what then shall we do? pacifism, “just war,” and “holy war” in western christianity

Below is an optional article we could read for my Early/Medieval Church History course at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thought you all might like to read this. Please do not quote anything from this article. I am only posting this because I have access to it from the professor. If you want to use this as a reference please email me first or leave a comment, and then I will email my professor for permission.


This paper was published in a book entitled Breaking Silence: Pastoral Approaches for Creating an Ethos of Peace, ed. Chad R. Abbott and Everett Mitchell (Pilgrims Process, Inc.: Longmont, CO, 2004); the editors are graduates of the PTS M.Div. program. The purpose of the book was to provide resources for churches seeking to help their members to discern appropriate positions in the context of the Iraq war. Those of us who wrote the essays were asked to advocate for specific views in that context. Thus at the end of my paper my argument is a strong criticism of that war. I am posting it for CH1100 not because I want to persuade you of that position but because the first parts of the paper – an overview of the attitudes toward violence in Christian history – provided the basis for my lecture today. So you can use the first 19 pages to get a fuller view of what I was saying in the lecture – with the footnotes, too. On the other hand, I offer the whole essay to you as an example of the way in which church history can provide a background for contemporary decision-making. Again, however, I am not trying to force you into agreement with me on the political issues today.


what then shall we do?

pacifism, “just war,” and “holy war” in western christianity

By: Kathleen E. McVey, PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary


Western Christian attitudes to war and peacemaking have varied considerably over the course of history. Broadly speaking, they fall into three major categories: 1) the pacifist position, which rejects warfare as well as all other forms of coercion and violence, 2) the “just war” position that limits the use of violence by rules applicable in principle to both sides in armed conflict and generally assumes that the power to wage war will be wielded by an authority distinct from the highest religious leadership, 3) a “holy war” position in which violence is deemed to be the will of God and in which the religious authority plays an instigating and directing role.[1] In both theory and practice, there have been subtle variations and combinations of these three general types. Since the purpose of this book is to provide a brief basic orientation to enable Christian clergy and congregations to engage these issues in the world today, an extensive treatment of these subtleties is both impossible and inappropriate. Instead this essay will be an attempt: 1) to describe these broad types and the manner in which each emerged during the first thirteen hundred years of Western Christian history, 2) to sketch further developments and interactions among the three types, 3) to suggest some points of contact with contemporary discussions of war and peace.

The emergence of three major attitudes to war and peacemaking

The earliest Christians: Between the Sermon on the Mount and apocalypticism[2]


As portrayed in the New Testament, Jesus’ stance toward violence is a complex dialectic between pacifist and “holy war” understandings set within a strongly eschatological framework. In the Sermon on the Mount he articulates a compelling ethic of overcoming evil by meekly accepting it and refusing to judge others — “turning the other cheek.”[3] This is to be contrasted (or complemented) with his occasional portrayal in a prophetic role characterized by zealous actions,[4] harsh words (against the “hypocritical” Pharisees), and parables and sayings on the judgment to come when sinners will be thrown into eternal fire.[5]   These two distinct strands may be reconciled by arguing that an apocalyptic time frame is key: Christians are to follow the way of peace, humility, and forgiveness until the End time in which God will judge. In this case the meek endurance of persecution by the evil powers of the world is only for a time; the followers of Jesus are to bide their time in the knowledge that Divine judgment will come to vindicate them and to wreak vengeance on their persecutors.[6] Symbolized in the Book of Revelation by the conquering Lamb, Jesus himself will return to lead the saints to victory, to execute the defeat and punishment of evildoers, and to rule in the heavenly Jerusalem.[7]

The early history of Christian attitudes toward war and peacemaking (as well as the broader assessment of the legitimacy of violence and coercion) is marked by tension between those who believe that the Sermon on the Mount requires Christians to embrace a new, absolute ethic of non-violence, i.e., pacifism, and those who understand that ethic to be modified, in one degree or another, in the light of a coming judgment which will radically distinguish good and evil persons and requite them appropriately. The implications of these differences come clearly into view only when Christians take hold of political power, beginning in the fourth century under the Roman Emperor Constantine. In the intervening period of the second and third centuries, impelled by persecution, they ponder the working of Divine Providence, the legitimacy of governmental authority, and the place of vengeance in the context of violence and suffering.

Many early writings stress an ethic of non-violent, non-judgmental endurance of suffering based on the Sermon on the Mount.[8] This attitude of meekness sometimes extends to a quietist acceptance of authority, both societal and governmental. So they may affirm: that Christians willingly pay taxes;[9] that, although they worship only God, they respect the emperor, pray on his behalf, assist him in the promotion of peace and virtue, and even view the Roman rule as providential. [10]   New Testament citations mustered in support of these claims include Paul’s advice to pay taxes and obey the rulers since they have been appointed by God[11] and Jesus’ words: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; render to God what is God’s.”[12]   These assertions of good, obedient citizenship appear in the context of apologetic literature aimed to convince educated pagans that Christians are “philosophical people” guided by reason and conscience rather than by superstition or subversive attitudes. The goals of ending persecution and of conversion of the wealthy and powerful are transparent. Yet they also have a confrontational aspect: Christian apologists are not, in their own minds, adapting Greco-Roman philosophies to explain their beliefs and to make them more palatable; they are showing the educated how the best of their Greco-Roman literature, philosophy, and institutions are imperfectly derived from intimations of the true God, the God known to Christians more directly and truly in Jesus Christ.

