Christianity and the Challenge of Peacemaking

Cain & AbelIntroduction to a forthcoming anthology of Christian texts of war and peace to be published by Bose monastery in Italy

By Jim Forest

The story of the first murder — the prototype of all war — is told in the Book of Genesis. It concerns Cain, the first-born child of Adam and Eve, attacking and killing his brother Abel:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out into the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:8)

It is a scene depicted in countless works of art — without resistance a Christ-like Abel, often shown kneeling in prayer, awaits Cain’s deadly blow. This biblical moment anticipates Christ’s voluntary death on the cross.

The first homicide was a micro-war: only one combatant, one weapon and one victim, yet, given how small was the family of Adam and Eve, with Abel’s death a large segment of the human race was destroyed.

In the ages that have followed, the Cains have greatly multiplied while the Abels — those who refuse to kill — are the exceptions, unless one counts (no government bothers) all the defenseless bystanders who fall under the broad, clinical heading of “collateral damage.” In fact far more non-combatants die in war than soldiers.

The motive of the very first war was Cain’s envy of Abel. How many subsequent wars have had their deepest roots in envious motivations: we want what you have — your land, your water, your wealth, your resources.

No one in history has challenged war, small and large, root and branch, more than Jesus Christ. In the portrait drawn by the four Gospel authors, we see that he kills no one and threatens no one’s life. One of the most startling elements of Jesus’ teaching is his emphasis on love. Far from blessing enmity, Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. Showing love of enemies in practice, we see his readiness to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, an officer of an unwelcome and oppressive army of occupation. In cleansing the temple of money-changers, Christ uses a weapon that could bruise but not wound — the only life endangered by his action was his own. In a situation where execution was the penalty prescribed by law, he shames a crowd of would-be executioners of an adulterous woman into letting their intended victim survive unharmed. His final miracle before his own execution is to heal the wound of a man Peter injured in his attempt to defend his master from an enemy; at the same time we hear Jesus reprimanding Peter for his violent attack on the man: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” At no point during his arrest or the suffering that followed do we see Jesus offering any form of resistance. Indeed we find no instance in the Gospel of Jesus killing anyone or authorizing his followers to commit an act of homicide. Jesus waved no flags — he was not a zealot. Though the word “nationalism” had not yet been invented, no one could describe him as a nationalist. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” Describing the Last Judgment, he declares, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.” Encapsulating the Gospel in eight Beatitudes, in the seventh he proclaims, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”

As we consider the Christian vocation of peacemaking, it is helpful to see the ways peacemaking has been lived and written about by those who have gone before us. Such an anthology as the one you hold in your hands is intended to contribute to the restoration of Christian memory. Reading the oldest texts in this collection, it may come as a shock for many readers to discover how much has been forgotten or buried in footnotes, including key elements of teaching by church councils and revered pastors that was normative in the early Church.

Searching the calendar of saints, among the countless martyrs of the early centuries we sometimes find Christian soldiers — men baptized while in the army — who were executed for refusing to or take part in battle as well as conscripts refusing to take the military oath. Today they would be called conscientious objectors.

For example, there is Maximilian of Numidia, a 21-year-old North African, who was being drafted into military service but refused to take the oath. Arrested in the year 295, he declared to Dion, the proconsul who tried him, “I cannot fight for this world…. I tell you, I am a Christian.” The proconsul pointed out that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. St Maximilian replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.” For his refusal, Maximilian was beheaded. He was immediately recognized by the Church as a martyr and saint. The trial transcript is preserved in the Roman Martyrology.

There is also the case of a recently-baptized centurion, St Marcellus. In the year 298, Marcellus’s unit in northern Africa was celebrating the emperor’s birthday with a party. To the astonishment of his fellows, Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such parties as heathen. Then, casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” Marcellus was at once arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, the record of which has been preserved by the Church, Marcellus readily admitted what he had said and done. It was not only, one notices, due to his being required to worship pagan gods, a defining moment for many martyrs. Marcellus’s motive for objection was, he declared, that “it is not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of his stand, he was beheaded. It is recorded that he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

Not all who took such stands paid for it with their lives. One such exception, Martin of Tours, is counted among the great missionary saints of the early Church. St Martin is most often represented in religious art as a young man wearing Roman military attire and seated upon a horse while using his sword to divide his cloak, giving half of it to a freezing beggar. In a life-changing vision that night, he recognized the beggar as none other than Jesus Christ.

