Guns, Muslims, and 4th Century Italians

Recent events have spawned a fairly heated public debate about the Christian’s proper relationship to violence, self-defense, and gun ownership.

As with many contemporary controversies, I find that some attention to Christian tradition can bring clarity. Not necessarily answers. But clarity.

Most importantly, the Christian Tradition shows us the necessity of carefully nuanced thought on matters of faith and violence. This attention to nuance forces the Church to take a step back from the political binaries that seem inherent in the present conversation. Christianity cannot be entirely reduced to pro-gun or anti-war.

Although I risk pushing my biases here, I am particularly concerned that arguments in favor of self-defense or gun ownership are at risk of losing the privileging of peace, and the deep discomfort with violence, that is central to the Christian tradition. I have seen some very harsh, rhetorically-charged criticisms (“heresy” has been thrown about) of Christians who speak of peace, non-violence, and forgiveness as a response to terrorism or gun violence. I find this troubling. A Christian who believes peace and nonviolence is central to the Church’s identity and asserts it as a foundational facet of any response to violence in our world, or who even maintains it as the only legitimate response, is very much in harmony with Christian tradition.

More specifically, Christian ambivalence toward violent self defense is not a bizarre aberration, nor a liberal invention, but very much a longstanding part of the Christian milieu.

What the Tradition shows us is that there is room in the Church, and in Scripture, for a (limited) spectrum of opinions on questions of war, self-defense, civil justice, weapon ownership, etc. But the Church’s ultimate, primary, witness of peace is established with the foundations of the Christian Tradition and should be treated with the utmost of seriousness. Even if one believes in the existence of legitimate uses for violence, they must still also privilege peace and non-violence as crucial Christian values.

POP on flickr.

To illustrate this, a case study: I want to consider one of the most important figures of early Christian history, Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, in northern Italy (b.340-d.397 AD). Ambrose started his adult life with a career in government, but was later more or less forced into Church leadership. He became one of the most prominent Christian leaders of his day, and his influence resounds through the centuries for his work on Christian ethics, Biblical exegesis, worship and liturgy, and ecclesiology.  He is one of the first Christian leaders to think through the political issues inherent in the brave new world of Christian emperors and a more politically prominent Church. Similarly, because he was Bishop of what was an important imperial city he was able to deal significantly with Christian emperors and serve as their moral and spiritual guide.

While this issue is somewhat contested, I believe that George Kalantzis’ very helpful book, Caesar and the Lamb [1], illustrates persuasively that before Constantine there was a very clear and widespread Christian “non-violent” witness; at least as far as written theological treatises are concerned.  That is, a strong conviction that violence in all its forms is un-Christian. Whether retributive, defensive, or military, violence is seen by these theologians as deeply out of step for a people who worship a God who submitted to violence out of love for his enemies and attackers.

This peace-positive witness must be recognized as the background for Ambrose. To quote a few representative examples cited by Kalantzis:  Origen, “[Christ] taught that his disciples were never justified in taking [violent] action against a man even if he were the greatest wrongdoer” (p. 54). Again Origen,  “The old law vindicated itself by the vengeance of the sword, to take an eye for an eye and to repay injury for injury. But the new law was to focus on clemency and to turn bloodthirsty swords and lances to peaceful uses and to change the warlike acts against rivals and enemies into the peaceful pursuits of plowing and farming the land” (p. 59).

The early Christian historian Lactantius, “When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also forbidding to us to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men. A just man may not be a soldier. . . nor may he put anyone on a capital charge: whether you kill a man with a sword or a speech makes no difference, since killing itself is banned. In this commandment of God no exception at all should be made: killing a human being is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature” (p. 53, emphasis mine).

Athenagoras, “we cannot endure to see someone be put to death, even justly” (p. 91).

Similarly, Tertullian: “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?” (Apol. 37)

After Constantine became a Christian, things became more complicated. Increasingly nuanced arguments emerged as the Church tried to make sense of the Christian faith in light of a quickly Christianizing imperial court.

And this is the world in which we find Ambrose. Ambrose is probably not a pacifist in any sense we would recognize. He affirms that the Christian emperor has responsibilities in warfare to defend the Empire, and he presents something of a just war theory [1]. He even contends that right worship of God on the part of the Emperor will ensure, or at least make more likely, military victories. Speaking of David, “he never entered on a war without seeking counsel of the Lord. Thus he was victorious in all wars, and even to his last years was ready to fight” [De Officiis, 1.35.177]. Furthermore, Ambrose also seems to approve of the use of violence to defend others (at least as exercised by rulers), specifically the vulnerable [2].

It should be noted, however, that when Ambrose speaks of just war, and military defense, it is unclear whether he is speaking rhetorically or in terms of an illustration. In the example of David above, for example, he first talks of war and the defense of the weak as examples of “fortitude.” He then shifts to a consideration of spiritual warfare. He calls the “fortitude of the mind,” the Church’s “true fortitude,” and commends, “let, then, godliness exercise you unto justice, continence, gentleness, that you may avoid childish acts, and that rooted and grounded in grace you may fight the good fight of faith. . . . Entangle not yourself in the affairs of this life, for you are fighting for God” (De Officiis, 1.36.183-185, emphasis mine). He seems to mean that Christian fortitude is one of spiritual struggle, not military might. But it is unclear here. A tacit affirmation of just war and violent defense of others still seems likely.