In the Christian confrontation with persecution, a more apocalyptic strand of thought appears especially (but not exclusively) in texts related either to martyrdom or to Montanism or both, such as the Book of Revelation, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity and the later writings of Tertullian. Without counseling violent resistance to the Roman government, these writings breathe a spirit of utter confidence in the power of God blended with defiance toward those who persecute the innocent. Often through visions and ecstatic prayer the Spirit brings their prophets (both male and female) the power to speak in the name of God on behalf of the weak and helpless and to triumph spiritually over diabolical forces in the present time as well as in the future. Here defiance often spills into hostility toward both government and the persecuting populace: one day, perhaps soon, the tables will be turned, and the persecutors will become the victims of Divine wrath. In this spirit Tertullian asserts that, “the souls of the martyrs rest quietly under the altar and nourish their patience with the assurance of revenge.”[13]   After the bloody persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, Lactantius will console his readers with detailed descriptions of the grotesque and painful deaths of the imperial persecutors.[14]   The heroic non-violent witness of the martyrs had an emotional and spiritual cost: the spectacle of the torture and execution of their innocent co-religionists evoked from some Christians not a generous spirit of forgiveness but instead feelings of hatred and a desire for vengeance.

This turbulent inner state troubled Christians who viewed the Sermon on the Mount through Stoic and Middle Platonic philosophical lenses rather than through the lens of apocalyptic prophecy. To “bear witness” (the root meaning of the word “martyr”) to Jesus Christ, they thought, meant to be thoroughly transformed by a spirit of peace and love. Thus Clement of Alexandria understood the injunction to “turn the other cheek” as a rejection not only of revenge but also of angry thoughts and words and presumably of fantasies of revenge. To become a true peacemaker, lover of one’s enemies and knowing witness to the truth of the gospel, the Christian must fight an inner warfare with the passions, notably including anger.[15] Those who would be martyrs must train not only to avoid desertion of the faith in apostasy, denying Christ by offering sacrifice to idols or to the emperor’s image or escaping by bribery, flight or deception,[16] they must also avoid denying Christ by succumbing to hatred. Similarly Origen insists that Christians are committed to peaceful words as well as peaceful deeds: “revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”[17]

Distinctions among the early voices must not be too strongly drawn. The philosophically inclined apologists consistently affirmed the value of blood witness both in word and in deed; they include the famous martyr, Justin, and the famous confessor, Origen.[18] Despite their threats and angry words the most apocalyptically inspired Christians did not take up arms against their persecutors. Finally, all used the language of “spiritual warfare” to describe their combat against evil; the battles to be fought in the present time were inner struggles with the passions and with unseen demons; in them, visible swords had no use.

But what about those Christians who took up arms on behalf of the Roman Empire? Although the New Testament mentions military men who encountered Jesus or embraced his teachings, there are words neither of approval nor of disapproval for their vocation.[19] A few third-century Christian soldiers are known by name through accounts of their deaths as martyrs. Of them some suffer death for refusing to participate in idolatrous worship with no apparent relation to their service as soldiers,[20] but others are killed for refusal to serve in the army, a task they reject explicitly as incompatible with their Christian commitment.[21] The views of the latter, the first known “conscientious objectors” are reinforced by several early Christian writers who claimed for their community the prophecy of “swords beaten into plowshares” as part of a perfectionist ethic. For example, Justin asserts that the Christian community, having foresworn not only war against enemies but even lying or deceit of their interrogators in the face of persecution to the death, has fulfilled the prophecy of “swords beaten into plowshares.”[22]   Origen adds, “No longer do we take the sword against any nation, nor do we learn war any more, since we have become sons of peace through Jesus.”[23]

In addition to these claims drawn from apologetic contexts, early disciplinary manuals instruct communities that soldiers who are baptized must abandon this means of earning a living. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215 A.D.) declares: “Catechumens or believers who wish to enlist as soldiers are to be sent away, for they have shown contempt for God.”[24]   Opinions differ on whether the essential issue is a rejection of killing or a rejection of idolatry. In favor of the former view, the same source also insists:

a soldier in a position of authority is not to be allowed to impose a death sentence; if he is ordered to do so, let him not carry out the order; he is not to be allowed to take an oath. If he does not accept, he is to be sent away. A man with the power of the sword or a civil magistrate who wears the purple must give it up or be sent away.[25]


Thus other kinds of officially sanctioned killing and violence, such as capital punishment, are also to be shunned; gladiators, charioteers, and wrestlers are also unacceptable in Hippolytus’ view. Some sources also condemn the common practices of exposure of infants (the abandonment of unwanted children to die) and abortion along with a variety of sexual sins and professions.[26] On the other hand, any profession with a connection to idolatry was also prohibited – not only service in the military and civil government but also in the theatre and in the teaching of children.[27] To put the pre-Constantinian prohibitions of military service in perspective, then, we must keep in mind the comprehensive perfectionist ethic of both the apologetic writings and early Christian codes of behavior. In some cases as well, Christian identity is defined through separation from a society perceived to be idolatrous to the core.

Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries: Coming to terms with the Roman Empire and the emergence of “just war”


Constantine’s rise to power and his related conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century brought many changes to the church. Among them were: the cessation of persecution, substantial financial support which included an extensive building program, and imperial promotion of theological harmony for the sake of providing a unified public prayer pleasing to God on behalf of the Empire. In the face of these changes Christian writers – notably Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and historian personally associated with Emperor Constantine – responded with enthusiastic approval and relief.   Later in the fourth century other bishops such as Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Ambrose of Milan challenged the authority of the emperor on behalf of their orthodox Christian people, but not for the sake of others.   By the end of the fourth century under Emperor Theodosius, public worship by Christian heretics as well as traditional polytheists (“pagans”) was outlawed. Jews, too, were restricted at least from proselytizing. This legislation was neither systematically enforced nor even efficiently promulgated, nor was it “thought control” – for it did not restrict individual beliefs or private devotion. Often while the women of prominent wealthy families converted, their husbands and sons continued to rule and postponed the public embrace of Christianity until their deathbeds. Yet in the mob violence of the 390’s, orthodox (catholic) Christians could expect increasingly that government officials – often with ecclesial encouragement – would “look the other way” when Christians were guilty but enforce against the others (heretics, pagans, and Jews) the laws prohibiting rioting and property damage.

The theoretical questions arose afresh: Are Christians permitted to use violence? If so, under what conditions? In a broader attempt to address questions of accommodation to the society that now welcomed them, both Eusebius and Ambrose propounded the view that Christians are divided into the “perfect” and the “ordinary.”[28] Like the rich young man in his encounter with Jesus, all Christians are invited to choose between the “perfect” life of radical discipleship and the “ordinary” life of obeying the commandments.[29] The newly popular monastic life was increasingly seen as the embodiment of the “perfect” life.[30] For the “ordinary” Christians a new ethic was needed. Neither the perfectionism nor the apocalypticism of the New Testament was deemed sufficient. So theologians turned, on the one hand, to Greco-Roman tradition, especially to Cicero and to Stoicism, for discussions of virtue, and, on the other hand, to the Old Testament for models of political and military leadership.   Neither was entirely new: Clement had looked to Stoicism in enunciating ethical principles for the guidance of wealthy second century Christians; all had turned to the Old Testament in search of types and allegories that were fulfilled in the New Testament or in the Church. But now the behavior of Moses, David, and Joshua was to be seen as an ethical model directly applicable to “ordinary” Christians such as governors and emperors. As before, spiritual warfare continued to be the duty of all Christians – whether they were monks in pursuit of the “perfect” Christian life or “ordinary” married people. All must strive for a dignified and anger-free execution of duties. But now for some those duties might include physical combat (for those in leadership or in the ranks of the Roman army) or the execution of criminals (for governors and emperors, those who had “the power of the sword”).

“Just war” doctrine began in the late fourth century with a few brief discussions scattered in the writings of Ambrose and Augustine. Both adopted from Cicero the requirements: 1) that war be declared by the proper authority, 2) that it be undertaken only to rectify an injustice, 3) that conduct during the war and toward the vanquished be governed by justice and self-discipline rather than passion, 4) that the guiding principle and goal throughout should be the achievement of a lasting peace. But they made some highly significant modifications as well. First to Cicero’s notion of justice, “to render to each what is due,” Augustine added that the primary instance of justice must be to render to the true God His due – recognition and worship. This notion would eventually be used to justify punitive violence against heretics and pagans, and in his attitude toward the Donatists Augustine himself began to move in that direction. Second, Cicero’s requirement of self-discipline became in Augustine the requisite that physical harm be inflicted only in a spirit of love – that is, love in the sense of wanting what God wants for the enemy combatant, criminal, or heretic, to be understood in the light of the soul’s eternal destiny as well as in the full awareness of the tragic, fallen state of the world. Thus, in matters of the state, the love of enemies had been reinterpreted. The mandate to “turn the other cheek” applied now only to private persons, who, in contrast to military and government officials, were forbidden to avenge injustices on behalf of themselves or anyone else. Ambrose concurred in relegating the Sermon on the Mount to private disputes and injustices but added that “love of neighbor” required that wrongs inflicted upon the innocent and helpless should be rectified by the proper government authority.

Augustine’s critical appraisal of the Roman rise to imperial power (especially in his City of God) did not prevent his embracing a very Roman endorsement of measured violence (including judicial torture and capital punishment as well as warfare properly declared and carried out) for the sake of public order and protection of the populace from external enemies, especially “barbarians.” Divine Providence assured that all sufferings endured in the course of war would be applied as salutary correction and punishment for sin.

Medieval European Christians and the emergence of “just war” and “holy war” in tandem

Augustine’s formulations were brief, unsystematic, and directed toward the crises of his own time – among them pagan reproaches that the Christian God had failed to protect Rome from the barbarian invaders in 410 A.D. Ultimately his views would assume normative significance for exponents of “just war” tradition. Likewise, Pope Gelasius’ articulation (in 494 A.D. to Emperor Anastasius) of the “two powers” “by which this world is principally ruled, the consecrated authority of bishops and the royal power” would eventually be seen as normative.[31]   But from the fifth to the tenth centuries these ideas had little effect on the emerging Christian culture. Instead the Germanic tribes, who dominated Europe and gradually came to embrace Christianity, brought the ethic of their gift-giving, warrior culture into dialogue with prior Christian tradition.[32]

The result was a wary and shifting relationship between Christian bishops and barbarian warrior kings. In an earlier stage some clergy took on secular duties out of necessity in the absence of effective Roman/Byzantine imperial protection. Such were Pope Leo (d. 461), who negotiated with barbarian leaders (Attila the Hun and later Gaiseric the Vandal) on behalf of the Roman populace, and especially Gregory the Great (d. 604), who organized the defense of Italy against the Lombards, provided funding to pay the army, ransomed captives, provided relief to the civilian populace, and negotiated peace.[33] Gregory, Bishop of Tours, his contemporary and a fellow Roman aristocrat, described the Merovingians (newly Christianized Franks among whom he lived) with contempt for their violent mores.[34] But eventually, drawn into the gift-giving culture and the realities of Germanic dominance, and themselves drawn from “barbarian” stock, Christian clergy and monks would take a more enthusiastic view of their warrior kings. To the Frankish monk Einhard, Charlemagne was an agent of God as Emperor Constantine had been in the eyes of Eusebius and as King David had been long before. Like his predecessors, Charlemagne counted on military victory as an implied benefit of conversion to Christianity, and he saw no problem in waging an incessant war of conquest against the neighboring tribes and in administering mass baptism to the vanquished.[35] Although his scholarly monastic biographer described admiringly this unabashed wielding of power, neither he himself nor any other Christian clergy or monks played a direct role in the violence.

Thus the “two powers” notion had been effectively transplanted from the late Roman Empire to early medieval Europe. Kings and bishops supported one another in authority though they continued to struggle over whose authority was higher. While clergy and monks abstained from bearing arms, they endorsed the right of the king and his warriors to do so. Yet a shadow of the early Christian reluctance to accept violence remained in the penance commonly imposed upon warriors who killed even in the legitimate execution of their professional duties. Although Einhard portrayed his rough hewn and illiterate but earnest king as having a fondness for Augustine’s teachings, particularly in the City of God, his attachment may have consisted in assurance that he rightly waged war “to wreak vengeance and exact righteous satisfaction” — a phrase which closely mirrors Augustine’s definition of a justifiable casus belli and which would become a touchstone for the medieval “just war” tradition.[36] But in reality the dominant ethos in this period, including those factors moderating and limiting violence, emerged from Germanic codes of chivalry. From them would eventually come the principles of non-combatant immunity and proportionality, both of great significance in fully developed “just war” guidelines.[37]

As royal power weakened in the late tenth century, a significant revision of the Gelasian understanding (of the “two swords”) emerged in the form of two movements: the “peace of God” and the “truce of God.” In an attempt to protect clergy and their property from marauding gangs, bishops claimed the right to enforce (with armed force as well as with the ecclesiastical power of excommunication) an oath to be taken by peasants and warriors to “keep the peace.” Eventually this provision was extended to protect unarmed people of all social classes. A second movement, the “truce of God” prohibited the use of arms on certain days – first on Sundays, then on church feast days, eventually encompassing most of the year. By the first measure the bishops protected the unarmed and their property; by the second they restricted the frequency of fighting by the knights.   Ironically, because the bishops claimed the authority to impose these measures by armed force, these attempts to restrict violence and to promote peace contributed to the development of a new military ideal defined by the clergy and to full-blown Christian “holy wars,” the Crusades. [38]

In the Crusades of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, all the restrictions on warfare that had applied in the previous centuries were broken: a pope encouraged Christians to fight, not as a concession for the sake of order in a disordered world, but as “God’s will” and a Christian duty; monks and even children took up arms; instead of doing penance for the inevitable sin of killing, warriors were promised a heavenly reward; a first-hand account gloated in the infliction of unlimited injuries on the non-combatant population of Jerusalem; fellow Christians were attacked in their capital city, Constantinople; the killing of Muslims was sanctioned as “malicide” rather than homicide (killing of evil rather than killing of human beings).[39] In their time these expeditions were understood to be a divinely ordained duty, an “armed pilgrimage to the holy places of the holy land” undertaken under a solemn oath.[40] Because the places at issue were, in effect, chosen by God, special status was accorded to violence undertaken for the sake of their rescue from the infidels; as long as the task was undertaken for the sake of piety rather than for glory or financial gain, it was not sinful but holy.[41]

The “just war” doctrine developed in tandem with these varieties of “holy war” – thus keeping ideology and practice in dialogue, however feebly, with the Sermon on the Mount. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) had begun the systematization and passing on as authoritative of Augustine’s views on warfare, but far more important contributions were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.   In his Decretum (ca. 1140) the Italian monk Gratian compiled the opinions of earlier canon lawyers and presented them as a dialectically constructed textbook of ecclesiastical law, which was quickly adopted by the law faculties of the emerging universities of Europe.[42] In Causa 23 he addressed the question of warfare and its legitimacy in the light of the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline injunctions against anger and vengeance in Romans 12.19-20. Thus explicitly posing the dilemma of the pre-Constantinian church, he answered it as Augustine had, invoking both his authority and his arguments.

