October 27, 2006

Good Company I: A Brief History of Christian Non-Violence

"It's very hard to look at [the] family tree of non-violence in a way that makes the religion incidental."

That sentence in a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion intrigued me. The philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to all of us, I'm sure. Gandhi's ethic of non-violent resistance inspired MLK's crusade to transform our own country. But, I wondered, who inspired Gandhi? And who inspired the guy who inspired Gandhi? And how far back does this go? What is the well-spring of this important ideal and how (if at all) has it changed?

These, at least, were the questions that I originally set out to answer. I thought I could insulate and isolate a few people apart from the historical milieu of Christian non-resistance and trace their influence on each other over the course of about a century while ignoring everything else. Unfortunately, my research style (rabbit-trailing) got in the way, so we start with some groundwork before moving on.

It should surprise no one to learn that the history of nonviolence begins with Jesus Christ. Christianity and the Church may have inspired a lot of hatred, death and violence, but there's a lot of peace-mongering hovering in the margins as well. Jesus, by all accounts, lived "a blameless life," part of which was the substitution of love and grace for hatred and violence, and the repayment of evil with good.

His life, his message, and the testimony of the church he left behind all attest to the Christian obligation to act always in a spirit of love rather than of violence. The jumping-off point for many later proponents of non-violence begins with Matthew 5:39 (most specifically, "resist not evil"), but really there is a broad scriptural (New Testament) basis for non-violence (Romans 12:17-21 is another reference that comes to mind).

Unlike many of the sectarian doctrines and dogmas under constant debate (*cough*Calvinism*cough*), non-violence does not rely on the sketchy intrepretation of a verse or two. It is a pervasive and recurring theme. Various finer points may be argued as ethical "what-ifs" are proposed, but it does not seem convincingly arguable that a commitment to non-violence should not be a part of the Christian lifestyle. I suspect anyone who would seek to deny this of being more interested in interpreting the Bible based on the standards of contemporary social mores than on discovering and living by what it actually teaches.

For centuries there has always been some portion of Christianity devoted to pacifism, non-resistance, non-violence, etc. These have included the Amish and various other types of Anabaptists, the German Baptist Brethren and the Mennonites. The trail of important individuals which I am trying to link up with, having begun with Jesus Christ and continued through early Church leaders for a few hundred years (more on that in a moment), makes a very long leap of about 14 centuries to George Fox (1624-1691) and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).

Fox established what is known as "the Peace Testimony" in 1651, refusing to be involved in England's military endeavors (he found himself sitting in a nasty prison for his pains). This idea was derived from the teachings of Jesus, various passages from the New Testament and the example of the Early Church. Later Quaker sources point to a multitude of first and second century Christians who either refused to enter military service, or who left the military immediately upon converting.

According to one Quaker (writing in the 1800s), there is no record of a Christian in military service during the first 200 years after Christ's death . . . and precious few for about a century after that (these two statistics are "probably not true" and "probably true," respectively). Early Church leaders who discussed this doctrine in their writings include Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origenes.

According to this and other sources, the Catholic Church eventually killed that bothersome "pacifist Christians" idea (sometimes literally), ruling that it applied only to members of the clergy. Interestingly enough, this happened practically the year after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome (Synod of Arelate, 314 A.D.), and Christians suddenly found themselves in a position quite different from any they had ever been in before. I'm trying hard to be fair in my judgment of something that happened a very long time ago, but really I almost have to attribute the sudden change in doctrine to the necessities of political expediency within a Church corrupted by its rise to power. In other words, from the beginning, Christians who say war is okay are pretty suspect.

Various minority groups continued to flock back to it from time to time for the next several hundred years. Most notably, of course, were the Albigensians (or Cathars) in the 11th century. Their beliefs included the condemnation of all war and capital punishment. Eventually, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on them, and they were wiped out over the course of two decades of massacres which were considered barbaric even by medieval standards. It would be unfair to imply that their doctrine of non-resistance was the only beef the Roman Catholic Church had with them. They also believed in reincarnation, and their view of Jesus had a suspiciously Gnostic flare. However, it was a reason.

As one might expect, when the Reformation rolled in the issue flared up again. However, as I (for one) would not have thought, mainstream Protestants (Lutherans and those dirty Calvinists) were perfectly in step with their Roman Catholic enemies on the subject of Christian non-resistance. Only the Anabaptists insisted that Jesus be taken at his word.

That brings us back to George Fox and the Quakers. I don't want to spend too long on the Quakers, except to note that a large group of them eventually wound up in Pennsylvania in 1681, where they were safe from religious persecution. Their influence has been felt here and there on the history of the United States ever since. In particular, a fellow abolitionist and friend of the Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison (perhaps you've heard of him), was quite probably inspired (at least in part) by their Peace Testimony to take a shockingly strong stand behind the principle of non-resistance in the late 1830s.

I'll quit with Garrison for now, as this will soon be a history of individuals and their ideas rather than of denominations and sects and their doctrines. I'll leave you with a question that a lot of advocates of Christian non-resistance are going to start asking right around Garrison's time, namely: How can so much of mainstream Christianity pretend like the conflict between the true faith of peace and love and Church-sanctioned practice of violence and war does not exist?

Please don't hesitate to throw comments and questions my way. In particular, if you feel that anything needs clarification, further justification, further research, more sources, or you wonder why I didn't mention some fact (I probably wasn't aware of it), say so. That'll help me render my own knowledge of the subject as complete as possible.

Posted by Jared at October 27, 2006 05:14 PM | TrackBack