Athens and Jerusalem II: A Religion for Sissies? by Thomas Fleming • October 24, 2009 • Printer-friendly
If humility is the skandalon of Neopagans, they typically base their more pragamatic case against Christianity on its suppose opposition to what pagan cultures regarded as the legitimate use of violence: personal self-defense, defensive war, and the execution of murderers, rapists, traitors, and other serious malefactors. They are entirely wrong, as they are about most things.
The text most frequently cited is Matthew 5:38:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
If the first recorded sin was Eve’s and Adam’s disobedience in the Garden, the second was Cain’s murder of his brother. In the Pentateuch, revenge (as we shall see later) was the only law on homicide. Now, that indulgence is being taken away (or at least turned over to the rulers of the commonwealth) and, along with it, even the desire to get even and the natural inclination to hate one’s enemy. Some pacifists, Christians among them, have construed this passage to imply an express condemnation of all forms of violence and all use of force whether in self-defense or national defense or criminal justice, but neither the context of the passage nor the wider context of the Scriptures and tradition would bear out this interpretation.
Jesus is primarily addressing his followers, the brethren he had assembled from the towns of Galilee. Like most Mediterranean peoples, the Jews were a fractious and litigious lot. In Greek, the enemy He refers to is an echthros, that is, a personal enemy, and not the foreign enemy who rides in to slay, rape, and pillage. A personal enemy is someone with whom you are having a dispute over a property line, an inheritance, or insults that may have been exchanged when the two parties were in their cups. Anyone who has lived in a small town, suburban neighborhood, or coop apartment building knows that man is not just wolf to man but also weasel and jackal, ready to start a lifelong quarrel over a loose dog, an unpainted fence, or a noisy party. What a waste of time and energy this can be, especially among the brothers who are told to love each other.
Modern Christian pacifism is less a product of the Scriptures and Tradition than it is of the Enlightenment. From the beginning, some eccentric early Christians (e.g., Tertullian) rejected legitimacy of the Roman Empire and, consequently, all forms of imperial service, including soldiering and serving in the bureaucracy, but they were for the most part extreme rigorists who withdrew from the Christian main stream. Early apologists, such as the author of the “Epistle to Diognetus” and Aristides the Athenian only distinguish Christians for their moral purity. Otherwise, “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, speech, or custom,” and, although they are treated as aliens, they shoulder the burdens of citizenship.[i]
St. Augustine, who argues strenuously against particular applications of the death penalty, did not repudiate the right of the ruler to inflict it. Christian pacifism, he insists, is a slander used to discredit Christians as loyal Roman citizens. In his letter to an imperial commissioner whose queries helped to prompt the writing of the City of God, Augustine argued that the admonitions to turn the other cheek and not repay evil with evil have to do with the Christian’s mental disposition and not with the need to correct, with charity, an erring son, a criminal, or an invader. As a provincial administrator and yet a Christian, Macedonius had asked Augustine to justify his pleas for clemency. The bishop began his response by conceding that the state has been given the power to correct wickedness:
“Surely, it is not without purpose that we have the institution of the power of kings, the death penalty of the judge, the barbed hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the right of punishment of the overlord, even the severity of the good father….While these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked.”
This is obviously a gloss on the text of St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans,” where Paul defends the sovereign power over life and death [Ro 13:1-4]
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do tht which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
In appealing to the Roman officer’s mercy, Augustine goes on to say that while the Old Law did preach harsh justice, the New Testament urges us to pardon offenders either that we may be pardoned or as a means of commending gentleness. After surveying a number of arguments (not all of them convincing) for mercy, Augustine concludes that there is good both in the magistrate’s severity and in the bishop’s plea for mercy. “Do not be displeased at being petitioned by the good, because the good are not displeased that you are feared by the wicked.”
In calling for mercy in specific instances, Augustine has simply repeated Christ’s admonition to be merciful; he did not repudiate the death penalty itself or call for an unqualified defense of life for life’s sake, unlike the modern theologians who, in attempting to weave a seamless garment of life, are really swaddling unborn babies in the uniform of the death-row convict. If all human life is equally precious, then none can be very valuable. In most cases, perhaps, the proponents of a seamless garment have simply failed to understand the consequences of their reasoning. But in using the same language to defend the innocent unborn and the condemned murderer, they are equating innocence with guilt.
