Monday, February 1, 2010


This posting is in response to a good, courageous & pastoral Catholic priest's request that I describe where the church's tradition of nonviolent peacemaker comes from. In a word--direct fom Jesus. For more detail on the church's positions on war & peace, and my conclusions, read on.

In my first year in college, at Sacred Heart Seminary, Fr. Scherzer taught us new testament scripture studies using as a main text “The Power and the Wisdom” by Fr. John L. McKenzie S.J.. It seemed a traditional work on scripture. Sacred Heart was an inner city Detroit institution and a vanguard within the church at the time of Vatican II, opening up to the world’s issues, racial justice especially in our setting. Yet at the seminary [and this in 1965 as the Vietnam War was heating up], war & just war theory theology received only cursory mention. Years later I learned that the scholar Fr. J.L. McKenzie’s summation of what Christ teaches us in scripture on war & violence was this:

“If we cannot know from the New Testament that Christ totally rejects violence, then we can know nothing of His person or message. It is the clearest of teachings.”

If Christ totally rejects violence, then why do Christian churches have military chaplains, and send their young people off to war, and encourage parishioners to pay their war taxes the same as tithes? The problem for Catholics, and all followers of Christ, is that the Gospel collides with political and personal realities. Nations, and worldly kingdoms of various sorts, claim to need organized violence for their security.

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it in their pastoral letter 1983, The Challenge of Peace*, “The Church’s teaching on war and peace establishes a strong presumption against war which is binding on all; it then examines when this presumption may be overridden…” This pastoral letter then goes on to explain what it treats as the two parallel church traditions on war: the earliest, nonviolence, and then the just war theory. The letter was written in part as response to the movement for a nuclear weapons freeze in the U.S. in the early 1980’s. We will concentrate on the earliest church tradition.

What did the first followers of Christ believe they should do about violence and war? From The Challenge of Peace, St. Justin in the second century said of those who have become Christians,
“And we who delighted in war, in the slaughter of one another, and in every other kind of iniquity have in every part of the world converted our weapons into implements of peace—our swords into ploughshares, our spears into farmers’ tools—and we cultivate piety, justice, brotherly charity, faith and hope, which we derive from the Father through the crucified Savior…” [Section 112]
And quoting from St.Martin of Tours even into the fourth century speaking to his secular authorities, “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier. Allow me now to become a soldier of God…I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.” [Section 114]

Another beautiful source for understanding the early church’s stance on nonviolence and war is the chapter, “War in Origen and St. Augustine” in the only recently released 1962 book by Thomas Merton, spiritual writer and monk of Gethsemane Abbey, Peace in the Post-Christian Era**. Therein Celsus, a Roman patrician writer of the third century, complains of the “insidious doctrines” of Christians, “Instead of returning to the customs of their fathers and living content like the rest of men with the status quo, they refuse to take part in public life, they do not carry out their duties as citizens, and in particular they refuse to fight in the army. Many many were the early Christian martyrs because of this refusal, and denial of the idolatrous incense offering and tax to the emperors Caesar. Origen, a noble Christian writer answers Celsus, “No longer do we take the sword against any nations nor do we learn war any more since we have become the sons of peace through Jesus who is our author instead of following the traditional customs by which we were strangers to the covenant.”

The Church has indeed since provided us with an exemption to allow participation in the violence of war, coined three centuries after Jesus--the just war theory. This tradition was promoted by St. Augustine {more on this in Merton’s book}, and has predominated politically ever since. Fr. Charles Emmanuel McCarthy has preached and written on this change in the direction of our church’s history-- “Constantinian Christianity.” *** An over-simplification: when the Emperor Constantine became Christian, he gave Roman real estate to convert pagan temples into Christian churches; then Christians were required, by the year 400 A.D., to join the army to defend Roman real estate.

After looking at these historical reminders of the Church’s earliest tradition rejecting war, following the nonviolent and all-merciful Jesus, we come to what is most important. Please read the four Gospels from start to finish, listening to and praying with Jesus. Take your time, be deliberate. In a world of Roman conquest and many Jewish factions, what did Jesus preach and do? From the Sermon on the Mount with “Love your enemies…” at its heart, though the many healings and devils driven out on the way to Jerusalem, cleansing the Temple, swiftly taken into custody, and then executed as a criminal on the cross, Jesus was always active and prayerful in nonviolent love, obedient to Abba God the Father. He refused to have disciples take up the sword to defend the earthly kingdom promised Him by Satan, father of lies. Jesus taught, lived, died, and rose again to save us and show us the way--nonviolent love and mercy towards friend and enemy is the Way to the Kingdom of God.

When you read the whole story [or have read to you as was most probable in early Gospel times], take wise companions with you. John Pilch's The Cultural World of Jesus has been very valuable to me, and the Little Rock Scripture Studies give a good overview of how and when the scriptures were inspired. There are many other good guides. Discuss the nonviolence of the Gospels with your faith community--attend a scripture class.

Read and pray the four Gospels thoughtfully from start to finish. You will find hard sayings, the narrow gate, and the Way the Truth and the Life. You will meet Jesus, "for it is in prayer that we encounter Jesus, who is our peace, and learn from him the way to peace." [The Challenge of Peace Sec. 290] The promise of everlasting life in the Kingdom of God is open to all, and can give peace and true happiness on earth as well, if we put away the sword, and become militant in God’s justice and mercy.

“If we cannot know from the New Testament that Christ totally rejects violence, then we can know nothing of His person or message. It is the clearest of teachings.” Fr. J.L. McKenzie S.J.

* These sections, 66 through 121, as well as the whole document, are well worth reading.

**This Thomas Merton book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, [available from] is also worth contemplating in its entirety. It was his spiritual attempt to save us all from nuclear self-destruction. Changing “communism” in the text to “terrorism” most often serves to fit present times to the T.

*** Fr. E.C. McCarthy’s website: [At present there is no article at the site that directly discusses this church history—for an academic organization’s outline of the issue see ]

No comments:

Post a Comment