|Jean-Michel Hornus: Nem harcolhatok! / Jean-Michel Hornus: It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight|
Introduction: Author's Introduction
When confronted by the problem of war, most contemporary Christians, at least on the European Continent, are inclined to assume that the Church has always approved of the participation by believers in governmentally sanctioned violence. Rarely does the possibility occur to them that in the past the Church might seriously have condemned warfare. in fact, when the idea does begin to strike them that the gospel's love commandment entails the rejection of military obligations, they often fancy that they are making a new, revolutionary discovery. A nodding acquaintance with the thought of the Church Fathers will disabuse them of this innovative conceit. But it can also lead them into an opposite error about Church history. For their rudimentary knowledge of the Fathers, which is based upon a few isolated texts, may cause them to assert in good faith that all of the Fathers were "conscientious objectors" in the modern sense of the term.*1
So it was with me during my adolescence. For the better part of a year I was in turmoil, for I had come to feel that the command to "love your enemies" had certain precise consequences. Since I was pretty sure that I was neither a lunatic nor a solitary prophet, I could not understand why no one previously seemed to have drawn such categorical conclusions.
Then I began to learn that others before me had indeed done so. At that time, several books which convinced me of this were especially comforting. In the long run these have proved to be disappointing, for they were somewhat superficial and tended to oversimplify the issues.2 But while my discovery of them was still fresh, I was tempted in my enthusiasm crudely to transplant the whole of Church history into a twentiethcentury context, and to resolve the problem of warfare by unambiguously condemning all forms of force and violence.
I have attempted to write the following pages in a spirit of genuine objectivity. But if the reader will allow me to interject a brief personal note, I would also like to state that the present study bears witness to my faith. During the summer of 1940 I received the news that my father had been killed in action; that was also the time at which I first received the call to the ministry. Thereafter I was active for several years in the Resistance movement in the Department of Tarn-et-Garonne. Later on, my family suffered much at the hands of the same movement. Since the war I have publicly stood out against the hysteria of anticommunist crusades, and in the 1950s I vehemently opposed the repressive policies of my country in Algeria. Throughout these involvements I have striven painfully to incarnate peace in the midst of a world at war. I have allowed myself neither to compromise with the outbursts of hatred which poison the atmosphere nor to retire into a splendid ivory tower.
But it is now time to turn to our subject. I shall not be dealing with the purely theological aspect of the problem. From an evangelical perspective, this can only be solved through a careful exegetic study of the one work which has final authority for us-the Word of God as revealed in the Bible. Such a study has been carried out quite recently, notably by Jean Lasserre;3 and it would anyhow be largely outside my competence. My limited field, which is only supplementary to the great theological disciplines, is the history of Christian thought. Of course we must strongly insist that the tradition of the early Church has no absolute value for us. But just because Protestantism was founded on scriptural authority, it does not follow that we should never renew our study of the Church Fathers. The first Protestants studied these men and derived great strength from them. I myself have been discovering that, if the ecumenical dialogue is to be genuinely profound, it must be carried out not only across space (between various contemporary traditions) but across time (between Christian thinkers of all epochs). And in this perspective, although the writings of Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius are not "the gospel," they contain at least as much Christian gospel as the works of present-day theologians that we read with respect.
Moreover, in the following pages I shall attempt to limit myself to the central core of the Church's teaching. The small sects which have sprouted up periodically and the particular manifestations of individual personalities or movements will be introduced only insofar as they help to illuminate the general direction of the whole Church. Otherwise we could easily get bogged down in an endless accumulation of anecdotes. But our concern as theological historians is to debate, not about minutiae, but on a general level.
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.*4
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.fi
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.*7
3. It is true that the actual behavior of the believers often contradicted the attitude affirmed by Christian thinkers.8 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.s 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?
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