“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Ps 144:1). The story of the chosen people was one of near constant conflict, usually against stronger neighbors. Constantly menaced by large empires, the Hebrews struggled and endured. It seemed they were always a target, for their promised land was situated in one of the most strategic places on earth: the meeting point of the three continents of the old world. There the coastal road from Europe to Africa was intersected by the caravan routes from the east. In this place men and nations fought, and continue to fight today. Battle after battle was waged there, between the Egyptians and Hittites, Greeks and Persians, Romans and Hebrews, Byzantines, Muslims, and Crusaders. When John the Presbyter wrote about the place where the final battle would be, which would gather all the kings of the earth, he named the plains of Megiddo, the epicenter of the Holy Land, known in Greek as Armageddon (Rev 16:16).
The bible is suffused with martial imagery and heroic stories. From the military conquests of the chosen people in Joshua to the heroic rebellion of the Maccabees, its pages are full of the use of force, both just and unjust. The Lord, God of Sabaoth, is a “God of Battles.” He is a warrior who leads His people to victory when they are faithful to Him. Indeed even in the New Testament military imagery is often employed. Consider Paul’s stirring call to put on the armor of God (Eph 6). The spiritual struggle is characterized as an inner battle against the world, the flesh,and the devil. Soldiers are repeatedly praised and make stunning confessions of faith. The New Testament ends with an epic war, concluded by what Augustine called the “visio pacis” of the heavenly city of Jerusalem (Ennar. in Psalmos Ps 135 and 136).
Church history too is filled with war, both internal and external. The fight of the martyrs against the pagan empires is cast in military language. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is an early witness speaking of Christians who die in formation, as though marshaled in a line of battle. Christians served with honor in the armies of Rome, rebelling only when compelled to profess idolatry. Constantine secured military victory through a divine visitation (and the armies of Rome), and then Christendom marched with the cross at their head. In response to 400 years of early Islamic aggression the armies of the cross pushed back, and made advances in Spain and Palestine. God raises up military saints, like Louis IX of France and Joan of Arc, and the Church created monastic orders dedicated to military defense. God’s holy ones provided inspiration to Christian armies the world over. Christendom was saved by force of arms on more than one occasion: Lepanto in 1571, Vienna (twice) in 1529 and 1683, and in a broader sense, even at Waterloo in 1815 and Tokyo and Berlin in 1945. Since the 600s the papacy has had its own army to defend its sovereign territory, sometimes leading its own forces into battle, such as John X in 915 and Julius II in the 1500s. Military activity seems to be part and parcel of the Church’s activity in the world.
And yet we are confronted with what appears to be a paradox. “I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:39). “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28). Christianity is a religion of peace, meekness, toleration, and humility. Christ “who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” (Php 2:7) uttered not a word as the Jews and Romans, representatives of the whole human race, tortured and killed him. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt 5:9). How then can these two streams be reconciled? Must they be reconciled at all? Should we not simply renounce all use of force for ourselves, our families and our societies? Has the Church traduced the words of Christ from the very beginning?
Some argue this; periodically in Church history there have been those who have embraced total pacifism, arguing that the words of Christ are clear, and that no resistance whatsoever should be offered to violence. Theirs is a noble sentiment, and an attractive one, finding devotees in many ages of the Church. It is to be the purpose of these brief studies to examine these claims, and to attempt to understand what seems to be a dichotomy at the very heart of Christianity: how can the Lamb of God be the Lord of Battles? In this series of articles, I will discuss the use of force in the Bible, in Church teaching, and in Church History. In them I use force to indicate morally neutral coercion, and violence to indicate unjust coercion, just like killing is a morally neutral act, until specified as murder by deliberate, unjust intention.
I will then trace, in this series, this seeming paradox. That the God of Peace is also the God of Battles. It is not so far-fetched as is sometimes conceived, particularly in a religion that for 2000 years has understood that the whole truth must be preserved against partial verities: God and Man, Three and One, grace and nature, faith and reason, justice and mercy.
This is the first part of Dr. Donald Prudlo’s series Catholics & the Use of Force. See the other installments below: