Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Early Christian Attitude to War

The title of this post is taken from a book by the same name, written by C. John Caddoux, and originally published in London in 1919.  It has been reprinted by Vance Publications in 2005, and can be found here.

Note the time and place of the original publishing of the book.  This was just at the conclusion of the Great War, in the capitol of one of the belligerents.  Certainly much of the work done by Caddoux was accomplished during this war, a war of most unspeakable destruction.  He was writing at a time when nominally Christian people were killing other nominally Christian people by the millions.

As I have done with other books, I intend to write several posts on this topic as I read through the book.

I begin with a quote from the Foreword, written be W.E. Orchard:

… [war] is a subject that will not cease to vex the Church until we have decided either to make as unequivocal a condemnation of war as we have of slavery, or to abandon altogether any profession of whole-hearted allegiance to the Christian faith.

It is impossible to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the attitude many Christians display towards war and the state.  Laurence Vance provides the most thorough commentary on this prevailing attitude, for example see here and here.  Vance is also behind the reprinting of this subject volume.  The work by Caddoux is the most thorough examination of the views on war of the early Christians – those who most closely knew the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.

Among the many problems of Christian ethics, the most urgent and challenging at the present day is undoubtedly that of the Christian attitude to war….everywhere by overwhelming majorities Christian people have pronounced in word and act the same decision, viz. that to fight, to shed blood, to kill – provided it be done in the defence of one’s country or of the weak, for the sanctity of treaties or for the maintenance of international righteousness – is at once the Christian’s duty and his privilege.  But only by an act of self-deception could anyone persuade himself that this is the last word the Christian conscience has to say on the matter.

Caddoux recognizes the potential shortcomings of the views of those in the first centuries of the church, describing the Christian mind as “relatively immature” and still in “the simplicity of its childhood.”  Yet, he finds the enormous accomplishments of the church during this time more than enough to counter these shortcomings:

…the first three centuries were the period in which the work of the Church in morally and spiritually regenerating human life was done with an energy and a success that have never since been equaled, when the power springing from her Founder’s personal life pulsated with more vigor and intensity than was possible at a greater distance…

He begins his study of this early Christian period with an examination of the teachings of Jesus:

There is a sense in which it is true to say that Jesus gave his disciples no explicit teaching on the subject of war.

Caddoux goes on to explain that this should not be surprising, and such an ‘omission’ is not unique.  For example, there was no record of any event which might afford Jesus to speak out regarding slavery.  Jesus had little if any cause to speak directly about military service and war.  He was living and working and teaching among Palestinian Jews, a population virtually unrepresented in the Roman military.  No Jew could be compelled to military service.

Caddoux cites the many passages where Jesus speaks in terms of non-violence and even passivity.  Jesus reaffirmed the commandment to not kill, for example.  His Sermon on the Mount offered non-resistance as good and right.  Most compelling, Jesus did not use or advocate political or coercive means to achieve His ideals:

In the one corner of the Roman world where the passion for an independent national state still survived, he had no use for that passion.

That force could be applied through political means did not sanitize the use of force for Jesus.  He found His calling through teaching.
Was not Jesus tempted by Satan – in fact, offered the whole world?  Caddoux suggests that the only way this could have been achieved was through military violence:

…was he not in any case invested by God with supreme authority over men, and was it not his life’s work to bring in the Kingdom as speedily as possible?  Assuming that the use of military force did not appear to him to be in itself illegitimate, why should he not have used it?  Had he not the most righteous of causes?  Would not the enterprise have proved in his hands a complete success?  Would he not have ruled the world much better than Tiberius was doing?

Certainly there are objections to this from the viewpoint of fulfilling Biblical prophecy regarding Jesus, and the sacrifice that was necessary – in other words, Jesus could not have accepted.  However, the questions raised by Caddoux are rather interesting.  God Himself did not choose to use force to bring on His kingdom.  Yet man keeps calling God onto his side in one cataclysm after another – in order to bring about a righteous conclusion.  If God did not choose violence as the means to an end (to bring His justice to the world), on what basis does His creation – the clay He molded – feel justified to achieve ends through violent means?

