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Memorial Day: Perspective from Church History

Every Memorial Day, I remember how early Christians almost uniformly rejected any kind of military service–and how little we have learned from their witness to peacemaking.  As we pause today, it may well be good for our souls to consider this perspective from church history about what it means to be both a Christian and a soldier.  This reflection is excerpted from my book, A People’s History of Christianity.

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A few years ago, I was touring a church named St. Martin-in-the Fields with a lovely stained-glass window depicting a soldier sheltering another man in his cloak.  “You know the story, I suppose,” my guide said.  “That’s St. Martin.  He converted to Christ while a soldier.  One day, his regiment was guarding the city of Amiens and he met a naked beggar on the road.  Martin took off his cloak, tore it in half, and covered the beggar.  He literally followed Jesus’ teaching to give one’s coat to the poor.”

Looking up at the window, I remembered the rest of the legend as well.  Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream affirming the soldier’s act, saying, “Martin, a simple catechumen (one who is learning the Christian way) covered me with this garment.”  The episode became stuff of regiment gossip and the cape was rumored to have miraculous power.

Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397) was born into a pagan family, but as a young man expressed interest in Christianity.  His father hated Christianity and forced Martin to join the Roman army.  While a soldier, Martin’s curiosity about Christianity grew, as did his strong sense of morality, until he became a catechumen.  While still an inquirer, the cloak episode occurred.

When he was baptized, Martin followed another early Christian practice and asked to be released from the army: “I am Christ’s soldier and I am not allowed to fight.”

Martin was not a conscientious objector in the modern sense–he was only stating what Christians believed.  Long before theologians Ambrose and Augustine argued for just war, Christians were not allowed to fight.  No record exists that Christians served in the Roman army before 170.  The strong consensus of the early church was that war meant killing, killing was murder, and murder was wrong.  In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage noted:  “The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed.  And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.” Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Origen all specifically condemned participation in war.  “The Christian fathers of the first three centuries,” states theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, “were generally adamant that discipleship requires close adherence to the nonviolent and countercultural example of Jesus’ own life and his sayings about the nature of the kingdom.”

Related to their horror of killing, the military posed a second problem: soldiers were required to perform acts of worship to the state, the gods, and the Emperor.  From a Christian perspective, soldiering demanded idolatry. Tertullian pointed out that even a soldier’s tokens of victory, especially the crown of laurel leaf, were symbols of death, hollow triumphs made at the expense of other human beings:  “Is the laurel of the triumph made of leaves, or of corpses?  Is it adorned with ribbons, or with tombs?  Is it bedewed with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers?” Since the military practiced both violence and idolatry, Tertullian insisted that there was “no agreement” between serving God and the Emperor.  To even wear the uniform of a soldier symbolized blood violence; as a result, the church did not permit Christians to enlist or converts to continue to serve after baptism.

While Tertullian emphasized the negative aspects of the military to Christian discipleship, Origen pointed out the positive vision of a life of Christian peacemaking.  He criticized the army as a society of “professional violence,” pointing out that Jesus forbids any kind of vengeance against another.  “We will not raise arms against any other nation, we will not practice the art of war,” he wrote, “because through Jesus Christ we have become the children of peace.”

When he asked to leave the army, Martin followed the way of peacemaking as taught by the early church.  As soon as Martin was free from military obligation, he studied theology and became a monk. He proved a popular bishop.  He planted churches, converting many people throughout France, and founded the first monastic community in the northern part of the Empire.  Many people believed that the former soldier, once a member of the feared Roman army, possessed the gift of healing; they came to him for relief from illness and disease.  He served the poor, and outcasts, even on one occasion protesting the death penalty of a wrongly condemned man.  Unlike so many of his peers, he died peacefully in bed, of old age, having dedicated himself to a non-violent way.  A soldier for Christ.

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