Remembrance, Violence and Christianity

By Theo Poward

Remembrance day in the UK is a time to honour those who have died in war. From when I was a child in church on Remembrance Sunday I always found it difficult to square the teachings of peace that I usually heard with the celebration of people who had made a career out of violence. I always respected the bravery of these soldiers, but I endlessly questioned whether the violence that they were a part of was to be celebrated, particularly in church, where I was told it was best to turn the other cheek.

The debate I was having in my mind has been had by Christians since Christ. Early Christians were overwhelmingly pacifists, and they suffered for it. Roman soldiers after conversion would desert and subsequently be executed and martyred. Violence and bloodshed, especially in the official position as a soldier was anathema to all who were baptised. It is important that we know more about this history, read this as an introduction. This consensus lasted roughly until Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. But it was not until Augustine laid the ground for the Just War tradition towards the end of the Roman Empire that violence got a theological defense. Pacifism continued as a minority position in the church, as it is today.

It is easy to argue that the true message of the church was corrupted when it gained political power through the conversion of the Empire. However, it is also easy to argue that early Christians were anticipating the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God, and were thus more content to suffer the injustices in the world around them rather than correcting them. I am not going to have this debate; the truth is no doubt more complicated and more interesting than either position. Instead I want to focus on what I feel is the underlying tension on this question of whether violence is ever justified.

We often think that fighting for peace and fighting for justice are two things that naturally go together, but it isn’t so. In reality we have to choose, and it is this choice that defines the debate over whether violence can be justified for a Christian.

Think about the country you live in, the political order ensures peace, security, but it is not perfectly just. Humans are imperfect, and any system that we make to organise ourselves demonstrates this. Even in the fairest of societies, justice is not always served. At the same time we accept this unjust order, because the alternative; chaos, war, anarchy, is worse. Augustine said that any political order is a necessary evil precisely because of this; it is evil because of the injustice that is present from its formation, but necessary because the alternative is worse. This is actually backed up by science. A study recently placed the natural homicide rate among humans at 2%, the same as other primates, and says that since organising ourselves it has dropped. In the last century it has been 1.33% (that includes the world wars) and in the most peaceful parts of the world it is currently 0.1%. While in the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes it remains 2%. Read the full report here.

I accept that some evil of injustice is a price worth paying in the name of peace. The tension arises when we ask the question; how much injustice? At what point does the level of injustice become too steep a price for the peace that we buy with it? What is the line where it becomes morally defensible to start a rebellion against an authoritarian regime? When should a powerful nation step in to stop the aggression of another nation? At what point does turning the other cheek change from brave to foolish?

The pacifist must argue never. To such a person peace is so valuable that violence is unjustifiable even in the face of the greatest injustice. Jesus might have thought this, early Christians certainly did. Early Christians suffered some of the cruelest deaths in defense of this principle.

I struggle with this principle.

I am not a pacifist because I do believe that there is a limit. We cannot leave a blank check to those who would work to turn this world into some kind of hell. The fact is that some people are living through both injustice and violence, and I think if we can help them then we should. It was right to put a forceful end to the Holocaust. It was right to intervene in Sinjar to give the Yazidi people a fighting chance. In situations like this, I find it difficult to defend pacifism. Other religions have less trouble answering this question; The Kirpan of a Sikh is an attractive alternative to the Cross of Christ.

On the other hand my refusal to accept pacifism could be representative of a lack of faith on my part. Maybe I should be more confident that justice will be served eventually, and less arrogant in thinking that I would know better in correcting the injustice that I see around me. The example of Jesus is such a powerful one because if everybody committed themselves to living like him, consistently choosing peace, never seeking revenge and always forgiving, then we would not have to choose between peace and justice, we would have both.


Banksy dove” by Neil Ward is licensed under CC by 2.0