Medieval theologians as well as canonists continued the discussion with Gratian’s work as their foundation. They raised many questions touching individual responsibility for the actions taken in warfare, such as, whether military service is ever acceptable, what measures were needed to show true penance in the case of a soldier who had committed serious sins, under what conditions a vassal or a subject people might refuse to fight in a war declared by a king, what spoils of war were permitted to those who fought, whether some weapons (such as the crossbow) were inherently unacceptable.[43] By the mid-thirteenth century, as the full corpus of Aristotle’s writings began to show its impact, the conversation about “just war” moved from the “casuistic and penitential” domain of canon law toward more systematic philosophical formulations. Thomas Aquinas, a key figure in this development, set the discussion into the context of political authority. For him, warfare was “a natural function of political authority” and was thus not only due to sin but “rooted in the nature of communities.”[44] The “just war” was an acceptable “means of promoting the common good of a society” and might “be necessary to preserve liberty and territory and to increase dignity.”[45] Formulae, such as those now commonly associated with “just war” doctrine, began to appear. Thomas identified three criteria: 1) proper authority, 2) just cause, and 3) just intention.[46]

In sum, medieval Christian attitudes to warfare varied immensely. They responded to new social realities and drew upon a wide range of writings and customs, Biblical, Greco-Roman, and Germanic. While, as we have seen, questions radically critical of warfare were raised within the “just war” discussion, the answers were often more harmonious with the practices of the time and place in question.   Thus the twelfth and thirteenth century canonists addressed questions pertinent to the crusades – both those against the Saracens (Muslims) and those against the heretics. Against the former, some justified “any means short of killing them . . . to accomplish their conversion,” while others considered that with the exception of the Holy Land, Muslims might have the right to govern their own lands without Christian interference so long as they refrained from attacking Christians; heretics, on the other hand, were generally assumed to have no rights.[47] As Russell observes, “It remains an open question whether just war theories have limited more wars than they have encouraged.”[48]

post-medieval developments and interactions: a few trends[49]

Accepted by Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin, the “just war” tradition continued to flourish and develop as distinctive national cultures emerged in late medieval and early modern Europe. Sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic theologians, especially Vitoria (d. 1546), adapted it to meet the needs of an age of conquest. Both Vitoria and the Dutch Calvinist, Hugo Grotius (d. 1645), expanded its natural law basis so that the rules of “just warfare” might be seen to apply to all nations (not merely those that were Christian). A statesman, jurist and ecumenical theologian, Grotius synthesized earlier Christian and classical traditions in his On the Law of War and Peace (1625) and laid the foundation for international law governing warfare. The transition to a secular basis was so successful that during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries the principa‏l discussion of proper conduct in war and peacemaking moved from the theological realm to the realm of international law and military codes of conduct.[50]

In the wake of World War II, the place of “just war” in Christian ethical discourse was strongly reasserted. As it is commonly presented today, the long and complex historical development is encapsulated as a set of criteria arranged under two categories: ius ad bellum (criteria that justify embarking upon war) and ius in bello (criteria governing behavior in the context of war). All of these criteria must be met for a war to be considered justified. The ius ad bellum include: 1) significant injustice (defense of a people, often extended to allies and to innocent victims; some say offensive war may be justified if the anticipated injustice is clear); 2) persistence in injustice, such that war is the only solution or the “last resort” (underscoring the necessity of negotiation prior to embarking on war); 3) declaration by the proper authority; 4) realistic expectation of success; 5) proportionality of ends (i.e., the damage reasonably anticipated in war must not exceed the original injustice); 6) right intention. Two further criteria fall under the ius in bello: 7) protection of the civilian population and other innocent persons such as soldiers who have surrendered, and 8) proportionality of means (specific weapons and tactics must be continuously evaluated in the course of war to decide whether the harm inflicted exceeds the good to be achieved).[51]