Martin was born about the year 336 in Sabaria, Asia Minor. He was a member of the elite imperial guard serving with the emperor. While an officer, he became a catechumen. His crisis in military service occurred due to a barbarian invasion of Gaul, or France, as we know it today. Called to appear before Julian Caesar (better remembered as Julian the Apostate) to receive a war-bounty on the eve of battle, he declined to accept it, saying to Caesar: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now permit me to serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others. They are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Not surprisingly, the emperor accused Martin of cowardice. Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy alone and unarmed. Instead he was thrown into prison. As it happened, there was a sudden end to the hostilities in Gaul. The emperor, who may have regarded the enemy’s withdrawal as a divine act, chose not to punish Martin but instead ordered his discharge. Remaining in Gaul, Martin was welcomed by the bishop at Poitiers, St Hilary, who not long afterward ordained Martin a deacon, later a priest. When St Hilary died, Martin was chosen as his successor. He brought many people to baptism and also was an effective opponent of the Arian heresy.

The witness of such saints is in harmony with the catechetical teaching of the Church at that time.

For example, the Apostolic Canons attributed to St Hippolytus, a Roman text dated between 170 and 236, state that renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism. Here are several of the relevant canons:

Concerning the magistrate and the soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order…. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.

A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the [eucharistic] mysteries, unless he is purified by punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.” (Canons XII-XVI)

In brief, the Church was willing to baptize soldiers so long as they promised not to engage in war or acts of deadly violence. This was a difficult but not impossible condition, as in many situations of service the soldier was fulfilling either a noncombatant role or the role of what today would be regarded as a policeman.

In the first half of the third century, Christians were sharply criticized for their attitude toward military service by the pagan scholar Celsus: “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending Christian practice, a theologian of the Church in Alexandria, Origen, replied to Celsus:

Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so. (Contra Celsum 3,8)

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather the higher duty to engage in effective spiritual combat with the forces of evil that lead to war. He wrote:

The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.

In the same period St Justin Martyr expressed himself in similar terms:

We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere he wrote:

We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ. (I Apol. 39)

Around the year 177, St Athenagoras of Athens also stressed nonresistance to evil:

For we have been taught not to strike back at someone who beats us nor to go to court with those who rob and plunder us. Not only that: we have even been taught to turn our head and offer the other side when men ill use us and strike us on the jaw and to give also our cloak should they snatch our tunic. [A Plea for Christians]

Another of the Christian voices coming down to us from the early generations of believers is that of Clement of Alexandria. At the end of the second century, or early in the third, Clement described the Church as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11,116) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You not kill. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Protrepticus 10) “In peace, not in war, we are trained,” he declared in another essay. (Paedogogus 1,12)

Even in the Emperor Constantine’s time, one finds within the Church a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service. At the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325, with the emperor attending, one of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators were categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but were barred from participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. (Canon XII)

Throughout his reign as emperor, Constantine, though himself baptized only on his deathbed, favored, protected and endowed the Christian Church. During his reign, and still more in the post-Constantinian world, attitudes regarding Christian engagement in the government, including the military, gradually began to shift. No longer regarded by the state as an enemy, the Church came to be seen — and began to see itself — as the Christian emperor’s partner. Having become an object of imperial protection, with Church membership a plus rather than a minus for those seeking advancement, the changes in attitude that followed must have been distressing to those who remained committed to earlier models of behavior. As the scholar and biblical translator St Jerome (347-420) observed, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.” The rapid expansion of monasticism in remote desert regions in the fourth century is often seen as a flight from a Christianized Caesar. As Thomas Merton wrote in Wisdom of the Desert, “The fact that the emperor was now Christian and thus that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened [the monks] in their resolve [to flee].”

Late in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the foundations were laid by St Augustine and others (drawing on such classical authors as Cicero and Virgil) of what eventually became known as the Just War Doctrine. While rejecting personal self-defense, Augustine argued that it would be sinful to respond to grave wrongs done to others with passivity, so long as a military response was authorized by a legitimate authority. As he wrote in The City of God: “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” Yet Augustine, in the same book, also saw the damage war does to those who kill: “Let everyone who reflects with pain upon such great evils, horrors and cruelty [that are the consequence of war] acknowledge that this is misery. And if anyone either endures them or thinks of them without anguish of soul, his condition is still more miserable; for he thinks himself happy only because he has lost all human feeling.” [XIX,7]

Over the centuries, the Just War Doctrine evolved until it reached its most developed form in the Middle Ages. Under its terms, a defensive war could be considered just, and Christians participate in it without sin, if it met certain criteria: the war must be declared by the legitimate authority; it must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or for economic or territorial gain; just means must be employed; the right to life of the innocent and noncombatants must be respected; the war must have a reasonable chance of success; there must be a reasonable expectation that the good results of the war will outweigh the evils caused by it; war must be the last resort; and the burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

The Just War Doctrine is chiefly associated with Western Christianity. In his essay “No Just War in the Fathers,” Fr Stanley Harakas, for many years Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, described his search through Greek patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war. He reported:

[In my study] I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a “just” war, much less a “good” war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a “necessary evil,” with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries. [“No Just War in the Fathers,” full text on the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship —; search “Harakas”.]

Over the centuries countless wars have been fought which failed to meet the standards of the Just War Doctrine, yet who can recall the bishops of any nation declaring a war fought by their compatriots as being unjust and warning Christians in their pastoral care that participation in a particular war was sinful?

Fr Harakas identified what he referred to as the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church: “The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances that had applied in earlier times to all baptized Christians eventually came to be required only of those serving at the altar.” To this day canons of the Orthodox Church bar priests, deacons and monks from the sanctuary if they have killed anyone for any reason, including accidental manslaughter. Some priests and deacons practice the asceticism of not driving a car precisely because of the danger of their accidentally killing someone. (On the other hand, many clerics, though themselves barred from warfare, have used their voices to encourage others to take part in war, thus vicariously shedding blood by word rather than action.)

While the Just War Doctrine has failed to prevent war, other ancient Christian initiatives can claim a degree of limited success in the course of several centuries. What came to be called the Peace of God (Pax Dei) was a European movement that applied spiritual sanctions to limit the violence of private war in feudal society. It began in the tenth century and survived and evolved in various forms until at least the thirteenth century.

First named the Lex Innocentium (the Law of Innocents), it was promulgated at a gathering of rulers and clerics meeting at the Abbey of Birr in Ireland in 697. The law also came to be known as the Cáin Adomnán, bearing the name of its chief advocate, Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, one of the principal centers of Celtic monasticism.

Adomnán’s initiative was one of the first systematic attempts to lessen the savagery of warfare among Christians. In it Adomnán gave expression, in the context of the Gaelic legal tradition, to a wider Christian movement to restrain violence. Kings of Ireland and northern Britain were made the laws’ guarantors.

The main focus of the laws that were agreed on was the protection of non-combatants in warfare. One law required, for example, that “whoever slays a woman … his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die.” The laws provided sanctions against the killing of children, clerics, clerical students and peasants living on clerical lands. Rape was forbidden. Bystanders who did nothing to prevent a war crime were as liable as the perpetrator. Fines were set for violations. “Stewards of the Law” collected the fine and paid it to the victim or next of kin.

The Pax Dei initiative spread to the south of France. At a church synod, children as well as merchants and their goods were added to the early protections. Warriors were barred from beating the defenseless and invading churches or burning houses. The powerful Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy took up promotion of the Pax Dei. Cluny, independent of any secular authority, was subject only to the pope. Many Cluniac monks came from powerful families, the knightly class, whose violence they were trying to stop. The Pax Dei phenomenon became one of the first popular religious movements of the Middle Ages.

During the eleventh century, the movement spread to the north of France where the nobility sponsored peace assemblies in Flanders, Burgundy, Champagne, Normandy and Berry. Oaths to keep the peace were taken by many by nobles and spread to the towns and villages where heads of households, meeting communally, made solemn vows to uphold the peace.

A parallel movement, the Treuga Dei (the Truce of God), had its origin in Normandy in the city of Caen. It sought cessation of battles on Sundays, major feast days and during the fasting periods leading up to the most important feast days on the church calendar — Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. This prohibition was subsequently extended to specific days of the week — Thursday, in honor of the Ascension, and Friday, the day of the Passion. By the middle of the twelfth century the number of proscribed days was extended until fighting was licit only on eighty days of the year.

The Truce of God spread from France to Italy and Germany. A church council held in 1179 extended the institution to the whole Church. “De treugis servandis,” on the observation of the Truce of God, was added to canon law by Pope Gregory IX.

St Francis of Assisi can be seen as perhaps the most radical and influential medieval advocate of peace. Thanks to Francis, there was a period in the thirteenth century when many thousands of lay Christians took vows not to take part in war and were, remarkably, given papal support. Francis founded a “third order” for lay people whose rule called on members to become unarmed peacemakers: “They are to be reconciled with their neighbors and [are] to restore what belongs to others…. They are not to take up deadly weapons, or bear them about, against anybody…. They are to refrain from formal oaths [which might bind them to military service]…. They are to perform the works of mercy: visiting and caring for the sick, burying the dead, and caring for the poor…. They should seek the reconciliation of enemies, both among their members and among non-members.” The rule was approved by Pope Innocent III in 1201 and reconfirmed by Pope Nicholas IV eight decades later.

If notable efforts were being made to restrain warriors from killing each other in Christian countries, war against Moslems was a different matter. In 1095 Pope Urban proclaimed the first Crusade with the goal of gaining Christian control of the holy places in and near Jerusalem.

While no exact transcription survives of the speech delivered by Urban at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, the chronicler Robert the Monk attributed the following to the pope: “This land which you inhabit … is too confining for your large population … and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you [Christians of Europe] murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked [Moslem] race, and subject it to yourselves … God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.” According to Robert, the whole assembly responded, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” — words that became the Crusaders’ chant.

Another participant in the Council, Fulcher of Chartres, recorded that Pope Urban promised pardon for anyone who died while a Crusader: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.”

Pope Urban added, Fulcher reports: “Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor.”

As inevitably happens in war, many were killed who were not the declared target. The preaching of the First Crusade unleashed a wave of Christian fury that resulted in the massacre of Jews as well as attacks on “schismatic” Orthodox Christians of the East.

When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood. But their victory proved temporary.

Following the First Crusade there was an intermittent two-century struggle for control of the Holy Land, with six more major crusades. The conflict ended in failure with the fall of the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land at Acre in 1292.

St Francis of Assisi was also a Crusader, but one refusing armor, sword or the will to kill. Among the most well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of the Crusaders’ chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a Crusader victory at the Egyptian port city of Damietta (modern Dumyat) on the Nile Delta. Francis sought the blessing of the Cardinal who was chaplain to the Crusader forces to go and preach the Gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Moslems understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, then brought them before Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Moslems. Saying yes would save their lives. Francis replied that they had come to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.

For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but he gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Moslem control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”

What a different history we would look back upon if Moslems had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. While Christians in the first three centuries shocked the ancient world by their refusal to kill, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness: Christianity in the West was preaching the holiness of war.

Crusades fought against Moslems at the east end of the Mediterranean evolved into crusades against Christians regarded as heretics in Europe; among others there was the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) and the Aragonese Crusade (1284-1291).

The spectacle of Christian killing Christian reached its nadir during the Reformation, the grimmest event of which was the “Thirty Years’ War” — in fact a series of wars fought in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 — was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, and one of the longest, causing the desolation of entire regions and significantly decreasing the population.

The scholar and biblical translator Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was one of the prominent Christians associated with the Reformation who refused to sanction schism or to bless bloodshed in the name of Christ. Through letters and his published works Erasmus tirelessly strove to calm martial passions and to prevent war. “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war],” he wrote, “nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome.” He saw the great skeleton of Death itself striding triumphantly at the end of all military parades and expeditions.

