According to a common understanding, Christian pacifists are pacifist in part because the early church was pacifist before Constantine became the Emperor of Rome, at which point the church sold out on their pacifism and anti-government attitudes in exchange for a cozy spot as the official religion of the Roman Empire. I know that in many cases this common understanding is true. Many Christians are pacifist and hold to exactly this reading of history.
But if we read carefully John Howard Yoder’s argument for a Christian commitment to nonviolence, we will find that he, at least, does not rely on such an account at all. “Constantinianism,” as Yoder uses the term, does not depend on Constantine, but uses him as a symbol of the marriage between church and Empire. According to Yoder, this marriage “began before A.D. 200 and took over 200 years; the use of his name does not mean an evaluation of his person or work.” Any account of Constantinianism that begins before 200 A.D. doesn’t allow much time for a pacifist utopia to flower and then decay.
It is true that we find very strong pacifist writings among the church fathers. But there’s a huge absence of information surrounding the early church, and those polemical pacifist writings were written against something present in the life of the church. Some of the warnings against Christians serving as soldiers were clearly being aimed against Christians who were in fact serving as soldiers. Even pacifist historians like Roland Bainton make it clear that the church was, at best, inconsistently committed to a nonviolent posture.
But likewise, Yoder argues that non-Constantinian strains continued to exist in the institutional church; in the heights of the Middle Ages and through the Crusades you can find strains of pacifist resistance. In his recently published Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, he says
Constantine did not change everything, and later reformations did not change everything. So we tip our hat at this point to a pacifist undercurrent in medieval culture, about which we can know little except that it existed. The medieval church remained largely pacifist. It is a fact that caesars and princes and their soldiers were let into the church, and that an ethic developed to permit them to be in the church despite their killing. This change did not mean that people saw the new ethic as normative for the rest of the Christians or believed that it set aside the earlier position. For most people, just war and canonical provisions allowing soldiers access to the church and the sacraments were concessions and exceptions, not the rule.
The claim that “the medieval church remained largely pacifist” might seem a bit exaggerated. So what did Yoder mean by this? He sets out six basic dimensions:
- The Peace of God protected specific places or persons (e.g. on church property, non-combatants named in 4, below).
- The Truce of God forbade violent hostility at certain times (e.g. holy days, Sundays).
- Bishops engaged in diplomatic intervention to mediate or arbitrate conflicts.
- Clergy, religious, penitents, pilgrims and peasants had exemption from military obligation; it was linked, in the case of the clergy and religious, to total prohibitions against fighting.
- The right of sanctuary was observed.
- Peace awareness had a liturgical undergirding; there were, for example, masses for peace, celebrations when wars ended, and legends that developed around peacemaking saints.
- Nonviolent – usually spiritual – sanctions dissuaded people from going to war, or from giving offense so as to promote war; these included excommunication and fostering the moral power of higher nobles.
Yoder readily admits that this was “the normative teaching of the church, which was seldom fully respected.” Yoder goes on to describe the several militant orders that arose within the medieval church (Knights Templar, etc), but states that
this worldly church – the princely bishop, and the militant soldier-priest – remained the exception. The main stream of canon law continued to say that a soldier could not be a priest or a priest a soldier. A priest who went to the battlefield had to go as a confessor (chaplain), and he could not have a lethal weapon for self-defense…. Shedding blood disqualified a priest for ordination… People who have shed blood, even in a just war, do not have access to the Eucharist without a period of penance.
Yoder summarizes, “So we have several strands of rejection of war: the stories of saints, holy times and places, clergy exemption, and the polluting effect of shedding blood.” And of course there were the movements within the church that made rejection of violence a focal point: Franciscans, the Brethren of the Common Life and other such groups.
What are are left with is an intelligent, mature, robust church history, in which peace concerns didn’t move from central to non-existent at one exultant instant, but rather where general fidelity to the radical counter-cultural lifestyle of the gospel was constantly being eroded by “realist” political concerns. This explains why Yoder sees “Radical Reformation” not as a moment in history, but as a posture that attentive Christians must always assume as part of a church amidst Constantinianism in every age.