MANY CHRISTIANS today are unfamiliar with the mindset of Christians in the first three centuries of the Christian era. This time period is often referred to as ‘the early Church’. It is of course the time historically closest to Jesus himself. And the social and cultural conditions under which the Christians of that period lived were much the same from the start. That is, they mostly lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. Many spoke the same languages, and many endured the persecutions of those early centuries. For them, arrest and execution, and the continuing threat thereof were a lived experience. They knew first and second-hand what scourging and crucifixion were. Most modern Christians know them only as an abstraction. We have to use our imagination or read accounts of this type of execution or watch a film. It is generally not a living reality for modern Christians. It is instructive to read through the writings of this early period to see how Christians coped with this very difficult situation. After all, it was just not adult men and women who were dragged into the arenas but often children and the elderly. What kind of guidance did the Church leadership and early writers offer?
It would be correct to assume that any guidance offered would be solidly based in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings. While the four gospels were not yet part of an organized canon, they were in circulation and well known. As followers of Christ, the Church leaders and writers would naturally view the crisis of persecution through the lens of Christ himself, both in his actual words and deeds. After all, Jesus had passed through the ordeal of arrest, torture and crucifixion, one of the worst possible executions devised by twisted human minds.
It is a well-known teaching in Christian doctrine that the voluntary death of Jesus, freed the human race from the bondage of death. By his death Christ trampled down death. Humanity had become trapped in a downward spiral of evil and death and all the negative effects that accompanied them. Jesus, the sinless One, encountered death, although undeserving of it, and shattered the stranglehold it had on the human race. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, it is now possible for all humans to escape the tragic pathways of death. But the question can legitimately be asked: “Is it only the death of Christ that was required to achieve this victory?”. If so, could not his death at the hands of Herod when he was an infant have accomplished the same outcome?
Or perhaps dying of old age? Was it not rather the endurance of the worst manifestation of evil that humanity could dish out and the returning of love for hate and rejection, the determinative element? “Father forgive them” Jesus uttered on the cross, stands out as the pivotal key to the destruction of evil and death. Evil and death cannot survive in the face of love. Love undoes their power.
This being so, Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies becomes key. Returning injury for injury, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ showed and continues to show itself powerless to defeat evil and death. Only the return of love for hate, enemy love, can restore creation to God’s original intention. To return injury for injury can only perpetuate the cycle of violence and counter violence, which is largely the story of human history. The early Christians would have been well aware of this dynamic because of being so close historically to the teaching of Jesus and the cultural conditions in which they were taught. In the early Christian writings, we find encouragement to endure the ‘ordeal’ imitating Christ in love for the persecutors, and the assurance that life in this world does not end at the grave but continues eternally. Christians’ ability to face persecution was firmly grounded in the belief of eternal life, or we could call it eternal survival, in communion with the Holy Trinity. One could overcome the mortal fear of death by remembering Christ’s promise of the indestructibility of genuine love. Evil and death hold no sway over Christ-like love. The early Christians realized that love in the face of evil and hatred were God’s way of accomplishing the salvation of the world. For them, it was not a minor element of the gospel, a back-burner issue, but the core of God’s plan of salvation.
The early Christian writers exhibit no sign of supporting retaliation for the violence inflicted on Christians nor do they call for self-defense even in the face of the arrest and persecution of entire families. There is not even one sentence in the early writings attempting to justify Christian retaliation for the horrors being visited on them. From the modern perspective this seems surprising given our natural tendency to want to protect the innocent. Apparently, the early Christians believed strongly enough in Christ’s commands to carry them out, even though they might not have totally understood how their faithfulness would bring about God’s plan of salvation.
The concept of enemy love as God’s method of salvation was so apparent to the early Church leadership, that guidelines of behavior were taught in regards to Christian participation in the military. Because one was expected to engage in killing of enemies in battle, the military career was seen as incompatible with the clear teachings of Christ. Catechumens were informed that they would have to withdraw from Christian initiation if they decided to join the military. Converts already in the military were told that if commanded to kill, they must tell their commanding officers that it was forbidden for them. And if the result was martyrdom, they were to accept it as faithful followers of Christ. Some have made the case that it was only pagan religious practices that deterred Christians from participating in the military. But clearly it was also the teachings of Jesus on enemy love that prevented them from viewing military service as acceptable. While there were instances of Christians dis-obeying Christ’s clear commands regarding love of enemies in the early Church, there was no attempt to justify it by Church leadership. It was seen as failure and confessed as such.
