Originally Reviewed 8/4/2015 – revised 3/19/16
Caesar and the Lamb, Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service by George Kalantzis
This is a scholarly study of the writings and practices of the early Christian church up to the time of the conversion of Constantine. The question it seeks to answer is What was the prevailing view of the military and the practice of war by the early Christian church? This is not a determination of what Christians believe now or what they should believe, merely asking for the historical context. Of course, this begs the question, has that view changed and if so, when and why?
We know that there is no outright statement from Jesus about the terms under which a person can join or serve the military, and he in fact marvelled at the faith of one of the Roman military commanders whose servant he healed. Peter baptised the household of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Like so many others, these military men were welcomed into the faith.
However, when approached by the rich young ruler asking how to be saved, Jesus begins his list with “You shall not murder”. Just before his crucifixion, He stops Peter from killing one of those who came to arrest him and rebukes Peter by saying those who live by the sword will die by it.
The early Christian church took Jesus’ statements so seriously, that their understanding that not only were they not to murder anyone, but that they would not even fight in self-defense. Joining the military proved that the person was not a Christian and those who came to the faith while in the military were to neither give nor follow any order to kill.
There are two components to the anti-military stance. One was the command to not kill, but the other concerned the Roman religions that permeated the military. Military men were expected to sacrifice to the Roman gods. This is simply not something a Christian could do. The punishment for refusing orders and refusing to sacrifice was death.
To be a Christian in the Roman empire was in some respects a death sentence, and it was simply a matter of time before it would be carried out.
The question that I keep coming back to is, “So what am I to do with this?” Is this just an interesting footnote in history, a situation that is only applicable to the early church, but not now? Clearly I have never been in the military, and am too old to be drafted, but what does this say about how I teach my children to view war and the military? I now understand my father’s less-than encouraging attitude when I talked about joining as a youth, despite his service in WW2.
The issue I have not pondered deeply until now is the related issue of self-defense. I have to wonder if defending my family, were there ever a need, is the kind of thing that the early church would have disallowed. After all, we are here but a moment and then eternity – does prolonging that moment yield any real benefit to our eternal lives?
Any book which can lead us to pondering our place in eternity is worth a read.