In The Complaint of Peace (Querela Pacis), Erasmus envisioned Peace herself rising before an audience to protest the abuse of her name, praised by one and all in words, yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” He points out that war is unknown among wild beasts. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even brought to their senses by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus saw how nationalism, one of the driving forces of the Reformation, was taking precedence over the baptismal bonds that unite all believers: “The populace is now incited to war by insinuations and propaganda, by claims that the Englishman is the natural enemy of the Frenchman and the like…. How can anything so frivolous as a name outweigh the ties of nature and the bonds of Christianity? The Rhine separates the French from the German but it cannot divide the Christian from the Christian. The Pyrenees lie between the French and the Spaniards but cannot break the indissoluble bond of the communion of the Church…. In the midst of the non-Christian world Christians are set as a city on a hill to give light, but how will they move the heathen to embrace the faith when they so contend among themselves? If we would bring the Turks to Christianity we must first be Christians…. How impious are those who think blessedness can be attained by war, seeing that blessedness consists of the ineffable communion of souls.”

Erasmus’s pacific voice had little impact on the major parties in the Reformation conflict. His refusal to leave the Catholic Church was bitterly criticized by Martin Luther and, after his death, his writings were put on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church. Yet doubtless the voice of Erasmus and others of similar convictions played a role in the formation of smaller Christian movements which emerged from the Reformation and came to be known as “peace churches,” in modern times notably represented by the Church of the Brethren, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Mennonites.

Four centuries have passed since the Reformation, each and every generation living in wartime. All the while, until the mid-twentieth century, no notable change occurred in church teaching regarding war, whether among Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. But in recent decades, confronted with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, Christians have been forced to think again about war. In no segment of Christianity has this been more evident than in the Catholic Church, beginning during the years 1958 to 1963 when John XXIII was pope.

The publication of papal encyclicals is normally of interest only to Roman Catholics. Secular journalists as well as those in other churches pay little attention. But Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued in 1963, was a dramatic exception. Its release was front-page news around the world. Many newspapers published extensive excerpts and some published the full text. Pope John was widely recognized as having provided a bill of rights and obligations for the human race.

Such an unprecedented reception was due in part to Pacem in Terris being the first encyclical addressed not only to Catholics but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war.

The primary human right, wrote Pope John, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings. More than ever we can appreciate Christ saying “Blessed are the peacemakers … they shall be called children of God.”

One of the encyclical’s major themes was the role of conscience. “The world’s Creator,” John declared in the opening section, “has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it.” Quoting from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.’” (Romans 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or in the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participatnt in it.” [48, 49]

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws which violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit obedience: “Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence.… Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear … afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.” [italics added]

Pacem in Terris was not only an urgent appeal to governments to work toward nuclear disarmament but to individuals to disobey orders which would make them accomplices to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who launched the Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council in 1965, which John did not live to see, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the words with which The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Modern World begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. No other conciliar document had gone through so many stages before reaching its final form.

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (section 16)

It follows, the text continues, that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” (79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers and h had been assured, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, that blame would lie with the rulers rather than with their subjects.

Gaudium et Spes also contained a solemn condemnation, one of the few expressed in texts issued by the Second Vatican Council: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”

Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

If the Council did not succeed in restoring “the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth,” as Pope John had dared to hope, Gaudium et Spes was a major achievement not only for Catholic teaching but a giant step forward for Christianity as a whole.

Though the saints of the early Church would still be shocked at the spectacle of Christians promoting and fighting wars, perhaps they would be consoled to see that fewer and fewer Christians see war as either good or just while more and more Christians are searching avidly for nonviolent approaches to injustice and conflict. They would also be consoled to see how many war-eligible Christians are refusing to kill or to advocate war.

The pacific words of many saints and Church Fathers are being heard again, such as these from St John Chrysostom:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies to another way of thinking than to kill them…. The mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.

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Jim Forest is International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include “Praying With Icons”, “Ladder of the Beatitudes”, “Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness”, and “Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment”.

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text as of 2 January 2015

Jim Forest – [email protected]