Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States. We remember those who gave their lives fighting on behalf of our nation in various causes. I have mixed emotions about these types of days. On one hand, I am thankful for the nation in which I live. I wouldn’t trade it for places like North Korea, China, Iran, Pakistan, and other places that seem to lack the stability and domestic peace of our nation. On the other hand, I pledge a higher allegiance to Christ and I cannot find much wiggle room as his disciple for celebrating war and participation in war. There is a great tension here.
Origen of Alexandria recognized this tension. In his apologetical work Contra Celsum he responds to a pagan named Celsus who had written against Christianity several decades prior. One of the charges leveled by Celsus against Christians is that their refusal to participate in the armies of Rome made them bad citizens (oddly enough an argument many Christians use against other Christians who won’t serve in the army). Origen wrote the following response (Celsus’ words are in italics) in Contra Celsum VIII.73-74:
In the next place, Celsus urges us “to help the king with all our might, and to labor with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.” To this our answer is, that we do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help, “putting on the whole armor of God.” And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;” and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and slay as many of the enemy as they can.
And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”
And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army— an army of piety— by offering our prayers to God.
And if Celsus would have us to lead armies in defense of our country, let him know that we do this too, and that not for the purpose of being seen by men, or of vainglory. For in secret, and in our own hearts, there are prayers which ascend as from priests in behalf of our fellow citizens.
And Christians are benefactors of their country more than others. For they train up citizens, and inculcate piety to the Supreme Being; and they promote those whose lives in the smallest cities have been good and worthy, to a divine and heavenly city, to whom it may be said, “You have been faithful in the smallest city, come into a great one, where God stands in the assembly of the gods, and judges the gods in the midst;” and He reckons you among them, “if you no more die as a man, or fall as one of the princes.”
Origen seems to wrestle with the same tension then that many Christians do now. He knows there are evildoers. He wants to be a good citizen. He doesn’t deny that wars take place and that other nations may have evildoers, but he doesn’t see a place for Christians to “slay men”. This is a common self-understanding for many Christians in the first few centuries of the church. Origen evokes the Peterine “priesthood of believers” to secure a place for Christians in pagan society that they already gave to their pagan priest as intercessors before deity. Yet he offers an important distinction from the pagan priests who pray exclusively for their nation’s victory– for Christians “our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war ”
On a day like Veteran’s Day I do honor those who gave their lives. For in the kingdoms of this world their is no greater example of selflessness for one’s immediate neighbor. Yet I pray that the day when war will be no more comes quickly. I want to celebrate a time when people do not have to kill people for national interest. While war may be inevitable in this “already, but not yet” age I pray that more Christians would determine to function as a priesthood to the world offering prayers rather that joining military ranks. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, one of the greatest gifts Christians could give the world is the refusal to kill another human. I know this isn’t the type of allegiance to the State that many respect, but I think it is a Christian way of showing allegiance. May God have mercy on our war torn world.
Isn’t Origen’s second paragraph based on a logic of ritual purity? He explains that we don’t kill so that we can pray with pure hands — that is, so that our prayers will have the effectiveness that is afforded by observing purity regulations. If that’s his logic, then his argument wouldn’t work for us unless we also presuppose purity regulations. (Isn’t that right?)
@John: I don’t think so. I seems to me that Origen is doing with pagan priesthoods what he saw Paul do with “putting on the whole armor of God”. We don’t need to find a correlation for every detail for his analogy to work.
I don’t think so. Origen’s suggested reply refers to ” those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them” as being exempt from military service so that they can “keep their hands free from blood”–a ritual prerequisite for divine service. Their non-participation in war is based on their need to remain ritually pure.
OK, let’s assume that….what’s the point being made?
To me, granting your reading of Origen, supports Brian’s appropriation, for the Christian, and does not defeat it.
“I want to celebrate a time when people do not have to kill people for national interest.”
