PEACE: AN EARLY CHRISTIAN PATRISTIC PERSPECTIVE
K. C. Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D.
Department of Philosophy, Triton College, River Grove, Illinois (Speech delivered at the International Conference on World Peace sponsored by the Intercultural Dialog Platform for the Advancement of Peace at Istanbul, Turkey on May 12-17, 2004. Dr. Thottupuram was one of the thirteen scholars from the U.S.A. invited to participate and deliver a speech at this World Peace Conference at Istanbul, where he was a State Guest along with several scholars from around the world)
I am honored to be part of this great organization, “The International Conference of Religion and Peace sponsored by Intercultural Dialogue Platform for the Advancement of Peace” of the followers of the three great monotheistic religions that have originated from the Middle East, the spiritual fountain of the majority of the human race. All these great religions claim that Abraham is their common father. The Jews and Muslims trace their biological genealogy to Abraham. It is to be particularly observed that Eastern Christians who hail from Jerusalem and other sacred places of the Middle East also trace their ancestry back to Abraham. Other Christians belonging to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches do emphasize a spiritual patrilineal affinity with Abraham, without which their acceptance of the Jewish Scriptures and of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of Yahweh made to ancient Israel cannot be understood properly.
In order to honor Abraham, this Conference has been called the Harran Conference, because Abraham is considered to have been born at Harran. Harran historically symbolizes Mesopotamia, one of the centers of ancient civilizations, which is believed to have sent their civilized citizens to the pre-Pharaonic Egypt, and to the pre-Aryan India. It is now historically and anthropologically established that the Egyptians under the Pharaohs, and the ancient Dravidians of India had been the descendants of ancient Mesopotamians or Chaldeans of the Middle East. Actually these Mesopotamians or Chaldeans were the ancestors of Abraham, our fore-father. Thus we see that the message of Abraham has a universal applicability and impact. There is no single continent on the face of the earth with human habitation that does not possess a sizeable number of people hailing from this region. Yes, it is indeed proper that this Conference has its base on Abraham, the common father of many peoples, and that this Conference is called the Harran Conference.
My paper is presented within the wider spectrum of “Heroes of Peace in the Monotheistic Religions”. I have identified some of these heroes within early Christianity. In pursuing the path to the leaders of early Christianity, I will focus on the mind of early Christianity as it relates to peace. These heroes of early Christianity are generally called “Fathers of the Church”, who nourished early Christianity with their erudition, not only of Christian doctrines, but also of secular wisdom. Most of them were familiar with the idea of peace as understood by the classical antiquities of Greece and Rome. In addition, they were also cognizant of implications of the word, Shalom, as understood by the prophets of the Judaic tradition, through the Jewish Scriptures which had been accepted as the Old Testament or Covenant expressed by Yahweh.
The word, ‘peace’ is defined in many ways in accordance with the perspective one possesses. For a tyrant peace is non-resistance from his rivalries within his country and from outside. For a communist regime, peace is the absence of rebellion and riots. For a king, it is the harmony between his subjects and undisturbed coexistence with his neighbors, and particularly deep submission of his subject to his will. For a democratic regime, it is the welfare of the nation without internal strife and any external threat. For families, it is happy living within their means and resources and respect and love among the members, between spouses, between children, and between children and parents. So peace means many things to many people.
The Latin word PAX, wherefrom we have the English word PEACE, derives from a verb, pacisci, meaning to conclude a pact. It means a “condition free of conflicts, being the fruit of an encounter of separate wills” (Gerardo Zampaglione, p. 133). Pax means freedom from war or civil strife. But pax implied the unconditional surrender of the defeated state. It implied freedom from disturbance or disorder, and freedom from disagreement or quarrels. It could also mean a treaty to end a war. It is, therefore, public security, law and order. It is harmony or concord. It could also mean an undisturbed state of mind; and in that sense it is absence of mental conflict; it is serenity. When we talk about peace we are talking about calm, quiet, and tranquility. This is the secular explanation of PAX ROMANA (peace) within the framework of Lex Romana. But, please bear in mind that if peace as understood within Roman law implies the submission of the will of the other, it is not the peace that was understood by Christ and early Christians.
The Greek word, EIRENE, has many etymological interpretations. In ancient Greece it did not refer to a legal understanding of peace, as the Romans maintained. It referred to "reestablishment of concord in the family and the community”(Gerardo Zampaglione, p. 26). Eirene also meant repose and serenity. According to another interpretation, in the earliest period of Greek civilization the word stood for a deity to whom was attached the personification of an abstract idea. Scholars are of the positive opinion that the word originally meant “the opposite of war, and was not meant to cover the complex set of promises, pledges, and commitments enabling peace to be achieved” (ibid.). In Hesiod’s poetry, eirene had a religious implication, the name of a deity dispensing blessing and prosperity. However, in the fourth century before Christ, it also meant the conclusion of peace negotiations, the treaty of peace itself with its terms and conditions. Thus you may observe a gradual change in the meaning of the word, eirene.
