After surveying the very large sample of quotes on nonresistance and war, David Bercot writes in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs that (I’m paraphrasing) the early Christians were opposed to war and that they allowed members of the military to join and remain in the church only if they refused to kill. Bercot wrote in the introduction of the book that modern Christians should not use his work to “proof text” any particular belief on the part of the early Christians, but the sources are in such overwhelming agreement prior to the time of Constantine that on this topic, the subject of early Christian nonviolence, he is compelled to ignore his own advice. Then came Constantine, the illegitimate successor to a seat on the Tetrarchy, who firmly merged a paganized, violent version of Christianity with the state. In a lot of ways, I have sympathy for the first Christian emperor; those at the height of power in the fourth century were playing for keeps. Succession in the Tetrarchy set up by Diocletian was not hereditary, but Constantine was very popular with his father’s soldiers, and even if they hadn’t rashly proclaimed him their new Caesar (in clear violation of Diocletian’s dictates), I doubt Galerius would have left him alone. I think we can all understand Constantine’s cunning moves even if we utterly repudiate the means he chose to help ensure his own survival and ultimate triumph. But, sympathy aside, Constantine’s pernicious innovations still mar our faith…and our political process.
At the outset, as I’ve said before, if I choose to vote this year, I will probably vote for Barack Obama. For those that know me, news that I consider not voting may come as a bit of a shock. I am fresh out of Washington, D.C., where I worked fairly closely with the senator’s staff (whom I respect very much) and as communications director for one of Obama’s main media surrogates in the House. I have worked in politics either on the official or campaign side since college. I’ve held signs on street corners on freezing mornings in states I don’t live in to help get Democrats elected. And, I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope that Obama won because a McCain presidency frightens me on many levels.
The recent Saddleback Forum again showed that both of these candidates jockey hard for portions of the “Christian vote.” And yet, setting aside the question of Iraq, both candidates have all but promised a massive escalation of force in Afghanistan, which has had a very high ratio of civilian deaths and has been very lethal, proportionally to the number of our troops deployed there, for American troops. Christians opposed to war should remember one of the lessons of the 2006 election cycle: Democrats tend to oppose the Iraq war on it’s merits, but they do not, in general, oppose war itself. Like Obama himself said, “I’m not opposed to war. I’m opposed to ‘dumb wars.'”
If my friend, sibling, or (as-yet-nonexistent) child asked me if I’d help them join the military, I’d say no. I agree with the early church that Jesus meant what he said about loving your enemies, returning good for evil, turning the other cheek, etc. I would never knowingly help someone chose to violate those teachings, even if they affirmatively wanted to. They would have to do it without my help. But this year, I’m acutely aware that in every election cycle, Americans help someone not only violate those teachings on an individual level, but we help them take the helm of the most powerful means of mass murder in history, and even the most idealistic anti-war supporters of the most anti-war candidate in the race have no doubt that their candidate would use them if given sufficient provacation. So why would I go into a voting booth to help an ambitious politician from either party take on a profession which contains exponentially more violence in the job description than an individual military career? Do I not care just as much for my preferred candidate as a person, rather than as a larger than life public persona? Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei wrote a book review review that started a conversation about these issues, and I’d be curious how readers of this blog feel about voting and how it fits or doesn’t fit with love, specifically love for a particular candidate and care for their soul.
The “anti-war” choice in this election is just as ambigious as the “Christian” choice in this election. A redeployment from Iraq that serves to empower an escalation in Afghanistan is not an unambigious victory for nonviolence. Hence, if I do vote, which obviously is not a foregone conclusion, I will vote for Barack Obama, but I cannot “endorse” him. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, in a recent post on the God’s Politics blog, said they’d refrain from endorsing any candidate for President in the hope that the candidates would instead endorse the nonviolent, self-sacrificing love exemplified and taught by Jesus, our Christ. I agree.