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Moments in Time Conflicted over war

By Gary Macy

As most readers are aware, the question of the proper Christian attitude to war and the military profession was an anguishing issue for early Christian writers. Some thought that both war and the military profession should never be undertaken by Christians. Others believed that the military profession was acceptable as long as a soldier never killed anyone. The second-century Apostolic Tradition, for instance, equally forbids soldiers to kill or magistrates to enforce the death penalty: “A soldier in the lower ranks shall kill no one. If ordered to do so, he shall not obey, and he shall not take an oath. If anyone exercises the power of the sword or is a civil magistrate who wears the purple, let him give up the office or be dismissed [from the church].” The Canon of Hippolytus from the late fourth or early fifth century is particularly considerate of those forced into the military: “A Christian should not voluntarily become a soldier unless compelled to by someone in authority. He should have a sword, but he should not be commanded to shed blood. If it is ascertained that he has done so, he should stay away from the mysteries at least until he has been purified through tears and lamentation.”

Still other writers, especially starting in the fourth century, argued that under certain circumstances, just wars could and indeed should be fought. Under these circumstances, the military was a necessary and even honorable occupation for Christians. Interestingly enough, however, even these Christian writers were concerned that Christian soldiers take the horrors of war seriously. Basil, the great bishop of Caesarea (329-79), would enjoin his readers, “Our predecessors did not consider killing in war as murder, but, as I understand it, made allowances for those who fought on the side of moderation and piety. Nonetheless, it is good to admonish those whose hands are unclean to abstain from Communion for three years.”

In short, even when necessary and moral, the killing that occurred in a just war still required extensive ritual purification. According to early Christian writers, even though a just war was a necessary evil, it was still an evil. The purpose of war should always be to avoid further war, that is, to achieve peace. Augustine, an important advocate of the just war theory, made this point eloquently, “Peace should be your aim; war should be a matter of necessity so that God might free you from necessity and preserve you in peace. One does not pursue peace in order to wage war; he wages war to achieve peace. And so, even in the act of waging war, be careful to maintain a peaceful disposition so that by defeating your foes, you can bring them the benefits of peace.”

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001