Militarization of Christianity: Reading time about 8-10 minutes.
About twenty years ago, our family attended the patriotic Fourth of July extravaganza at our church. After all the flag waving, chest-thumping, and patriotic songs were over, and we were in our car, my daughter asked me a question.
“Dad, why does our church celebrate the military like that?”
Being a military veteran myself and feeling that day that my career had been appreciated, I answered something like, “Well, that’s just a normal thing. It’s a good thing. It honors those who defend our country.”
“But why do it in a Christian church?”
“That’s just what they do, it’s normal.”
“But I thought Jesus was against the military and taught non-violence.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
That kind of celebration was nothing unusual for me. The military conditioned me to expect an introductory Christian prayer at every event. Because of that, I was very familiar with the military’s partnership with God and the Church.
We had just started attending this church, and since our last one hadn’t made such a big deal out of the Fourth of July, this was something new for Kristin. Since she’d been taught about the compassionate, pacifistic Jesus, she couldn’t understand a congregation worshipping him and the military at the same time. The church not only flashed pictures of all the uniformed veterans in the congregation on the screen, but also played the military services’ hymns. To top it off, a local talk radio host presented a “sermon” on Christian nationalism.
Her question haunted me
I couldn’t shake Kristin’s question and began to try to see things from her perspective. The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that my cultural authority figures had step by step indoctrinated me into believing that the mixture of Christianity and the military was normal. My thoughts took me back to when I was eight years old and attended a Vacation Bible School. My only memory of that experience was the day our teachers lined us up in a military formation, handed us an American flag and a Christian flag, and sent us marching down the church’s driveway singing the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
At the time, I thought it was a cool song. We were just playing soldier and I was eight years old, so nothing controversial went through my mind. Another one of my favorite hymns was “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I loved the tune but didn’t focus too much on the lyrics or even care if the song might have been about warfare. How heavily can a child think about those subjects if they seem normal to their parents?
Searching for Christian origins
I started my investigation of Christian history about that time and one of the subjects that motivated me was to discover how Christianity become so linked to the military. In the Gospels, Jesus was more often quoted as advising peace and forgiveness. There were the occasional exceptions to that rule, but I supposed those could be ignored since the preponderance of what he said pointed toward non-violence and peaceful relations.
I discovered that most of the early Christians who knew about his pacifistic teachings were indeed pacifists. Christians resisted joining the military for several reasons. It could have been because of Jesus’s teachings or because they would have had to serve with men practicing polytheistic religions. Roman citizens even accused Christians of shirking their civic duties by not serving in the army. But beginning in the late second century many Christians were serving in the Roman army.
Even during the worst Roman persecution of Christians—the Diocletian persecution, Christians served in the army. Diocletian and previous emperors didn’t seem too concerned about Christians unless they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods when required to. Apparently, most Christians did sacrifice, but if they didn’t, the crime they were punished for was treason, not being a Christian. For most of the religion’s first three centuries Christianity was a legal religion and it continued to spread.
Constantine the Great
By the time Constantine I came to power in AD 312, there were many Christians in the army, and he may have even become favorable to the religion because of them. Whichever way he found his way to Christianity, his support of the Christian religion eventually led to the conversion of the rest of the empire and the army.
The story is told that prior to Constantine’s pivotal battle at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a sign in the sky which he interpreted as being sent from Christ. There was an image of a cross and the words “By this sign conquer.” Additionally, Constantine may also have had a dream to reinforce what he saw in the sky that day. This is all extremely important because before that vision, Christianity was not a violent religion, but based on that one sign in the sky, it would forever become linked with violence.
As a result, the story of the vision evolved into legend and radically changed Christianity. After all, in the legend, it was Jesus Christ himself who told Constantine to use the Christian cross to conquer his enemy. And Constantine wasn’t even a Christian at the time! It’s said that because of the vision Constantine instructed his troops to paint crosses on their shields before going into battle that day. After Constantine’s epic victory over his rival, Maxentius, he gave Christ the credit. This set the precedence for Christianity to resort to violence whenever necessary to achieve its goals.
Understanding the vision
This story of the vision makes no sense to me on several levels. If Jesus really was a pacifist, and he was really communicating to Constantine from heaven, why did he initiate the militarization of the religion? And why did Jesus Christ tell Constantine to use the symbol of his death to destroy Constantine’s enemy? Up until that time, Christians hadn’t use the cross much as a symbol because it was interpreted as the instrument of torture and death. The religion had previously been symbolized more peacefully but lambs, fish, doves, a good shepherd, the Greek letters alpha and omega, and the Greek Chi Rho symbol. The cross as we know it today did not become the primary symbol of Christianity until the reign of Constantine.
The second problem with the story was the man who popularized and maybe even invented the account. The whole thing hinges on the honesty of Constantine’s biographer, the Roman historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. The prevailing thought among current scholars is that Eusebius was not honest and tended to justify anything he wrote by the number of converts it produced. Eusebius said that he heard the story of the vision from Constantine himself, but no one knows if that’s true. He also wrote about another vision that Constantine experienced. Dreams and visions were apparently a recurring theme with him. There is a strong possibility that he just make these stories up for the purpose of Christian propaganda. With what we know about Eusebius, anything he wrote must be taken not with a grain of salt, but a heaping helping of it.
