Egypt, the Army, and the Early Christian Ethic of Life

by Ron Sider

by Ron Sider

From Christianity Today, an interview with Ron Sider, who compiled every early church writing on the subject of killing:

It’s not just just-war theory versus pacifism. The book covers war, capital punishment, gladiatorial games, infanticide, abortion, and so forth. Did the early Christian writers tie those together, or did they treat them as separate ethical issues?

They definitely tied them together. A number of times different authors—like Lactantius writing at the time of the Diocletian persecution, and earlier writers—are very clear. They explicitly say we don’t kill, and that means we don’t go to gladiatorial games, we’re opposed to abortion, capital punishment is not acceptable, and we don’t kill in war.

Did the early Christians oppose capital punishment as a social institution? Or did they just say that a Christian couldn’t be an executioner or a magistrate who might give someone a death sentence?

For early church fathers, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

They clearly stated the latter. They said Christians cannot participate in capital punishment. For them, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

Similarly, in the unanimous testimony of early Christian writers, this means Christians should not join the army:

Let’s talk about the reasons early Christians abstained from bloodshed: They talked about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, about the Mosaic command not to kill, and about the prophecy of messianic peace. Is any one of those reasons foundational to the rest?

Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don’t do, and they’ll cite the Micah passage or Jesus’ “love your enemies” to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don’t kill is the foundation.

The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn’t join the army and go to war is that they didn’t kill. But it’s also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it’s not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.

But here is the rub for Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church honors the early church fathers, and I have not interacted with this issue to know how they treat this testimony. I would imagine that as the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire eventually came close enough to the centers of power, the Copts also developed a just war doctrine. Certainly they have a number of ‘soldier saints’ among their martyrs.

But for modern day Copts, the fact of participation in the army is often touted by political Islamists as the chief justification why the Islamic jizia tax is no longer required.

Sharia law required ‘People of the Book’ to submit to their Muslim rulers and exempted them from participation in the military in exchange for this tax. Within this system they were given the promise of domestic protection and freedom of worship within the status of second-class citizenship.

But those wars were for the benefit of the Muslim caliphate. The modern state of Egypt has a national army for defense of the borders. Two hundred years ago jizia was abolished and Copts served alongside their Muslim neighbors in the army.

But if per Sider’s testimony that proper Biblical understanding, as evidenced by the early church fathers, forbids a Christian from killing, this ‘arrangement’ is undone. If Copts sense they should abstain from war, does this open the door for the radical Islamist argument of restored jizia?

No Copt that I know of argues for conscientious objection, which does not exist in Egypt anyway, as best I know. Of course, like most Egyptians, like most humans, Copts are very reticent to kill. But they do not forbid it in the context of national duty.

But for any Christian pacifists outside of Egypt, which would you choose? You are only a pacifist out of conviction, of course, so I suspect it is unlikely you would balk at the imposition of a special tax for your refusal to fight. But would you accept the ‘second-class citizen’ part? Would you accept to be ruled by sharia law?

Even in the early days Christians faced the pragmatic question on pacifism. Here is the less than pragmatic answer:

It’s significant that Origen in the middle of the third century, 248–250, responds to the pagan critic Celsus. Celsus said, If everybody was like you Christians, the Roman Empire would collapse. Origen responded, if everybody was like us, the Roman Empire would be safe, and we wouldn’t need to kill people. So in the middle of the third century, the most prominent Christian author writing at the time responded in a way that only makes sense if Christians by and large didn’t join the military.

But the idea ‘if everyone was like us’ is woefully unrealistic. It is as if they say, please, join our movement and usher in the fall of our Empire.

Would an imagined pacifist Copt similarly argue to usher in the fall of our citizenship?

I am curious to know how church leaders today would interact with this issue.

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2 thoughts on “Egypt, the Army, and the Early Christian Ethic of Life

  1. The classic on this subject is The Early Christian Attitude to War by C. John Cadoux. You can easily find it on-line for free.

    And it was not just the early Christians. e.g. Charles Spurgeon spoke out against Christians and war: ” I always rejoice to find a soldier a Christian, but I always mourn to find a Christian a soldier,…The followers of Christ in these days seem to me to have forgotten a great part of Christianity.”
    http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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