He made no attempt to constrain men to do good or desist from evil by the application of physical force or the infliction of physical injuries.

Burning the village to save it would not fit in Jesus’ world view.

The changes wrought by Jesus in the Gerasene maniac, the prostitute, the adulteress, the extortionate tax-gatherer, and the thief on the cross, show what a far more efficient reformer of morals he was than the police.

No drug war; no compelled charity; no sex laws; no making the world safe for democracy.  None of it.  Lead by example.  Teach.

He pronounces a blessing on peace-makers as the children of God and on the gentle as the inheritors of the earth.

Caddouz does not shy away from passages that appear to legitimize at least some aspect of warfare or violence for Christians. 

For example, Jesus teaches: Whoever impresses thee to go one mile, go two with him.  The word translated as “impresses” is a technical terms for requirement of service by the State.  This does not necessarily suggest military service.  The technical term referred originally to the postal system of the Persian Empire.  Further, as the Jews were exempt from compelled military service, in no way can it be construed that the service to which Jesus was referring was military.

What of the action in the temple courtyard, when Jesus expelled the traders?  It is not clear that physical force was used – the literal translation of the word describing the action is ‘to cast out.’  This same word is used to describe Jesus being sent into the wilderness, or of Him expelling the mourners from Jairus’ house, of God sending out workers to the vineyard, of a man taking a splinter out of his eye, and of a man bringing things out of his store.

This is nothing more than an authoritative dismissal.  In any case, there is no mention of wounding or killing the traders in this act of expulsion.

Finally, Caddoux dismisses the so-called interim-ethic theory – (if I understand it correctly) the idea that Jesus wrongly saw an impending end of time, an approaching break-up of the then existing world order.  Under this theory, while Jesus’ teaching might have been valid for a short time frame, given that He was wrong about the end-times – that the world has continued just fine, thank you very much; and for much longer than Jesus imagined – His teaching cannot be taken as applicable for our ongoing times.

Poppycock.  If true, what is the point of Christianity? He who was there at the beginning was confused?

Caddoux describes this as “the last stronghold of those who realize the impossibility of finding any sanction for war in the Gospels, but who yet cling to the belief that war is in these days a Christian duty.”

Most of the arguments we hear about ‘the lesser of two evils,’ ‘living in an imperfect world,’ ‘untimely virtues,’ and so on reduce themselves in the last analysis to a renunciation of Christianity, at least for the time being, as the real guide of life.

One can argue that it is Christian to support war only if one renounces the deliverer of Christian salvation.

Sadly, in too many congregations on too many Sundays, this is exactly the message being preached.  It is of a different faith, one not found in Jesus.


  1. Just War Theory, as i understand it, basically reads that the only just war is a war of defense and then only if there is a chance to win.

    I have read that the only two wars the U. S. participated in that were just, based on their provocations, were the Revolutionary War and the SOUTH - yes, the SOUTH - in the War of Northern Aggression. i do not intend to debate the veracity, or accuracy, of these two assertions, only putting these assertions forth as demonstrative of the fact that even 'the greatest country on earth' populated by 'exceptional people', mostly 'christian', can participate in unspeakable crimes when war becomes the desired mechanism for 'solutions' to problems. when one considers all the wars this nation has participated in with only two possibly being 'just' by the Just War Theory, the examples become telling of the attitude of 'christians' and war.

    it is impossible for me to understand the bloodlust of those calling themselves 'christian' as they support, and participate in, the killing of millions who have done them nothing and destroying countries that have given no threat or provocation. this seems to me to be a perversion of the message of He whom they profess to believe in and live according to His example.

    1. Such Christians are worshiping a false god, one of their own making. Sadly, there are millions of dead based on this creation of man.

  2. Enlightening. As someone who just (re-)discovered Christianity in the last couple of years, it is becoming more and more clear to me that much of all that is good of Western civilization comes from Christianity.

    Much of it, sadly, has been either forgotten, corrupted or both.

    A Christian renaisannce might be what is needed to save the West from itself.