That line really seems to be a large part of the issue for me. It may be genuine love that motivates a man or woman to join a military, but it is not typically love that motivates military conquest in general. It is a “national interest” that is often based on self-preservation. In our country our national interest of self-preservation has often been cloaked in terms of “freedom” and “democracy” and “liberation” with little question of what those terms mean and whether they are legitimate ideals for those of us who pledge allegiance to a greater King and a greater Kingdom.
Thanks for the post, Brian. I feel the tension.
Do you make a difference between civil defense such as working as a police officer or with the FBI as opposed to defending your country in the military?
@Carol: There can be differences. Police aren’t serving with the primary function to kill. Many military people do. It is unfortunate if a police officer has to kill. It is expected of a soldier. I don’t know enough about the day to day of an FBI agent to comment.
I take the earliest Christians to be extremely instructive (but not authoritative) and so love reading what they thought. I really liked this post.
My point is that Origen’s logic can only apply if we also accept the worldview that motivates ritual purity laws. Do we bathe, or at least wash our hands, before praying? Do we avoid visiting cemetaries if we think we will be praying or going to church in the near future? Do the women among us avoid praying or attending church during their periods, or for a while after giving birth? Do husbands avoid their wives, and their wives’ cooking, for several days during the month? Do we require our clergy to avoid touching dead bodies altogether? (It’s not a question of whether we follow the OT ritual purity laws, but rather of whether we accept the sort of ritual purity worldview that brought about later Christian purificatory rituals.)
Modern Christians have completely turned their back on the worldview that motivates Origen’s words about non-participation in war. If we’re going to try to retrieve Origen’s argument, we cannot do so honestly without also doing all the purity rituals that it involves.
I don’t get you at all. Please explain yourself.
@Robert: Me too.
@John: I am surprised by your deduction, especially since the section on purity does not seem to be the cornerstone of his argument. He does not argue from ritual purity laws to Christian non-violence, but instead he starts with the basic fact that Christians were non-violent and he uses ritual purity laws from the pagans to provide analogy for why Christians may serve the state in a similar way. Again, the purity laws inform his argument while you make it seem that it is his central argument.
Also, let’s assume your point that his views on purity informed his argument more than I’ll concede, is it really all-or-nothing? Unless you think Origen would have supported Christian participation in war if he were not hung up on purity laws than Origen still serves as a useful dialog partner on this matter because he starts with a basic Christian assumption–that Christians do not bear arms and slay humans–then he tries to work in an apology from something accepted in Roman culture, namely holy people don’t kill. His basic point stands, even if one gives as much credence to his analogy as you do.
It seems to me that the argument from ritual purity is Origen’s *only* response for why Christians avoid violence. It’s true that he starts from the observed fact that Christians in his day were non-violent, but I don’t see any other justification in what he says for that. Am I missing something?
He doesn’t seem to think that violence per se is wrong for everyone, as he says Christians will willingly pray for “those who are fighting in a righteous cause”, which means that Christians *can* support violence in support of certain causes. He just thinks that Christians shouldn’t be among those doing the actual violence, and the *only* justification he gives for that seems to be based *entirely* on the purity required of those who commune with God.
I thus have no reason to suppose that, if it were not for ritual purity, Origen would not have supported Christians fighting in the army.
I think this misses the nature of his apology. You are right that he is not strict in regards to violence. He does seem to affirm a role for violence, but he doesn’t find that Christians belong. What I’m saying is that contrary to your view that ritual purity was the prime motivation for his argument I see it as a grasp for something familiar to his audience that he could use to soften their disdain for Christians who refuse to support the state through violence.
In other words, Origen is stuck between his realization that it is well established that Christians should not be violent and his personal views that violence may sometimes be necessary. He seeks a compromise that allows him to have his cake and eat it too, namely Roman culture already had a concept upon which he could build in that they didn’t expect their priest to fight.
So where we differ is I think you see the purity rituals as a large part of Origen’s worldview upon which he builds his ethic of non-violence I see it as him grasping for something that will satisfy his detractors….or at least anyone who is troubled by Celsus’ argument.
I see your point.
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