This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.
Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.
The Slow Fade Into Worldliness
In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.
Critiquing the Modern Church
It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.
In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.
Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole; you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).
The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?
The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross. If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.
Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross
The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.
It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.
Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.
Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind. As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.
In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded. He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.
And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”
As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him. He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.
The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.
The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.” In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:
“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.
Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.
Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17
Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.
Euangelion. It is a simple word that means “good news”. It was, from the mouths of Jesus and his band of disciples, a message of hope. That God, through Jesus, is fixing everything that is broken and setting all things to rights again. Not through the power of earthly might, but by the cross.
In the 1960’s a group of prominent former fundamentalists resurrected a term (evangelicalism) that had been used to describe a movement in 19th century Great Britain that was centered around reforming an increasingly hopeless society by the simple act of teaching them what Jesus taught. Jesus message of reconciliation, grace, mercy, love and salvation coming through Jesus own life being poured out for us took root in the hearts of people and was instrumental in the healing of society in that nation. It was believed that the good news of Jesus could do the same here.
In the last 2 days I have received emails from family, friends, acquaintances, church members, and other pastors linking to videos of politicians, pastors, and various leaders, all evangelicals, and their message is the same: “Do not bring the refugees fleeing the middle east into our nation and our states”.
In the last several decades evangelicalisms message has shifted from “good news for a hurting world” ever steadily towards “news”. And the news is not good.
The “news” is that we no longer believe that God is in control, we believe that we are.
We no longer believe in Jesus when he said:
“Do not be afraid”.
We no longer believe Peter when he said:
“the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”.
We now believe that when Jesus said:
“he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”
he meant “the righteous poor from our own country”.
We now believe that when Jesus said:
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”
He really didn’t mean all captives, and he didn’t mean all who are oppressed.
And we think that when Jesus said:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
that none of it applies to us.
I hear Christians say “But they hate us”, which is exactly why Jesus said:
“for [the Most High] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
The fact is that we are in danger of turning away tens of thousands of people who are actually homeless, actually starving, actually sick, literally outcasts, very very poor, extremely persecuted, utterly rejected and totally unwelcome in, not just their own country, but in almost every country in which they have sought asylum. Surely the people who, for decades, have claimed that we are a Christian nation built upon Christian values can remember what Jesus said about the poor, the immigrant, the starving, the naked the hungry and the persecuted. Surely the same evangelicals that spent millions of dollars to legislate morality understand the immoral act of locking the doors on these people when we have so much and they only have each other! Surely we understand the demand that our scriptures lay upon us to take in these people, to love them, to welcome them into our communities and our shelters.
Do we not understand the significance of God using the cross to bring salvation to a world that believed that it could only be done by the sword? Do we really think that our walls and our guns can save the world this time? If that is so, then evangelicals have traded their crosses back in for swords.
In case you haven’t noticed, millennials no longer trust evangelicals. Time after time the hypocrisies in our message have ensnared us and repelled them. For the most part, they have been rather gracious to us in all of our glaring faults, our conflicting messages, and the way that we have cozied up to the empire. But this will pull, whatever fragments of wool are left, away from their eyes. They will finally see what american Christianity has become: “Anti-Christ”.
If I may channel the ancient prophets for a moment, I would argue, as strongly as I can, that the fate of evangelicalism and the fate of the Syrian refugees are bound together. We will never recover from the decision to turn them away. Our sins will light up the sky. Our heartlessness will be our downfall. The lampstand will be removed and we will be sent into the exile of irrelevance until we are either replaced or until we are repentant and Jesus once again sits on His throne in the heart of the evangelical movement.
But if we have compassion, if we open our eyes to the opportunity that is laid out before us, to be the arms and eyes and hands and feet of our risen Lord, if we die to our old ways and repent, then resurrection awaits. These people need Jesus, and never before has the church had this kind of opportunity. Instead of going to them, they are coming to us!
If we respond in love it will be as Isaiah 11:16 describes Gods people coming back to Him: “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.” Isaiah is saying that every obstacle will be removed, and Gods people will come running to the temple to worship.
Is it risky? Is it a little scary? Is it a little dangerous? Of course, love is always risky, a little scary, and dangerous. No one knows this more than Jesus Himself, who’s love for you sent Him to the cross. But remember his words, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”