Christians during the first three centuries after Jesus were almost exclusively pacifist. The teachers whose writings survive repeatedly opposed the use of aggression. Firstly, violence was seen as contrary to the teaching of Jesus, who laid down his life without fighting. And secondly, to serve in the Roman army involved recognising that the emperor who commanded soldiers’ loyalty was a god and worshipping any god but the Christian God was blasphemy. There are several accounts of Christians in these years accepting martyrdom rather than fight, and of soldiers being executed because they began to follow Jesus and would no longer wage war.
This cannot have been universally true because there were Christians in the army of the Emperor Constantine, and their presence had an influence on him converting to Christianity in 313. He made Christianity the state religion of the entire Roman Empire, and new thinking was required. The concept of a just war developed – circumstances in which an evil emerges which is so great that opposing it militarily is the only option. However, notable 4th century Christians such as Martin of Tours refused to accept that it was right ‘to conquer in Christ’s name’ and urged pacifism.
Christians have not always set their hearts determinedly against violence. The record of Christians in barbarically opposing Islam during the Crusades of the 11th to the 13th centuries is usually confessed with abject shame today. It is certainly true, though, that in recent centuries the vast majority of Christians have pursued and prayed for peace. They believe that it is God’s will for his world.
However, the number of Christians who have renounced violence absolutely is smaller. Quakers and Mennonites are denominations which have come to the conclusion that they must reject war utterly. In other denominations, followers of Jesus worship alongside one another with different beliefs about whether there are circumstances in which there is no alternative but war. In every conflict since the Crimean War Christian chaplains have accompanied troops into battle to respond to their spiritual needs.
During the First World War several organisations were founded to bring together Christians who could not in conscience fight or countenance war. One was the Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded in the UK and joined by others worldwide. Refusing conscription carried the death penalty in some countries, but most Christians had this commuted to long terms in prison.
Since the First World War further organisations have emerged which advocate ways of responding to evil with active nonviolence. Some Christians practise this through campaigns of civil resistance which oppose injustice in ways that are not violent but take dynamic steps to protest against or resist evil. They find their inspiration for this in the teaching of Jesus. He taught his followers that if someone slapped them on the right cheek, instead of breaking into a fight they should insult the offender by inviting him also to slap the left cheek. Christian leaders who have advocated nonviolent resistance include the civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King jnr and the South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
The men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
This is an extract from Jesus’ biography. During the last hours of his freedom, aware of enemies closing in, his followers had armed themselves. Jesus, however, refused to respond to the threat with violence.
And they said…
Martin of Tours, 316-397, French bishop:
I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight.
Maximilian, 274-295, beheaded in Algeria as a conscientious objector who refused to enlist in the army:
I am a Christian and cannot fight.
Origen, 184-253, Egyptian scholar and writer:
[Christians] no longer take up the sword against nation, not do we learn war any more, having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.
Tertullian, 160-225, African writer
When Christ disarmed Peter in the garden, he disarmed all Christians.