Shortly after the terrorist attack on September 11, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C., proclaimed, “If we kill as a response to this great tragedy, we are no better than the terrorists who launched this awful offensive. Killing is killing, and killing is wrong.”

Not only pacifists but also moderates seem to share this basic view. Theologian Miroslov Volf, while acknowledging the justness of a military response to the attack on the U.S., also said, “Taking a life is always the wrong thing.”

Yet few people are aware of what a stunningly new thing this is—for Christians of all stripes and backgrounds to eschew all violence. Disillusionment with the military after Vietnam surely contributed to it, as has a growing repugnance for suffering, blood, and death in our antiseptic culture. But two historical assumptions seem to drive many believers’ thinking on this matter.

Biblical Soldiers

The first assumption is that the New Testament is uniformly against violence. In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pacifist Richard Hays utters something many nonpacifists affirm: “From Matthew to Revelation, we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it.”

It’s a sweeping sentiment that, it turns out, sweeps too broadly. When John the Baptist told soldiers to repent, he did not ask them to forsake their professions. He simply told them to soldier with integrity. When Jesus meets a Roman centurion, far from commanding him to give up his calling, he praises the man for his great faith. When Roman commander Cornelius becomes a Christian, he is not told in his dreams or by the apostles that laying down his arms is a necessary condition of faith in Christ. And Paul speaks of believers in the Praetorian Guard—men trained to defend the emperor by force when called upon.

More directly, the apostle Paul specifically teaches that God instituted governments to practice violence in certain instances. John Calvin later intensified the point to bring out its deeper meaning: A magistrate dishonors God if he refuses to “bloody his sword” in pursuing justice and defending people from evildoers.

To be sure, the New Testament uniformly teaches that we are never to use violence to promote or defend our faith (and the world would be a much safer place right now if every religion and sect would adopt this principle). On the other hand, the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, seems to accept the fact that some Christians will practice violence as members of the military.

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On Rendering to Caesar

The second historical assumption is that the early church stood uniformly against all violence. The early church Fathers certainly taught Christians to refuse to retaliate when persecuted—this refusal became a Christian distinctive, in fact. And Hippolytus, third-century bishop of Rome, announced that he wouldn’t baptize any who refused to give up soldiering.

But often it is not clear whether the problem is violence or idolatry. Every soldier was supposedly asked to offer incense to Caesar—though the requirement was often neglected for long periods. This would explain why by 303, ten years before Constantine became a Christian (a decade before the early church supposedly compromised its ethics as it came into power), the Roman army was littered with Christians. That year Diocletian began ferreting out Christians in his army, which turned out to be a simple matter: they were the only ones who refused to sacrifice to the genius of Caesar.

As a result, we now have hundreds of soldier-martyr stories from that era, like that of Sebastian of Gaul [Narbonne] , captain of the Praetorian Guard, and George of Beirut, a high-ranking officer of noble birth. But apart from the demands of politico-religious emperor worship, many Christians were able to function as leaders in the Roman army.

This is not the place to argue the fine points of ethics and history. Suffice it to say that early Christians did not conclude that “all killing is wrong” or assume that Jesus’ teaching regarding personal retaliation applied directly to larger political arrangements. In short, they seemed to have had a more nuanced view of violence than we seem capable of in our day.

Related Elsewhere

Following the September 11 attacks, Mark Galli wrote “Now What? A Christian response to terrorism” for Christianity Today.

While terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Miroslav Volf was only a few blocks away speaking on the importance of reconciling with our enemies. A week later, Christianity Today senior news writer Tony Carnes spoke to him about terrorism and forgiveness.

For more perspective on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, see Christianity Today's previous essays and editorials:

I Was Just Wondering … Twenty questions that nag me after September 11. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Blame GameSeeking mercy is a better response to 9/11 than seeking meaning. (Nov. 8, 2001)
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Blood, Sweat, and PrayersOne man's journal of ministry among New York City's firefighters and police officers at Ground Zero. (Nov. 8, 2001)
Rally Round the FlagAmerica may not be God's chosen nation, but it does have a mission that churches can support. (Nov. 7, 2001)
Wake-up CallIf September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)
Prayer After 9.11.01The author of The Prayer of Jabez says now, more than ever, we need to seek God's power. (Sept. 28, 2001)
Judgment DayGod promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks? (Sept. 25, 2001)
Now What?A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the EnemyIs reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the AirTrue reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Taking It PersonallyWhat do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global ChristiansThe deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of EventsIn the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)above all else.
When Sin ReignsAn event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)

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