Christianity has had a horrendously complicated and shifting attitude to violent conflict. Here are five moments in Christian history that demonstrate our complex relationship with war.
1. The dogged pacifism of the early church.
The early church had it tough. Facing persecution and violence from Romans and Jews alike, many early Christians were martyred for their faith, which included their rejection of the Roman pantheon of gods and their attitude to war.
Tertullian (circa 160-225) said, “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every solider,” aptly summing up the attitudes of early Christians.
They abhorred killing, refusing to fight or be part of gladiatorial contests and even declining to serve as magistrates, refusing to enable the violent internal politics of the Roman Empire.
2. The Crusades.
Pax Romana was a bygone dream by the 10th century. Muslims and Christians had been fighting on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, and the Seljuq Turks dealt the Byzantine Empire a huge defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.
In 1096, Pope Urban II announced the First Crusade, calling Christians to “take up the cross” in response to the loss of Asia Minor and the perceived abuses Muslims had inflicted on Christians in Palestine.
The Crusades continued for centuries, with various political and theological justifications, and were violent, brutal and confusing affairs.
In 1204, the Fourth Crusade sieged and sacked Constantinople, a city controlled and populated by Christians. A particularly dark moment in a murky period in Christian history.
3. Thomas Aquinas and the Just War.
No overview of Christianity’s relationship with war could ignore Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
His conception of Just War has deeply impacted Christian attitudes to conflict even to this day.
Aquinas defined three conditions through which war can be justified – sovereign authority, a just cause and an intention for good.
From its inception to the modern day, Just War theory has comforted and motivated soldiers and provided justifications for wars as relatively uncontroversial as World War II and those as controversial as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
4. Christian pacifists, peace churches and conscientious objectors.
The past few hundred years have marked a renaissance in the Christian peace movement, seeing a resurgence in the reading of Jesus’ teachings as advocating not just peacemaking but pacifism.
The establishment and growth of “peace churches,” such as the Quakers, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren (who took part in the first peace church conference in 1935), follow a strict policy of nonviolence and nonresistance.
Others, like Martin Luther King Jr., also preached nonviolence as a catalyst for change.
Many other Christian denominations have pacifist organizations (such as Pax Christi and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship), and nonviolence is a core aspect of many who identify as Christian.
5. Faith and fighting, side by side.
From the “divine right” of kings to rule (and wage war), to the Queen serving as the head of both the Armed Forces and established church today, British Christians have long had a supportive (if ambiguous) relationship with the military.
This relationship perhaps has its best expression in the form of chaplaincy. Military chaplains – non-combatants who play an important spiritual role in the barracks and on the battlefield – enjoy an almost unparalleled level of trust and access within the lives of servicemen and women.
From the exploits of King David to modern-day army chaplains or the believers blockading arms fairs, God’s people have had a complex relationship with conflict for millennia.
That seems unlikely to change any time soon, which is all the more reason to consider the issues surrounding Christianity and war more deeply.
Chris Heron is supporter partnerships administrator at BMS World Mission and former news editor of InQuire, the student newspaper at the University of Kent. A version of this article first appeared in the Issue 1, 2016, edition of Mission Catalyst, a publication of BMS. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisdatheron.