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Pacifism and Just War: Christians and Centurions

May 27, 2013
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In the past few articles I have examined the words and actions of Jesus as they relate to the issue of violence. Jesus’ statements are somewhat confusing, both condemning violence in a general sense but telling his disciples to carry swords. Jesus’ actions are clearer – nowhere do we see Jesus actually engage in the sort of violence-for-God that many of his contemporaries wished to see him engage in. Jesus is, as the prophet says, the sort of man who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. While he is quite ready to condemn some of the religious leaders of his day with very strong language he never crosses over into violence. However, both Jesus and the apostles deal with men whose business is violence. Some of these interactions provide no opportunity for Jesus or the apostles to instruct these men (such as when the soldiers are punishing Jesus or the apostles as criminals) but in others soldiers come to Jesus or the apostles for help. How are these violent men dealt with?

The two instances I will look at here are Jesus’ dealings with a Roman centurion in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 (both presumably the same incident) and Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10. In both cases the Roman soldier is a centurion, a man in command of one hundred (or so) other soldiers, and is sympathetic towards Judaism. It is possible in both cases that in the modern world we would consider these centurions to be Jewish converts but they appear to be separated out in the first-century world as Gentiles friendly to the faith. (This may mean that they had done everything to be Jewish except get circumcised.)

Jesus’ encounter with the centurion is brief. The centurion asks Jesus to heal his slave, explains that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof, and asserts that Jesus can heal from a distance. Jesus proclaims his amazement at the centurion’s faith and heals the centurion’s slave without ever coming into contact with him. In Matthew’s version of the incident the centurion appears to be present and in Luke’s version the centurion sends intermediaries (although there is reason to believe that it is acceptable in the ancient world to cut intermediaries out of a story as a way to summarize).

Is it important that Jesus issues no other instructions to the centurion? Certain authors have made this claim, that if Jesus were truly a radical pacifist that he would have issued instructions to the centurion to leave a career which involved the continual use of and supervision of violence. (It is worth remembering that Israel in the first century was a powder-keg full of violent religious zealots, both those who took the name Zealot as a group identifier and those who did not, and so it is fairly unlikely to imagine a centurion who never led campaigns to kill groups of rebels or bandits.) In reality I don’t think this non-incident says much. We know that if pacifism is on Jesus’ radar it is not his first priority. Unlike Gandhi who centered almost all of his religious teachings around non-violence Jesus has few teachings on the subject. There are a dozen other things that Jesus holds front and center that Jesus does not mention to the centurion either (or if he does they are not recorded) and yet we know that he cares about these issues deeply. If Jesus believes that his followers should be committed to non-violence he does not believe so strongly enough to tell the centurion to leave his life of soldiering. It is of course possible that Jesus believes that his followers should be non-violent but sees this as the sort of secondary teaching that follows from the main teachings. However, Jesus does not issue any instructions in any morality to the centurion and so this incident is simply not helpful.

Peter’s interaction with Cornelius is quite a bit longer. The main focus of the story is about how Peter comes to realize that God has extended His blessing to the Gentiles (including the hated Romans) but if there were to be an incident in which an apostle lectured on non-violence this would be it: Cornelius is commanded in a dream to send for and listen to Peter and he makes clear to Peter that he is prepared to learn from him. Despite the fact that Peter teaches Cornelius and stays with him for several days there is no indication that any of this teaching involves convincing Cornelius to leave a life of violence for the Empire behind. This leaves us with three options. First, it is possible that Cornelius did leave the military because of Peter’s teachings but that this is not recorded. This is problematic because this indicates that Luke didn’t think this was notable enough to record. I suppose one could imagine a scenario in which Luke would just think this was a given and not mention it but Luke mentions many other things that are givens and it would reinforce the seriousness of Cornelius’ conversion to mention this detail.

Second, it is possible that Peter, who was the one pulling a sword in Gethsemane after all, just isn’t clear on this portion of Jesus’ teaching (perhaps only “not yet clear”). This sounds like a giant landmine but it is one way to resolve the text with a strong commitment to pacifism.

Thirdly, it is possible that Cornelius’ military work is more like police work than what we now call military work and so it is somehow acceptable. However, while this distinction is sometimes drawn by pacifists, I’m not sure why dealing with bandits on the road by sending in troops to fight them to the death is morally any different than sending in troops to fight troops from another country that threatens you.

Again, though, the problem is that we don’t have direct comment on the issue of violence. It remains possible that Jesus and Peter both are content to let their teachings sink in and at some point have the centurions they talk to realize on their own that their careers are inconsistent with Christianity. However, these interactions force us to conclude that pacifism was not high up on Jesus’ or the apostles’ lists of things to instruct others on.

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