Religion and Conflict, Religion and Politics

Violence and Non-Violence: From Constantine to Ukraine

Published on: May 3, 2023
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Statue of Emperor Constantine
Image Credit: iStock.com/chrisdorney

It can be difficult to fathom the mindset of the followers of Jesus in the early to mid fourth century, as they gradually abandoned their commitment to the Way of total love towards all, even enemies. Before being called Christians, the disciples of Jesus were known as the people of the Way. What Way? The Way that Jesus had taught in both his words and actions to be the Way that God reveals for the deliverance of the human race from the iron-tight trap into which it had fallen by the use of homicidal violence to maintain survival of self, tribe, and nation. Christians understood that the endless and religiously-justified cycles of violence and counter-violence had lead humanity down a spiraling path of untold misery and pain. They understood that by returning good for evil and love for hate the chain of violence could be broken. They understood that it is better to die than to kill, because they knew that there was spiritual life after the end of physical life. And when one kills, one risked bringing spiritual harm to themselves and others. How could a people with three hundred years of such a consciousness come to see tribal and national homicidal violence as compatible with the person and teaching of the One who taught the opposite?

There is little written evidence from this time period that we can look to directly for an explanation. Rather, we must piece together what information is available and make an educated conjecture in light of our understanding of human nature.

In the first decade of the fourth century, the Roman emperor Diocletian launched what would become the worst of the major persecutions of the early Church. His goal was to eliminate the Christian movement entirely, as its adherents were growing in number despite all the previous, lesser persecutions. Sacred books and buildings were burned and clergy and lay people were hunted down, arrested, tortured and executed. It was a terrible time for Christians, who amazingly were able to hold out, trusting firmly in the teachings of the master and by belief in the reality of resurrection. This is not to say that it was easy. Nor can we know how we would respond in a similar situation. We know what Jesus taught, but would we do it?

Constantine succeeded his father Constantius as emperor. He understood that the many persecutions of Christians, including Diocletian’s, had not worked and were not working. The number of Christians was increasing rather than decreasing. Many were converted upon seeing the Christians’ non-violent response to oppression and their strong faith in life after the grave. Constantine realized that another approach was needed. It is said, though doubted among some historical scholars, that Constantine had a vision of the cross in the sky, which as a superstitious follower of the pagan religion, he took as a sign that the Christian God would grant him victory in battle. He did indeed win an important battle and shortly thereafter legalized the previously outlawed Christian religion, thereby ending the persecutions. From this time forward Christians were able to practice their faith freely. Later in the century, Christianity became the official state religion.

All leaders of empires know that religious unity is essential for the empire’s maintenance and expansion.  That is why the Roman emperors felt threated by the rise of the Christian religion. It was causing a disturbance in the unity of the empire. Constantine convened the first ecumenical council in 325, when he saw inner disputes concerning doctrine in the Church threatening unity. He needed a unified church in order to have a unified empire. His primary interest was not his own transformation in Christ, but the interests of empire. If he was truly interested in being a Christian, would he have waited until his death bed for baptism? And surely, he would not have had his first wife and his son by her, murdered.

We can imagine the relief of the Christians as the persecutions subsided. And we can imagine their reluctance to return to such horror. Who of us would feel any differently? The thought process must have been gratitude and perhaps a sense of victory over the dark powers. Perhaps the Gospel imperative of love between all people was becoming reality. 

There were good reasons for the change in the attitude of Christians from early to late 4th century. The horrendous persecutions had ended, and Constantine was giving church buildings to the community and salaries to clergy. He instituted programs for the needy and destitute, among other helpful initiatives.  And these good aspects of Constantine’s governing are what make it difficult seeing the underlying problem clearly: the basic incompatibility between the priorities of nation-states and the Gospel. On the one hand, governments look out for what they view as their own wellbeing. Continuance of the status quo and its own survival is the issue. The Gospel, on the other hand, teaches its adherents to put the other person ahead of one’s self, to extend love to all, even those who present deadly threat, in the knowledge that it is better to die to this short life than to risk the spiritual harm that comes with offensive or defensive killing. Obviously not an easy way to live, but a way that becomes possible if one believes that Jesus’ teachings on the matter are authoritative, indeed that his words are God’s words.

This was the bedrock motivation of Christians for their first three hundred years. It was what enabled them to endure all that they endured. And although they may have failed at times to love their enemies, the teaching of church leadership was consistent. The community was united. It was this consistent teaching, this underlying unity that was gradually eroded with the Constantinian revolution. Perhaps the Christians reasoned that they could maintain the Gospel imperatives while actively participating in the exigencies of empire. Perhaps they would be able to go so far and draw a line. Yet when Constantine and his successors wanted the Christians to serve in the military, what could be done at that point? Were they willing to return to persecutions, to lose their church buildings, their clergy compensation? Would we have been willing if we were there at the time?

And so, from there on out we see the sad story of one compromise after another. Late 4th-century bishops imposed sanctions on soldiers who killed in war, but that was later dropped and imposed only on clergy. Cicero’s just war theory was baptized and became the dominant view over time. Christian leaders largely no longer taught the full Gospel, and Christians freely participated in the wars of whatever country to which they happened to belong. It didn’t even matter if those wars were fought between Christian tribes or nations. Christians had few qualms about killing even other members of the faith.

For many, the 20th century brought into focus the failure of Jesus’ followers to live fully the precepts of the Gospel. The horrors of the world wars and the invention and use of weapons of mass death forced the attentive to realize how far astray the baptized had gone. The all-Christian bombing crews of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the willingness to perpetually hang a Damocles sword of nuclear death over the human race, was too much for their conscience to bear. Many embarked on a re-discovery of the essential truth of the Way of Jesus: non-violent love of all, including enemies. They came to see it as the only way out of the pernicious claws of darkness be-deviling the human race.

One can draw a straight line between the present war in Ukraine and the decisions of church leadership during the Constantinian period and beyond. People do what they are taught to do for the most part. To point the finger at Putin who is nominally Orthodox or Patriarch Kirill, is to not see the long-standing underlying problem: that Christians have largely abandoned the Way of the Gospel. And as difficult as it may be, there is no solution in sight except a return to the obvious: a renewed commitment by all those who aspire to be disciples of Christ to the Way that he taught in his words and in his actions.  May God help us all.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Rev. Mark Korban

    Rev. Mark Korban

    Orthodox Church in America (Diocese of New England)

    Fr. Mark Korban is pastor of St. Jacob of Alaska Orthodox Church in Northfield Falls, Vermont. He is also a maker of pine caskets as an encouragement to the return to more traditional burial practices which has had a resurgence in recent years. Fr. Mark has for many years been a student of the Gospe...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University