that the appropriate Christian view is not one of “a passive acceptance” of the injustice of the state. “If it ever does [amount to] such, Christian pacifism loses its Scriptural underpinnings, and ignores the fact that Jesus called his disciples to engage in an active peacemaking.” The Christian gospel calls believers to love, to reconcile, and “to bring the enemy into the Christian community.” In short, the Christian gospel calls believers to “active nonviolence.”
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