War's Corruption of Christianity
Editor’s Note: At a time when many on the American Christian Right espouse the supposed “originalist” thinking of the Founders, it’s ironic that many show little interest in the “originalist” thinking of Jesus as recounted in the gospels.
Rather than embrace the pacifist message of “the Prince of Peace,” many of these Christians have a quick-draw reaction to launching wars, a corruption of their religion that Gary G. Kohls traces back to Rome’s embrace of Christianity:
There is no question that the Christian church of the first three centuries regarded itself as a nonviolent community. It makes perfect sense. Jesus clearly taught and modeled the nonviolent love of friend and enemy, and his earliest followers tried to do so.
And by and large they succeeded, despite terrible persecutions from Rome, under whose brutal domination being a Christian was a capital crime for most of the first three centuries.
The first Christians tried to be faithful to Jesus's commandments to "put away the sword," ”do not repay evil for evil,” “do unto others that which you would have them do unto you,” "do good to those who persecute you," "pray for those who despitefully use you," "love your neighbor as yourself," "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies" and "love as I have loved you."
Jesus’s earliest followers regarded the human body as the holy temple of God here on earth, and, knowing that violence to a holy place was considered an act of desecration (and therefore forbidden), they refused to kill or maim other children of God, and therefore they also refused, out of conscience, to become killing soldiers for Rome.
Martyrdom, in the first three centuries, was regarded as the ultimate act of social responsibility. And the church flourished!
Constantine Corrupts Christianity
The Roman Emperor Constantine first recognized Christianity as a valid religion around 311 CE and he made Christianity the official state religion within decades.
He showered the now-legal church with the goodies of the Empire and the Christians accepted them, not aware that property, dominative power, wealth and the tight connections to militarism were eventually to become curse for the church.
Before long Christians began endorsing, and then participating in, un-Christ-like acts of homicidal violence in war.
The dark history of Constantinian Christianity's use and abuse of power and wealth is painful to relate.
In 311 CE, you could not be a Christian and be a killing soldier in Rome’s army. By 416, you couldn’t be in the Roman army unless you were a Christian! It had all turned around in 105 years, and Christianity has been a war-tolerating religion ever since.
Fights for dominative power within the church hierarchy soon came to be the norm. Accused "heretics" on all sides of theological issues excommunicated each other.
Massacres of non-Christian “infidels” in the Crusades were soon followed by massacres of fellow Christians. In the Middle Ages, the organized church actively persecuted, tortured and murdered millions of women who were feared as intellectuals, midwives and "witches."
The Inquisitions over a period of 600 years, burned Jews and heretics at the stake; and bloody counter-Reformation wars between Catholics and Protestants were cruelly waged -- with the blessings of the Pope, Luther, Calvin and King Henry VIII.
The use of atomic bombs against the civilian targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was perhaps the spiritual low point in Christendom's history of un-Christ-like cruelty and inhumanity to man.
It is a little known fact that Ground Zero for the second bomb was the largest Christian church in the Orient. The Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral and most of its members were vaporized in nine seconds by an all-Christian bomb crew on Aug. 9, 1945. American Christianity remains unrepentant.
And then there was the horrific example of German Christianity, easily Nazified because of its historical connections to Prussian militarism, and therefore allied to Hitler’s policy of perpetual war.
Many “good Germans” had good-paying healthcare-related jobs but they found themselves obediently participating in the extermination of the mentally and physically deformed “useless eaters.”
Many “good Germans” earned their livings participating in the oppression and extermination of gypsies, homosexuals, trade unionists, liberals, communists and Jews; and many churches consented to those atrocities by their silence.
The Jewish Holocaust occurred in part because the German churches had, for centuries, falsely blamed the Jews for killing Jesus (a myth), ignoring Jesus’s commandment to "love as I have loved you."
What most church leaders and their followers in Germany did not "get" back then (a reality that seems to be commonly true today as well) was that the "neighbor/enemy" who was to be loved (and not maimed or killed) included outcasts like Jews, gays, lesbians, immigrants, foreigners and others among “the least of these”.
Hitler needed the church's neutrality for the genocide to go smoothly, and he got it.
Germany needed, but didn't have, an established faith-based peace movement. Germany didn’t have prophetic and charismatic leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller barely got started in their antiwar activism, but it was too late and too little.
Not many clergy or lay leaders in Germany understood, much less taught, the nonviolent ethics of Jesus, and there were even fewer that were willing to lead and suffer for the cause.
War was a taboo subject in German churches. Instead, Germany had Martin Luther's legacy, and his rabid anti-Semitism, and it had the Catholic Church’s hatred of Jewish leftists, socialists and liberals, all of which contributed to the church’s complicity in the war against the Jews.
