Thursday, March 12, 2020

Lent 2020: Dying in Defense of Peace

The saint celebrated in the Catholic church today serves as a reminder that embracing peace and nonviolence is not a passive way of life. It takes great courage and resolve, as Christ himself exemplified. He could have called down legions of angels to his aid when he was being beaten. He could have called on his disciples to avenge his death. Instead, he freely suffered the abuse, all the way up through his crucifixion, exposing the violent injustice of the world against him, an innocent man, for the great evil that it was. And he didn't stop there: He actually asked the Father to forgive those who put him to death.

St. Maximilian of Tabessa, following in the peaceful example of Christ, who went to his death rather than meet violence with violence, was beheaded on this day in 295, at the tender age of 21. His crime? Refusing an order to serve in the military. He is the earliest known Christian conscientious objector.

Many, if not most, Christians refused to join the military or commit acts of violence in the early church. Before Constantine entangled the church with empire in the fourth century, Christians spoke truth to power -- which by definition included rejecting the empire's violence. And given that Jesus was unambiguous in telling his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies, their stance would have come as no surprise.

Precious few Christian groups still adhere to the way of nonviolence spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. The Quakers and Anabaptists are the only significant branches of Christianity to still do so. But their views would have been commonplace in the opening centuries of Christianity, as these quotes from the second through fourth centuries attest to:

"The Christian does not hurt even his enemy." ~ Tertullian

"Christians, instead of  arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer." ~ Athanasius of Alexandria

"[W]e no longer take 'sword against a nation,' nor do we learn 'any more to make war,' having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader." ~ Origen

"Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings." ~ Clement of Alexandria

"Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier." ~ Tertullian

Those words echo an early saint, Martin of Tours, who upon his conversion to Christianity left his military service with the words: "I am a soldier of Christ. It is not permissible for me to fight."

Maximilian of Tabessa was similarly convicted of the necessity of followers of Christ to be peacemakers. And so when he was brought before Cassius Dio, the proconsul of Africa, to swear his allegiance as a soldier to the emperor, he refused. An ancient account of their exchange has been preserved:
Maximilian: "I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian." 
Cassius Dio: "You must serve or die." 
Maximilian: "I will never serve. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ. My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world. I tell you I am a Christian." 
Cassius Dio: "There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Galierius." 
Maximilian: "That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve." 
Cassius Dio: "But what harm do soldiers do?" 
Maximilian: "You know well enough." 
Cassius Dio: "If you will not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army." 
Maximilian: "I shall not die. If I go from this earth, my soul will live with Christ my Lord."
The young man was promptly beheaded, sacrificing his life in service to the peace of Christ.

In more recent years, another brave young man suffered greatly for his defense of the Christian way of peace. Ben Salmon was a Catholic conscientious objector who refused to fight in World War I. At age 28, when the clamor for the United States to join the war was growing, Salmon stood fast and proclaimed: "Let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill,' make a profession of faith by joining the army of war. I am in the army of peace, and in this army, I intend to live and die."

For refusing his draft order, Ben Salmon was initially sentenced to death. The sentence was later reduced to 25 years, but it had already become clear how the public, in its patriotic frenzy, viewed those who sided with peace over war. (We all know how public hysteria leads to irrational behavior, don't we?) He refused to labor in prison and spent most of his days in solitary, given only bread and water to eat. He went on a hunger strike and was eventually force-fed, in between beatings from sadistic prison wardens. When he was near death, a priest refused him communion. Another priest who did offer him communion was punished by his bishop for aiding and abetting a traitor. (A traitor to whom, one wonders? To Christ, the Prince of Peace?)

Eventually the young man was sent off to a mental institution, before he was finally released in 1920. But by then, his health had been destroyed by the flag-waving lovers of war who had long abused his body. He may have been a free man, but he was still a social pariah, just as Christ the peacemaker would be in our time, and he died young and broken during the Great Depression. 

Ben Salmon spent much of his incarceration writing a lengthy refutation of the deeply misguided Catholic doctrine of just war -- which, notably, the church has never actually used to oppose a military conflict.

"Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary," Salmon wrote during his imprisonment. And that is indeed the central issue. It remains so today, as so many who follow Christ cheer on endless war and glorify the military. 

As we mark our days of penance in Lent, let us remember the violence in our own lives and hearts, the kind that St. Maximilian, Ben Salmon, St. Martin of Tours, and so many early church fathers rejected in their witness of Christ, the Prince of Peace. Indeed, the very kind of violence that led to Jesus' death on the cross. It is simply impossible to embrace Christ and violence at the same time.  

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