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.
Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!
I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.
The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?
It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.
One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.
So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!
Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.
The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.
In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.
This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.
This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”
Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.
The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.