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Early concerns about pacifism

I just came back from a conference in San Francisco, and in the Philadelphia airport I noticed The Christians and the Fall of Rome, an excerpt from Edward Gibbons' classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a master at tearing apart ideas he doesn't like while politely saying that, for instance, he hopes the Pagan accusations of Christians editing their gospels aren't true, and it seems strange for the Romans not to have noticed an eclipse, and so on.

He reports on how Christian principles made them suspect to Romans, referencing the Quakers in a footnote:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defense of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults.

Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life, nor could their humane governance be convinced, that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice, or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.

[Footnote: The same patient principles have been revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers. Barclay, the apologist of the Quakers, has protected his brethren, by the authority of the primitive Christians.]

It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by annointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.

This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman Empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to excuse them from the service, than to exclude them from the honours, of the state and army. (49-50, paragraph breaks added)

Gibbon, in giving his readers a glimpse of the Romans' perception of the Christians, seems to present his own disapproval as well. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see both common objections to pacifism voiced here in combination with a claim that beliefs in the end of the world coming soon can lead to pacifism. It's interesting to see eschatology raised explicity as a reason for practice.

I also wonder what his more warlike Christian readers would have thought of it - do they share the Roman scorn for these early Christians, or do they question their own beliefs? There's a lot going on here.

There's also one slip:

what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

Of course, if everyone adopted these sentiments, the barbarians would also be beating their swords into plowshares. Unless, of course - and the Romans could well have done this - the "mankind" referred to here is only about "Roman mankind."

The problem isn't what happens when everyone adopts these sentiments. Rather, it's what happens when some adopt these sentiments and others don't, choosing to take advantage of the those who choose peace.


I found a very nice, succinct reference on this subject in a book published by the Mennonites, "How Christians Made Peace with War" (1988). The main topic is about the shift in Christian attitude to war, which took more than two centuries to develop.

"Between [the years] 100 and 312 no Christian writers, to our knowledge, approved of Christian participation in warfare. In fact, all those who wrote on the subject disapproved of the practice."

Apparently the main problem that the Christians had, for a long time, was with Roman soldiers who became Christian, who were often martyred when they acted on the tenets of their new faith. At some level, certainly, Christians in the Roman Empire accepted the protection that Roman legions gave, but I'm not sure its necessary to take it to that level. Anyway, it was not this issue per se that eventually undermined Christian pacifism.