Ted Grimsrud—April 13, 2023
One of the aspects of Christianity that has long troubled me and has played an increasingly significant role in my sense of my own faith has been how Christianity has for so long and so decisively been comfortable with “warism” (by which I mean to believe in war, to have a generally uncritical and positive disposition toward preparing for, threatening, promoting, and ultimately fighting in war). I grew up in my family with a mild warism and a vague Christian sensibility and had no sense that there could be a tension between the two. After my conversion at age 17, my religious convictions became much stronger as did my warism (in church, I was presented a very favorable view of America’s wars).
However, a few years later, I embraced Christian pacifism and became convicted that warism and Christian faith should be mutually exclusive. The contradiction became apparent once I began to see Jesus’s message as politically normative for Christians. Very quickly, I also came to see warism as deeply problematic on its own terms even when not judged in light of Jesus’s message. Mainly, though, my convictions about Jesus showed me the inherent problems with warism. As John Prine sang back in those days, “Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for.” I faced a crucial historical question. What changed? If Jesus was about peace, how did his followers become so warist?
Christianity’s turn from Jesus’s way
From the time of my embrace of Christian pacifism, I have wanted to understand better why the large majority of Christians have tended not to do likewise. I learned that the history of Christianity from New Testament times to the fourth century is ambiguous on questions of war and peace. Hence, analyses tend to be contested. I feel comfortable saying, though, that earliest Christianity did (with few exceptions) apply Jesus’s teachings in a way that led to pacifism. We have no record of a Christian leader supporting participation in warfare until the 4th century.
The evolution of Christianity during its first few centuries did move in the direction of the acceptance of war even though not in overt and direct ways. The big picture political situation changed early in the 4th century when Emperor Constantine formally established a rapprochement with Christianity following generations of intense and at times deadly persecution. Christians, it seems, accepted that connection immediately and without debate and in short order became soldiers and supporters of the Empire’s wars—to the point that less than a century after the initial rapprochement, only Christians were allowed in the Roman military.
Shockingly (at least from the point of view of Christian pacifism), the history of Christianity since the 4th century is, essentially, a history of the largely uncritical acceptance of war in almost all Christian communities. This is shocking because this warism seems so drastically contrary to what Jesus advocated. It is also shocking because we have virtually no record of debate or disagreement with the turn toward war among Christian leaders. And it is shocking as well that Jesus’s life and teaching essentially disappeared from the main accounts of Christian theology and ethics (this is apparent early on in the authoritative creeds and confessions of the churches that, typically, if they mention Jesus’s life at all, jump from his virgin birth to his crucifixion).
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