Fundamentally, both of these words emphasized a very important idea regarding peace: a state of completeness and well-being. In fact the original words meaning peace did not just signify the absence of war. According to the classical tradition, war, however, was considered necessary to ensure wholeness and well-being of a nation or state, or a community.
Let me take you to the religious understanding of PEACE. This is a peace conference sponsored in the name of the three major religions rising from the Holy Land, whose children proudly claim Abraham as their ancestral father.
We have here three religions that are actively engaged in establishing and nurturing peace. Since there are competent scholars belonging to these three religions treating the subject of the Quest for Peace based on their particular religious background, without making much reference either to Islam or Judaism, may I enter the teachings of Christianity in the area of peace and war, or tolerance and violence.
For Christians, particularly early Christians, Jesus Christ was the shining example of peace. Jesus was a pacifist, who entertained without any doubt no violence whatsoever even in self-defense. It was His emphatic teaching of nonviolence in all circumstances which is found in the four Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount and many other incidents narrated in the Gospels of the Christian bible clearly testify this fact. Towards the end of his career of public ministry to his people, he was arrested by the Roman soldiers and the guards of the High Priest. Upon capturing of their master, one angry disciple, Peter, drew his sword and struck the High Priest’s slave, cutting of his right ear. Jesus said to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place! Do you think that I will not drink the cup of suffering which my Father has given me” (John 18: 11). And in the Gospel according to Matthew which refers to this episode, Jesus says to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place… All who take the sword will die by the sword…” (Matthew 26: 52). If Jesus had any use of violence in self-defense, this was the time for him to take recourse. This is the true Christian doctrine of peace and non-violence. This is the definition of peace according to the moral teachings of Jesus, i.e., non-injury and unconditional non-violence always and in all circumstances. We will come back to this discussion later.
ATTITUDE OF THE EARLY CHURCH
The early Church strictly followed this principle, and that was why early Christianity was decorated with thousands of martyrs who never resisted the tortures and persecutions organized by the emperors or their agents, or other religious or ethnic groups.
Unfortunately, it is believed that pacifism remained as an essential characteristic of Christianity only until the time of Constantine early in the fourth century. The Roman emperors starting with Constantine brought in a revolutionary change in the attitude between the early Church and the Roman state. When Christianity was brought closer to the State, the former lost its earlier purity and began to accommodate herself to the needs of a larger secular empire that embraced the entire Mediterranean region.
This newly forged relationship between the Church and State eventually triggered Christian thinking to take a different route in dealing with the concepts of peace and nonresistance. Revolutionary changes occurred in the teachings of Ambrose of Milan, who had been himself a high-ranking state official before he assumed the episcopal see of Milan. In fact it was Augustine of Hippo, the disciple of Ambrose, who dealt with the topic of peace in a systematic manner. He is regarded as the father of the just war doctrine in Christianity. With Augustine the normative pacifism of Christianity was displaced by a just-war doctrine, which attempted to justify Christian participation in wars to defend one’s mother country. Yet this doctrine remained as a liberal interpretation of the original pacifism of early Christianity. Many theologians, who advocated a just war doctrine, still claimed to be loyal to pacifism, and considered it a heroic act. As a matter of fact, one can observe a development in moral attitude towards how the Church should embrace the doctrine of peace during crises; this is exactly what we see in the western church, it shifted from pacifism to just war to crusades. It is interesting to note that no Christian author during the time of persecutions and down to the time of Constantine approved violence even for self-defense and Christian participation in war. It is established that prior to the time of Constantine, soldiers who were baptized, discontinued their military service. But this Christian attitude shockingly changed after Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Guy Hershberger, a Menonite, says in War, Peace, and Nonresistance: “(T)he church gave up its nonresistance position and became the religion of the imperial state… No doubt the most important factor in bringing about the change … was the gradual growth of moral laxness during this period …” (Guy Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, pp. 70-71).
Many authors claim that the Church was tainted by association with Constantine. When Church was freed from persecution by decrees of Constantine, she was obligated to accommodate a morally bankrupt ruler who had the shaky reputation as a grossly immoral emperor who murdered his wife and son, protected pagan religions on the other side, and above all postponed his baptism to the point of death. It is believed that he was not even baptized by a priest of the mainstream Orthodox Christian church; it was a heretical priest of the Arian sect who christened him. Arianism was condemned by the first Christian ecumenical council of Nicea which had been convened and presided over by Constantine, and it was an irony that he received baptism from a priest of that sect, which was anathematized the Council of Nicea.
It was C. John Cadoux who, in reaction to the First World War, first conducted an in-depth study of the pacifism of early Christians. This was a complete and thorough investigation into the evidences of religious pacifism as advocated by Christ. This work conclusively convinced scholars in this area that as religion Christianity taught normative pacifism. Cadoux established the view point that this pacifism was not only normative but also universal. However, he maintains that there were exceptions, but they were temporary. According to Cadoux, this attitude was carried over to Christianity by neophytes or because of decline of moral standards on the part of an expanding Church. He contends that the true characteristic of original Christianity in this area was subverted during the time of Constantine (Cadoux, p. 235). He also believes that the Church gave up herself for an immense compromise due to her alliance with Constantine as a trade off for the protection guaranteed by the imperial state.