Although it has played a dominant role not only in modern Christian history but also in the development of secularized western culture and international law, the “just war” tradition has not gone unchallenged. Machiavelli criticized it in the name of virtù – the ancient Greco-Roman ideal of masculine valor.[52] More numerous, and more explicitly Christian, have been the critiques launched from a pacifist perspective. Radical Reformers, such as Michael Sattler, his fellow signatories to the Schleitheim Confession (1525), and Menno Simons (d. 1561), refused oaths and military service in the name of the Sermon on the Mount. Like the early martyrs whom they emulated, many of them paid with their lives for their Christian convictions, but now the persecuting state was Christian. Erasmus and others trained in the humanist tradition promoted the idea of peacemaking by drawing on Stoic notions of natural law and the common bonds of humankind in addition to the legacy of the New Testament. The stories of the “peace churches” – the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers (Society of Friends) – as well as the development of modern humanist theories and movements for peace would constitute worthy supplements to the present essay, but time and space do not permit.[53]

The contemporary discussion: some points of contact

The twentieth century brought two devastating worldwide wars, both of which began in Europe and spread via imperial ties and ambitions. Numerous more limited conflicts (equally devastating to the lives of those involved) have continued on virtually every continent and in every decade. The arms races that have preceded and followed wars have fueled the idea of the inevitability of war.   They have also enriched the purveyors of munitions, thus fueling technological advances to invent ever more sophisticated methods of killing. Not only nuclear bombs, but also anti-personnel devices (such as cluster bombs and napalm) and weapons designed to destroy the environment (e.g., Agent Orange) have compounded the horror of war. The same technological advances (especially toward the end of the century in the United States) have enabled the conduct of war from a distance – sanitizing the killing for televised consumption. At the same time, warring states have been motivated by ideologies, such as fascism, communism, anti-communism, Islamism, and anti-terrorism – an encouragement to unlimited violence and reprisal. Revolutions and civil wars have raised more insistently the questions of proper authority and systemic violence perpetrated by unjust regimes. Tactics and technologies have made it nearly impossible to distinguish civilians from combatants and to protect the former.

Christian responses to new realities have drawn on a whole range of earlier traditions. Popes and other Roman Catholic authorities have provided a clear and persistent articulation of “just war” tradition and have emphasized its normative character. Particularly under the leadership of Reinhold Niebuhr in the face of fascism, Protestant theologians have enunciated a comprehensive “just war” doctrine from a distinctively Protestant theological perspective.   Both have insisted not only on justifying the entry into war but also on adherence to the restrictions on conduct in warfare.

The “peace churches” – Mennonites, the Society of Friends, and others – have continued to espouse pacifism. In addition to rejecting military service and resisting militarism, they have developed extensive networks to promote peacemaking and international understanding. African-American and African Christians have articulated a distinctive witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice: The American civil rights movement (under the leadership of Martin Luther King and others) and the non-violent movement against apartheid in South Africa (under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and others) have proven the effectiveness of non-violent activism as a realistic alternative to warfare as a means for achieving social justice.

Pacifist traditions have increasingly influenced “just war” tradition churches. The question has been raised whether “just war” criteria can ever be satisfied under twentieth-century conditions.[54] Especially in reaction to the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race many have asked whether it is possible to protect civilian populations, whether a policy of nuclear deterrence and the ongoing arms race constitute both an immoral squandering of resources and an inherently dangerous provocation to war. On the other hand, the measured use of violence in the name of justice continues to be espoused in our time.[55] Some liberation theologians have advocated taking up arms against the systemic violence of economically unjust and repressive regimes. In another mode American Christian Presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have characterized other nations in apocalyptic language: Soviet Russia as the “Evil Empire” or North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as “The Axis of Evil.” Now at the beginning of a new millennium, Christians, frightened by terrorism and Islamist threats of violence, seem to be confused about the proper response.

What can an awareness of the history of Christian perspectives on violence contribute to our current dilemma? It is clear that Christians have embraced a wide range of responses to war and violence. Within that mix, however, certain voices emerge. We hear the insistent refrain of the Sermon on the Mount ever challenging Christians to an obedience they rarely achieve. How many of us who hear that call have responded by taking concrete action against the violence in Iraq, in Rwanda, and now in the Sudan?

The “just war” perspective, which emerged as the dominant voice in most of Christian history, invites us to undertake responsibility for safety and justice in the world, tempered by a need for restraint and guidance by clearly articulated principles and rules. In the past half-century, as noted, many Christians in “just war” traditions have questioned whether its precepts can be applied to justify warfare as it is currently waged. Much of that discussion addressed the problems of nuclear deterrence – still an issue today. But how does this apply to the war in Iraq? What questions do “just war” standards bring to an assessment of this conflict?

