On 2 October the UN observed the International Day of Nonviolence. CNEWA works in some of the most violent places of the world. We have served and continue to serve the victims of ISIS, of wars, of religious persecution, ethnic hatred, etc., on a scale that often numbs the spirit. In serving these people, we also serve the cause of nonviolence and peace — and it is worth taking this occasion to look at Christianity’s call to pacifism and how it has impacted our history and our culture.
Christianity and non-violence have had a complicated relationship over 2,000 years. For 300 years, Christians were fairly regularly at the receiving end of the violence of the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Palestine, which Jesus experienced firsthand and under whose law and Procurator he was executed, would ultimately destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. With Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313), however, Christianity became a legally tolerated religion in the Empire. Rather quickly it became the official religion of the Empire.
While the New Testament tells of Jesus interacting with soldiers, of John the Baptist telling soldiers to avoid bullying, extortion and to be happy with their pay (Luke 3:14) and of Paul sending greetings “especially to those of Caesar’s household.” (Philippians 4:22), the acceptance of Christianity into the Roman Empire brought a major change. Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being civil servants and even emperors. They went from beings victims of power to agents of power.
There is clearly a strong voice for non-violence in the teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus blesses the meek and the peacemakers. Famously Jesus challenges his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39; Luke 6:29). In recounting the arrest of Jesus, all four Gospels speak of someone striking out with a sword. In Mark 14:47 it is “one of the bystanders;” in Matthew 26:51 “one of those with Jesus;” in Luke 22:49 “those around him;” and in John 18:10 it is Simon Peter. I mention these details because, in an odd reversal of the point of the text, some have used this to indicate that Jesus’ followers were armed; they use it as a justification for Christian violence. In every case, Jesus rejects the use of violence and in Matthew 26:52 he states, “those who take up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.”
In the centuries after Constantine, Christianity worked out an accommodation with the coercive power of the state. That accommodation alternated between strong support and criticism. After having enjoying the (sometimes deleterious) benefits of the support and protection of the Roman Empire, Christians faced a major crisis with the fall of the empire. How were they to react? Augustine of Hippo wrote The City of God in an attempt to deal with the question of whether God was abandoning Christians with the fall of the empire. It is also important to note that historians also trace the beginning of an articulated Christian theory of the just war to Augustine. The stress was now on the defense of Christianity.
By the Middle Ages, the just war theory was central to sometimes rather questionable Christian military endeavors, such as the Crusades (against not only Muslims but Jews and Christians such as the Orthodox and Albigensians who were considered heretics), various papal wars against Italian city states, etc.
Non-violence, however, while never really front and center in Catholic teaching in the Middle Ages, was also never totally absent.
Medieval laws — such as the Peace of God and the Truce of God — tried to limit violence. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) started his career as a knight enthusiastically engaged in glorious military endeavors against neighboring Italian cities. After his conversion, he was opposed to all wars, even to the point of visiting Sultan Malik al-Kamil on the battle field of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. Some Franciscan scholars believe that Francis tried (successfully) to obtain an indulgence for visiting the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi as a protest against war. Indulgences were very popular in the early Middle Ages and were attached to the different Crusades as a motivation for Christians to join the fight. Some scholars believe that Francis was offering his contemporaries a non-violent way to obtain an indulgence.
During the time of the Reformation, some of the Reformers, especially but not exclusively in the Anabaptist Tradition, once again brought the non-violent teachings of Jesus to the forefront. The Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, Bruderhof and others stressed and stil stress non-violence and pacifism as an essential part of the Christian witness.
In recent decades, the popes have put increasing stress on the importance of peace and non-violence. Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII was the first of a still-ongoing series of encyclicals, papal statements, addresses to the UN General Assembly, etc., on the importance of peace and of achieving a just peace through non-violent means.
Catholic attempts to promote peace and non-violence have not been limited to papal announcements. It has been reflected in the piety of the church. In 2007 Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian layman, was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI. A conscientious objector, he was executed by the Nazis in 1943 and vilified by his contemporaries and countrymen for years before his beatification. The cause for the beatification and canonization of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a famous New York pacifist, has now begun. On a practical level, Catholic organizations such as Pax Christi, the Community of Sant’ Egidio and others work and advocate for peace and non-violence. Pax Christi, founded in France in 1945, works in 50 countries and at the UN to achieve justice and an end to violence. In recent years, it has developed a section specifically to promote Catholic non-violence.
The people we at CNEWA serve know — tragically first-hand — that violence not only solves nothing, but like the mythical Hydra, it only generates more violence in an unending cycle. The words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, ”blessed are the peacemakers,” challenge us today as they challenged the first Christians 20 centuries ago.
With great Catholic Christian heroes throughout the centuries, we too hope, pray and work for a world truly blessed with peace, a world without violence.