The Historical Context of Christian War

Part two in my four part series entitled “What Are We Fighting For?”

0 CE: The original message of Jesus

As I have already mentioned, Jesus presented his pacifist message quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. Additional support is provided in areas like:

Matthew 5:38 – turn the other cheek:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;”

Mark 12:30-31 – the greatest commandment:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Paul carries on this message of peace. He gets it. Consider today’s key verse:

Romans 12:17-21:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Pro-war Christians point to other scripture verses to support their cause. They point to:

  1. Jesus overturning the tables in the temple in John 2:15;
  2. Jesus’ praise towards centurions and warriors (Matthew 8:10 and Acts 10:1); and
  3. Jesus’ and Paul’s respect for the governing authorities (Mark 12:17, Romans 13);

In all of these situations though, there is nothing to suggest support for war. Jesus is demonstrating his authority in driving out the moneychangers. It doesn’t say that he actually hurt anyone. As for praise towards centurions and governing authorities… well… Jesus also hung out with tax collectors and sinners. Does that mean that he condoned their actions either? And as for Romans 13… didn’t Paul end up in jail in the end for refusing to keep quiet with his gospel message? Hmmm…

313 CE: Augustine & the Political Realm

Augustine was an influential Christian. He lived in the 4th Century and he was the first influential Christian to codify the terms around justification for Christian violence.

During Augustine’s lifetime, the Roman Empire was facing extensive threats from the far reaches of the Empire. Barbarians were banging at the gates. Self-defense was required or the Empire would not survive. The Christian leadership required some wiggle room in order to protect the state and all of its inhabitants from violent ends.

As Jesus and Paul had not written specifically about these types of situations, Augustine took it upon himself to outline some times in which violence could be used. This writing was considered the official word of the church due to Augustine’s high standing within the Church at the time.

In a nutshell, Augustine argued that Christians can support war, but it is only to be used to gain peace.

The Just War argument hinges on Romans 13, which argues that individuals are to be subject to the authorities. But where this means that the authorities should proceed with war is beyond me.

Due to the political need for advocating war, Augustine’s Just War tradition quickly became the de facto preaching of the church. With the need for military intervention to protect and expand the Roman Empire, the Just War tradition became an important tool to maintaining military superiority throughout the early modern period.

1095 CE: Pope Urban II & The Crusades

Up to 1095, the Christian world was suffering greatly from a number of attacks from Muslim invaders. Augustine’s Just War theory was still being used to justify war, but it was justified in a self-defense type of situation. This changed in 1095.

Pope Urban II felt that his back was against the wall and that he wanted to fight back against the Muslims and reclaim land that had been taken by Muslims in earlier battles, including Jerusalem. Urban’s goal was to retake Jerusalem at any cost.

To muster the troops, Urban went on an extensive year long pre-war tour, spreading the news and gaining support for his upcoming offensive. Finally, in the fall of 1095, Urban gave a rousing speech to a large number of willing Christian warriors. Urban’s speech was loosely based on Augustine’s Just War law pertaining to self-defense. Urban argued that Jerusalem had been taken illegally from the Christians and that it was the duty of the Crusaders to take back what was theirs.

In addition to the religious charge to reclaim holy lands, Pope Urban II further motivated his troops by offering a “remission of sins and great reward in heaven to those that participated in this Crusade”. These were heady words for someone speaking on behalf of the divine.

It seems that Pope Urban II forgot to direct his charges regarding respectful conduct when fighting though. Instead of simply defeating the Muslims, the Crusaders destroyed their enemies, legend holding that the conquerors were knee deep in Muslim blood from the slaughter. This sounds more like that Holy War that I mentioned earlier, not the Just War that was supported by the Christian Church at that time.

Needless to say, this kicked off a couple of hundred years of embarrassment for Christians everywhere. The behaviour during this time showed the dangers that can come when power is left unchecked. Even hardened war-defending Christians agree that the Crusades went too far with their abusive violence.

1527 CE: Mennonite Roots: The Radical Reformation

In 1517, Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by posting his disagreements with the Catholic Church (his 95 theses) on the front door of one of their Churches. This began a period of great instability in the church. When the dust settled, there were a wide variety of Christian denominations, many centred along national boundaries: Anglican for the English, Lutheran was mainly German, France stayed Catholic, etc.

Out of this Reformation came what historians refer to as “The Radical Reformation.” This is the term given to a small group of churches that aligned themselves around ttwo fairly unique actions:

  • First, believer’s or adult baptism (not infant baptism, which was standard practice in the Catholic Church during this time); and
  • The pacifist position that was presented by Jesus;

Many of these people chose to become baptized again to show their adult confession of faith. This is where the term Anabaptist comes from. It means, literally, rebaptized.

This led to many problems for the Anabaptists. Although scripture does support these two Anabaptist practices, they were considered unpopular as they differed from the traditions that existed during that time. Because of this, the Anabaptists were mercilessly persecuted. It has been suggested that more Christians were martyred in the 1500s than in the early church times. Talk about Christian commitment.

Thus, the pacifist position remained very unpopular and supporters of the pacifist position were greatly persecuted.

Coming up next: Part 3: The Modern Crusader ethic


By Todd Dow

Author, Geek, CF fundraiser & Cancer Survivor. My family, baseball, infosec, privacy & devops are a few of my favorite things.

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