Christian Practice, Church History, Religion and Politics

History is Not Your Friend Christian Pacifism and the Imagined Past

Published on: July 14, 2023
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It perhaps goes without saying that we have a tendency to construct our historical narratives less out of concern for accurately depicting the past and more out of a desire to make sense of the present, particularly where “making sense” means finding in history evidence for our own views with respect to contemporary debates. In fact, much of what passes for debates about “history” are really debates about contemporary politics dressed up in the garb of historical analysis. Take, for example, the controversies surrounding the history of the transatlantic slave trade, debates that have flared in recent years not because people are suddenly more interested in the transatlantic slave trade, but in response to the heightened tensions surrounding contemporary race relations.

In ecclesiastical context, where appeals to the past are often given some theological weight, it is not uncommon for people to declare that “early Christians” (by which they almost always mean “Christians before Constantine”) uniformly agreed with them on some point. The most common culprits of this are those hawking a traditional view of gender, sexuality, and the family, as they seek to find in the biblical and patristic traditions norms, identities, values, and systems that would have been absolutely foreign to anyone living before the Industrial Revolution. The nuclear family, after all, takes its name from the Nuclear Age, i.e., the middle of the 20th century. The biblical patriarchs were polygamists, and the best defense that St. Augustine could find for organizing our domestic life around matched-sets of boys and girls was that it is “in keeping with Roman custom.”

But it is not only the Not-So-Traditional Family Values gang that has a tendency to bend the tradition to their cause du jour. Christian pacifism, as much associated with the contemporary political left as the former is associated with the contemporary political right, is equally invested in what turns out to be a deeply questionable view of history. Fr. Mark Korban’s recent Public Orthodoxy piece entitled “Violence and Non-Violence: From Constantine to Ukraine” exemplifies this problem, as Fr. Korban presents an ideologically-driven, historically-suspect view of early Christianity’s perception of violence and, more importantly, early Christians’ engagement with both state-sponsored and extralegal violence in order to support his own radical pacifism. Not that he is the first. No less than David G. Hunter, the Margaret O’Brien Flatley Chair of Catholic Theology at Boston College and a past president of the North American Patristics Society, has observed that the study of early Christian militarism is “a field where ideological bias seems so often to affect one’s interpretation of the evidence.”[1]

It turns out, just as when we start to explore just how traditional the “traditional” view of sex is, when we examined the insistence of Christian pacifists that before the St. Constantine, all Christians rejected all violence, the issue is (as with so many things in Christian history) extremely complex. The idea that the earliest Christians were universally pacifists is far from undisputed. In fact, over the past fifty years scholars have increasingly called into question the traditional narrative of unanimous pacifism among pre-Constantinian Christians. This is the position taken by the late Larry W. Hurtado, in his book Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016),where he suggests that while some individual Christians may have embraced pacifism, the evidence indicates that early Christian communities were diverse in their beliefs and practices towards violence, much like today. In Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Brill, 2010), John F. Shean goes further,  arguing  that it was the significant Christian presence in the late third-century Roman army that made the empire ripe for the accession of a Christian emperor and its eventual conversion. And in the Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), Candida Moss points out, as part of her analysis of the ways early Christian accounts of martyrdom and persecution have been exaggerated, that there are plenty of documented instances in which early Christians actively participated in violence, such as the destruction of pagan temples.

One could go on, but suffice to say, the evidence continues to mount that first-century Christians had as diverse of views about violence as 21st-century Christians. If history shows us anything, it is that diversity and conflict, not uniformity and agreement, have been the norm for Christians throughout history. And it cannot be ignored that those most intent on enforcing a view of Christian history in which “in the past everyone agreed with me” do so almost always from a position of immense privilege. While it likely does not bear repeating how this is with respect to issues of gender and sexuality (how many times have married heterosexuals lectured gay and lesbian people to “choose celibacy” or men chastised women for questioning their treatment at the hands of the patriarchy?), it is perhaps a fact less familiar with respect to pacifism. It is easy to be a pacifist if you happen to be a middle-class white American man living in New England, in no small part because society—the world actually—is constructed in such a way as to insulate you from violence. Of course, it is possible from this position of safety to adopt a radical pacifism, one that does not even leave space for self-defense, because someone else is doing the dirty work to keep you safe, and society writ large is concerned about your safety. This is not true if you are a poor or working-class woman trapped in an abusive relationship, a Black man living under the threat of police violence, an indigenous teenager sexually assaulted on the reservation you call home, a gay couple holding hands on a public street, or, today, a Ukrainian under the brutality of the Russian invasion. It is a radical failure of compassion to believe that these people, living under the persistent threat of violence, should just accept their imposed martyrdom. And it is offensive in the extreme to use a widely debunked view of history as a cudgel against these people trying to survive in circumstances you will never face.

The fact is, in the past, not everyone agreed with each other, and they absolutely did not all agree with you. Moreover, today there are people living very real lives under present circumstances. We behave with a flagrant and (dare I say) un-Christian disregard for those people when we construct a false narrative of the past and then declare, from a position far removed from those real lives, that now these people, those people, must live up to this fictional past. History cannot teach you anything you do not already want to learn, but sometimes, other living human beings can. We would be well to listen to them.

[1] Hunter, David. G.“A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 8/2 (1992): 87-9, p. 92

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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

  • Katherine Kelaidis

    Katherine Kelaidis

    National Hellenic Museum (Chicago)

    Katherine Kelaidis is Director of Research and Content at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, IL. She holds a B.A. in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of London.  Dr. Kelaidis is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Orthodox Chr...

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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.


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