Nonviolence in Early Christianity

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I have tried to show that in order to understand the fullness of the arguments of the earliest Christians against war and service in the legions of the empire we need to understand their socioreligious context, as well as the power narratives of their time. To do so, we have to begin at the beginning: to place the Church within the narratives of Rome, the omnipresence of the gods, the power of Caesar, the cultic structures that arranged the cosmos, the public religion that demanded obeisance and sacrifice. We need to speak of the theater and performativity, so as to understand the power of martyrdom—the new world order that turned centuries-old social locutions upside down and coopted the power of the powerful on the scarred and mutilated bodies of the socially powerless. What emerges is a new call to nonviolence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could mete—in imitation of Christ.

Only then are we able to evaluate the oppositions of the earliest Christians to war, and killing, and of serving in the armies of Caesar from within their own social location and ask questions of theology and practice. When we do that, we see that there is no polyglossia among the Christian writers. With remarkable univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army, whether in wartime or peacetime. The dominical command to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors is a common thread woven throughout these documents. Greek and Latin writers alike speak of this uniqueness of the Christian communities.

Kalantzis, George. Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2012). 7.

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