Tag Archives: peace testimony

Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.

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Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “God’s Business”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read 2 Cor. 5:11-21

Devotion

A Jesuit spiritual director I know has an interesting art form he engages in; he loves mosaics. Some of his favorite works begin by getting a bunch of different colored glass and stoneware plates and smashing them to pieces with a framing hammer. He then picks up the pieces and arranges them in new ways that highlight the beauty hidden among the brokenness. These once perfect plates become essentially glued back together as if by grace, into a new creation; a reconciled creation. Far easier than reconnecting all these little pieces is to give up and walk away. Reconciliation takes time, patience, skill, and a lot of creativity. God’s business, and our business as Christians, is the business of reconciliation. But with God at work in our lives we can look past the pain and disorientation of brokenness because of the hope we have of becoming a new creation. Hope shows us that the brokenness doesn’t get the last word.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that comes the closest to “grace” is chesed. It is an interesting word that is not bound up as much in the idea of “unmerited favor” as it is in the idea of help that comes in time of need. It is often translated “loving-kindness,” but the idea really is more that of being helpless and crying out for help to someone who has the power to act, and when they do act, that is chesed. This Old Testament understanding of grace is one well acquainted with our need for God, a need beyond ourselves. Like pieces of colored glass shattered on the floor we are in no position to put ourselves back together, yet God takes us and makes us a new creation. He sees just the place we fit together once again and makes a mosaic, joining the brokenness back together into something beautiful beyond the jagged scars.

As Jesus journeyed to the cross he knew he would experience brokenness and suffering. He knew his body would be broken. He knew his blood would be poured out. But he also knew that God’s grace would knit the world back together through this act of obedience. Often, when we think of what things will be like when they are fully restored, our imaginations go to something more like the whole plates before the hammer. We think God will restore creation in a way that shows no evidence of its former brokenness. But Jesus’ raised body still bore the marks of his suffering. He still had holes in his hands and side. Reconciliation is not without its marks… but it shines forth like a mosaic with the scar tissue of grace binding it back together. It shines forth with beauty, beauty made even more beautiful by its brokenness; brokenness united together by love.

Watch

Pray

Pray that the Lord would reveal to you the patchwork of grace that has been woven through your life. While cliche, we often only get to see God’s grace from a “back of the tapestry” perspective. One day we will get to see the fullness of the beauty of God’s plan, but even now perhaps as you prayerfully look back at your story of redemption, God might reveal to you some of the beauty that has come through brokenness… Some of the good that has been brought forth from some of the pain.


Wednesday Lenten Journey of Justice, “God’s Prerogative”

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Reread Mt 20:1-16

Devotion:

Jesus’ teaching paints a picture of how God recruits people to serve his purposes. While some labor with their short sighted view of the scope of a day, marking its time and toils, God is still on the pursuit–still on the lookout for more help. There is much work to be done and more workers are needed, even if only for one hour. And so God continues the pursuit of more laborers for the harvest.

This picture of radical equality in an upside down kingdom goes against so much of our predilections about how a community should function. We want to make it about merit, and when we make it about merit we are simply making it about ourselves. It is all to easy to think in terms of us being the heroes of our own story, and by extension the heroes of God’s story. In this scripture we can readily see it is more about the work than the worker, the work is so important God is willing to take even those who have been out waiting around and are only available for a few hours here or there. But  we can also see it is about the worker, for God rewards the workers who have come late the same as those who have been out in the field all day. As was mentioned before it is God’s prerogative to be generous, but one thing worth noting is that we know this is what God is like.

In your group discuss or reflect on these queries:

  • What does this story tell us of the heart of God who keeps searching for willing workers?
  • How do we see the worth in the work of the harvest?
  • What fears/jealousies are at work in us as God brings new workers alongside us?

It seems clear to me that the work of God transcends, even defies, things like pecking order and merit. The obvious analogy in light of the work of the church is bearing the gospel, something I believe we all equally share in the rewards of. As we harvest with God it seems right to consider how much more could be done for God’s kingdom if it could be free from jealousy, and be free to share the work with new people God has called alongside us. We lose much in comparing ourselves to one another. We gain much by letting the rewards part go, resting assured that our rewards will be enough, and seeing others around us not as competition  for God’s resources, but as co laborers in a work greater and more important than all of us. We lose much in making it about merit; making it about us instead of the one who pursues us, who calls us by name to a great harvest.

In closing share one story of being included in to the work of God, and one way you have helped others to be included into a life of worship.