Cadoux also attempts to thoroughly examine the ethical doctrine of true Christianity, and contends that ancient Christianity did not honor a proposition to defend a just war. He emphatically concludes that true Christianity rejects violence in any form, in the military, or in self defense, following the shining example of Christ. When Christians accepted a compromise, it was definitely a betrayal of true Christianity, of the absolute ethical purity taught by Jesus. As we have observed, this betrayal is identified with the compromises made by the Church after the edict of Milan.
Cadoux assumes that early Christianity rejected all violence because of the teaching of Jesus. He further argues that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is universally binding, and it forbids all sorts of killing or violence. He goes further to extend the force of this commandment to even the judicial use of punishment, if it inflicts pain. According to him, Jesus was emphatic “to take no part in the use of physical violence in the judicial punishment of wrongdoers” (Cadoux, p. 29).
According to Hershberger and Cadoux this position is highlighted in Jesus’ teaching on nonresistance in the Sermon on the Mount. Let me quote from Cadoux: “Jesus both adjured for himself and forbade to his disciples all use of physical violence as a means of checking or deterring wrongdoers, not excluding even that use of violence which is characteristic of the public acts of society at large as distinct from the individual. On this showing, participation in warfare is ruled out as inconsistent with Christian principles of conduct” (Cadoux, p. 31).
James Turner Johnson, another writer in this field, contends that the teaching of nonresistance by Jesus may not be perpetually binding on Christians, because, in this discussion, it was the context, not the content of his teaching, which was more crucial. How the early Christians understood Jesus’ message could be understood only in the light of the context in which Jesus had taught this doctrine. There was an eschatological element in early Christianity. Jesus was expected to return soon. They expected a new world order to come immediately upon the return of Jesus. Some even consider that Christianity was a millenarian movement which had to maintain a separate ethical system. Even if this may not be true, the eschatological nature itself was enough for the early Church to become ethically pure. Punishment of any sort was to come from God as narrated in the book of Revelations; it was not the task of a believer to administer punishment which inflicted pain (James Tuner Johnson, P. 12). This position in the light of researches is not widely accepted. It is Cadoux’s position that has more credibility. Did the Christian community think that its ethic would be appealing to the rest of the non-Christian world? No. The early Christians, by adhering to the rejection of violence, wanted to show to the rest of the heathen world the purity of their morality as living examples of Christian life. They also expected the heathen community to live alongside the Christian community. The eschatological view on the other hand wanted to foster a sectarian Christian community, and to admonish that community about the imminent disappearance of this world and the coming of the new world order. If a new world, which was expected to be ethically pure, was to come, every Christian should prepare himself in the most pure manner ethically possible in order to become part of that new world order.
Religious ethicists ask many questions regarding this ethical purity as taught by Jesus, and as practiced by his disciples. Did they consider violence itself to be always and inexorably evil, or always intrinsically evil? Or did they want to establish a new ethically pure movement in preparation for a new age that was to come? If our answer to question number one is affirmative, the early Christians lost their ethical purity since the Constantinian era. If our answer to question number two is affirmative, then there would be some kind of limited justification for the acceptance of violence for judicial punishment and for Christian participation in just wars. James Turner Johnson says: “In this view, the growing realization that the last days were not immediately at hand implies an increasingly less radical separation from the world at large, or else it implies a revised understanding of what was meant by the expectation of a new form of life in a new age” (Johnson, p. 14). According to Johnson, the majority of Christians followed this “less radical separation from the world at large” because the eschatological nature of the community was not immediately realized, and a minority still followed the radical position of extreme ethical purity of nonviolent nonresistance as hermits, ascetics, anchorites, stylites and other kinds of monastics. Johnson contends that this dual adjustment, which existed at least since the end of the first century of the Christian era, is an argument in favor of the eschatological interpretation of the pacifist Christian ethic in the early centuries of Christianity. Further, this is suggestive of the development in Christian attitude from extreme ethical purity to a more liberal one.
Let me make a brief observation regarding monasticism. Many scholars are of the opinion that there was another compelling reason behind the origin of monastic life among early Christianity. After Christianity was granted freedom by Emperor Constantine and thereafter, the number of martyrdoms immediately declined, devout Christians were seeking more heroic ways of identifying with Christ and showing love for Christ, their Savior. Renunciation of the world, rejection of all material pleasures, and mortification of one’s own body and its desires were considered ways of identifying with Christ. This objective was achieved either as a monk in a monastic community, or as a hermit, or an anchorite, or a stylite. It is because of this awareness that asceticism flourished in Egypt and elsewhere in the East. Later St. Benedict copied the same system of monasticism with variations in the West.
