The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 3

This is a continuing series on violence, war, and how the early church fathers responded in light of the Gospel of Jesus. If you haven’t yet, please read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.

Thesis

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.”[1] 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.

[1]C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).

[1]Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.

[2]Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.

[3]Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.

[4]Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17

[5]Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.

[6]ibid

You Can’t Go Back

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You Can’t Go Back.

This morning I tried. I really did. I knocked on the door of the first place on this earth that I can remember being. At the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the street from a park. The house felt smaller than I remember but I guess when you are ten years old everything seems huge. A young woman in her early twenties answered the door. I think she might have been high, either that or I woke her up. Either way, it is probably annoying to be interrupted in either of those situations.
“I’m sorry to bother you”, I said. “I grew up in this house and just wanted to take a couple pictures and didn’t want anyone to look outside and get creeped out”. She stared blankly. “Yeah, do your thing”, she replied. I backed away and turned to walk back out the the street, on my way I pointed at a huge tree in the middle of the yard, “my family planted that tree” I said over my shoulder as I glanced back at her. She looked at the tree, then back at me, then shut the door.
I took a few moments in the driveway to take it all in. The fire hydrant that used to be the base for my G.I. Joes. The grass spaces between ours and the neighbors driveway that I was so proud of jumping over on roller skates without falling. The basketball hoop that my dad and grandfather had erected that used to stand right at the edge of the driveway (now missing, but an obvious patch where it was taken down).
Somehow I expected it to seem much more magical than it actually was when I stood there. I mean, I haven’t stood here in 25 years. But here I was. And I remember everything. A flood of memories. I stand there for a couple more minutes and think to myself “So this is it, huh? Hmmm, wheres the magic?”.
I walk across the street to the park where I used to play little league games. Past the playground where I learned to be brave and climb. The field where I have memories that are as clear as day of my dad chasing me across the grass while I ran full speed with the football under my arm. Again, wheres the magic? A million more memories flooded my brain with every bench and hill and baseball backstop. But it wasn’t magical. It was just a park.
I learned today what I think everyone comes to learn in their adult years. It’s not the place. Its the people.
It was my childhood home, but my brothers weren’t there to pull me on my skateboard behind their bikes. My mom wasn’t there to yell “good job T!” everytime I climbed higher. My dad wasn’t there to cook burgers on the grill. Family, that is what made it magical. It isn’t the house, the field, the playground, or the yard. It was love. It was the human beings that shared it with me. Yes, the magic is gone away from this place, but it has not gone from my life, or even this world. It has gone to New York, and Indonesia, and Tampa. It has gone everywhere where the people who made it joyous have gone.
Many of you have fond memories of your life. The places, the people, the experiences. You might even have the urge to try and return. I want you to know that even if you did manage to return to the location, the house, or the city, the magic is not there.
The fondness that your soul has for certain memories and periods in your life will often times disguise itself as an affinity for a place or a time. Sometimes when we look back, we make the same mistakes that we so often make when we think about the future: we think fondly about a house we will buy, or a place we will live, or a thing we will do, and we think our pleasure will be there. It will not.
The truth is that the fondness that your soul has is for other souls. Family, friends, community, and God. We were created this way. The connections that we form is where the actual magic and joy deep within our souls resides.
My job is not to go back and try and enjoy those times again, it is to bring those times into the present. To do everything in my power to ensure that my children feel these same experiences. When I am old I want to hear them talk fondly about all of the amazing memories that they have with their father, mother, sister and brother, grandpa and grandma. I want them to, one day, go back to their childhood home (that they live in at this very moment) and to realize the full truth that what made this place great was not the toys or the basketball hoop or the parks, it was their Father and their Mother and the fact that we took every opportunity to enjoy their youth alongside of them.
Your job, parents, is not to give them a great childhood, it is first and foremost to enjoy them. To reflect back to them their joy and their pain and their laughter and their imagination. And to make sure that they understand that this is what God does for us. It started with the first man and woman, Gods first son and daughter, whom he dwelled with and enjoyed. And then he taught them to be fruitful and multiply that love and communion and enjoyment generation after generation for thousands and thousands of generations until this very day.
It is in the intrinsic things that life is found. Pour yourselves out for your children, your neighbors, and the world around you, and you will find true joyous life. You were created for this. Created by a God who does this for you every day.
You cannot go back. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the activities.

It was love.

So may you look back and move forward, remembering and resurrecting Gods love. For generations to come.

P.S. – Its time to turn off your screen and be present. Starting now.