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Center for Action and Contemplation

Following Jesus: Christianity Untouched by Empire

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Following Jesus
Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Jesus’ teachings seem to have been understood rather clearly during the first few hundred years after his death and resurrection. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, and love of enemies were common among his early followers. For example, the Didache, written around AD 90, calls readers to “share all things with your brother; and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish.” [1] At this time, Christianity was countercultural, untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

However, when the imperial edict of AD 313 elevated Christianity to a privileged position in the Roman Empire, the church increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning war, money, and class. Morality became individualized and largely sexual. Formal Christianity slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point, which is probably why what we now call “religious life” began, and flourished, after 313. People went to the edges of the church and took vows of poverty, living in satellites that became “little churches,” without ever formally leaving the big church.

If you look at texts in the hundred years preceding 313, it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army. The army was killing Christians; Christians were being persecuted. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and Christians were killing the “pagans.” In a two-hundred-year period, we went from being complete outsiders to directing the inside! Once you are inside, you have to defend your power and your privilege.

It is during this transition that people like St. Anthony of the Desert, John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, and the early monks went off to Egypt, Syria, and the deserts of Palestine. They critiqued the self-protective, privileged lifestyle of mainline Christianity by utterly leaving it! Soon they learned and taught a different way of seeing called “contemplation.” From that point through the modern period, most governments assumed that Christian monks and priests could not, or should not, wage war or kill others.

Why this split between two brands of Christianity? Why were some expected to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, while the rest were exempt?  Even as recently as the Vietnam War, laity could kill, while the clergy could not. As a Franciscan, I received an immediate draft deferment in the 1960s. When the Gospel is heard and understood at its deepest level, Christians cannot and will not kill or wage war.

Gateway to Silence:
Be peace.

[1] Didache: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Chapter 4.8.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 47-51.

Image Credit: Le Bateau-atelier (detail), 1874, by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
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