To me it is clear that the ius ad bellum questions, that should have received thorough attention before the war, were neglected in the atmosphere of anxiety created by the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and fostered and exploited by those intent on war against Iraq. The decision to go to war demands reassessment under the traditional headings:   1) Significant injustice: The casus belli has changed from “weapons of mass destruction” coupled with alleged support of al-Qaeda to “bringing democracy” to the Iraqi people. As is now evident, there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Saddam’s arsenal, there was no substantial connection between his Ba’ath government and al-Qaeda, and the Iraqi people did not invite us to change their government on their behalf. 2) Persistence in injustice: It was alleged that Saddam’s defiance to U.N. weapons inspectors meant this condition had been met. Significant voices at the U.N. as well as in the U.S. government have challenged that view, saying that negotiations were prematurely abandoned. 3) Declaration by the proper authority: The U.S. Congress at the behest of President Bush did declare war on Iraq. Still we must ask whether this is really “the proper authority” since the alleged threats to our safety (“weapons of mass destruction” and al-Qaeda ties) remain unproven at best, fallacious at worst.   The remaining justification, imposing an allegedly better form of government on a sovereign state, has never been recognized by international law (a secular descendent of “just war” doctrine) or by “just war” criteria as a legitimate reason for armed invasion. 4) Realistic expectation of success: Despite the Bush Administration’s repeated assertions, their expectation of success was not grounded in reality. The chaos and destruction in Iraq might have been foreseen but were not. It is difficult to see an ethical solution to the tragic and dangerous conditions that the U.S. invasion has created. 5) Proportionality of ends: Again the question of original purpose arises. Is the destruction, which war inevitably brings, offset by the benefits likely to accrue to the people who collectively suffer loss? It appears that now a majority of U.S. citizens as well as of Iraqis would dispute that this condition was met. 6) Right intention: Warriors often allege, as “just war” demands, that their intent is to bring peace. In this case, democracy is added to peace, but the question of unstated monetary motives has been credibly raised. Lucrative contracts for support of our troops as well as for reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure have been “outsourced” without transparency or adequate oversight.

The results of an assessment of the ius in bello criteria are no better. 7) Protection of the civilian population: The American public has not been given figures on the number of Iraqi civilian casualties, but clearly there have been many thousands. Failure to address this question, coupled with the ongoing failure to protect civilians from daily bombings, kidnapping and rape, shows indifference to this criterion.   8) Proportionality of means: The ability to wage war by “surgical strikes” has been claimed especially by Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of the Bush Administration. If it were true, this criterion would appear to be met. But in the absence of a count of civilian casualties and in the face of disagreement about the nature of many targets hit by “smart bombs,” the verdict on this “new” kind of warfare is unclear. Further, the use of anti-personnel weapons (e.g., cluster bombs), the arrest without charges of many civilians, and the use of torture (however casuistically defined) at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere all indicate this criterion has not been met. In sum, Christians who consider themselves adherents to the “just war” tradition must ask themselves how it applies to the current situation. If this war does not measure up to the traditional criteria – which, in my view, is clearly the case – then we must ask what we are doing to exercise our responsibilities as Christians and as citizens of a democracy.

Those Christians who may be comfortable with a “holy war” perspective may see as their task the sustenance of a vision of Divine justice promised to and demanded of God’s people in “this world” as well as “the next.” Bringing holy battles from an apocalyptic scenario into the conflicts of our everyday world is not without precedent among Christians, as we have seen. Historical study undermines the illusion, perhaps still widespread among Christians, that theirs is a history of peace while others, such as Muslims, have “lived by the sword.” We may all be sobered to “see ourselves as others see us.” Among Christians who have seen themselves as exercising God’s will through violence, the dangers of dehumanization and demonization of “the other” are especially acute. Perhaps, like the medieval Christians who embarked on Crusades against the infidels, often under millennial excitement, American Christians are also especially subject to the lure of apocalyptic enthusiasm as we enter the third millennium of Christian history.[56] If so, all Christians need to address these trends and subject them to ethical evaluation.

As Christians we have inherited sophisticated and many-faceted traditions pertaining to warfare. As United States citizens we have the privilege of living in a democracy. Informed citizenship is a heavy burden in a world in which government may seek to manipulate opinion by simplistic generalizations and slogans and in which the media provide only limited critical perspectives. We must all become students of our own traditions, responsible critics of government policies, and activists in promoting the policies to which our consciences lead us.


[1] The typology is based on Roland Bainton’s classic treatment, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (Nashville, 1960); critical appraisal in David Little, “‘Holy War’ Appeals and Western Christianity: A Reconsideration of Bainton’s Approach” in John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson, eds., Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, 1991) 121-139.

[2]   The issues in the New Testament and early church have been discussed by many; cf. Bainton, Attitudes, 53-84; for a synopsis of more recent discussion, D.G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service” Religious Studies Review 18 (1992) 87-94; for a brief overview and more bibliography, Willard M. Swartley, “War” in Everett Ferguson et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2 ed., (New York, 1997), 1171-1174. The views expressed in the present essay are based on my own reading of the sources.

[3]   Matt. 5-7 and parallels.

[4]   Cleansing of the Temple and cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21.12-17, 18-22 and parallels).

[5]   For example, Matt. 18.7-9 and parallels.

[6]   Rom. 12.9-21; also the agency of the angels, e.g., Rev. 14-17.

[7]   Esp. Rev. 17.13-15.

[8]   E.g., Polycarp, To the Phillippians 2; Ignatius, To the Ephesians 10, To the Trallians 8; Epistle of Barnabas 19; Justin, 1 Apology 15-16; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 4.6 et passim. Since there are many English translations of early Christian literature, I will cite these writings by author, title, book, and chapter, referring to a specific translation only when I have drawn a quotation from it.

[9]   Justin, 1 Apology 17.