 


Lowering the Pedestal

pedestals2Many of us fear confrontation. We often look at the escalating tensions that are created in confrontation as immediately divisive, and generally destructive. Quakers are known for their peace testimony, and at times this can degenerate into a permissiveness that can result in the death of peace itself. Yet true peace can never come from sticking our heads in the sand; it can only come when dialogue has taken place, issues are resolved, people are held accountable, and a mutual understanding prevails. Rather than deal with a situation immediately, at times we allow it to fester until it turns into something much larger and harder to deal with than it should have been. Rather than do the pruning work of confrontation when is like an easy shoot to pick off with our thumbnails, we can–through neglect–allow it to thicken until a chainsaw is needed.

Matthew 18:15-16 reminds us how we are to deal with confrontation in the church:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

If someone refuses to listen, treating them like a tax collector or pagan is not a rejection; it is a call to go back to square one if you will. It is a call to treat them as an unbeliever, which calls for an extra measure of grace. This scripture calls into question our usual practice of avoiding the person with whom the conflict lies and seeking out other people as sounding boards for us to vent our frustrations. This can quickly become what Edwin Friedman called “triangulation,” an unhealthy third-party relationship built by an overly anxious person to vent their anxiety on anyone other than the very person who is causing that anxiety. Nothing good will ever come from this type of avoidance. Jesus, in a sense, calls us to “conflict;” a constructive form of conflict that aims to restore our relationships. So often we settle for something less than full restoration, and Quakers are just as guilty of it as anybody else, especially when it comes to confronting those in leadership positions.

Our next covenant statement reminds us, “We will address conflicts with our pastor and each other in a direct and loving manner.” Not to go kicking the hornet’s nest here, but I will admit as a pastor I hardly get any feedback. At all. About anything. Sometimes no news is good news, but when you don’t get any feedback for a while often people will begin to  wonder, “is something wrong? Are people afraid to talk to me?” Pastor’s are regular people, they wrestle with fear just as every other person does.

I personally like that the Covenant statement uses the word “direct.” One of the biggest frustrations in the church is the illusion that communication has taken place. We are not mind readers, nor are we expected to be. We can expect that other people realize how much their actions affect us, yet if we don’t actually communicate with them, we shouldn’t be surprised at their amazement when our emotions finally explode. What is expected  of each of us is not that we would walk around on eggshells afraid to offend one another (pastor or no) but that we would have clear communication; that we would have strongly rooted relationships that could withstand the risk of confrontation, and that we would actually live as if this were so. Communication–especially communication that could lead to confrontation–is a messy thing; it calls us to demonstrate grace to one another, to offer forgiveness to one another, and to be honest with one another. Though challenging, the fruits it brings are worth the work involved. There are no shortcuts to this kind of fruit, and there never will be.

Our covenant statement calls us to settle for nothing less than a real relationship; a relationship where we hold one another accountable and make our intentions and frustrations known. Conflict can actually be constructive, because often needs and expectations are finally communicated clearly rather than bouncing around in our heads magnifying resentment.  It can be an extremely creative force in a loving community.

I for one do not want a superficiality in my relationships at College Avenue Friends that allows ticking time bombs to keep ticking out there in the dark. I expect people to be direct with me, whether tactfully or untactfully so. I am human. I am young. I am learning how to be a pastor. I am bound to make mistakes. I am bound to miss the mark, just as everyone else is. Seminary training does not make me a superhero. At times, I like everyone else, will need the truth spoken to me in love. Do not let the fear of not having the perfect words rob you of the opportunity to bring the truth back into the focus of your pastor.

In a Friends church there is zero theological basis for putting someone up on a pedestal.  The “mantle of authority” that other denominations put upon their pastors does not go along with the radical Quaker understanding of the priesthood of all believers. This understanding of a pastor from within (we are all pastors) means no one should ever fear confronting a pastor who has missed the mark out of fear of “raising their hands against the Lord’s anointed.” While I still believe serving as a “pastor among pastors” is a high calling, and I believe I am to live a life that strives for being above reproach, that does not mean I will never fail at anything or will never need growth in some areas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for trouble. I am not trying to invite a bunch of nit picking or hair splitting by asking you to hold me accountable and keep me humble.

Ultimately, I am not inviting criticisms of performance related issues, though there is at times a place for that. What I am asking, and what Matthew 18 calls all of us to demonstrate, is confrontation based on extending faithful action where there is unfaithfulness, to send love where love has been lacking. I am inviting you to examine the spiritual fruits of my life, not necessarily to judge me. And when (not if) you find fault, I invite you to confront me directly. I hope you can love me enough to do this, and I hope–when the tables are turned–that you will recognize the heart behind it when faithfulness requires I do the same for you.

