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From Christ to combat

How one Roman Emperor overturned the way Christians think about war, violence, and faith

by Bruxy Cavey

Pursuing peace: We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.

In the 300 years following Christ’s death, leaders in the Early Church disagreed about all sorts of issues, but they spoke unanimously about one: violence of any kind among followers of Christ. As quotations from Christian thinkers like Origen, Arnobius, and Lactantius illustrate, these leaders all agreed that Jesus taught the way of peace.

Not that this was an easy call to follow. At the time, Christians were brutally persecuted for their faith. Despite this, Christianity was spreading, and as more and more people came to faith, more and more people committed themselves to nonviolence.

So here’s the question: How does a faith founded on an undisputed interpretation of Christ’s teaching about peace end up on a completely different path? How do the majority of Christians in the world today choose a different way of living? How does the Church at large rally around the concepts of justified war, of retributive violence, of righteous aggression?

The answer, at least in part, lies with a fourth-century Roman emperor named Constantine.

When Constantine was striving for power, he claimed he had a vision from God that told him that if he painted a symbol called the Chi Ro (☧) on the shields of his soldiers, he would have victory in a major battle. He obeyed the vision, and he won the battle.

The next year, Constantine began investing heavily in the Church. But he realized that the pacifism of the Christian movement would eventually destroy his armies. And he knew that in order for his Empire to survive, this had to change.

So, about 70 years after Constantine’s rule, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and by the fifth century, you couldn’t be in the army unless you were a Christian.

As a result, future Christian thinkers—like Augustine, Jacques de Vitry, John of Mantua, and Pope Innocent IV—began to argue that to be a Christian was to fight the righteous fight. They characterized David, Joshua, and other Old Testament characters who used violence to uphold the kingdom of Israel as the heroes of the faith, while Jesus was pushed to the sideline.

Now, not everyone went along with this. In the sixteenth century, a group of Christian leaders rebelled against their own religion, calling the Church to reject all forms of violence. These dissenters, known as Anabaptists, dared to think that Jesus should be taken seriously when He taught His followers to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, and to do good to those who hated them.

Today, the Brethren in Christ Church embraces and affirms the teachings of Anabaptism. Yet we live in the echo of what Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder has called the “Constantinian shift.” As we navigate the tensions posed by this shift, we need to intentionally step back and shake off centuries of thinking that has eclipsed the plain teaching of Jesus. As a body of believers, as Christians, are we willing to commit to following the teaching of Jesus, wherever it leads? Or will Constantine have the last word when it comes to the Church’s vision of war and peace?

Adapted from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the first sermon in the “Inglorious Pastors” series delivered by Bruxy Cavey at The Meeting House (Oakville, ON) in April 2010.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2011 issue of In Part magazine.
Bruxy Cavey

Bruxy Cavey serves as teaching pastor of The Meeting House in Oakville, ON. He is also the author of The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (NavPress, 2007). Bruxy and his wife, Nina, live with their three daughters in Hamilton, ON.

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Pauline Nigh Hogan Posted on May 26, 2011

There is no question that Constantine had an enormous impact on the history of relations between Christianity and the state. His patronage of the church appeared to Christians, who had suffered economic and political persecution under previous regimes, as an event ordained by God. Is it any wonder they began to rethink the relationship between believers and the state? However, there is no evidence that Constantine “employed” Christian thinkers to revise the doctrine of pacifism. No doubt there were numerous fascinating conversations in the palace about the topic, but Augustine, whose thinking about “just war” became so influential, was not born until 354, or converted to Christianity until 386, almost 50 years after Constantine’s death. It was Christians themselves, not an emperor, who initiated the change in teaching, grateful as they were for what seemed to them to be God’s institution of a divine transformation of government. Let’s not blame Constantine. Let’s instead remember how necessary it is for us to always be suspicious of power, when we are called to identify with the powerless.

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