Monday, May 7, 2012

Early Christians,
politics & the army /

Οι πρώτοι χριστιανοί,
η πολιτική & ο στρατός

The good shepherd /
Ο καλός ποιμένας

Against a backdrop of Roman just war theory—in which force was understood to be a legitimate right of the state, and an Old Testament tradition of divinely sanctioned, sometimes genocidal war, early Christians strove to make sense of Jesus' strange instruction that hatred should be repaid with love. Jesus counsels Peter to sheathe his sword in the garden of Gethsemane; instructs his followers to offer up the left cheek if the right one is struck; and promises that those who live by the sword will perish at its edge. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul's Letter to the Romans seem to counsel disengagement from the political realm, perhaps because the coercive roles of soldier, jailer, lawyer, tax collector, and judge are inconsistent with the radical demands of emulating a God who responds to sin with love and who allows the sun to shine equally on the heads of the wicked and the good. It is nothing special, Jesus preaches, to repay hatred and force in kind.

Following Jesus' teachings literally, early Christians endeavored to create separate, self-sufficient communities in which all were brothers and sisters in faith and where the only direct form of coercion was social isolation. Participation in the soldiering life required behaviors apparently in direct contradiction to Jesus‘ preaching, involved loyalty oaths to the Roman emperor and obeisance to Roman gods, and exposed Christians to the general moral depravity associated with the legions. Subsequent Christian attitudes toward the state‘s use of force would be oriented around the understandings reached about the separation from conventional society and pacifism counseled in various ways in the New Testament. Whether the separation is a matter of the flesh or the spirit depends on whether it is thought Christ meant to lead the kingdom of God on earth, or to herald its future realization in heaven or in a world radically transformed by grace.

Such debates took on an increased importance with the official Christianizing of the empire in 313 C.E. This event forced Church leaders to confront a new set of political responsibilities the early Christian communes could afford to refuse. Beyond the inheritance of all the coercive organs of the state -and the associated bureaucracies, cultures, and professional classes- there was a developing theological conviction that the social stasis St. Paul recommended was no longer justified by the imminence of Christ‘s return, and that in fact, the current Christian era would last indefinitely (Johnson, 1991, p. 9). If the world of force could easily be seen as other when it was the agent of the early Church‘s persecution, even by the late second century, the perseverance of the Church made its thinkers grapple with the fact that the Church prospered in part because of its support by and integration with that world. After all, the Pax Romana provided a stable material foundation for the exercise and spread of Christianity.

* Michael Skerker,
"Jesus and Mars: The Christian Just War Theory"
Ιησούς και Άρης: Η χριστιανική θεωρία του Δίκαιου Πολέμου»],
Barnes Symposium 2005, University of South Carolina.

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