This post will upset some people, most of them from a particular socio-cultural-ecclesial context. However, before they give vent to the full fury of their outrage it is asked that they read this post carefully, and then read it again. Disagreement is expected and constructive argument encouraged. Abuse or vitriol will get short shrift. There is an issue to engage with here, and it is not to be camouflage for arguments ad hominem.
You will recall the atrocities committed against the Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday in Egypt. What may not be so clear in our memory is the Copts’ response. It has been, put briefly, one of non-violence and forgiveness. So astoundingly strong and consistent has been this response that even Muslim Egyptians are increasingly impressed.
One things that must impress them is that the Copts are practising what they preach, and what Christ taught. That integrity of witness is almost impossible to argue away or even ignore.
Church teaching allows for “legitimate self-defence”, even to the point of taking the aggressor’s life though this must not be positively intended. According to the teaching of Aquinas, as embraced by the Church, the preservation of one’s own life (or those in one’s care) must be the intention of one who resists an aggressor. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2263-7) This is an important distinction of motive. It can be a fine line indeed between desiring to save one’s life and seeking to take the other’s, and both conceivably could co-exist in the one action. Legitimate self-defence has its conditions.
The Church’s teaching is taken as a given. Yet there is something of a tension within it, one the Church would acknowledge. It is more a concession to reality than a counsel of perfection. Why? Because it can find no real warrant in the teaching of Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus never advocates bodily violence; in fact he seems to prohibit it. In place of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, he commands his followers instead to turn the other cheek. When Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus commanded him to put away his sword. It is easy to love our friends, but he holds loving our enemies to be essential. Forgiveness must not be offered just once, but seventy-fold and more. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for his name’s sake. The servant is not greater than the master, as they did to him they will do to Christians. When a Christian willingly lays down his life for Christ and his “friends” he lays it down also for the persecutor. That is the martyr’s resistance.
The only time we see Jesus in any way violent he is attacking the tables of the moneychangers, not the moneychangers themselves.
It can justly be argued that these do not constitute a total prohibition against forceful self-defence. Yet it sits uneasily in the general context of Jesus’ teaching. One might argue that Jesus does not definitively and explicitly condemn the use of violence in self-defence for everyone, and that perhaps he is speaking only of individuals defending their own persons rather and not of nations and others authorities that have responsibility for others and their common good. It is a valid consideration.
Yet it has something about it of an argument from silence. Silence is not a strong basis for argument. Those who advocate, for example, relaxing the prohibition on homosexual activity on the basis that Jesus never condemned it miss the point. The Old Testament Law forbade it, and Jesus was happy to tweak that teaching when he saw fit. Thus the old provision of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was explicitly set aside by Jesus. Moses’ provision for divorce was set aside as Jesus established that what God had joined (and in every valid marriage God has joined) no human authority could divide. Jesus, more subtly it must be said, set aside the dietary laws of the old covenant when he said that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes forth out of him. The worship of the old covenant yielded to the Eucharist Jesus bequeathed to God’s people on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, which has become our worship “in spirit and in truth”. Otherwise the old covenant has its force.
In the same vein it is no good arguing from Pope Francis’ silence that the law on communion for remarried divorcees has changed. His silence changes nothing. Church teaching stands, and it needs more than the manipulation of a footnote to change it. But I digress…
It is no good pointing to the great battles between good and evil, God and Satan, in the Apocalypse. These are not human wars but supernatural ones. We are being fought for by the heavenly powers; we are not being invited to fight ourselves and for ourselves. We are not our own, but God’s. It is God’s to defend us and rescue us—and to avenge us. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.
And this is a crucial point to consider. We are not our own. My family is not my own, nor is my nation. They are, all of them, God’s. There is no power on earth save that which God gives in the first place, as Jesus reminded Pilate. That derived power is extended not just to God’s people but to those who are outside the family of God. Persecutors have power from God, and in the mystery of his gracious will he allows them to use it even against his own people, even against his own Son. In creation all men are God’s; in the ransom paid by Christ on the Cross, all humanity is now doubly God’s, as it were.
That God allows persecutors to abuse their power to attack Christians violently and mortally does not mean that God necessarily allows us to do the same in return. Turn the other cheek, he commands us. Remember that early Christians often refused to serve in the military, even of a just government, because violence was forbidden by Christ. The persecutors are no less subject to Christ’s law than we are, and to the extent they are guilty of transgressing it they will be to that extent under God’s judgment, just as we are.
Love your enemies; turn the other cheek; return not evil for evil; blessed are you when they persecute you for my name’s sake. This is the law of Christ under which Christians will certainly be judged. Does this mean every soldier or anyone who has struck out, even killed, in self-defence is to be condemned by God? Of course not. God sees circumstances and mitigations that we do not, and to defend a life while not intending to take another’s is quite easily reconciled with Christian charity.
The example of the Copts, however, has shaken me out of my largely unthinking and instinctive acceptance of just war and violent self-defence. It is has not quite made a pacifist out of me but in the Copts pacifism—or rather forgiveness of persecutors and willingly acceptance of the Cross—make for a powerful witness to Christ, a witness not just to other Christians but also to the world. Many Muslims have noticed this witness and approved. Who knows what fruit the Copts might be about to bear for God; who knows how many are being moved by their radical following of Christ’s teaching, even to the point of acknowledging it and embracing it.
It is a hard truth, but it is martyrs, not crusaders or avengers or self-defenders, who make the Church grow. And he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it. The Copts are not lying down and waiting for the bullet or the machete. They have been taking prudent steps to the best of their ability to secure themselves from attack. What they will not do, it seems, is seek to take the lives of others in order to preserve their own. This presents a powerful witness and challenge both to militant Islam and to us in the west, especially the Christian west. That is why we must seek reunion with the Coptic brethren as soon as possible: they need the communion of the universal Church, and we need their witness to bolster and purify our own.
At the very least, we should consider carefully where is the dividing line between legitimate self-defence and vengeance in any given situation. Certainly, if vengeance taints self-defence then the point is lost and Christ’s cause has been set back.
Interestingly, my monastery’s patron, St Edmund King and Martyr, was once England’s patron saint, and offers a ideal foil to the current one, St George, whose feast we are keeping today. St George was a warrior, St Edmund was a king who defended his people not be fighting but by allowing the Danes to take him and murder him. Martyrdom was his defence of the nation, and the Church has acknowledged the heavenly crown Christ has given him.
I am not yet a card-carrying pacifist, but by the witness of the Copts certain explicit teachings of Christ strike home with greater force. There is much to think about, and nothing will detract from the wonderful and selfless work that the police, soldier and security officers do to keep our nations safe. My natural, instinctive sympathy is always with them; and may God protect them and prosper their labours.
Even so, I find that I must continue to grapple with the fact that Christ has commanded us to go out and convert the world, not to crush it. Christ will sort the wheat from the weeds in his good time. For the present, we are commanded to follow his example.
Now, where is my battle helmet…