Nobody knows what would have happened if a grassroots movement of nonviolent resistance to evil had been in place a few generations prior to the rise of the German Empire.
If German Christianity had operated out of a peace church tradition leading up to WWI, instead of following the “Christian Just War” tradition, Germany’s military-age sons might have refused to participate in any of Kaiser Wilhelm’s or Adolf Hitler’s unjust atrocity-generating wars.
Young Germans might have obeyed Jesus’s command to “put up the sword” if they had been carefully taught about gospel nonviolence. Conscripting German boys into the military might have been met with a courageous “No Sir” and a refusal to kill the so-called enemy because of a heightened conscience.
Perhaps, if the church had been preaching the full gospel of love, the baptized Catholic Adolf Hitler might not have been an anti-Semite or a warmonger or a Nazi. Nazism could not have flourished if the German churches had been peace churches.
The movements of Gandhi, King and Jesus, as well as a multitude of other examples of successful nonviolent, faith-based resistance movements throughout history, are proof that nonviolence can work, but they are only for the faithful and the courageous.
Far more courage is demanded of unarmed resisters who may be forced to jail or to their deaths, than is asked of modern super-patriotic warriors who do battle using highly lethal, high-tech weaponry that almost guarantees their physical survival.
Sadly, post-Auschwitz Christianity is still ignoring Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence. Part of the problem is that essentially no mainstream seminaries teach courses on the history, the theology or spirituality of Christian nonviolence.
Most American churches are therefore essentially silent about the ravages of war and the enormous suffering of innocent and unarmed Iraqi and Afghan civilians and children in the current American wars in the Middle East.
Questions for the Just War Churches
Is the church - since Constantine - so tied up in the property, power, prestige and privilege protected by our secular rulers that it doesn't even recognize its disobedience to Jesus’s clear commands about love?
Is it so frightened of losing the good graces (e.g. tax-free status) of its political rulers that it is willing to participate in, and even bless, the indiscriminant homicidal realities of war? Is it so afraid of losing members that it cannot proclaim the radical Gospel of love?
Is its propaganda-induced fear and hatred of "the enemy" so ingrained that it doesn't recognize those two impulses as being anti-Christic?
When will American Christians recognize and repent of their participation in the immorality of what Martin Luther King called the “triple evils” of militarism, racism and poverty (economic oppression)? Shouldn’t the abolition of the triple evils be job #1 for the church?
The answers to these questions have serious implications for the churches, and solutions won’t come easily.
But if the American churches started to faithfully teach what Jesus taught, and then lived that way (i.e., nonviolently), the world would receive unexpected blessings.
Peacemakers, many of whom have given up on hypocritical “Just War” churches may return to the folds if churches returned to their ancient peace church origins. Apathetic or disillusioned lay people may even find themselves energized by the participation in the powerful, joyful and fulfilling mission of peacemaking.
Christian nonviolence seems to be an unknown reality in churches that focus on personal salvation, "believing in" (as opposed to "believing") Jesus, and "glory to God" religiosity.
These practices may indeed be valid expressions of faith, but they are insufficient if the Christian takes seriously Jesus’s call to love – and not harm – “the other.” But the historical "non-peace" churches don't seem to trust the radical peace message in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7).
Some followers may not be absolutely sure that Jesus was serious when he commanded his followers to love their enemies.
Most churches don’t trust what is said in the Last Judgment passage (in Matthew 25:31-46) where the author of that gospel proclaims that mercy offered (or not) to the least of God's children is mercy offered (or not) to Jesus, with radical consequences for the unmerciful.
According to this passage, indifference to relievable human suffering is radical evil.
The Gospel is supposed to be good news to the poor – but also to the suffering victims of oppression who are made hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, ill and imprisoned.
The earliest Christians knew Jesus and his radical teachings best. They were the ones who understood that gospel nonviolence and love of enemies was practical. They lived out those ethical teachings, and the early church flourished.
How a message of such clarity in the gospels could be a non-issue for the modern church is a wonder.
Does the modern church have the courage to confess its faithlessness and then repent? Does it have the courage to start anew and live and love the way Jesus and the early church lived and loved?
Can it adopt the Peace Plan of God as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount? Can it start living lives of Christ-like love -- the love that is unconditional, merciful, forgiving, nonjudgmental, non-retaliatory, sacrificial and nonviolent?
The answers to those questions are of critical importance.
Let’s hope that the churches will, in faithfulness to the gospels, do the right thing and say yes to those questions, for the survival, not just of the errant churches, but of our traumatized, militarized and poisoned police-state planet demands it.
And the children of the church and state, who are destined to suffer tremendously if things stay the same, will someday demand answers to the classic question: “Mommy and Daddy, what did you do during the wars (that bankrupted America both spiritually and economically)? Did you try to stop them?”
Dr. Kohls is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church.
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