That’s a question with a long history in the Church. Many of the Early Church Fathers directed Christians not to take up arms, but their argument often revolved around the particular problems of service in the forces of Rome. In the Roman military, worship of the Emperor, i.e., idolatry, was in many cases a required practice; thus, nobody with allegiance to the One True Living God could conscientiously participate.
Some of the Early Fathers, though, were very clear that no follower of Christ should deliberately take the life of a fellow human being, since Christ died for all, even our enemies. Since, as long as a person breathes, there is a chance for his conversion, we may not cut that life short. And yet, among the canonized saints of the Church, there are warriors and military leaders along with pacifists.
On the one hand, we see St. Francis of Assisi, who was, after his conversion, the very paragon of pacifism, going unarmed to the Muslim Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, to attempt to convert him to Christ. Francis did not succeed in persuading the Sultan to follow Christ, but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis’ holiness and purity of heart that he let him depart with his head still attached to his body. This probably would not have been the case had Francis come armed.
On the other hand, St. Ferdinand III, king of León and Castile, is also a revered saint — and he was a military leader who spent his career leading forces in numerous battles against the Muslims occupying southern Spain at the time, as well as personally slaying many Muslims himself. Other warrior saints include St. Louis IX and St. Joan of Arc.
What are we to make of all this? Some say that only those such as monks who have taken vows need renounce all violence, while the rest of us live with the Just War doctrine first formulated by St. Augustine, and further developed in later centuries. (A very good nutshell summation of it can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2309)
Others, such as Mennonites and Quakers, believe that pacifism — a refusal to ever do violence to another person, even under direct mortal threat to oneself and/or one’s family — is incumbent upon anyone calling himself or herself a Christian.
I used to be a pacifist, and a Mennonite. I now believe that that stance is yet one more example of how heresy always tends toward oversimplification. Heresy has often been described in terms such as these:
A heresy is not the total rejection of the Christian faith but a distortion of it. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth.
In the case of pacifism, one part of the Gospel — the default stance of nonviolence — has perhaps been exaggerated at the expense of other parts of the Gospel — such as the duty to defend the innocent and defenseless. Truth in its wholeness tends — at least, on this side of heaven — to seem paradoxical, holding seemingly opposite things in tension. I think of what my (Catholic) pastor once said — that when you come into the Church that Jesus founded, you will know that you are home — but that does not mean you will be comfortable. Since we are fallen creatures, and limited in certain ways during our mortal existence, when we come into the presence of Truth Himself there’s always a certain tension.
The question of when violence is justified, and when it is not, should be one that no Christian takes lightly. We do believe that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and is infinitely loved by Him. We also know that this earthly life is not all there is — we are each made for all eternity — and yet what we do here on earth has eternal consequences.
The great Ann Barnhardt has written a very important, brilliant (as usual) piece on this question. I guarantee she will make you think of some things you hadn’t thought of before! While I don’t agree with every particular of her argument (for example, I’m not totally sold on her argument for the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible) her essay is substantive and well worth reading. (If she ever gets tired of being a commodities broker, she should consider becoming a theologian!) I’m just going to reprint it here in its entirety — and let you evaluate her argument for yourself. (I can’t provide a permalink, because she doesn’t have one — which is another reason I’m posting the piece in its entirety. She posted it on her website on October 15, 2011.)
Jesus and Guns
We need to have a frank discussion about Christianity, war and pacifism, because we may all be making direct decisions about these huge questions in our own lives before long. Some scripture popped into my mind earlier this week, and I was able to really dig into it yesterday. I was taken aback by what I found – but in a good way. I hope that this will help bring some clarity, or at the very least start some discussions. I have been thinking all day about whether or not my exegesis is being influenced by my own personal leanings on this subject. Perhaps it is. You will need to be the judge of that – but consider yourself disclaimed.