Coming back to our discussion, it is evident that there was a shift of focus in the area of pacifism taught by Jesus and maintained by the early Church. Did the bishops and other leaders of the Church act out of self-interest? Was it important for them to please the head of the state in order for them to have more powerful positions in the newly emerged society? Or was it necessary to keep peace between the Church and state? How did the mass of Christians get themselves distanced from the original ethical purity? Didn’t they revolt against the new shift in ethical purity of total non-violence and non-resistance? These are relevant questions raised by scholars specializing this topic. There are historical evidences suggesting occasions of resistance, but they were not organized or general. Those localized cases of resistance did not actually receive momentum.
There are evidences to support the contention that the masses of Christians were prepared to accept this change even before the time of Constantine. This suggests that the change was accepted not passively; on the other hand, we could see they were engaged in advancing this shift in ethical attitude. Documentary evidences suggest that there was a sizably strong Christian presence in the Roman army. One of the great martyrs during the Diocletian period was a Roman soldier: St. George. It is contended there was a crisis in the eschatological reference (that the new world order did not take effect immediately as the early Christians had anticipated), and this crisis forced a good number of Christian communities to give up the rigorous moral standards of non-violence and non-resistance and conform to the ways other citizens of the empire satisfied their patriotic duties. There are records indicating that Christians were enrolled in the army as early as 174 A.D. However, we also have record of Celsus, a critic of Christians, who, around 182 A.D., confirmed that Christians refused to enroll in the army. Maybe, Celsus was recording the practice of his locality where Christians were more faithful to the ancient moral and ethical purity. It is inferred that the shift of attitude had begun long before it. We also have to assume that Christian communities in different parts of the empire may have developed different attitudes regarding the pacifist character of Christianity.
Let us now touch bases with the teachings of early Christian authors, who are generally called Fathers of the Church.
According to Ronald Bainton, there were Christian authors deploring military service by Christians. After 180 A.D., there were explicit condemnations against a Christian engaged in war where he had no chance to practice non-violence or non-resistance (Bainton, p. 72). During this period, we see Christians denouncing military participation, and Christians condoning military involvement. How did contradictory attitudes find a place in early Christianity? Who among them reflected the official position of the Church? All the evidences suggest that the pacifist interpretation had a greater representation in the church. From the second to the beginning of the fourth century, the predominant position was the pacifist interpretation based on nonviolence and nonresistance. It is believed that this was in reaction to the relaxed position of accepting violence in war, which was slowly becoming more normative than occasional.
The literature of the Church between the writing of the gospels and the year 174 were strongly nonresistant, it was a rare case that a Christian remains a soldier during this period. There are no records suggesting the fact that during the Roman siege of Rome in 70 A.D. the Christians attempted to resist or attack; rather they escaped to Perea beyond River Jordan (Hershberger, P. 65). There are also evidences that some of them fled to Egypt and India with their leaders. For example, it is reasonably concluded that St. Thomas the Apostle fled to South India with his Christian community and established the first Aramaic community of Christians in that part of the world. Again, resistance was not part of their life style, even for survival. We see that the patriotic Jews resisted this Roman assault with weapons, but their Christian counterparts maintained their nonresistance.
One of the earliest documents in Christendom, written during the immediate post-apostolic period, is the Didache or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles. This was written around 110 A.D. This document teaches: “You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man” (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 2:6 &7). Around the same period, Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Ephesians in Asia Minor: “Do not seek to avenge yourselves on those that injure you… And let us imitate the Lord, ‘who when he was reviled, reviled not again’, when he was crucified, he answered not; ‘when he suffered, he threatened not’, but prayed for his enemies” (St. Ignatius to Ephesians, 10).
About the same time, Polycarp wrote to the Christians of Philippia exhorting them to be obedient to the commandment of Christ by “’not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing’, or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing” (Polycarp to Philippians, 10). Some forty years later, Justin Martyr writes: “We, who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have … changed our warlike weapons, our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage” (Dialogue, 110). We can observe the early Christian mentality on peace and resistance in these writings.
At the end of the second century A.D., Athenagoras writes: “We have learned not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak” (Plea for the Christians, 1; as quoted in Hershberger, p. 66).
In view of this strong pacifist ethics Christian military service was condemned by the early Church. Zampaglione cites the following reasons for attitude:
- Christ’s doctrine was opposed to violence and bloodshed.
- Soldiers could not, without insubordination, escape the severe discipline of the army, which imposed obligations which are in conflict with Christian ethics (e.g. executing death sentence).
- Unconditional acceptance of the duties of the soldiers would not reconcile with Christian duties towards God.
- Military duties involved ceremonies associated with the veneration of the emperor, more often than anywhere in the society, and a Christian is forbidden to maintain another cult parallel to the worship of true God.
- Military insignia, emblems, signs and symbols reflected and represented pagan rites and doctrines, which a Christian cannot reconcile with.
- The life style and customs in the army were not in harmony with the Christian ideals of purity and moderation required of Christians (Zampaglione, p. 235).
During the first two centuries the classically educated civil authorities accused the Christians of being the sources of iniquities and immoral practices supposedly taking place during holy agapes and ceremonies. They also reduced the Gospel message as SUPERSTITIO NOVA that has no rational basis and artistic beauty. They also interpreted the Christian presence as a threat to the stability and structure of the empire.
