By Gordon L. Heath
My recent article on Christians and war for Faith Today was written in the comfort of my climate-controlled office, on my adjustable ergonomic chair, with a warm drink handy.
But the best thing is that I wrote in peace: if anyone threatened me all I needed to do was call campus security, or local police, and they would have rushed to my defense. On a much grander scale, the Canadian Armed Forces (and NATO allies) remained on alert ready to deal with any national threat. All that to say, I wrote my article with my life, liberty and freedom fairly secure. Others have not be so fortunate, and have had to formulate a Christian response to violence in the very midst of mortal peril. Such as Pope Pius V.
In the aftermath of the Christian victory of Lepanto (1571), Pius V joyfully declared “Now, Lord, you can take your servant, for mine eyes have seen your salvation.” Referring to Don Juan, the admiral of the Christian fleet, Pius V drew again from scripture and proclaimed “God sent a man by the name of John.”
I have talked with international students over the years regarding their modern-day dealings with violence. One told me of having their Bible college students patrol the perimeter to protect the dormitories during a civil war. Another explained how his church had paid for armed guards to protect its priest from constant death threats. Yet another described how the debate in their denomination is whether or not pastors should carry AK47s in the pulpit to protect the flock from Islamist violence. I could go on.
What Pius V and those others have in common is that they all forged views of a Christian response to violence while they experienced an imminent threat of rape, execution, torture, slavery, destruction of property, and even genocide.
If you are from Canada, and, like me, live in a position of relative safety, consider three things.
First, recognize our situation is a privileged one, for much of the church’s theology has been written in a crisis. For instance, St. Augustine (one of the church’s most important theologians of all time) wrote the City of God in response to the fall of Rome, and as he lay dying in bed the Vandals were at the city gates.
Second, be sympathetic to and understanding of those trying to live as disciples in the midst of violence and are forging their views in the heat of battle. Pius V’s questionable use of scripture was in the context of the looming Ottoman threat and centuries of Muslim advance westward into Europe. If the Ottomans were not stopped, Rome would most likely have gone the way of Constantinople (which had fallen to the Ottomans a few generations earlier). It is easy to be an armchair theologian and critic, but let’s try to be sympathetic towards those who have had to develop their response to violence in the face of frightful and unimaginable horrors.
Third, take advantage of the peace you enjoy to develop a robust view of Christians and violence. St. Anselm coined the expression that theology was “faith seeking understanding.” I would add that theological understanding is much more difficult with a gun pointed to the head. When violence begins it is very tough to think clearly; it best to do the thinking now, for that will help you see things a bit more clearly without the pressure of pain, suffering, and need for an instant decision clouding your judgment.
Gordon L. Heath is Associate Professor of Christian History, Centenary Chair in World Christianity at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ont.
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