Agape,

James


“Tanks, Tractors, and Tremblers Before God” Part IV: Fig Trees and Vines

fig and vineFor NWYM Peace Month, I am continuing to look at one of God’s great visions of peace from the Old Testament, a rich vision of shalom that God gave to the prophet Micah during a turbulent time of war and invasion, followed by a time of exile and slavery. Micah’s unique vision of peace has always held a special place in Friends movement. In this blog series entitled “Tanks, Tractors, and Tremblers Before God” I will look deeply at these symbols of God’s vision of peace from Micah 4 and explore the biblical roots of the Quaker Peace Testimony. There is indeed an interesting intersection between God’s rich vision of shalom and various, often untold stories of how Friends have uniquely tried to live out their commitment to peace. You can find part one in the series here.

Micah 4:1-5

1 In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.

2 Many nations will come and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”

The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
4 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever.

The third set of prominent symbols in Micah 4 are the fig trees and the vines. These symbols remind us that God’s vision of shalom is one that is holistic, stable and everlasting. In God’s vision, every person is sustained and poverty is no longer the silent killer of humanity. This part of God’s vision was lived out in the early church amongst itself in Acts 2. In pastoral terms, this symbolizes sustenance and security.”No one will make them afraid” has echoes of the restorative vision of Revelation. It speaks of the perfect love that casts out fear in 1 John 4. How often we forget that we are loved by a God whose plans are beyond anything we can ask or imagine? How often do we forget God knows our needs even before we ask for them to be met? Yet a closer look at our actions reveals we often live in ways that are dominated by fear. We hoard. We covet. We do not look to God to meet our needs unless we have first done our best on our own. We no longer look to meet the needs of the stranger, and we would rather die than put ourselves in that uncomfortable place where the stranger would even have an opportunity to meet our needs.

“Pragmatism” or “realism” are the biggest obstacles to seeing the world around us with the lenses of the kingdom. They cut away the fat of possibility long before it can flavor our thoughts and actions, and replace it with a myopic vision of short-term goals. We look at global problems like poverty and use their sheer scope and scale to, in the end, justify doing nothing. Luther believed pride was the root of all sin. I think his view missed the mark completely. Generally, I do not think women struggle as much with pride as men do, and so this response to sin is, at best, potentially only half of the existential answer. Also, the further I have personally delved into pride, the more my awareness grows within me that it is just fear glossed over with a snowy white blanket of denial. Pride is seen on the surface level of some, but fear is the universal root of sin that is unseen, unacknowledged, and ever pulling the strings of our inner marionette. If you don’t believe this, reread Paul’ struggle with being caught in the grip of sin in Romans 7. In your mind replace “sin” with pride and then fear, and reflect on which one fits your experience the best if you are honest.

God’s vision of peace is not only one that speaks only to “spiritual peace,” but peace that looks to the physical needs life, its cycles and order. The Hebrew shalom speaks also of the physical peace of human welfare, or wellbeing. Micah reminds us that when God decides for the nations of the world, His second decision removes the experience of poverty from humanity. This is the most challenging to me because it calls me personally to respond to the constant needs around me. It is far too easy to glibly sing along to Christian music as we drive past the homeless man on the overpass. Far to easy to let fear based purity codes gut the sincerity right out of our gospel. Far too easy to do nothing personally in the face of the challenges we find in our truly globally connected world.

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, the Friends Testimonies where conceived of as ways of proclaiming the gospel with our actions. Far too often, we either err by on the one hand, proclaiming the gospel with good actions but never getting around to opening our mouths about why, or on the other, by opening our mouths about the wrong things and never letting the gospel connect itself with our actions. We are ruled by fears: fears we will go without if we risk giving in love, fears we are being taken advantage of while we do the giving.  Fears we are growing too callous if we do not give, and fears we are growing too shallow as we go through the mental process of the fear based mathematics of weighing consequences… Often fears of rejection make us fearfully reject “the other” in advance, if only to save ourselves all the time and energy and risk of relationship.

While it is not a direct opposite, love is God’s answer to fear and at the root of His vision of peace. Love pushes us to integrity between thought and action by challenging the assumptions behind these hidden or unhidden fears. Love helps us to see the needs around us as more than excuses for fear to control us. These opportunities of love are a great mercy to us if we are willing to be stretched in faithful growth.  It is painful to let God pluck out these puppet strings and help us see what loving liberation looks like. Yet God is always up to something amazing if we can stand to trust for long enough to see it.  One story of how some Friends have lived out this vision is that of Dave and Debbie Thomas and the Moringa trees. It is not an old story but a current one, being lived among Friends now.