This situation continued until the gradual diminishment of Christian consciousness in regards to enemy love beginning in the early 4th century. From an outlaw religion where Christians were forbidden to participate in the military, Christianity was first legalized by the Roman government and eventually became the recognized State religion. By the early 5th century only Christians could participate in the military. Pagans and other non-Christians were no longer welcome. The prohibition against killing was relegated by the Church to only the clergy. And it was at this time that Augustine began to develop what became known as the Christian just war theory. (CJWT) The tenets of CJWT are not based on Jesus’ teachings in the gospels but are proposed as the conditions which are considered necessary to declare an exception to those teachings. In examining the many wars throughout history, which have often been declared as just by both Christian sides of a given conflict, none of them have been shown to have met all the conditions of CJWT. In any case, the Orthodox Church has never officially accepted CJWT. It has mainly been promoted by Western Churches. The Orthodox Church views all war, even wars considered to be self-defensive, to be the product of sinful people unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts peacefully. All war is sin (evil) in the view of the Church, although one could argue that in practice the Orthodox Church abides by CJWT. Since the 4th century the Church has not only permitted but blessed its members to participate in their country’s wars. There are prayers in our service books not only for the blessing of soldiers going off to war, but clergy have been known to sprinkle holy water on collections of military guns, tanks, bombers and even submarines equipped with enough nuclear missiles to lay waste large portions of the planet.
Who today is aware that the Orthodox Church considers all war to be sin? And in what other evil does the Church bless its members to participate? Which raises the question of why the Church gives a blessing to participate in this sin and no other. Could it be that our love of country, our nationalism, and our ethnicism have overshadowed our first loyalty to Christ and his clear commands? Have we lost that clear commitment that the early Christians displayed with such fortitude? No one to my knowledge has offered a cogent response to these questions or hardly even asked them. It is as if they are minor issues rather than central to the gospel as Jesus taught it and the early Christians lived it. And if enemy love is the heart and soul of the gospel, could our failure to clearly proclaim it, to teach it to our members and the larger world, be largely responsible for the anemic witness that we present to the world at large. If we live by the same value system that everyone else does when it comes to fighting our countries’ wars, how is anyone to distinguish us as followers of Christ?
The idea that one can be loving towards one’s enemies on the battlefield is illusory. Everyone knows, who has been in battle, that when the bullets start flying, self-preservation and protection of one’s friends becomes the dominant mode. And anger at the destruction of one’s friends often leads to acts of savage retaliation. The spiritual damage being endured by soldiers in battle is enormous. Do we not as a Church have a responsibility to warn our young people of this danger?
PTSD, suicide, spousal abuse and drug addiction are common outcomes for people who have been on the front lines in battle. These maladies point to spiritual damage which has occurred. While it is good that we minister to these damaged people, how much better to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place by alerting our young people to the spiritual danger they are facing by joining the military, and like the early Church, forbidding them to do so. And if poverty is a contributing factor in motivating young people to join, it is incumbent upon us to address that by offering real alternatives.
We lament the shrinking of our churches, but have we considered that they would grow like the early Christian churches grew when people observed the astonishing spectacle of Christians willing to give their lives in love for their enemies? When they heard words of love and forgiveness in the midst of terrible suffering? When they saw the strong faith in eternal life in communion with God that gave the Christians the willingness to sacrifice survival in this world?
These are vital questions that go to the heart of our faith. They ultimately confront us with the question of the level of trust we place in Christ. Are we willing, like the early Christians, to place all our trust in Christ even if we don’t fully understand how our faithfulness will bring about God’s plan of salvation on earth? Or we will continue to live in fear of losing our short time on Earth and try to find excuses for not obeying the One who can truly be trusted, and the One who can truly save?
V. Rev. Mark Korban is priest of St. Jacob of Alaska Mission in Northfield Falls, VT.