It is in consideration of this view that we should try to assess the patristic responses to any issues during this period. The main task of the fathers was the vindication of Christian faith to counteract these unfounded allegations, and also to expose the true Christian ideal. The pacifist doctrine of early Christians, especially Christian non-participation in the military was interpreted as lack of patriotism. In the Gospel and in the writings of Paul, Christians were exhorted to accept civil authorities, because all authority came from God. When the fathers expressed disapproval for Christian military service, it was not to imply any kind of disloyalty to the secular state or its authority. They clearly understood the legitimacy of civil authorities, and encouraged their fellow Christians to obey the laws of the state in so far as they are not against the commandments of God.
Among the early fathers there are two groups of writers, the apologists and fathers. Apologists vindicated Christianity against the accusations of its enemies. Fathers were generally men of erudition, who taught and interpreted the faith and morality of traditional orthodoxy. Among the apologists, one person stands out as an advocate of pacifism in early Christianity. He is Tatian who lived in the second century. He published a book, Oratio adversus Graecos around 150 A.D. He defended the Christian community as a mystical and peace loving people based on the evangelical principles of humility, but emphatically declared the primacy of Christ over the State. No compromise was possible in this area. However, his extraordinary fervor led him out of orthodoxy, because he began to advocate strict asceticism, strict celibacy, unconditional non-violence, vegetarianism, and ultra pacifism for all Christians. However, he still remains an outstanding pacifist among the apologists.
Sts. Justin and Melitus
St. Justin, another apologist, has a different tone in advocating pacifism. In his Apologia, he distinguished heavenly peace from earthly peace. He id not deal with peace that we enjoy on earth in a mystical sense, or as abstention from employing weapons against another human being. It was the task of the empire to establish peace, in other words, he was a defender of the Pax Romana. This position of legitimizing Pax Romana received more momentum when St. Melitus, bishop of Sardis, authored another Apologia, in which he argued that the spread of Christianity had only been possible because of the existence of the Roman Empire and that its existence was providential. He further argued that God had protected the Roman Empire since the time of Christianity from outside attacks and major calamities, and this had been for the purpose of spreading the Christian faith. Parenthetically, this writer remembers some Roman Catholic authors of apologetics asserting the providentiality of the existence of the Roman Empire when discussing the spread of Christianity.
Tertullian (155- 228)
Tertullian took a different route in interpreting Christianity. He did not look for a rational justification for Christianity, rather he made clear distinction between philosophy and revelation. In his early writings, Tertullian showed deep deference to the secular authority, but many critics view this as a superficial endorsement. Behind this endorsement he was for unconditional respect for the precepts of the one true God, the Sovereign of the universe, to Whose will all creations including the emperor must bow. It was these ideals that became the philosophical framework for his thought in his later writings. He maintained that the empire was an agency of earthly values, which a Christian cannot respond as a Christian. It is from this concept that he concluded that Christian participation in the military was antithetical to the spirit of Christ.
In Tertullian’s writings we observe some kind of ambivalence; he was not always consistent in his views. He is said to be an impulsive man with outbursts of anger. Therefore, Tertullian shifted his emphasis often, and that is how he landed in heretical circles. In this connection, it would be interesting to note what doctrines influenced the thought of Tertullian. Millenarianism, which expected the coming and reigning of Christ for a thousand years, Marcionism, a copy of Gnosticism, and Montanism, which declared the futility of the earthly life, greatly influenced the mind of Tertullian. These groups claimed that their mission was to revive apostolic Christianity. These groups refused violence even for self-defense as one of their primary doctrines, and it was these sects in their extreme forms that ruled the thought of Tertullian. Finally, Tertullian himself became the leader of his own form of Montanism around 203 A.D. after modifying the doctrines of Montanus. These groups expected the early and certain advent of the Kingdom of God, and preached that every Christian should prepare for this event with strict purity. Violence in any form and for any reason was considered a hindrance to the path towards Christian purity.
Consideration of these facts would enable us to assess Tertullian’s position regarding peace and violence, especially his journey from the orthodox to Montanist position.
He maintained that combat or violent behavior was usually a manifestation of the temptations and flattery of the evil one; and that was the practice among the pagans. (Let me bring to your attention the conduct and violent behavior of the gladiators in Roman Amphitheaters). Christians are to be ready to fight and die in defense of their faith, not to cause the death of other human beings. Their vocation is to peacefully and vigilantly wait for the kingdom. Let me quote from Tertullian: “We are but of yesterday, and we have filled everything you have- cities, islands, ports, towns, exchanges, yes! And camps, tribes, decuries, palace, senate, forum,. All we have left to you is the temples!... For what war should we not have been fit and ready even if unequal in force- we who are so glad to be butchered- were it not, of course, that in our doctrine we are given ampler liberty to be killed than to kill” (Apologeticus adversus Gentes, XXXVII/525A). Early Christians disliked violence, not because they were afraid of being tortured or killed, but because of an ethical rule they imposed upon themselves. In fact, they considered it heroic and virtuous to be tortured and martyred for the Kingdom of God. In one of his pamphlets, Ad Martyres, he defined peace as the privilege of the faithful when they face martyrdom! Peace is something that you find in the suffering Christian; here he talks about the internal peace enjoyed by a true believer in God.