Dave and debbie

David and Debbie have spent a great deal of their lives as missionaries in Rwanda. They have done much to live out this vision of shalom by planting a “business as mission” endeavor that equips Rwandans to help repair a land broken by genocide, by providing economic and spiritual leadership that helps guide the future of that country. This endeavor involves a wonderful creation of God called the Moringa tree. This tree has many, almost miraculous attributes. Chief among them is that one cup of its leaves can nourish a human body for a whole day, providing for most of its nutritional needs. Moringa leaves can be dried and used as a food supplement that keeps and transports well. Its bark even has  medicinal value. It can be mixed with water and drank to kill dangerous parasites that can also compound malnutrition.

This tree has the potential to one-day end hunger in Rawanda, and perhaps chief among those who are propagating it and teaching people how to steward and use it are Dave and Debbie Thomas. They do not just give trees away to people who need them, but work with people to include them in their vision and journey. They steward this vision in a way that is as sustainable as possible, for the largest impact over the long haul. Dave, Debbie and their family are empowering people not only to feed themselves but also to find joy in working to produce food for others, earn income, and improve the future for their families and nation. I am not sure what they would say about how living out the peace testimony has affected their ministry, or what their exact thoughts are on God’s vision of peace from Micah 4. But nonetheless, this holy vision of peace they are living in speaks to us all of God’s creativity and love. God’s vision of peace is not only one of hope, but also one of healing and safety. They truly are working toward a Rwanda without poverty and where “no one would be afraid” because they hear and walk with God according to what He has spoken. Can we break free of the grip of fear long enough to do the same in our context? To work personally to the healing and safety of those around us?

Query: Does your vision of peace respond to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others in the name of Christ? Do you offer more than just prayers for those who are in need?

 Continue on to the Conclusion

For more information about the Thomas’ ministry, or how you can help support it financially click here


Pacifism and Military Service in the Early Church: A Short History

lambOutside the pages of Acts, perhaps no time in the church is as celebrated as its first three centuries. The early church is often looked upon with romantic notions, as a church that–despite its violent world—radically lived under a new covenant of peace. The early church is viewed as a church quite unlike the politically polarized church of our day, which took its citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom more seriously than its obligations to the empire around it. In its first three centuries, the relationship between the church and the conquerors of civilization was one of opposing goals and definitions of victory. The early church and pagan state both wanted peace, and made great sacrifices to purchase it, but whereas the soldiers vanquished their enemies with glittering arms, the church made war with praying hands. The tainted love story of church and state had its first kiss in the military of ancient Rome, and we are the children their matrimony.

There are many ethical objections to military service, namely how is it possible to love one’s enemies even as a person’s job necessitates killing them? I cannot spare room for the inherent tensions between the morality of kingdom ethics and the use of lethal force. That is not the purpose of this paper. The purpose of this paper is to explore the complex relationship between the faithful and the fierce, from the time of the closing pages of Acts to the opening of Constantine’s vision. It is the tale of the mystics, the martyrs, and the militants of the Old Roman Empire. This story follows a timeline that spans the geographical edges of an empire, the cultural gap between city and country, and the permeable barriers of church and state.

Not Your Daddy’s Military Service…

Serving as a soldier in the Roman military—if one survived until retirement—came not only with the monetary potential for purchasing citizenship, but carried with it the promise of land and a significant monetary bonus upon honorable discharge.[i] Adolph Harnack, a noted historian, points out many of the daunting hardships a Christian would surely face while serving the empire: The military required of its members an oath of unconditional and unquestioned obedience that had the potential to conflict with sole obedience to God; a dishonorable discharge meant a death sentence, and desertion an act of treason. The military was also the stronghold of the Cult of the Emperor, engaging in unavoidable public worship of the emperor a minimum of three times a year. The military standards and honors were intimately tied up in the worship of Mithra, with her likeness emblazoned on every helmet. Aside from the obvious problem of idolatry and the ethical problem inherent in killing people, even in peacetime it was common practice for soldiers to put down violent uprisings, extort money, torture confessions out of suspects, and carry out death sentences.[ii] Moreover, the Roman military was the muscle behind nearly every act of persecution experienced by the church,[iii] outside the comparatively mild persecution from the Jews.

While the church often used military language and metaphors of a soldier’s tenacity and obedience[iv], a baptized Christian would largely avoid military service if that person could avoid it.[v] Beyond the favorable impression of centurions mentioned in New Testament times, the history between the church and the Roman military had largely been a lethal one. Let us not forget that Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all killed by Roman soldiers.[vi] For a baptized Christian to seek to serve in the military could easily mean being ordered to persecute fellow church members. Military service certainly meant constant pressure to kill, engage in idolatry, and potentially compromise every aspect of one’s faith.[vii] Hippolytus of Rome listed military service as an occupation to be left before church membership. He listed it along with other professions like pimping, sculpting idols, prostitution, and being a magician or astrologer.[viii] These professions all had elements of either immorality or idolatry, but the military profession had both[ix]   In the case of a convert who was already a member of the Roman army, the decision between desertion and remaining in the condition in which they were called[x] was often a choice between equally lethal alternatives.

