For many years it has troubled me that the name “Christian” generally feels more like an identity tag similar to “American” than as an identity that describes a way of life that is intentional and countercultural.
“Christian” gets flung around so easily, so superficially, to identify a range of entities: a country, an organization, an umbrella tag for a whole flock of churches.
In looking at the world around us, in reading the news of more people killed in Syria and Afghanistan every day, a question naturally arises: Does the name “Christian” describe a person’s way of life today as it did for the early Christians who were committed to several years of preparation in order to make their sincere and total commitment to Christ?
I question whether this identity today is anywhere near that of the commitment of the first Christians to the Way of Jesus.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson recently wrote in Sojourners:
“My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. This has been a long and continuing struggle. Jesus taught and embodied a revolutionary, transforming love.”
Ever since I have become more intentionally involved in working to eliminate violence and war through Project Peace, I have questioned more seriously whether I and our churches even deserve the name “Christian.”
I believe that in a special way Jesus saw so deeply into the unconditional love of God for this world and all its inhabitants that he called this love by name: ABBA, or Daddy.
No love could match the love of God for himself and for everyone else. Everyone’s dignity as a beloved person was equal in the eyes of God the Maker of all. No one’s life was more dispensable than the next person’s.
Recently these feelings were stirred up again as I read a 2000 address of Alan Kreider, now retired but formerly associated with Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Kreider used the example of St. Marcellus who was martyred in Tingis, North Africa, in 298. Marcellus was a soldier, a centurion who threw off his military belt, weapons and vine-branch (the insignia of his rank) when he was ordered to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.
Thereupon, he protested, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now on I cease to serve you emperors. … It is not fitting that a Christian who fights for Christ his Lord should fight for the armies of this world.”
As he was led out to be beheaded, Marcellus said to the prefect, Agricolanus, “May God do good to you.”
The approach of the early Christians like Marcellus to warfare during the three centuries before Christianity became an imperial religion was primarily a commitment to peace.
At times these Christians were explicitly anti-militarist. Churches were urged by their bishops and theologians to foster cultures of peace. Christians “also opposed killing of all sorts including gladiatorial combat, abortion, capital punishment and military service.”
By the fourth century, however, with Roman emperor Constantine converting to Christianity and with mass conversions and the conversion of aristocratic males, the Christian churches had adopted the approaches to warfare and killing that continue today.
Though the churches have struggled through the ages in reconciling the position of the early Christians with the wars that have since plagued the world, it eventually arrived at the “just war” theory, drawing primarily from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Nevertheless, people like Marcellus and later Jaggerstatter and others saw that to be Christian and to continue to believe in the “just war” theory holds an essential contradiction.
Such awareness has stirred some of the world church leaders like Pope Benedict XVI to publicly announce: "We must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a 'just war' might exist."
The messages of Jesus -- “Love your enemies. Do good to those who harm you” -- have not reached the church pulpits. Other than the Mennonites, the Friends (Quakers) and the United Brethren, the Christian churches of the United States are not declared “peace churches.” Again, the question is: “Why not?”
Armistice Day, Nov. 11, will soon be upon us. As the Armistice was being signed in 1918 to “End All Wars,” many churches rang their bells 11 times at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.
This year the Veterans for Peace, a group that was founded to expose the true costs of war and militarism, is asking all churches to step forward and proclaim the original message of Armistice Day with the ringing of the bells 11 times.
By faithfully taking these small and large steps, we who see that our world is called to put away war-making as a thing of the past will continue to go forward nudging, speaking out, studying, walking, working, reconciling, resisting together to bring this peace which we desire so passionately.