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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Christianity, peace and nonviolence

By Rob Fairmichael

In my reading of Christian teaching, the message of Jesus, and the Christian bible, Christians should always be at the forefront of struggles for justice, for peace, for human rights, for equality. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. I am going to deal briefly with the area of Christianity, peace and nonviolence here, before referring to a document from the European Church and Peace network.

The 'Constantinian deal' which the Christian church got in becoming a state church was a bad deal – bad for the church and Christians, bad for the state (good for the state's power though), and certainly bad for the state's citizens. The early Christian church was nonviolent and serving in the army was a no no. Constantine's conversion to Christianity, and it is not clear how it happened or why it happened (though his mother was a Christian), set a model in place of 'church and state' which would last for over a millennium and a half.

Whether Constantine actually had a vision before a battle of a cross above the sun, and in Greek the inscription "You will conquer with this sign" (usually known in the Latin form 'In hoc signo vinces'), well, your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect it unlikely. It is a pretty horrible image with a really horrible outcome. Christianity bolstered the state and got 'protection' in return. Was that anything to do with Christian teaching? Certainly not.
I am at one with Mohandas Gandhi when he said that "The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians" (available as an A4 poster) But in fact, if we look at the modern era, the states most likely to be at war at any time are the USA and the UK, states with a strong 'Christian' ethos, the USA still very much so, the UK somewhat less. States which would profess another faith, or declared atheist states like the USSR or China after communism, might have been or be more repressive of their people and neighbouring states, but they did not necessarily rush to war half way around the world at the drop of a hat.

Of course Christian teaching is open to interpretation. But I wonder how anyone can seriously try to adhere to the recipe for life given in the Sermon on the Mount, or the advice to 'Love your neighbour' (plus the explanation of who is your neighbour) and kill them by drone warfare. If we look at the totality of Jesus' life, as well as his teaching, it is clear to me that the way of nonviolence is advocated. Even something like 'turning the other cheek', in Walter Wink's interpretation, can be a radical challenging of power abuse and the status quo; see item 4 here.

Some of those who take the Christian bible as their guide say they do not believe in progressive revelation (the idea that we can learn more about faith as we go along and believing that while the teaching of the prophet concerned is the ultimate guideline it is not set in stone on all matters). But de facto they do actually accept changes in social teaching. Slavery is dealt with in the Christian bible where it is clear slaves should be well treated. It is now universally accepted that Christianity and Christians should not tolerate slavery in any form. Many Christians still have a problem with LGBT issues when I would feel exactly the same precept applies, that we have learnt more about the nature of sexual identity and realise that LGBT relations should not be treated any differently to heterosexual ones.

Coming back to peace and nonviolence, the effect of the 'Constantinian deal' – and I am using this term in a generalist sense to refer to not just uncritical Christian acceptance of the state but active backing of it and its forces – is still with us in the west, whether we are 'Christians' or live in a 'Christian' or secular society. Of course things have changed from the complete state-church tie ups of the past, and there are individual Christians, and sometimes Christian bodies, who are critical. Indeed church statements can be exceedingly critical (e.g. of state's failures on dealing with poverty) but what the general population tends to see are things like big church services for Remembrance Day and a tie up at a ceremonial level. And most Christians still accept the military role of the state, and churches provide chaplains to the military and a moral backing for the state's military role.

The nonviolent ideal is different, and for me it is in accord with the teaching of Jesus and his life. But this kind of thinking is mainly restricted within Catholic circles to the likes of Pax Christi and some Franciscans, and in Protestantism to the Quakers (plus the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren in North America). There are others, individuals and small groupings, in many church traditions who identify in this way (e.g. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, see news items this issue) but they tend to be scattered and not always visible. Whether nonviolence can regain the initiative within Christianity in general, well, I wouldn't hold my breath, but if Christianity went violent and statist early in the 4th century CE (AD), well, it could just swing another way again.

Of course there are problems with being nonviolent. "What would you have done about Hitler?", "What would you do about ISIS?" are the same question in different forms. The first thing is to not create 'Hitler' or 'ISIS' in the first place. But if you have created them (and essentially 'the West' created both by decisions and actions) what do you then do? Here are some thoughts from the newsletter of Church and Peace, a European Christian peace network: see pages 2 – 5 here.

Copyright INNATE 2016