From the Time of Acts to Marcus Aurelius (70-161 C.E.)

According to John Helgeland, there are three camps of historians weighing the evidence surrounding Christians serving in the Roman military, they are Roman Catholic, pacifist Protestant, and what Helgeland calls “establishment Protestant.” Roman Catholics see the medieval period as normative, and minimize the countercultural aspects of the patristic writings. They frame the problems regarding military service as largely one of its inherently idolatrous practices. The Protestant pacifists, while addressing the idolatry issue squarely, look at the Sermon on the Mount as normative, and tend to use heavily the writings in the Church Fathers that echo this perspective. Those in the Lutheran camp are harder to classify but tend to be somewhere in between these poles.[xi]

As far as anyone knows, before around 175, there is no evidence of any Christians serving in the military.[xii] As most Christians in the 1st century were of Jewish lineage and were initially seen as a Jewish sect, they were largely exempt from service in the Roman Army.[xiii] The Jerusalem Christians, forewarned by Jesus of the coming fall of Jerusalem to Vespasian and Titus, evidently did not join the Jewish rebellion or attempt to defend the city.[xiv]

Scholars who lean toward a Just War tradition look to this period of silence as affirming their beliefs that Christians must have served in the military. Their argument is that Christian military service was so normative as to go without mention,[xv] but the military was made up of only a small fraction of the general population. The Christian religion was also a small fraction of the populous, making overlap rare.[xvi] Also, most troops were stationed on the borders of the empire, not the central region where Christianity thrived.[xvii] It would be easy to conclude the lack of evidence as somehow proving a lack of Christian soldiers, yet a lack of evidence is not exactly “evidence of a lack.” Despite the great difficulties involved in Christians serving in the Roman military, it is likely that some people attempted it anyway at great personal risk.

Marcus Aurelius to Decius (161-251 C.E.)

During the rise of Marcus Aurelius, there is clear evidence of a Christian presence in the military. There was also a sharp decline in population, coupled with the growing threat of the barbarian hordes, which lead to massive conscription into the military.[xviii] Conscription was mandatory, giving Christians the “choice” between serving with only the potential of death, paying a significant sum for a substitute to serve in one’s place, or refusing—and immediately paying with one’s life.[xix] Conscription was largely from the affected regions on the outskirts of the empire, which by that time had started to become centers around which Christianity thrived, such as Meletine in southern Armenia. This made it inevitable that Christians would be found among the Legionnaires.[xx]

Eusibius, the first church historian, substantiates that a cohort called the “Thundering Legion” served Marcus Aurelius in 173 C.E.[xxi]  According to Eusibius’s account, during the campaign against Quadi, the Romans found themselves facing a serious lack of water. The considerable number of Christians in the Thundering Legion prayed for water. It then rained, refreshing the Romans, and stormed, harassing their enemies.[xxii] Some point to the name thundering (Fulminata), “struck with awe,” as given by Marcus Aurelius as a reward validating the Christian presence in the military, but the name went back to Octavian.[xxiii] It is significant that both pacifism and militarism existed at this time; Even as Celsus famously argued with Origen about how the State would fall if everyone became a Christian and refused to fight, some Christians were already painting Christian symbols on their banners of war.[xxiv]

This great influx of Christian soldiers, and the rapidly changing events of 197 C.E., moved Tertullian to begin writing extensive moral arguments against Christians participating in military service. He wrote his Apologeticum initially, criticizing the church for their presence in the palace, the senate, the forum, and the army. He followed this work with De Corona and De Idolataria fifteen years later, the former of which describes many Christians leaving the ranks of the army.[xxv] Though his reputation is largely tarnished by his conversion to Montanism, one should not overlook that this massive military surge may have been a primary factor in Tertullian’s departure from the church.[xxvi]

Many drastic changes occurred during the time of the early Severan rulers resulting in brief periods of anarchy, especially after the murder of Marcus’s son Commodus. [xxvii] The Senate temporarily held power, but a corrupt military led eventually to the rise of Septimius Severus. Septimius knew the only way for him to keep his power was to greatly reward the military and set up a rural quasi-military rule. He did this by giving soldiers land.[xxviii] This militarized the empire as never before and added much respectability and prestige to soldiers.[xxix]