Tertullian considered violence as the greatest evil. He was categorically opposed to war because of the violence and pain, and the abject sufferings it entails.
We see Christian soldiers in the Roman Army around 174 A.D. It is from Tertullian’s writings that we understand that there were Christians in the Roman Army. Among early fathers, he was the most vigorous opponent of Christian involvement in wars or conflicts. He took the commands of Jesus literally and seriously and expected all Christians to follow it as one of the commandments of the New Covenant, and he even attached this to one’s salvation. Let me quote from Tertullian:
“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” (De Corona, 11).
Tertullian acknowledges that there is a real problem when a soldier becomes a Christian. Should he continue as a soldier? Can he tell his commanders that he cannot spill human blood anymore? He says to his new converts “there must be an immediate abandonment of” military service, or “the individual must suffer martyrdom”. Actually, among the newly converted Christians a practice of immediate abandonment of military service had existed prior to the instruction given by Tertullian. In fact Tertullian was condemning the new shift in attitude. By this time, newly converted Christian soldiers began to ignore the older practice of quitting military service after becoming Christians, and Tertullian was morally enraged by this ethically liberal mentality.
It is interesting to note that there were not many Christians in the Roman army, because only Roman free men were recruited to serve in the army. Most of the early converts to Christianity were from slaves, and they did not possess any rights as citizens, and they naturally were not enrolled for service in the army. Another observation is that recruiting was entirely voluntary. So there was no punishment for not serving in the army. We should try to understand the instruction of Tertullian within this context. What Tertullian insisted was not a rebellion against the Roman state, but a neutrality or lack of collaboration when there is any policy or demands in conflict with the Christian ideal and norm. Violence in any form, either in war or in the amphitheater was in direct conflict with the Christian ideal. The only reality was faith, and the only time one has to shed blood was offering himself as a sacrifice in defense of his faith.
Unfortunately Tertullian could not establish his own school of thought, primarily because he was abandoned by mainstream orthodoxy as he left for Montanism. However, he still remains a father of the Western Church, and his thoughts still influence western Christian theology.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)
An African by nationality, Cyprian absorbed most of his thoughts from Tertullian. One of the profound apologists during this period, Cyprian was a writer of distinction. In one of his writings, he notices the inconsistency between the judgment which the society makes of a murder committed by an ordinary citizen and the homicide committed by a soldier in the battle field. The society ignores the homicide in a battlefield. He deplored this inconsistency. He says: “The son of peace must seek out peace and pursue peace; he who knows and loves a bond of charity must curb his own tongue from evil of discord… The sons of God must show that they are peace-loving, humble of heart, simple in their speech, of one mind in their affections, loyally bound the one to the other by concord” (De Unitate Ecclesiae, XXIV/ PL4/534A).
Cyprian emphatically teaches that “when an injury has been received, one has to remit and forgive it”, “requital for wrongs is not to be given”, “enemies are to be loved”, “when an injury has been received, patience is to be kept and vengeance left to God” (Cyprian, Test iii, 22f. 49, 106; quoted in Cadoux, p. 81). He was horrified by what had happened in the Roman law courts. He laments: “there at hand is spear and the sword and the executioner, the hook that tears, the rack that stretches, the fire that burns, more punishments for the one body of man than (it has) limbs” (ibid, p. 81-82). He further says: “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful… it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when render no requital for injury... we repay your hatred with kindness” (Ibid, p. 82). He urged his fellow Christians to endure torture with the virtue of patience.
Now we look into the thoughts of the Alexandrian School.
The Alexandrian School
During the time of the Latin Fathers, there developed a school in Alexandria, Egypt, that tried to relate the Hellenic intellectual culture to the speculative heritage of Christianity. The aim was to make Christianity more sensible and appreciable to the culturally sophisticated elites in the eastern Mediterranean region and to spread it on a philosophical foundation. For this purpose the Alexandrian School of Christian thought vigorously sought high intellectual standards, particularly in biblical exegesis. Notable early luminaries in Alexandria were Clement of Alexandria (150- 210) and Origen (185- 252). They were engaged in philosophical analysis and the study of the Bible.
