Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jean-Michel Hornus on
conscientious objection - antimilitarism
& early Christianity /

Ο Jean-Michel Hornus περί
αντίρρησης συνείδησης - αντιμιλιταρισμού
& πρώιμου χριστιανισμού

No one really disputes that some Christians, especially in the first centuries, refused to bear arms, and that there were theologians who approved of and encouraged their refusal. But in a conscious or unconsious desire to prevent these facts from undermining the very foundations of traditional Christian moral theology concerning service to the state, numerous authors have retreated behind a fourfold defense system:

1. Only a tiny minority of the early Christians adopted the position of "conscientious objection," while the great majority adopted exactly the opposite stance.

2. The position of "conscientious objection" was a late development which emerged only at the beginning of the third century, i.e., at a time at which doctrines more Platonic than Christian had begun to obscure and contaminate the teachings of the gospel.

3. Early Christian "conscientious objection" was never more than a theoretical position held by a coterie of bloodless intellectuals. Neither in its concrete life nor in its official pronouncements did the Church accept this theory, which as a result remained the eccentricity of a few theological cranks.

4. There was only one reason why the Christians of this period refused military service: they rejected the idolatry which was intimately bound up with the life of the army. Never did they have the slightest objection to killing other men; but they stoutly refused to put themselves in a situation in which they would have to pay to the Roman emperor homage which they owed to God alone.

In this book I shall attempt to refute these four assertions and to demonstrate that:

1. If there is relatively little surviving evidence of the Christians of the early centuries refusing military service, there is far less evidence of their accepting it-except at a later periods. Therefore it is faulty logic to argue: "Since there is so little evidence of early Christians refusing military service, these refusals can only represent the position of a minority among the Christians." On the contrary, sounder logic would suggest the opposite: "Since there is at least some evidence of Christians refusing military service and practically none of their accepting it, the majority of the believers must have been in favor of refusal." This conclusion gains even more weight if we bear in mind that silence on this matter is explicable not only by the scarcity of our documents but also by the fact that, for social and political reasons, the Christians were rarely confronted by the problem of military service.

2. To allege that Christian antimilitarism must have been a late development because prior to the third century there is hardly any evidence of it is almost to lie through omission. For to do so is to ignore the fact that during the first two centuries of the Christian era there was scarcely any patristic literature. When such literature began to appear, however, it is evident that it from the outset dealt with the theme of nonviolence-and it excluded the theme of military patriotism. The great treatises by writers such as Tertullian and Lactantius merely amplified systematically the propositions which their predecessors had already clearly enunciated.

3. It is true that the actual behavior of the believers often contradicted the attitude affirmed by Christian thinkers. But this, alas, is hardly a unique phenomenon. Repeatedly throughout church history the same tension recurs-between the absolute demands of Christian preaching and the compromises due to Christians' weakness and lack of faith. These compromises are the mark of sin in the Church. But it would be disastrous to conclude that, because certain of the faithful have been unfaithful to the teaching which they have received, infidelity should become the norm of Christian conduct. If antimilitarism had only been the position of a few eminent ethicists, and if others had considered this position to be exaggerated, why did these others not discuss this position and attack it? But in actual fact the Church did everything in its power to protect itself against the temptations of compromise in this area. The disciplinary measures which it decreed showed clearly enough that, although it welcomed the repentant sinner, it nevertheless condemned the weakness which had led him to defy Christian teaching by accepting a military uniform.

4. It is obvious that the early Christians stubbornly rejected idolatry. Since the writing of the Book of Daniel (if not before then), believers have recognized that this has been the underlying reality which has compelled them to offer resistance to the state. Thus, from the apostles facing the Sanhedrin to the German Confessional Church confronting Hitler, the terms of the struggle have remained exactly the same as those which the prophet had discerned. But does the idolatry involved in military service consist only of outward ceremonies, which today have become largely outmoded? Does it not rather pervade the entire system because it is based on a false scale of values? In the place of God, the nation and the military authorities receive adoration and obedience, and like Moloch they demand the human sacrifice which God forbids. I must also emphasize that the Christians of the early centuries were motivated by another consideration which was at least as important to them as was their rejection of idolatry-their respect for life. Emphasis upon the former, true though it is, becomes a distortion of historical truth when it forgets the latter and conceals its existence.

I hope, then, to prove that, from the very beginning and throughout the first three centuries of the primitive Church, its teaching-not just the fancy of a few individuals-was constantly and rigorously opposed to Christian participation in military service. I hope also to prove that this opposition was not based on a particular situation-the cult of the emperor-but on a fundamental decision: to reject violence and to respect life. Finally I shall attempt to explain how and why this position, which was so firm and clear in its principle, was abandoned during the fourth century. If my conclusions are sound, they inevitably pose two further questions. First, is it not likely that the understanding of the gospel of the Christians of the first three centuries was far closer to the authentic gospel than the understandings which have been prevalent since then? And second, did the theologians of the Constantinian era really get what they wanted from the bargain which they struck with the state, thereby justifying in their own eyes a new attitude of Christians toward the army? If not, is it not high time that we review their decision in the light of history, which demonstrates that they had been duped into a disadvantageous exchange from which nothing was gained, and in which the loss was fidelity to the gospel?

* Jean-Michel Hornus,
It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War, Violence, and the State
[Δεν είναι Νόμιμο για Εμένα να Μάχομαι: Πρωτοχριστιανικές Στάσεις απέναντι στον Πόλεμο, τη Βία και το Κράτος] (Revised Edition),
Alan Kreider & Oliver Coburn (transl. of Evangile et labarum [1960] * *),
Herald Press Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 1980 /
Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009,

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