Roland Bainton, a noted pacifist scholar, points to three regions within the empire that had differing streams of thought on military service: The greatest rejection of military service was in the Hellenistic east. The church in North Africa was divided over the issue, while the Roman church permitted epitaphs regarding the military profession. The region of the Eastern frontier had the most Christian military activity, though there were also people in the region who protested this and held to a peaceful monastic and ascetic ideal.[xxx]

There is no question that Christians of this time clearly saw the stability of the Roman Empire as helpful in the spread of Christianity, and even prayed for the continuing success of the empire.[xxxi] On the other hand, many voices like those of Tertullian, Cyprian, Anethagoras, Hippolytus, Origen, and Minicus Felix raised objections to their fellow Christians violently participating in the achievement of those ends.[xxxii] Origen was famously criticized for his pacifism by a critic named Celsus. Celsus asked what would happen if the entire empire was like Origen in refusing to fight, charging that the empire would be overrun by barbarians. To this Origen replied that if the empire would be like him, then the barbarians would also became Christians, and they too would be peaceful and mild. Origen truly believed that ultimately Christianity would prevail in the end.[xxxiii] Some write off Origen and Tertullian—the clearest pacifists—as extremists or heretics, and attempt to wrangle many of the other Fathers’ writings into categories of nonspecific murder or idolatry.[xxxiv] This author, however, finds their quotes most compelling and direct, moving beyond mere metaphor to application. These Christians obviously recognized an obligation to their government, though they saw their service as one apart from military service: They prayed against the demonic forces that caused war to manifest itself instead.[xxxv]

Decius to Constantine’s Vision (251-312 C.E.)

During the reign of Emperor Decius, Christians tried their best to avoid a persecution. They were unsuccessful.[xxxvi] There is evidence in the writings of Cyprian of two martyred soldiers during Decius’s persecution. One such soldier, Besas, was killed in Alexandria for rebuking fellow soldiers who insulted Christian martyrs.[xxxvii] Another story recounts the trial of a Christian soldier close to recanting his faith to spare his life.  Other Christian soldiers in the audience drew notice and confessed they too were Christians, casting their lot with their unstable brother.[xxxviii] These soldiers died explicitly for their faith, not the casting off of their weapons. This marks a definite shift toward Christian military service becoming more commonplace.[xxxix]

Gallienus, the son of the great persecutor of the church Valerian, reversed his father’s policies, granting a short-lived edict of toleration. The purpose of his edict was not a benevolent one; Gallienus thought the best way to get rid of Christians was through a revival of paganism instead of overt violent persecution. He, however, did set a useful precedent in respecting and acknowledging church property.[xl] During Gallienus’s rule, but outside its effectiveness in Caesarea of Palestine, a soldier named Marinius was about to be promoted to centurion after a distinguished military career when a rival said it was illegal because he was a Christian. After a short period of deliberation, a sword and a copy of the Gospels were placed before him and he was made to choose one or the other. He chose the Gospels and was immediately put to death. He, however, clearly saw no previous conflict between his faith and faithful service in the military.[xli]

The Christian within the military had become increasingly common, but there rose up something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy within the Roman military, with officials no longer openly searching for Christians in their ranks.[xlii] Diocletian later rose to power in 286 C.E. He saw himself and the rest of the tetrarchy as representatives of Hercules and Jupiter. Diocletian pushed for serious military reform after a Christian soldier’s sign of the cross seemed to disrupt a divination ceremony. He commanded everyone present to offer a sacrifice to pagan gods and anyone who did not was scourged. He also immediately sent out letters that all Christians were to be dishonorably dismissed from the military. This was a nonlethal way to avoid the growing religious conflict, but cost the soldiers who left their land and pensions.[xliii]

Many Christian soldiers were put to death for various reasons before and after this time. Maximilian was executed for refusing to wear his seal or signa. Similarly, Marcellus, a Centurion was beheaded for violating his military oath for denouncing the standards as false gods and throwing off his military belt.[xliv] During this time, a great number of military as well as nonmilitary martyrs lost their lives. One viewpoint of the persecution is that these soldiers were not merely lax in their faith, for no one would die for a lax faith.[xlv]  One could also point out that most of these were not recalled retired soldiers.[xlvi] They must have openly denied their faith at some level to stay after Diocletian’s edict to remain in the army, perhaps to collect their land and pensions.

