Origen of Alexandria

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 ”

Korean War Memorial

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.