Sunday, June 04, 2006

Church’s teaching on violence: antony ka

 Violence has many meanings and there are quite a few ethical problems regarding violence. Nowadays, the most discussed is that of revolutionary violence or the use of armed violence to bring about revolutionary change in society, or at least to overthrow a manifestly tyrannical regime. But when this point is examined, especially in Christian tradition, several others crop up, particularly the morality of war. Besides, there is need of maintaining an overall perspective regarding the basic Christian attitude to violence and the main ethical principles to evaluate the morality of different form of violence.

 Scriptural Background

The God of the OT permitted and sometimes enjoined His people to take up the sword. Christians will always have to face the fact that Yahweh, not only sanctioned wars, but also actively assisted the Israelites in their military charges. It is hard to overlook the harshness with which the chosen people treated their foes (cf Deut. 20:15-18). We also see the fury, which the Levites unleashed against the people who worshiped the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:25-29). Even some of the NT writers do not hesitate to extol the zeal of OT figures who wielded the sword (cf Heb 11:32-34).

Allegorized interpretations have been attempted to explain the cruel wars of the OT, but they are not always credible. While this violent trend of the people of the old covenant has been clearly superseded in the New, Christian writers will often the cite the precedents of the Old in discussing the Christian stand regarding violence.

The NT appears as a message of peace. From the angelic greeting at the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:14) to Jesus’ submitting himself to the violence of his tormentors during the passion, the pervasive spirit of the Gospels is that of non-violence and peace. Jesus’ injunctions about “turning the other cheek” (Mt 5:38-39) propose a new ideal for his followers. However, there are a number, to say the least of, ambiguous texts. Jesus did not ask soldiers to abandon their career. He had high praise for the centurion at Capernaum (Mt 8:5-13). The Precursor, John only asked the soldiers who wanted to know what they should do: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages (Lk 3:4)”.

The strong and frequent military metaphors, especially in Paul, could not but have and impact on later thinking. The coercive role of temporal authorities was explicitly approved by Paul: “The authorities are there to serve God; they carry out God’s revenge by punishing wrong doers (Rom. 13:4)”. The States’ role in maintaining an ordered society, which was not without coercive means, is clearly accepted in such texts as 1Tim 2:1-2,1Pet2: 13-17.

Before the conversion of Constantine, the predominant view of Church writers was pacifist. The declining of military service was often motivated by the implication of idolatry or emperor worship. But there was a deeper reason for condemning warfare. Many writers find bloodshed even in regular war incompatible with the following of Christ.

According to Tertullian, even if soldiers came to John and got advice on how they should act, even if the centurion became a believer, the Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldiers thereafter. We are not allowed to wear any uniform that symbolizes a sinful act. Again in the opinion of Cyprian, when individual slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state, it is called virtue. Crimes go unpunished, not because the perpetration is said to be guiltless, but because their cruelty is so extreme.

However, many writers take military service for granted. Some even support the war of the pagan Roman Empire to ensure wider peace, although the Roman rule was often most oppressive. As Constantine, as gradually triumphed over the church’s persecutors, the attitude of Christians towards warfare began to change. From the fourth century, the pacifist position became a minority view. Many identified the interests of God’s kingdom with those of the empire. Idolatry and emperor-worship were no more an issue.

Cannon 14 of Hippolytus, a late fourth century compilation of laws, upholds the principle that Christians should stay out of arm bearing, unless compelled to by someone in authority. St.Basil does not exclude warfare, but enjoins abstinence from sacred things on those who were engaged in violence. It is above all St. Ambrose and St.Augustine who faced the issue of living up to the Gospel ideal of non-violence while being responsible for managing affairs of state.

St. Ambrose openly supports warfare against enemies, although he has abhorrence for civil war. He was not confronted with the situation of the oppressed rebelling against the violence of oppressors. According to Ambrose, a man fighting for personal gain deserves condemnation, while one who risks his life for the welfare of the country deserves praise. It is much more commendable, to protect one’s country from destruction than to protect himself from danger.
Under the condition of libido dominandi (the law of domination), God has provided the civil order as a means of preventing wrong doers and restraining evil. Surely it is not in vain that we have such institution as the power of the king, the death penalty of the judge, the hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the stringency of the overlord and even the structures of a good father. All these have their own method, reason, motive and benefit. When they are feared evil men are in check and good enjoy greater peace among the wicked. Augustine hears two voices in the scripture: the voice of correcting evil and the voice mercy. Acts of necessary coercion should never be governed by the spirit of cruelty and vindictiveness. One must always be on guard against this.

Thus Augustine did not find necessary violence and inner spirit of love mutually exclusive. Military duty (militia) need not imply malice of the heart (malitia). The example of Moses’ violence against the Israelites who had worshiped the Golden Calf came his mind. He does not find any difficulty from the injunction of the Lord “to turn the other cheek”. This text does not forbid punishment, which serves as a correction. In fact, that kind of punishment, which serves as a correction, is a form of mercy.

The church tried to mitigate the horrors of violence. Two typical measure were:(1) Peace of God by which violence in certain places and by certain persons was forbidden; (2) Truce of God by which fighting during certain periods like Lent was banned. At the same time, just war theory, building on foundation of Ambrose and Augustine was gradually evolved.


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