After Diocletian grew ill and was feared close to death, Galerius seized the opportunity to escalate the persecution of soldiers into a life-or-death struggle. He initially made no compromise toward toleration for the Christian soldier. [xlvii] The persecution in the army spilled outside it to a vicious persecution of the church as a whole. A great deal of blood flowed from 303-311. Galerius contracted a strange disease after which, even while berating Christians, he grudgingly granted them a decree of toleration. This was a moment of decisive change in the church, for in a few short months Constantine put the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields.[xlviii] His famous vision and subsequent victory would eventually forever blend the church and state, and continue to both profit and plague the story of Christianity far beyond the western world. After Constantine’s rise to power, the Edict of Toleration ended the persecution of soldiers. A few short decades later, no one—without first declaring one’s self a Christian—would be permitted to join the Roman military at all.

Application and Conclusion

The romanticism of the American dream and its ancient Roman counterpart have both made their syncretistic mark on the church. We have often so blended the Christian faith with the dream of Pax Americana that mission work, martyrdom, and military service have become one and the same in the eyes of many in our churches. We are grateful for freedom of religion, but the same danger the church faced as it attempted to baptize the empire—namely losing the sincerity of the Gospel—is just as real for us today.  The goals and methods of empire, while often beneficial to the work of the church, are not the work itself. As conjoined children of the marriage of church and state, we must allow the scalpel of God’s grace to reshape our vision of victory back to its ancient parameters of love.

As the early church did, we should not hesitate to ponder the ways in which joining the military may make Christians choose between following orders and persecuting the church. Even though this persecution will probably not take place among us churchgoers in the United States, the church is truly the global family of God. Aside from the blinding pride of patriotism and pat answers about the grace of God, we should ask ourselves seriously if we are comfortable helping our government to even unwittingly bring violence and death upon other believers, simply because “they” happen to be born in Afghanistan or Iraq, and “we” happen to be born in America? We cannot take lightly the ramifications of supporting the bombing of those whose only knowledge of Christ may have been hearing His name as a curse word. While the hindrances to the spreading of the Gospel are minimized within the peaceful interior of our country, they are maximized in places that see Christianity as an extension of the “battle for hearts and minds” of an aggressive occupation. If Christianity remains wedded to empire, then political scandals like Abu Guraib, Gitmo, and Blackwater cast their shadows on the feet of those bringing the Good News of Jesus. In our world of instant mobile videos and social media, we can no longer be seen as a religion that glorifies violence; the grit and stain of which circumnavigate the globe in seconds.

Soldiers are great examples of determination and bravery, and will always be alive in the swashbuckling fantasies of young and old alike. Yet, we would do well to celebrate other kinds of heroes who do not use violence against other people for whom Christ died. The examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, or Nelson Mandela enrich our faith in the power and sovereignty of God as greatly as military figures like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc ever could. We would do well to hold fast to the fact that we serve a Prince of Peace and God of love, not the Judas Maccabeus-type Messiah many Jews still hope for today.

Just as long ago, war is spoken of as a matter of necessity, and what war was not fought to “liberate the barbarian from their barbarity”? We often think supporting “our troops” is the most important thing an American can do to show appreciation for his or her freedom. After all, is not the sacrifice of a soldier as close as anything a person can do to what Jesus did for another? This very thinking is a long evolution beyond the military metaphors of the New Testament and early church.[xlix] The witness of the very pioneers of our faith for nearly the first 300 years challenges this conclusion on every level, yet we are largely ignorant of their courageous words—so relevant today. The early church benefitted greatly from the efforts of soldiers, just as we do. As they did, we should not minimize the power of prayer or limit its focus merely to “our troops.” The pragmatic vision of freedom enforced by our government is as a wet Fourth of July sparkler to the peaceful vision that is the Kingdom of God. Let us allow God’s grace to redefine the goals of true victory in our hearts, and give us eyes to see that battles can also be  won with praying hands.


[i]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” Theological Studies 13 (1952): 19.

[ii]Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: the Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Polebridge Press Westar Institute, 1981), 46.

[iii]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”11.

[iv]Henry Cadbury, “The Basis of Early Christian Militarism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 37, no. 1 (1918):6.

[v]Harnack, Militia Christi, 48.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii]Thomas Hall, “Christianity and Politics: I. The Hope of the Early Church,” The Biblical World 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1913):7.

[viii]John Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” Church History 43, no. 2 (June, 1974):154.

[ix] Ibid.

[x]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 9. Quoting 1 Cor 7:21.

[xi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 149-150.

[xii]Stephen Gero, “Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service According to Tertullian,” Church History 39, no. 3 (Sep. 1970): 289.

[xiii]Peter Brock, Pacifism in Europe to 1914. (Princeton, N.J.,: Princeton University Press, 1972), 9.

[xiv]C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: a Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (New York: Gordon Pr Pubs, 1978), 98.