Clement of Alexandria
When dealing with the problem of peace, Clement struggled to combine the two voices in him, that of a Christian and that of a Greek erudite. The former considered the question of peace in the light of the Gospels, and the latter “reacted along the lines of traditional speculation”. He must have been influenced by Stoic ideas, which saw peace “as an entity suspended in time and in space, detached from any environmental situation, generating universally valid solutions” (Zampaglione, p. 250). Our conception of peace depended on our detachment from the community and on close attachment to God. Clement believed that the true training of an individual can take place only in an environment concerned about the achievement of peace and serenity. “… Clement praised peaceful minds which can dominate or avoid disturbances that contradict reason and facilitate the explosion of absurd passions” (Zampaglione, pp. 250-251). He also believed that peace must be based on justice, which is the highest virtue in Neo-Platonism to which he was speculatively aligned. “Justice is the peace of life and governs its stability and tranquility” (Miscellanies, 25/PG 8/1369B). Is it not because justice and fairness are not properly administered that we see a lot of unrest and chaos within nations and between nations? Of course, as great civilizations we have to make sure if our governments and nations are guaranteeing fairness and justice equally to their citizens.
Clement was quite certain that to be a Christian is to be educated in peace. He further says that mankind itself “is in reality a pacific instrument” (Johnson p. 20). Christianity is a higher gnosis, a higher form of knowledge, and this higher form of knowledge presupposes a higher living endowed with a higher form of peace and serenity. Humanity starts with lower forms of gnosis, and the demands are lower. Paganism is of lower gnosis. As it advances in higher degrees of gnosis, the demands become higher. The pinnacle of the highest form of gnosis should necessarily embrace a form of life style, to which peace is inalienable. Assuming one of many occupations a Christian might advance in developing toward full gnosis; but the occupation of soldiery does not promote full gnosis in a Christian, because the occupation of a soldier is antithetical to the Christian concept of exemplified humanity.
Clement further says that a Gnostic (by which he means a thorough-going Christian who has achieved gnosis) “never bears grudge, nor is vexed with anyone, even though he be worthy of hatred for what he does: for he reveres the Maker, and loves the one who shares in life, pitying and praying for him because of his ignorance” (Clement Strom VII xi. 62).
After Clement, Origen became the head of the Alexandrian School. Origen was philosophically more sophisticated and was more aware of the inconsistencies in the Old and New Testaments, and hence sought for a systematic exegesis of the Christian Scriptures. Because of classical erudition he was more critical in his exegesis, but because of the element of Christian mysticism embraced by him the Christian virtue of love ruled his scholarly career.
Origen studied the Old Testament and saw many episodes of violence and fighting within the Israelites and in their relations with their neighbors. Several times wars and violence were praised and there were also invocations for divine assistance to succeed in their military campaigns. According to Origen this practice conflicted with the Gospels that praised humility and peace. How would you reconcile both of these testaments? Origen concluded: the inspirer of both of these scriptures was God, and He would never have a double-edged sword. His message is always the same. “There was no longer opposition between the two messages, the two being the fruit of complementary religious experiences. They were symbols through which God had shown himself to man, revealing certain truths and using a metaphorical language with images whose meaning had been transposed into a field different from that to which both the divine inspirer of the texts and the hagiographer who had written them intended to refer. In this way all became clear. The wars of the Old Testament were interpreted as struggle between the faithful and the world of sin, instruments to achieve the salvation of mankind in harmony with a design of God to which the Gospels bore witness and for which they provided a blueprint” (Zampaglione, p. 251).
Most of the teachings of Origen on peace are found in his work, Against Celsus, a refutation of pagan Celsus who had written True Discourses attacking and mocking Christianity. Celsus accused Christians of being less patriotic, because they had stayed away from all sorts of occasions calling for bloodshed. But Origen in his refutation justified Christian aloofness from all sorts of violence in service of the state. The fundamental reason? Christ never justified violence in any manner. Moreover, his training in Stoic philosophy never taught him to justify violence for any purpose.
Celsus complained that Christians were disobedient to the laws of the state; Origen responded that Christians followed a higher law of Jesus which they made them perfect. Christian laws are paths of edification and perfection, and perfection presupposed total surrendering to Jesus, the prince of peace. So for a Christian in order to be perfect he has to imitate Jesus; he should be a non-resistant peace-maker. Violence does not have any place in this Christian sojourn.
Celsus talks about the “superintending spirits” in different quarters of the earth to which every citizen was bound, and was to be obedient. Origen reacts by saying that there is only one “superintending spirit”, which is of Jesus; so a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is to Jesus. If Jesus demanded non-violence and non-resistance, a Christian has to unconditionally follow His precept.
So how would Origen visualize peace? He is approaching the question of peace rationally through his classical tradition where he had been lodged in intellectually, and theologically through his spiritual intuition, which he had achieved as a Christian exegete. Therefore, for Origen peace is the serenity of the mind extolled by the philosophical tradition, particularly Stoicism, and concord among the body of Christians, and harmony among men and nations. Look at his very concise definition of peace: “There is peace when no one lives in a state of discord, when no one gives way to quarrelsomeness and there is no hostility or cruelty” (Commentaria in Epistolam Beati Pauli ad Romanos, Iv, 8/ PG 14/988C). In fact this definition covers all aspects of human life. It covers the internal peace one enjoys, the relations between neighbors and nations, and between communities. He was a strong believer in peace that could be achieved among peoples and nations. He says: “Even the angels are amazed that, by God’s grace, peace can be achieved on earth, a place infested with wars”.