[10] Justin, 1 Apology 12; Tertullian, Apology 30-34, Origen, Against Celsus 8.63-75, 2.30.

[11]   Rom. 13.1-7.

[12]   Matt. 22.21 and parallels, cited, for example, by Justin in 1Apology 17; Tertullian gives it a more rebellious tinge in On Flight in Persecution 12.

[13] Rev. 6.9, allusion in Tertullian, Scorpiace 12.9 (my translation); cf. also Tertullian, Apology esp. 47.12, 50.12, 16; Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas 18; Polycarp baits the crowd while expressing respect for the governor’s authority, Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.

[14] Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors.

[15] Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 1.8, 3.12, Stromata 4.6-14.

[16] These are concerns of Tertullian in On Flight in Persecution and Scorpiace.

[17] Against Celsus 8.38-41, trans. Henry Chadwick, Origen, Contra Celsum, 3 ed. (Cambridge, 1979) 478, 481, quoting 1 Cor. 6.10.

[18] That is, once arrested, he continued to confess the faith under torture but was released rather than being executed.

[19] The centurion whose slave (or son) is healed by Jesus in Matt. 8.5-13, cf. Luke 7.1-10 and John 4.46-54; and Cornelius, also a centurion, in Acts 10; cf. also John the Baptist’s advice to soldiers in Luke 3.14.

[20] E.g., Marinus, Julius the Veteran, Dasius; cf. Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972) 240-243, 260-265, 272-279.

[21] Maximilian and Marcellus; cf. Musurillo, Acts, 244-259.

[22] Isa. 2.2-4, Mic. 4.1-4. Justin, 1 Apology 39; similarly Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.4; Tertullian, Against the Jews III.9-10. In addition to their apologetic purpose toward educated and powerful Romans, several of these are in the context of anti-Judaic and anti-Marcionite polemics.

[23] Origen, Against Celsus V.33 (Chadwick 290).

[24] Apostolic Tradition 16, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, Springtime of the Liturgy: Liturgical Texts of the First Four Centuries, ed. Lucien Deiss (Collegeville, 1967) 138.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Didache 2; Justin, Apology 27

[27] Apostolic Tradition 16.

[28] Eusebius, The Proof of the Gospel 1.5; Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy 1.40, 3.2.

[29] Matt. 19.16-30 and parallels; cited by Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy 1.40.

[30] Cf. Athanasius, Life of Antony 2.

[31]   Tomaž Mastnak, Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order (Berkeley, 2002) 2.

[32]   Peter Partner, God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam (New York, 1997) 62-66.

[33] Robert A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge, 1997) 97-111.

[34] Partner, God of Battles, 63.

[35] Einhard, Life of Charlemagne 5-15, esp. 7.

[36] Einhard, Life, 24, 7, trans. Samuel Turner, The Life of Charlemagne, with a foreword by Sidney Painter (Ann Arbor, 1960) 31. On “avenging injuries” ulcisci injurias in Augustine, see Frederick H. Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1975) 18-26 et passim.

[37] James Turner Johnson, “Historical Roots and Sources of the Just War Tradition in Western Culture” in Kelsay and Johnson, Just War and Jihad, 3-30, esp. 11-12.

[38] Mastnak, Crusading Peace, 1-54, esp. 2-6, 26-27.

[39] Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades, trans. John Gillingham (London, 1972); Mastnak, Crusading Peace, 55-128; Partner, God of Battles, 59-132.

[40] Partner, God of Battles, 85.

[41] Ibid., 110-111.

[42] Russell, Just War, 55-85.

[43] Ibid., 86-257, esp. 150-158, 214-234.

[44] Ibid., 267.

[45] Ibid., 293, 264, cf. 213-291 passim.

[46] Ibid., 267-291, for this enumeration and further discussion of the meaning of each of the criteria.

[47] Ibid., 195-212, esp. 197.

[48] Ibid., 308.

[49] For systematic treatment of this period, see Bainton, Christian Attitudes, 118-268; Johnson, “Historical Roots,” 16-30; Partner, God of Battles, 185-310; John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking, 2 ed. (New York, 1996) 19-70.

[50] Johnson, “Historical Roots,” 19-26.

[51] This list combines elements from Johnson, “Historical Roots,” 16, and from John Francis Burke, “the Interreligious Dimension: A Global Ethic of Peace” in María Pilar Aquino and Dietmar Mieth, eds., The Return of the Just War (London, 2001) 52-61, esp. 53. There are many others, but particularly valuable is the precise and comprehensive compilation from a critical perspective in Yoder, When War is Unjust, 147-161.

[52] Bainton, Christian Attitudes, 124-126.

[53] As a starting point see, Bainton, Christian Attitudes, 127-135, 152-172.

[54] For an overview of this trend, a critique of the very notion of “just war,” and a response, see Yoder, When War is Unjust.

[55] The essays in Aquino and Mieth, Return of Just War, constitute a helpful survey of the possibilities.

[56] On millennial expectations in the context of the Crusades, cf. Mastnak, Crusading Peace, 35, 45-47, 76; Partner, God of Battles, 112, 156-157.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s