Onward Christian Soldiers

So by now there has been some news surrounding the Crusader Rifle. If you haven’t yet heard about this controversy go on over to Breitbart and the Huffington Post for more information. The short version of events is that a weapons manufacturer in Florida decided to try and make a gun which a devout Muslim would never touch. By etching the cross of the Knights Templar, and putting Psalm 144:1 on the weapon it was hoped that this would exact some kind of divine retribution, or else just deter Muslims from picking it up. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida flatly condemned the rifle.

Of course for me this story just raises the question of where exactly Christians are supposed to stand on weapon-based violence. Should a Christian own a gun? Should a Christian live a life of pacifism or is there room in Christianity for justified violence?

Christianity’s long and troubling history of violence

So if we just look into the history it seems that Christianity starts out pretty peaceful. That is, we have Foxe’s book of Martyrs, not Foxe’s book of militant-insurrectionists-who-killed-lots-of-Romans. Jesus seemed to be pretty peaceful (though we will get to that more in a minute) and just about all of the Apostles lived a life of peace.

If nothing else the reputation of the early church is one that focused on helping people, spreading the gospel, living in small communities, and suffering persecution for the faith. During the first few hundred years Christians did not have a reputation for violence in the name of their faith. You just can’t find it, and you would think they would have had ample opportunity and motive. After all they are already an underground cult, and they know they could die for their beliefs. Despite that, early Christianity is mostly peaceful (aside from that whole fire in Rome thing, but we’re pretty sure that Nero started that). Now to be sure, since there were Christians in just about all aspects of ancient society, then there were most likely Christians in the Roman army. It should be emphasized, however, that they were not engaged in any kind of holy warfare. They were Christians, and there jobs did not seem to cause any conflicts, but neither were they violent and militant on behalf of Christianity. They were Christians, and Soldiers, not so much Christian Soldiers.

Photograph copyright Guenter Rossenbach/zefa/Corbis
C0nstantine the I Photograph copyright Guenter Rossenbach/zefa/Corbis

Then of course along comes Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. He also famously received a vision of a flaming cross, right before a big battle. The vision communicated a message to him as well “In hoc signo vinces”, which we usually translate as “in this sign you will conquer.” Constantine apparently took the vision to mean that he should convert to Christianity and that this conversion would make his military and political career a success. Then he did a great thing and signed the Edict of Milan which officially ended persecution for all Christians. Although it did not technically make Christianity the official state religion, that would come later with the Edict of Thessalonica.

With Constantine we now have people being openly Christian and we even have Christianity officially attached to violent conquest. Over the rest of Christian history we see a rather conflicting and often troubling picture of Christianity’s relationship with violence.

The Good

On the positive side you do have the works of thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas who argue that Christians may be violent, and that this would be a holy act, so long as they are engaged in justified war. We can thank the medieval Christians for the notion of Just War, and the idea that warfare should be moral.

Then you have all of the great work done by Christians over the centuries in negotiating peace. There were also those Christian missionaries who faced death rather than bring the message of Christ under threat and coercion. There also continues to be the fact that in many military forces, including our own, there exists the rank of chaplain.

U.S. Army, The Institute of Heraldry (TIOH)
Pro Deo et Patria (for God and Country)
U.S. Army, The Institute of Heraldry (TIOH)

Now chaplains may not ever be engaged in fighting, but they do support and serve the members of the military who are.

The Bad

So then what unjustified violence has been taken up by Christians to further their idea of the cause of Christ? Short answer? Lots, but let’s just look at a few, starting with the more recent and working our way back through history.

There were The Troubles. This was a series of violent clashes in Northern Ireland between Irish Nationalists and the British government from the 1960’s through the late 1990’s. Much of it centered on the differences between the Irish Catholics and the Northern Ireland Protestants.

There is also that lengthy period of sporadic warfare in Europe from the early 16th century to the mid-17th century. The European Wars of Religion saw a lot of blood spilled between Catholics and the newly emerging Protestants.

Then there are the infamous Crusades, a legend in and of themselves. They started in the late 11th century and continued on till the end of the 13th century. The crusades are now generally condemned by most Christians, although at the time they were considered a holy and justified war.


The easiest way to respond to all of the accusations of violent Christianity is to say that those Christians must have misunderstood Jesus. After all Jesus was a fairly peaceful guy, and he never hurt anyone…except that one time.

So since Jesus is our model for everything and the author and finisher of our faith, let’s see what he had to say about violence in the name of God.

We start with the Sermon on the Mount, since this is a great source for Jesus’ views on violence. In Matthew 5 Jesus says very pacifistic things like “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (NIV) He also says that you are blessed when you are persecuted, although he doesn’t have much to say about fighting back. Then there is that whole series of verses about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. In fact you should probably just read the whole thing, it is a great sermon. In short we get a picture of Jesus as completely committed to peace and to focusing on the eternal over the temporal.

Yet there is also the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. Even though this story appears in all four gospels the book of John contains the most vivid account. In that one Jesus doesn’t just overturn the tables, he makes a weapon. “In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:14-15, NIV) You can also find the story in Matthew 21, Mark 11, and Luke 19.

Then there is also Jesus’ advice about buying weapons. At the last supper Jesus had some words for his disciples. “Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.”(Luke 22: 35-38, NIV)

This particular account occurs only in the Book of Luke, although all the gospels contain the account of the last supper. However, all the gospels contain the account of what becomes of these swords. When Jesus is arrested his disciples step up to defend him, and they use a sword to cut the ear off of a member of the arresting mob. John writes that it was Peter, but the disciple is unnamed in the other gospels. Also in every gospel Jesus responds to the situation in the same way,

“Peter put that sword away, here try this spear instead. Also, you guys, try to swing those swords like I trained you. Aim for center mass, you’ll do the most damage that way. Ok, once we get these guys we’re going to take Jerusalem and then all the way to Rome! In my name, get em!”

No, wait, that wasn’t what happened at all. Of course Jesus says nothing of the kind. Instead he rebukes those who came to arrest him with weapons of war. He also rebukes the disciples who seek to strike out in his name. The book of Matthew contains the best response, “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26: 52-54)

Jesus makes it clear that these weapons are not going to change what God has ordained. He tells his disciples to put their weapons away and let God work. This is very typical of Jesus, as he doesn’t usually just forbid something. Rather he tells you what the consequences of your choices will be. He reminds you that you are free to do what you will, but that you will then have to accept the results of those actions. He also tries to encourage you to avoid paths of destruction, pain, and misery, and that is what he is doing here.

He tells his disciples to put their swords away, and that all who wield weapons of violence will suffer from that violence. This is more than just some kind of doom-saying about how violent people meet violent ends. It is a reminder that a life spent choosing violence is a life of death. You see, violence harms more than just the bodies of your enemies. It also harms you, and a life of violence will take a heavy toll on your mind and heart.

In the end we may need to take up violence in the cause of a just war, or to drive evil people out of the temples. But Jesus quietly and insistently reminds us that there is a price to be paid.