Nonviolence or Nonexistence
When the soldiers asked John the Baptist, "And what shall we do?" he
replied, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content
with your wages." Since they could not remain soldiers and practice
nonviolence, this passage suggests he told them to put down their weapons
and seek a peaceful profession.
Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." (Matthew 5:9) Expressing concern for God’s children, he said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"In concrete and vivid precepts," writes Professor G.J. Heering in The Fall of Christianity, "the Sermon on the Mount set forth the character and conduct of those who really follow Jesus: of those who may really be called God’s children; of those who shall submit to the rule of God, of those who shall enter His Kingdom; in short, of true Christians: the pure in heart, the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and are willing to suffer for its sake. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
"And then follow the commandments; ‘Ye shall keep yourselves from murder but also from revenge. And in place of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, resist not that which is evil; but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Can one find one little implication in these words that does not plead for peace or that does not shrink from violence in every degree or form?
"Jesus does not give detached commands. He brings you whole being and doing and suffering under the compulsion of one single principle. ‘Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, but i say unto you: love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you: that ye may be sons of your Father which is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-38)
"’Love even your enemy!’ This is the highest demand that can ever be made. This love of enemy is not just one virtue among many, but the fairest flower of all human conduct.
"It is recognized that these commands though lay stress on the inward disposition and have not the force of law, were certainly meant as concrete instructions for the followers of Jesus. They had to be obeyed. Their carrying out was counted on. Behind these injunctions, which admit no cleavage between conduct and character, stands the newly sent Ambassador of God with His ‘But I say unto you.’
"Not only the war of aggression but also defensive warfare is ruled out by the Sermon on the Mount...the gospel condemns war...We have primarily to recognize, however hard it may be to do so, that the waging of war has no place in the moral and spiritual teachings of Jesus.
"Hippolytus, second century Christian father and historian, wrote what he considered the Apostolic tradition and so the authentic Christian teaching, maintained, that when he applied for admission to the Christian fellowship, a solider must refuse to kill men, even if he were commanded by his superiors to do so and also must not take an oath.
"Justin Martyr, the principle apologist of the early Church (Cir. AD 150) writes that:
"’Christians seek no earthly realm, but a heavenly, and that this will be a realm of peace. The prophecy of Isaiah—that swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears to pruning hooks begins to find fulfillment in the missions of Christians. For we refrain from the making of war on our enemies, but gladly go to death for Christ’s sake. Christians are warriors of a different world, peaceful fighters. For Caesar’s soldiers possess nothing which they can lose more precious than their life, while our love goes out to that eternal life which God will give.’"
The apostle Paul taught that Christian warfare is spiritual. (Romans 13:12) According to Professor Heering: "Origen, the great Christian father of the second century, would hear nothing of earthly military service: he regarded it as forbidden:
"’We Christians no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, having become children of peace for the sake of Jesus who is our leader. We do not serve as soldiers under the Emperor, even though he requires it.
"’Persons who possess authority to kill, or soldiers, should not kill at all, even when it is commanded of them. Every one who receives a distinctive leading position, or a magisterial power, and does not clothe himself in the weaponlessness of which is becoming to the Gospel, should be separated from the flock.’"
Although he was the son of a military officer, the early Christian father Tertullian (AD 200) was opposed to militarism and violence. Professor Heering observes: "The question Tertullian faces is not whether a Christian may be a soldier, but even whether a soldier may be allowed within the Church. He answers ‘No.’ The soldier who becomes a Christian ought to leave the army. ‘One soul cannot be true to two lords—God and Caesar. How shall a Christian man wage war; nay, how shall he even be a soldier in peace time, without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?--for in disarming Peter he ungirded every soldier.’"
The great Church father Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, denounced war and wrote:
"The whole earth is drenched in adversaries’ blood, and if murder is committed, privately it is a crime, but if it happens with State authority, courage is the name for it: not the goodness of the cause, but the greatness of the cruelty makes the abominations blameless."
Attacking even capital punishment, Cyprian wrote: "Christians are not allowed to kill, it is not permitted to guiltless to put even the guilty to death."
The Christian writer Lactantius of Bithinia wrote about the Sixth Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill") as follows:
"When God prohibits killing, he not only forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by public laws, but he warns us not to do even those things which are legal among men. And so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier for justice itself is his military service, nor to accuse anyone of a capital offense, because it makes no difference whether they kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden."
Erasmus, a fifteenth century Christian father, scholar and theologian, considered it a sacrelige for a soldier to stitch the cross on his standard. "The cross," he said, "is the banner and standard of Him who has overcome and triumphed, not by fighting and slaying, but by His own bitter death. With the cross do ye deprive the life of your brother, whose life was rescued by the cross?
"O, you cruel, shameless lips: how dare ye call Father whilst ye rob your brother of Life?
"’Hallowed by Thy name’: how can the name of God be more dishonored than by war?
"’Thy kingdom come’: will ye pray thus while ye scraple at nought and shrink from no bloodshed, however great?
"’Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’: God desires peace and ye make war.
"Ye pray your common Father for daily bread, and meantime ye burn all your brother’s rye and corn.
"How shamefully will ye say: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us, while ye desire nothing else but to slay and to do mischief.
"Ye pray that ye may not come into danger or temptation and ye lead your brother into every sort of danger and temptation."
In her 1991 essay, "The Bible and Peace and War," Ursula King asks, "how are we to explain that Jesus, the founder of Christianity, is often called ‘the Prince of Peace’ and yet Western civilization so deeply shaped by the Christian story which is clearly pacifist in origin and essence, has become so militaristic from an early stage in its history?"
King quotes Christian pacifist John Ferguson from his 1977 study War and Peace in the World’s Religions:
"The historic association of the Christian faith with nations of commercial enterprise, imperialistic expansion and technological advancement has meant that Christian peoples, although their faith is one of the most pacifistic in its origins, have a record of military activity second to none."
According to King, "In the early Church, pacifism was the dominant position up to the reign of Constantine, when Christianity became a state religion. Until then no Christian author approved of Christian participation in battle, whereas in AD 314 the Council of Arles decreed that Christians who gave up their arms in time of peace should be excommunicated."
In Theology and Social Structure, Robin Gill has written:
"The situation of the pre-Constantinian church appears all the more remarkable when it is realised that no major Christian church or denomination has been consistently pacifist since Constantine. Indeed, Christian pacifism has been largely confined to a small group of sects, such as the Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Brethren and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Further, pacifists within the churches, as distinct from sects, have in times of war been barely tolerated by their fellow Christians."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that in today’s world the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.
These quotes against killing and war and in favor of pacifism also serve to indicate that religiously-based nonviolence towards animals as well as humans is not at all extreme or absurd, but rather, consistent with the Christian doctrines expressed above. History reveals to us that the earliest Christians were both pacifists and vegetarians. Ethical vegetarianism is, in itself, a form of pacifism—nonviolence towards animals.