For the first three hundred years of the church’s life, the path of non-violent resistance was the only accepted norm for all baptized persons. If a Roman soldier or police officer, for example, wanted to become a Christian, they had to renounce their old work and find new employment before they could be baptized and become a part of the community. In those first centuries, the interpretation of what it meant to follow Jesus was that an “eye for an eye” belonged to the past: the new commandment was to love one’s enemies and to “turn the other cheek." Yes, even if they sought to harm you. That was "what Jesus would do."
It’s important to remember the context: the Church clearly saw itself as radically counter-cultural. They were not yet worried about the difficult decisions that those who govern needed to make. The concern was to make a visible witness to another way to live in the world: the witness of peacemaker.
In the fourth century the context changed rather quickly and dramatically. First, Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian, issuing the Edict of Milan in 313. That edict brought an end to the persecution of Christians within the
Roman Empire. It made it
“cool” to be a Christian and many converted. Just sixty-seven years later,
Christianity became the official religion
of the empire. Sadly, Christians have never seemed to do a whole lot better
with power than non-Christians, and so once they had power it wasn’t very long
before they misused it. Those who had previously been persecuted became the
persecutors, now with the power to label dissenters as “heretics” and “infidels.”
In the midst of that cultural shift,
St. Augustine was one of the first great
theologians to re-think Christian perspectives on war. He (and later Aquinas)
developed what would become the principles of just war - an approach that would have been unthinkable to those earlier
Christians. But times had changed. Now the empire was “under God,” so to speak.
So how to think through those hard ethical questions which, to be honest, the
early church did not face? For a war to be just, they discerned, there must be just cause and a just
intention. War must always be a last resort, i.e. all diplomatic
means must be exhausted. There must be formal declaration, limited
objectives, and proportionate means. Finally, there must be noncombatant
last principle, of course, was a lot easier when battlefields were contained.
Just war theory is still taught and debated at West Point and
Annapolis and the , as well as in ROTC programs and
OCS programs across the nation. Soldiers are held accountable to the Uniform
Code of Military Justice and when, for example, a soldier knowingly harms
innocent civilians (as at My Lai) they are
held accountable. Air Force Academy
There is a third approach to war that has also been a part of our heritage. It’s akin to what Muslims call jihad, i.e. “holy war.” It’s hard to deny that it has roots in the Bible—especially the Old Testament. It is the sense that God is on the side of the true believers. We don’t have to go back as far as the Crusades to find examples of this approach, either. In the bloodiest war this nation ever endured, both north and south claimed to have God on their side. And, I think, in the war on terror as well we have at times heard language that more closely resembles the language of Holy War than Just War: it has been framed as a battle between good and evil—at least by some.
Today is the Feast of Paul Jones. It is for me a sad story, in terms of how Paul Jones was treated. It does not speak well of the Church I love. Paul Jones was born in 1880, the son of a priest in the rectory of St. Stephen’s Church in Wilkes Barre,
Pennsylvania - just
about an hour from where I grew up. Think about that: he was born just fifteen years or so after the bloodiest war in the history of this nation. He became a committed pacifist and advocate
for social justice. And then as Bishop of Utah, he said that he opposed all war, including the United States
entrance into World War I—the “war to end all wars.”
Now I don’t know if Paul Jones was right to oppose that particular war or not. I lean toward pacifism myself, but I find my own views somewhere between there and a more Niebuhrian sense that sometimes war is a necessary evil, as long as those principles of just war are taken seriously. I pray daily for the men and women in our Armed Forces and give thanks for their willingness to serve in what is no doubt a violent, unsteady and confusing world. I do believe that it is possible to be a Christian and to bravely serve in uniform.
But I also think that if we cannot speak for peace in the church, then where? There has to be room in the Church for the prophetic voice and for the path of non-violence. Bishop Jones was not treated well for his views by the Church. He was, in fact, run out of town. He was pushed out of the House of Bishops for following his conscience and for refusing to serve Caesar above God.
Let me say it again: I don’t know if he was right. But the Church must be a place where if we are going to err, it will be on the side of non-violence. If we cannot tolerate the questions that the Paul Joneses of the world raise in the Body of Christ, then we are in big trouble.
Pacifism is not the only Christian response to war. But it always must remain as a viable response to war—and maybe even our default. The burden of proof must always fall on government to show why a war may be justified. But the Church exists to create at least a space for dissent—to offer an alternative voice. The Church exists to create a space where we can pursue the truth, because as today's gospel reading puts it succinctly, only the truth will set us free.
There is no such thing as a war to end all wars. A hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, it seems almost quaint and certainly naive that anyone would have said so. The roots of World War II seem to have been in World War I - and the Cold War followed World War II - and what is now unfolding in the Middle East has a lot to do with the politics of the second half of the twentieth century.
So I don’t know if the world would be better or worse if the world had heeded Paul Jones in his day. I suspect there wasn't much chance of that happening, in fact. But I know the Church would be better off if he'd continued to bear witness to the light in the midst of that dark hour. I know this: the Church is diminished when we silence the prophets in our midst. The search for truth is compromised when we silence the voices that challenge the status quo. For if we who pray for peace on earth and claim to follow the Prince of Peace cannot object to war, then who will?
[i] The summary of the principles of “Just War Theory” is taken from an article entitled “Onward Christian Soldiers? Christian Perspectives on War,” by Timothy J. Demy, Th.D., Commander, Chaplain
Navy. Corps, U.S.