First, a small but necessary sidetrack. I have been asked many times about which Bible translation I use or think is best. I used to hem and haw and say something non-committal about the King James version. I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt what translation we need to be using. We need to be using the Douay-Rheims translation which was begun in 1582 and completed in 1610. It is only two steps removed from the original texts. The Douay-Rheims is the direct translation of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
St. Jerome was commissioned to translate the entire canon of scripture into Latin in the year 382
in preparation for the Church Councils which finally set and canonized the Bible, particularly the Council of Carthage in 387. St. Jerome worked from ORIGINAL texts as much as possible, and translated from Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic – so the Latin Vulgate is the triple-cross-checked, authoritative synthesis of the original source documents, assembled by a man who spoke these languages conversationally and who understood the colloquialisms and figures of speech in each language. What more could you possibly want? The Douay-Rheims is the direct translation from St. Jerome’s translation of the original texts into modern English. Remember, English as we recognize it today has only been around for 550 years or so. If you were to be dropped into England earlier than the year 1450, you would have a very, very difficult time communicating. So, the Douay-Rheims has between it and the original texts only St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. I personally use a Bible that is Douay-Rheims side-by-side with the Latin Vulgate. As I pick up more and more Latin, I find myself reading the Latin, and using the English as a cross-check. You’re about to see that this is all very, very important.
Let’s go to Luke 22 – the Last Supper. Christ has just instituted the Eucharist and the Mass. By doing this in anticipation of His death on the Cross the next day, He has made Calvary the centerpoint of time. He has drawn the Old Testament forward to the Cross, and He has pulled the time after Calvary backward. Every moment in time will now pass through and be reconciled to Calvary. (“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself.” John 12:32) What I want you to appreciate is the enormousness of the occasion. This is one of the most important things that has ever or will ever happen. This isn’t just a farewell meal. The entire world and everyone in it is utterly pivoting on what is happening in this room.
Let’s go to verse 35 through 38. Jesus has just told Peter that he will deny Him three times.
“When I sent you without purse and scrip and shoes, did you want anything? But they said: Nothing. Then said He unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip: and he that hath not, let him sell his coat and buy a sword. For I say to you that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in Me. And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning Me have an end. But they said: Lord, behold, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough.”
FYI: “scrip” means money. What He is telling them is that they are about to encounter evil, and in preparation for this they need to do whatever they need to do in order to prepare. He is saying that they need to reallocate their assets and “buy a sword”. In Latin, “emat gladium”.
Emat = buy, purchase, acquire, procure.
Gladium = sword.
Wow. I can hear the hippies screaming from here. “He didn’t really mean it! He wasn’t speaking literally! He was speaking figuratively!”
He was speaking, as God Almighty almost always does, on multiple levels, INCLUDING THE LITERAL. Oh, yes. I’ll concede that we should take from this scripture His call to reject materialism and gird ourselves for spiritual battle. No doubt. But if we delude ourselves into thinking that this is the ONLY sense in which He is speaking, we are missing something huge. Look at the last verse:
“But they said: Lord, behold, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough.”
Okay. Stop, stop, stop. Hold the phone. Put out the cat. First of all, this proves that He was speaking in the literal sense in addition to the figurative sense. But more importantly, do you realize what this means? At least two of the apostles arrived at the Upper Room wearing side arms, which they then took off so they could sit on the floor around the low table that was used in those days. What this also means is that there were side arms present, in the room, at the Last Supper.
Now here is where all of the hippies are going to absolutely lose it. What is the contemporary, technological equivalent of a sword? What is considered a “side arm” today? That’s right. A gun. Now you can scream and spit and stomp and rage and retch all you want, but you know I’m right. The apostles report that they have two swords, and Jesus says, “It is enough.” I saw in my research that some scholars try to paint Jesus as snapping at the apostles, trying to translate “Satis est (It is enough)” as “Oh, enough already!” I don’t hear that at all. I hear Him simply saying that two swords will be enough. This is where we get into huge problems with modern quasi-Christian “scholars” projecting their own agendas onto their translation of the Bible. Continue Reading »