If the ruler is justified in executing domestic criminals, how much more is he justified in defending his people against a foreign enemy? John the Baptist, after all, did not tell the soldiers to lay down their weapons and desert but was content with instructing them to “do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” [Luke 3:14] The barbs were aimed at soldiers who augmented their incomes by collaborating in the extortions of tax-collectors.
When a Christian engages in homicide, either as executioner or soldier, it is the ruler and not he who is morally responsible for the killing. The soldier is merely the instrument of a ruler whose power comes from God, as Christ informs Pilate during the interrogation. In Romans 13 (cited above), St. Paul sums up the Christian position succinctly, “Not in vain does he [the ruler] hold the sword.”
Vengeance belongs to God, who then delegates that power to the ruler. Christians, then, must foreswear the right to vengeance, though in exchange the ruler must protect the innocent from violence. The ruler must not only punish but defend his kingdom or empire against invaders. His subjects or citizens, correspondingly, have a duty to pay their taxes, obey the laws, and defend their country. This reasoning depends on an important premise, that a commonwealth—whether city republic or kingdom or empire—is a legitimate human institution that requires the power to defend itself. In the high Christian Age, Thomas Aquinas would make it clear that Christians owe a primary moral duty to their family and a civic duty to their commonwealth.
From the beginning, the adherents to the main current of Christianity acknowledged the duty to obey the laws and commands of the rulers. Christ did not resist Pilate, because Pilate, however badly, represented the sovereign authority of the Roman Emperor who did the Lord’s will on earth. Aha, says the pagan, this is pacifism. No, not at all, since Christians also obeyed the command to defend the empire. Jews were absolved from military service, because Sabbath observance conflicted with the duties of a soldier. Christians, as they came to be distinguished from Jews, were not absolved. Some radicals—and who knows how many of them were either Jewish or Judaizing Christians—misconstrued Christ’s teachings to be an exemption from all civic duties. The Apostolic writer known as the Disciple did not: “[Christians] obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”
A Postscript on Revenge
The Old Law, which has been fulfilled not overturned, was crystal-clear: Justice is vengeance, the retribution of tit for tat–[Exodus 21:24-25] “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, stripe for stripe.” When the first homicide is driven into exile, the Lord threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills Cain [Gen 4:15]. In homicide cases, the earliest justice was the blood-feud, and the family’s revenger of blood could hunt down and kill the killer without impunity. In time, apparently, restrictions were imposed, giving protection to both innocent men and men guilty only of accidental or justifiable homicide. [See chapter on Family Values].
As the society of the Israelites became more complicated–evolving from a loose federation of tribes into a more centralized kingdom–homicide law had became correspondingly less tribal and less passionate. Leviticus contains the remarkably Christian admonition: “Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” [19:18] However, this commandment is given not so much to inculcate mercy per se as to prevent the socially destructive blood-feuds that almost inevitably accompany the lex talionis. It may be no accident that it occurs in the context of prohibitions on tale-bearing and malice. It is followed, as if to clarify the point, by a chapter prescribing the death penalty for wizards, and not long afterward in the book, we are told that God himself will avenge transgressions. [Le 26:25]
This theme, that vengeance belongs to the Lord, recurrs frequently in both Testaments. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I shall repay.” [ ] Far from being a prohibtion on taking revenge, this declaration elevates vengeance to the divine plane. Although, it is true, the Lord may sometimes take matters into his own hands, punishing the Egyptians with plagues, more often it is human instruments that are used: Jepthah in Judges [11:36] and Jehu in 2nd Kings [9:7]. But, because Jehu is guilty of slaugheter in Jezreel, the Lord will “avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu.”
Prophets and psalmists are continually invoking divine vengeance against their enemies–gentiles in particular–and it is a mark of his righteousness that Ahasuerus gives the people of Israel the right to take vengeance on their enemies by killing them. [Es 8:11-13] Psalm 58 is particularly striking, since it begins with a cry for justice and concludes:
“The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth.”
In the sublime vision of Isaiah, the good news includes “the day of the Lord’s vengeance,” when God will avenge his enemies.
