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Every Memorial Day, I remember how early Christians almost uniformly rejected any kind of military service–and how little we have learned from their witness to peacemaking. As we pause today, it may well be good for our souls to consider this perspective from church history about what it means to be both a Christian and a soldier. This reflection is excerpted from my book, A People’s History of Christianity.
* * * * *
few years ago, I was touring a church named St. Martin-in-the Fields with a
lovely stained-glass window depicting a soldier sheltering another man in his
cloak. “You know the story, I
suppose,” my guide said. “That’s
St. Martin. He converted to Christ
while a soldier. One day, his
regiment was guarding the city of Amiens and he met a naked beggar on the
road. Martin took off his cloak,
tore it in half, and covered the beggar.
He literally followed Jesus’ teaching to give one’s coat to the poor.”
up at the window, I remembered the rest of the legend as well. Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream
affirming the soldier’s act, saying, “Martin, a simple catechumen (one who is
learning the Christian way) covered me with this garment.” The episode became stuff of regiment
gossip and the cape was rumored to have miraculous power.
Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397) was born into a pagan family,
but as a young man expressed interest in Christianity. His father hated Christianity and forced
Martin to join the Roman army.
While a soldier, Martin’s curiosity about Christianity grew, as did his
strong sense of morality, until he became a catechumen. While still an inquirer, the cloak
he was baptized, Martin followed another early Christian practice and asked to
be released from the army: “I am Christ’s soldier and I am not allowed to
was not a conscientious objector in the modern sense–he was only stating what Christians
believed. Long before theologians
Ambrose and Augustine argued for just war, Christians were not allowed to
fight. No record exists that
Christians served in the Roman army before 170. The strong consensus of the early church was that war meant
killing, killing was murder, and murder was wrong. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage noted: “The world is going mad in mutual
bloodshed. And murder, which is
considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue
when they do it en masse.” Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and
Origen all specifically condemned participation in war. “The Christian fathers of the first
three centuries,” states theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, “were generally adamant
that discipleship requires close adherence to the nonviolent and
countercultural example of Jesus’ own life and his sayings about the nature of
to their horror of killing, the military posed a second problem: soldiers were
required to perform acts of worship to the state, the gods, and the
Emperor. From a Christian
perspective, soldiering demanded idolatry. Tertullian pointed out that even a
soldier’s tokens of victory, especially the crown of laurel leaf, were symbols
of death, hollow triumphs made at the expense of other human beings: “Is the laurel of the triumph made of
leaves, or of corpses? Is it
adorned with ribbons, or with tombs?
Is it bedewed with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers?”
Since the military practiced both violence and idolatry, Tertullian insisted
that there was “no agreement” between serving God and the Emperor. To even wear the uniform of a soldier
symbolized blood violence; as a result, the church did not permit Christians to
enlist or converts to continue to serve after baptism.
Tertullian emphasized the negative aspects of the military to Christian
discipleship, Origen pointed out the positive vision of a life of Christian
peacemaking. He criticized the
army as a society of “professional violence,” pointing out that Jesus forbids
any kind of vengeance against another.
“We will not raise arms against any other nation, we will not practice
the art of war,” he wrote, “because through Jesus Christ we have become the
children of peace.”
he asked to leave the army, Martin followed the way of peacemaking as taught by
the early church. As soon as
Martin was free from military obligation, he studied theology and became a
monk. He proved a popular bishop.
He planted churches, converting many people throughout France, and founded
the first monastic community in the northern part of the Empire. Many people believed that the former
soldier, once a member of the feared Roman army, possessed the gift of healing;
they came to him for relief from illness and disease. He served the poor, and outcasts, even on one occasion
protesting the death penalty of a wrongly condemned man. Unlike so many of his peers, he died
peacefully in bed, of old age, having dedicated himself to a non-violent
way. A soldier for Christ.