Ambrose certainly shifts away from any approval of violence, however, when talking about the Church herself. This  reveals a deep conviction that the Church is ultimately defined by peace and non-violence. Violence is largely out of harmony with the central convictions of the Gospel.

In one particularly dramatic instance, Ambrose strives to protect Church buildings from being seized by the imperial forces and transformed into places of worship for the heretical Arian population. Ambrose engages in a variety of non-violent forms of political resistance, including something of a ‘sit-in:’ Pledging to remain in the basilica and force the emperor to remove or martyr him.

Ambrose addresses the emperor in a letter on this matter, clarifying that the Church does not engage in violence, at least not when faith is concerned: “We beg, O Augustus, we do not battle. We are not afraid, but we are begging. It befits Christians to hope for the tranquility of peace and not to check the steadfastness of faith and truth when faced with danger of death. The Lord is our Head who will save those who hope in Him” [3].

Ambrose specifically sees violence as immoral for clergy. Speaking of priests he says, “it is not our business to look to arms, but rather to the forces of peace” [4].

Most relevant to today’s conversation is where Ambrose, in one of his dogmatic treatises, directly addresses the question of self-defense:

“…yet I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets with an armed robber he cannot return his blows, lest in defending his life he should stain his love toward his neighbour. The verdict on this is plain and clear in the books of the Gospel. Put up your sword, for every one that takes the sword shall perish with the sword. Matthew 26:52 What robber is more hateful than the persecutor who came to kill Christ? But Christ would not be defended from the wounds of the persecutor, for He willed to heal all by His wounds.”

Ambrose’s mention of “love toward neighbour,” as a paradigm for how one treats an assailant is crucial. For Ambrose, love of neighbor translates into a desire to preserve the life of a neighbor, even an unjust assailant, and even if your life is at risk. If you privilege your own life over another, even an attacker, you are guilty of not loving your neighbor and are avoiding the clear word of Scripture in the Gospel.

He continues,

“Why do you consider yourself greater than another, when a Christian man ought to put others before himself, to claim nothing for himself, usurp no honours, claim no reward for his merits? . . . . For if a virtuous life is in accordance with nature— for God made all things very good— then shameful living must be opposed to it. A virtuous and a shameful life cannot go together, since they are absolutely severed by the law of nature” (De Officiis, 3).

Ambrose is explicit that the equality of all humans before God implies that the Christian cannot privilege his or her own life above any one else’s, even an enemy. This remains true even with regard to a human who puts the Christian’s property or body at risk. Preserving one’s own life at the expense of even an assailant is to subordinate their worth to your own and is shameful, the opposite of Christian virtue.

A variety of trends emerged after this period. Augustine (Ambrose’s protege) toned down the close association between faith and military victory, but also ramped up the affirmation of violence for defense and offered a clear and developed just war theory.  By the time of the Crusades the West had constructed “an ideology of holy war that allowed, even fostered, Christian participation in the armies” [5] . The Christian East maintained a more negative assessment of violence. The deeply influential Eastern Father, Basil of Caesarea, required that soldiers were “excluded from Eucharistic communion for the period of three years” if they had shed blood [5]. Shedding blood, even in defense, is in discord with the rite of Christ’s self-sacrifice for his enemies.

Ambrose exemplifies the tension between realism and maintaining Christianity’s idealistic antipathy toward violence. Although Ambrose allows for certain spheres of permissible violence, he finds himself returning to these central dictates of the Gospel as the Church’s primary identity: To love thy sinful neighbor, even at risk of your own safety. The faith that worships a God who loved his enemies even unto execution, demands a constant resuscitation of this central conviction. God has deemed all life worth preserving, even sinful life. In fact, in God’s economy there is no distinction between innocent and guilty. All lives are equally valuable to God, and God desires the salvation of all. We are obliged to seek the preservation of all life, including an enemy.

Ambrose’s account of self defense, while unequivocal, is still certainly plagued by many thorny issues. His apparent ‘baptism’ of the Roman military is also deeply problematic.  It is not expected that this short survey of Ambrose’s views is a sufficient argument for or against their validity. But it is an illustration of the nuanced and varied ways one particular Christian has thought through issues of violence and defense while maintaining a deep commitment to peace and privileging the life of an enemy above oneself. An adherent to this faith which is committed to a God who dies for His enemies, who believes that God loves all human beings equally despite their sins, who desires all people’s salvation, who believes that the powers and principalities of Satan are the Church’s true enemies, must constantly be returning to peace and self-sacrificial love. This is a commitment that is maintained even in the most dangerous circumstances. That was the miracle of the cross, and a miracle that the Church is called to continue.

God loves all people equally, and we are called to do the same. This central conviction preserves us from any easy answers about questions of guns, war, and self-defense. Any answer on these questions must constantly return to peace even in the face of enemies, and forgiveness, as central Christian convictions.


[1] George Kalantzis, “Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service,” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

[2] Lois J. Swift, “St. Ambrose on Violence and War,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 101 (1970),  p. 534.

[3] Swift, 537.

[4] Ambrose, Epistle 60 (Maurist Collection, FOTC).

[5] De Officiis 1.35.175 as quoted in Swift, 537.

[6] See Kalantzis, 199-201


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