Luke’s Gospel picks up the theme, and Jesus foretells first the sufferings his followers must undergo and then the despoliation of Jerusalem: “For these be the days of vengeance,” when the Lord will use gentiles to destroy his rebellious people. . Luke also records Christ’s parable [18:1-9] of the unjust judge badgered by a woman to give her justice, saying: “Avenge me of mine adversary.” Fearing neither God nor man, the judge is worn down by the woman’s cries and grants her the vengeance she desires. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”
Vengeance belongs to the Lord, yes, but his instruments are often human. As Paul reminds us, in his long mediation on justice, God is righteous who exercises his wrath [Ro 3:5]; therefore, “Avenge not yourselves,” he says quoting the Old Law, “Vengeance is mine.” [12:19] Justice, in other words, is in the hands of the universal ruler. This is not a plea for non-resistance, of course, because in the same epistle, justice is to be exercised by the ruler appointed by God as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
It should be obvious that the modern “Christian” arguments against revenge and self-defense have been overstated and misunderstood. Jesus not only claimed not to have overturned the old law, but he even told his disciples to buy swords. His admonitions on forgiveness are addressed to his followers living in religious community and do not apply to alien aggressors. Even a “brother,” if he refuses to make restitution, is to be treated as a gentile.
In sum, the Scriptures teach that vengeance is the basis of justice, that within the community (whether of Jews or of Christian believers), personal vengeance should be foresworn, and that vengeance/justice on this earth is to be carried out by rulers who derive their power from God.
Throughout the stormy Middle Ages, Christians adhered to this conception of vengeance. Rulers had the duty of executing criminals and of inflicting national vengeance in a just war. Dante’s only word for justice is vendetta, a word that is now restricted to the meaning “blood feud.” The Church Fathers, in condemning personal revenge, were upholding the Roman view of punishment in which the state acted as intermediary between the criminal and the victim (and his family). In ruder times, hoever, the Roman law’s prohibitions on dueling and revenge killings broke down, and many a true man–including priests if they were gentle-born–took upon himself the duties of self-defense and revenge.
St Francis de Sales as a pious youth was studying in Padua, where his meekness and humility offended some dissolute young men who attributed his mildness to “cowardice and effeminacy.” Planning to waylay and beat the boy, they hid in a thicket near the path he would take on his way home. “They, knowing his habitual gentleness, imagined he would offer them no resistance….But in this they deceived themselves, for they had forgotten, or perhaps were not aware, that the virtue of religion which teaches meekness and humility of heart inspires also courage and intrepidity in the hour of need.
“When Francis had reached the spot where his assailants were waiting, they rushed out to attack him unawares, and began by trying to raise a quarrel without any cause; then they heaped upon him untold injurious words, and finiding all these of no avail to provoke him to anger, they prepared to inflict on him the bodily cruelties they had previously designed.
“But when the pious youth seeing that this ws an ocasion when duty to himself required him to resist these attacks, instantly drew his sword, brandishing it vigorously over his cowardly aggressors, instantly made them fly away in great haste….Francis pursued them for a time, but they, finding that they themselves were in danger, turned toward him trembling and full of confusion. They fell at his feet imploring his forgiveness.”
How many of our younger neopagans would ever dream of using their fists? By their photographs on the web, not many. When one young would-be pagan made what I regarded as impudent remarks, I warned him that he was making a mistake. When he asked, mockingly, what I intended to do, beat him up? I told him, as a joke, “Perhaps,” or, if I was afraid of hurting my 60+ fists, I could hire someone for a thousand dollars to break every bone in his body. As the blood drained from his face, I hastened to assure him I was jesting, but with a point. Like many troubled young men, the kid has good blood in him and probably just needs a little seasoning from raw experience, but some day he will have to learn the hard way, as I did, that it is best not to trifle with mean old men of an earlier generation. We may aspire to the meekness of St. Francis of Assisi, but our hearts are still with Beowulf and John Wesley Hardin. Wes Hardin was the son of a Methodist preacher but became the most notorious killer in Texas, which is quite a feat.
PPS To any impoverished student or teacher who would like to come to the John Randolph Club meeting to hear tales of those Christian cowards the Texas Rangers, it is not too late to apply for a partial scholarship.
[i] Epistle to Diognetus
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