Origen maintained that God had united the warring nations of the earth under Augustus to suppress war in order for the Gospel to be easily spread! In other words, he found a providential reason for the existence of the Roman Empire; it was for the spread of the gospel of peace. The Roman Empire provided the Lex romana and pax romana which were helpful to Christian evangelization.
Origen conveyed basically what Tertullian and Clement had taught, but he was different from both. One can glimpse some basic outlines suggesting a just war in Clement, and a kind of Christian sectarianism in Tertullian. Origen’s position is suggestive of both of these possibilities; but there is a third one espoused by Origen: “a holy war concept in which God fights alongside pagan Roman armies to uphold the righteousness for which Rome stands. Thus rather than the clear-cut pacifism imputed to Origen by the standard pacifist account of early Christians moral attitudes, we in fact find in him but another particular strand in the pluralistic fabric of developing Christian thought on war during early centuries of the Church” (James Turner Johnson, p. 29).
The scope of this paper does not permit me to discuss the patristic thought totally dedicated to the justification of war, particularly the doctrines of just war as proposed by Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo. I have here presented only fundamentally pacifist thoughts of early writers of Christianity.
These heroes of Christianity believed that peace is a gift of God, and it can be achieved only when you submit yourself to God. It demands a total surrender of the self to God. When God lives in you, you are at peace with you, and will work for peace. Christianity highlights the fatherhood of God and spiritual filiation of humanity. In the beatitudes we read: “Blessed are the peace-makers, they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Early Christian heroes were cognizant of this truth, and they defended it and preached it. It was later during the post-Contantinian period of Christianity that we see the shift of attitude with Christian writers, possibly to appease a secular regime or for self-accommodation.
What are the messages for us, academicians and leaders of religions, who influence thoughts and policies of people we are associated with? All religions preach peace as their ultimate goal; internal personal peace, peace within the community, peace within the nation, and peace among nations. I presented you the early Christian perspective on peace. In our Aramaic Orthodox background, we greet each other with the following: “Shlomo u Shaino”, which means peace and tranquility; peace in one’s relationship with others in his family and outside the family, and tranquility is the disposition of serenity within oneself. In our liturgy of worship, we offer peace to the congregants seven times. In our heritage the number “seven” possesses the fullness or plenitude of perfection. (seven mysteries or sacraments, seven gifts of the Spirit, seven virtues, seven vices, seven times of prayer everyday, etc.). The Eucharistic liturgy for us is the ultimate act of encounter with the Sovereign of the universe, and is the highest form of worship. After participation in this worship service, what we are supposed to get is the plenitude of PEACE. Other Christians also emphasize this aspect in their worship services.
What about a follower of Islam? A Muslim greets another Muslim likewise with “Salaam”, which means peace. A Muslim believes that he attains internal peace when he surrenders and submits to Allah. Muslim literally means “submitter”. Islam proclaims the fact that peace is ultimately a gift of God.
What about our Jewish brethren? They also greet each other with “Shalom”, which means “Peace be with you”. The Jewish Scriptures talk about many wars fought by the Israelites. Aren’t those wars results of the sin of the people? We have to do some investigation on this topic. Many scholars are of the opinion that those wars were punishments inflicted on the Israelites by God, and “those wars were contrary to the original intention of God” (Hershberger, P. 30). Let me cite one incident which tells us clearly that the Yahweh disliked war and shedding of blood. Prophet and King David wanted to build a temple for Yahweh’s worship. But God did not let him do it. See what God has to say: “You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house unto My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight” (I Chron. 22: 8). This is a clear indication that violence and bloodshed are contrary to the will of the God of Judaism. I have many statements of the ancient prophets to support this view.
We claim Abraham us our father. God blessed Abraham’s children in many ways. We are intelligent, and we are prosperous, and are prospering everywhere. But we lack peace. We also become violent towards each other. Let our leaders think what makes us closer. Let us highlight our common heritage and our shared values. We should show an example to the rest of the world as to how we love each other. We should respect the sanctity of everyone’s conscience. Let us cooperate in all the areas of human relations and confirm our common brotherhood. This should be the beginning of a new epoch of peace and coexistence for the children of Abraham, our common father.
I deeply appreciate the efforts of the Intercultural Dialogue Platform for the Advancement of Peace to bring Muslims, Jews and Christians under an umbrella of fraternity and common interests. Let us move forward and work for peace. We shall become peace-makers on this globe.
Let me conclude this discourse with our traditional farewell: Shlomo u Shaino L’Kulkun; Pus’sh B’shlomo!”. (Peace and tranquility to you all; and stay in peace!)
Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. New York: Abingdon Press, 1960.
Cadoux, C. John. The Early Christian Attitude to War. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1940.
Hershberger, Guy Franklin. War, Peace, and Nonresistance. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1969.
Johnson, James Turner. The Quest for Peace. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Mosely, Alexander. A Philosophy of War. New York: Algora Publishing, 2002.
Zampaglione, Gerardo. The Idea of Peace in Antiquity. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1973.
And Many Journal articles.