We shouldn’t be surprised that the early church struggled with the morality of war. Protestants, like myself, too often assume that the return to the sources demanded by Renaissance humanists and the European reformers necessarily renders earlier better, or at least simpler. It is my contention that while we should recognize the important insights of the comparatively powerless early church on the morality of love and war, today we must act responsibly with the power and influence U.S. Christians undoubtedly possess.

In looking for the earliest commentary on war we are met with darkness. We have no accounts of the church’s thinking until the late second-century, and when our historical record begins, discernable Christian views are surprisingly subtle. From the 170s A.D. to the time of Constantine, it does seem clear that most Christians were decidedly anti-militarist. An early martyr, Maximilian, was put to death, for instance, for refusing to become a solider, and writings attributed to the third-century bishop Hippolytus demand that Christians should not become soldiers. Yet we have no evidence of the general acceptance of such a principle or, indeed, evidence that, in the inverse situation, Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity were required to leave military service.

It is worth remembering, of course, that we cannot fully distinguish principle and practice in our interpretation of the distant past. The Roman army’s role in persecution of Christians or a distrust of the lifestyle of soldiers may have generated Christian anti-militarist sentiment as much as thought-through objections to Christian involvement in potential violence.

For answers, the Early Church engaged with the life and teachings of Jesus to determine a morality of war. In seeking to faithfully interpret scripture in its imperial context, the early church did not to resort to proof-texting: the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction to turn the other cheek, for instance, was always interpreted as part of a broader conception of love for God and neighbor. Pastoral concerns, moreover, seemed to play a larger role in developing Christian thinking than systematic theological or ethical inquiry. Specific situations necessitated particular answers: the welcomed reality of soldiers’ conversions was more important, perhaps, than maintaining a single moral position.

Moral discourse about war, therefore, was built from concrete Christian love. Such concreteness led to complexity. While love demands that an individual should not inflict harm, the church came to believe that love calls too for actions that prevent harm, actions that remove harm and actions that promote good. Love does not only call for self-control and individual responsibility, but for constructive action on behalf of others. This would later be classically articulated in the Just-War theory of Augustine.

Christians maintained a strong ethic of self-sacrifice. While most came to accept that love demanded action to prevent harm to others, the use of lethal force was believed unacceptable for self-defense. This logic survived in Christian thought until the middle ages when Thomas Aquinas and others argued that an individual’s own life, as part of God’s good creation, demands protection. To love one’s neighbor as oneself means that one’s life has value. Action to protect one’s life is therefore right, even if it results in the aggressor’s death.

When love is understood as demanding the preventing and removing of harm, human judgment needs to be exercised. There must be discernment of what is just. There must be ways of determining, for example, who is in the wrong when violence occurs. Potential victims need protection.

Now, it seems a certain level of humility is required in any such calculation. All too often in Christian history, there has been too great a certainty in the identification of the transgressor. The zeal to righteous action carries dangers. We should remember, in Ronald Baintons’ words, that in disputes among Christians it is the saints who burn the saints. Caution cannot, however, lead to inaction. There are obvious examples. It would take a particularly brave pacifist to argue that, in principle, the allies’ military action against Hitler’s Germany should not have happened.

There are pitfalls, of course, in looking to the church before Constantine for guidance on the morality of war. Theirs was a very different world. Some recent Christian voices, for instance, often fetishize the early church’s relative powerlessness. These voices respond to the conflicting demands of love by absenting Christians from difficult choices in our current political realities where U.S. Christians have power.

The second-century critic Celsus attacked anti-militarist Christians for enjoying the fruits of Roman order while refusing to play their part in its maintenance. Today, there are Christian voices who too easily appeal to Christianity as a minority position and Christians as resident aliens; just as easily, through the centuries, Christian interests have been equated with national interests.

I am convinced that there is a dangerous avoidance of responsibility when Christians’ duties and interests are understood as peculiarly distinct from those of other citizens’; when others participate in war for an understood common good, while Christians maintain their principles. Such distinctions neglect the pervasiveness of human sin. The structures of our daily lives in communities, institutions and nations continually place us in positions where we harm others even without intention; where any choice, including inaction, brings hurtful consequences for others.

If we accept the intuition of the early church that love demands the prevention of harm to others, we will need to discern and act. We will undoubtedly find ourselves with dirty hands. We will make mistakes. Our choices will be compromised. In such moments, however, our full conception of love will surely allow us to fall back on hope, and the grace and forgiveness we believe comes from God.

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Andrew C. Forsyth is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. He received his Master of Theological Studies degree in 2009.

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