[xv]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”9.

[xvi]Roland Bainton, “The Early Church and War,” Harvard Theological Review 39, no. 3 (July 1946): 193.

[xvii]Ibid.

[xviii]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”13.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx]Ibid 16.

[xxi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 155.

[xxii] Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, 229.

[xxiii]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 157.

[xxiv] Harnack, Militia Christi, 73-74; Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Roland Bainton Reprints) (Nashville: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008), 68.

[xxv]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”192.

[xxvi] Gero, “Miles Gloriosus,” 298.

[xxvii]Ibid, 289.

[xxviii]Gero, “Miles Gloriosus,”290.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”195.

[xxxi]James Childress, “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,” Journal of Religious Ethics 12 (Spring 1984):9.

[xxxii]Cadbury, “The Basis of Early Christian Militarism,”80-82; Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 153-155; Bainton, “The Early Church and War,” 209.

[xxxiii]Childress, “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,” 7-8.

[xxxiv]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 153-155; Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 14; J. Harold Ellens, ed., The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, vol. 3 of Contemporary Psychology (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pub Group, 2004), 224.

[xxxv] Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”206.

[xxxvi]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”23.

[xxxvii] Ibid, 24.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”192.

[xl] Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 24.

[xli] Ibid, 24-25.

[xlii]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 159.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 158.

[xlv]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 27.

[xlvi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,”158-160.

[xlvii] Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 26.

[xlviii] Ibid 27.

[xlix] This slow transformation is the subject of Adolf Harnack’s book Militia Christi, which traces the roots of the crusades to the military metaphors of the New Testament and Church Fathers.

Selected Bibliography

Bainton, Roland. “The Early Church and War.” Harvard Theological Review 39, no. 3 (July 1946).

———.Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Roland Bainton Reprints). Nashville: Wipf& Stock Publishers, 2008.

Brock, Peter.The Military Question in the Early Church: a Selected Bibliography of a Century’s Scholarship, 1888-1987. Toronto, Canada: Self Published, 1988.

———.Pacifism in Europe to 1914. Princeton, N.J.,: Princeton University Press, 1972.

———. The Roots of War Resistance: Pacifism from the Early Church to Tolstoy. Nyack, N.Y.: Distributed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1981.

———.  “Why Did St. Maximilian Refuse to Serve in the Roman Army?” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 45 no. 2 (April 1994): 195-209.

Burrows, Mark S. “Christianity in the Roman Forum: Tertullian and the Apologetic Use of History.” Vigilae Christianae, 42 no. 3 (Sep. 1988): 209-235.

Cadbury, Henry J. “The Basis of Early Christian Antimilitarism.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 37 no. 1-2 (1918): 66-94.

Cadoux, C. John. The Early Christian Attitude to War: a Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. New York: Gordon Pr Pubs, 1978.

Childress, James. “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church.” Journal of Religious Ethics 12 (Spring 1984): page nr.

Crake, J.E.A. “Early Christians and Roman Law.” Phoenix, 19 no. 1, (Spring 1965): 61-70.

Driver, John. How Christians Made Peace with War: Early Christian Understandings of War. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press (PA), 1988.

Ellerbe, Helen. The Dark Side of Christian History. San Rafael, CA.: Morningstar Books, 1995

Ellens, J. Harold, ed. The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Vol. 3 of Contemporary Psychology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.

Fontaine, J. “Christians and Military Service in the Early Church.” Concilium 7 (1965): 95-105.

Gaddis, Michael. There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Gero, Stephen. “Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service According to Tertullian.” Church History, 39 no 3 (Sept. 1970): 285-298.

Hall, Thomas C. “Christianity and Politics: I: The Hope of the Early Church.” The Biblical World, 41 no.1 (Jan. 1913): 20-25.

Harnack, Adolf. Militia Christi: the Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. Philadelphia: Polebridge Press Westar Institute, 1981.

Helgeland, John. “Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337.” Church History, 43 no. 2 (Jun. 1974): 149-163, 200.

Helgeland, John, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns. Christians and the Military: the Early Experience. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1985.

Ryan, E.A. “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians.” Theological Studies 13 (1952): 1-32.

Stevenson, Robert C. “The Evolution of Pacifism.” International Journal of Ethics 44 no. 4 (July 1934): 437-451.

Swift, Louis J. The Early Fathers on War and Military Service. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1984.

Windass, G.S. “The Early Christian Attitude to War.” Irish Theological Quarterly 29 no. 3 (Jan. 1 1962): 235-48.

Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: a Brief History: the Warsaw Lectures. Edited by Paul Martens, Matthew Porter and Myles Werntz. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2010.


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