Finally, in those days, respected people could write or speak about visions in the sky and few would question them. And who can say whether Constantine’s soldiers really had crosses on their shields during that battle. Whether it was Constantine or Eusebius who manufactured the story, it wasn’t told until after Constantine died. Today, people are much more sophisticated, and few would believe a story about God talking to someone by way of skywriting.
A decisive event in Christian history
There is just so much uncertainty about the account of the vision, but whoever came up with it accomplished what he hoped for. It spun Christianity 180 degrees from a mainly peaceful influence on the world to a leader in world violence. The irony of it all is that the vision probably never occurred, so Christianity probably adopted violence based on a lie by either Constantine or Eusebius. The marriage of Christianity with a powerful army seemed to be the motive for the vision story. From then on, the Roman army would become, as the lyrics to “Onward Christian Soldiers” say, a Christian army “marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before”.
Persecution of pagans
Once the cat was out of the bag and violence became acceptable to Christians, they used it against pagans later in the fourth century. When Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity was the only acceptable religion in the empire, the Romans either had to force pagans to convert, send them into exile, or eradicate them.
Even Christian monks became militant–hunting down pagans, and destroying their writings, statues, and temples. Unruly monks roamed in mobs to intimidate and terrorize Christians holding theologies that conflicted with those of their patriarch (mob boss). Alexandria was especially known for that kind of conflict.
The theory of Just War
In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine) advanced the Just War theory. It consisted of five principles: a just cause, war as a last resort, war declared by the right authority, war for the right intention, and a reasonable chance of success. Every criterion was subjective in nature, so the theory could be used whenever it was convenient. With that doctrine in place, Christians could feel fully justified in engaging in war if a leader thought the cause was of enough importance.
Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, became the Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800. The Holy Roman Empire was the resurrection of the Western Roman Empire, which had collapsed in AD 476. Charlemagne picked up the baton and led armies against the pagans who were still holding out in Northern Europe. He conducted eighteen military campaigns over more than thirty years against the Saxons and Frisians alone.
Christian crusaders employed violence in seemingly endless crusades over a seven-hundred-year period. They crusaded against pagans; Muslim Egyptians, Turks, and Moors; and the Jews. They even crusaded against fellow Christians, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Cathars, Waldensians, Stedingers, and Venetians. In effect, the Church used the Just War philosophy to attack anyone they wanted something from. If they sought orthodox belief, fear, submission, glory, land, or whatever, they went after it. The Church seemed obsessed with controlling every aspect of people’s lives, in Europe and elsewhere. Crusaders often gave their victims the usual choice between conversion or death.
So, between Constantine’s highly unlikely vision and Augustine’s extremely subjective justification of war, as time went on Christians felt more at liberty to invade and/or kill their enemies. If questioned, they could just proclaim that they were following the biblical example of the ancient Israelites who slaughtered their enemies. They were just doing what their leaders told them god wanted them to do.
Militant monastic orders—warrior monks—were alive and well from the beginning of the Holy Land crusades. The Knights Templar, Knight Hospitaler, Teutonic Knights, and others were all monks, but not the peaceful kind. When they went into battle, they were some of the fiercest fighters in the crusades.
Beginning around the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, the Catholic Church began to sanction the use of torture. The Church used torture as a method of making “wayward” Christians confess their defections from “true Christianity.” In 1252, Pope Innocent IV instructed inquisitors to “stop short of danger to life or limb” when they “examined” a suspect. We all know what was written on paper was one thing, but there was no oversight to assure a sadistic inquisitor didn’t do whatever he wanted to do to get a confession. As long as the victim was still breathing and had all four limbs after the torture sessions, they had followed the pope’s decree.
Horror stories abound about the sadistic extent inquisitors, who were usually Dominican monks, went to in order to coerce confessions.
The European Christians were those who, from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, colonized the world. There are innumerable historical records that document their atrocities and local genocides against native populations on all continents. This was often accompanied by attempts to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity. In the Americas, the conquerors most at fault were the British, and the Spanish. But other colonizing nations did their harm in Africa, Asia, Australian, and the Pacific.
Look at many domestic terrorists in the US. From the Ku Klux Klan to the militias that took over the US Capitol in 2021 and you will find deep Christian roots there also. At some point in their history, the KKK wouldn’t even allow members who weren’t Christians.
Sadly, many Christian leaders have supported the use of violence since the fourth century. This may or may not be linked to blood being a symbol of Christianity. Christians have figuratively wallowed in blood from the passion of Jesus to modern hymns about being washed in the blood of Jesus.
For a supposedly pacifistic beginning to Christianity, that characteristic of the religion has been lost. Will we ever see the complete discarding of this violent side of Christianity or can’t Christianity prosper without violence?
Fortunately, there are multitudes of Christians who have not gone down that brutal road. Even after two thousand years, some Christian sects and thousands of congregations are still striving for non-violent solutions to human disagreements. Let’s also applaud people from other religions who have turned away from the brutality that characterized most of human history. There’s a long way to go. Maybe someday our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in a more peaceful world because of our efforts to end religious violence.