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Truth and Consequences

is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the Universityof Chicago, and the author of Communities of Violence: Persecutionof Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press).

There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence inthe Christian Roman Empire

By Michael Gaddis

(University of California Press, 396 pp.,


The words "religion" and "violence" very often accompany each otherthese days, but in predominantly Christian Europe or the Americasthey are rarely associated with the words "Christ" or"Christianity." On the contrary, a rough caricature of our commonknowledge on the subject might look something like this: the God ofthe Hebrew Bible was a vengeful enforcer of law, and the God of theKoran sent prophets with swords, but the Christian God demands onlylove. "God is love," Pope Benedict XVI declared in his firstencyclical. In this account, suasion and gentle reason, notcoercion or authoritarian force, are now and have always been theappropriate paths to faith in this God, as the same pontiffreminded the world in his controversial speech at Regensburg ashort while ago. That speech aroused Muslim protest because of theway it seemed to associate the history of Islam with unreason andthe violent coercion of faith. But the pope's association of Christand Christian history with love, reasoned persuasion, and uncoercedfaith proved thoroughly uncontroversial.

That silence tells us a great deal about the place and the meaningof religion--and particularly of Christianity in its myriadforms--in much of the developed world today. No doubt there arestill skeptics among us, scions of the more radical wings ofEnlightenment, who insist that violence and tyranny lurk withinevery universalizing monotheism. But by and large, those of us whoare heirs of the Christian cultures of Europe, whether in theirexplicitly religious or their secularized ethical forms, look forviolence elsewhere. We associate Christianity with the turning ofthe cheek, not with retaliation; with the persecuted, not thepersecuting; with the powerless, not the powerful. Hence therhetorical effect of the anti-war bumper sticker "Who Would JesusBomb?"

Of course we all know that there have been many periods of Christiancoercion: crusades, inquisitions, forced conversions, to name onlysome of the more infamous. So how should we incorporate thesehistories into our debates about what Christianity is, or shouldbe? This question has occupied minds great and small for manycenturies. Often the temptation is toward polemics: either thesemoments of violence prove the essential hypocrisy of Christianclaims to love and nonviolence, or they are merely deviations,errors that may tell us something about, say, the darkness of theMiddle Ages or the cruelty of Catholics, but have nothing to dowith the teachings of Christ, and bring no stain upon them.

Michael Gaddis's fascinating book focuses on one of the mostfoundational of these moments: the conversion of the EmperorConstantine circa 315, and the subsequent integration of Christianchurches into the power structures of empire and state. If this wasa deviation, it was certainly a very long one: the partnershipbetween Christianity and state power that was then establishedremained firm for nearly a millennium and a half. And because somany of the fathers of the church worked and wrote within thispartnership, its consequences for religious and political thoughthave been enormous. For this reason, the topic of Christianviolence and religious coercion in this early and formative periodhas attracted many fine students of the past, among them Erasmus,Gibbon, and in our day Peter Brown. It is high praise, therefore,to say that this book by Gaddis (who was Brown's student) helps usto understand the old problem in a new way.

`You are of the opinion that no one should be compelled to followrighteousness," wrote one Christian bishop to another in 408."Originally my opinion was that no one should be coerced into theunity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only byarguments, and prevail by force of reason. ... But this opinion ofmine was overcome [by the example of] my own town, which ... wasbrought over to the Catholic unity by fear of the imperial edicts." Who stands, in this exchange, for reason, and who for the fear oflaw? The letter's obscure recipient, the advocate of tolerance inthis exchange, was one Vincentius of Cartenna, a bishop in aninfluential North African Christian movement known as theDonatists, which was fast on its way to being suppressed byepiscopal styluses and imperial swords as heretical. The author ofthe letter, now convinced of the utility of fear, was none otherthan Augustine of Hippo, whose writings have arguably had moreinfluence on the Christian cultures of western Europe than anyexcept scripture.

It is worth lingering a bit with the protagonists in this debate,lest gray polarize into black and white. The Donatists presentedthemselves as a church of martyrs, and they did indeed suffersevere repression; but they were not themselves known as pacifists.Their zealots, a wrecking crew known as the Circumcellions, stalkedNorth Africa wielding cudgels called "Israels," the better to crackthe heads of their competition. Over the course of the fourthcentury, as that competition succeeded in defining itself as"Catholic"--from katholicos, or "universal"--and enlisting the helpof imperial armies against the now officially "heretical"Donatists, the actions of the Circumcellions grew more desperate.We hear of Catholic priests blinded by having lime and vinegarrubbed into their eyes, of others dragged from their altars andbeaten. One of these, stabbed in the groin and left for dead,managed to make his way to Italy and to display his scandalouswounds in the emperor's court.

If Vincentius advocated tolerance, said Augustine, it was onlybecause his church, after being crushed by the Roman legions, wasnow powerless. "No wild beast is said to be gentle if, because ofits not having teeth and claws, it wounds no one." But Augustinecan scarcely be called an apostle of violence. His dedication topersuasion by means of the word is unusual even among the saints,as the vast record of his letters, sermons, disputations, andtreatises attests. And although he was, like any successful bishop,a master of both secular and ecclesiastical power politics, he wasin no sense an apologist for governmental violence carried out inthe name of Christ. His writings on the subject, like those of anysubtle thinker confronted by changing circumstances over the courseof a long life, contain many views. Some of them, such as hisletter to Vincentius, are optimistic about the role of secularcoercion in bringing souls toward Christian truth. Others, mostnotably The City of God, are exquisitely aware of the difficultiesinvolved in any alignment of worldly power with divine love. Butregardless of the place they assign to physical correction in theshepherding of souls, Augustine's writings always seek to balancethe rival risks posed by, on the one hand, the toleration ofdoctrinal diversity, dissension, and error among Christians, and,on the other hand, the deployment of coercive power to disciplinethat error and to establish Christian unity.

The bishop Optatus, writing a generation before Augustine's birth,expressed one version of that difficult balance in thejustification that he produced for the bloody repression carriedout against the Circumcellions by the imperial commissionerMacarius and his army in 347:

For this is the voice of God, "Thou shalt not kill," and this is thesame God's voice, "If a man is found sleeping with a woman who hasa husband, you shall kill both." One God and two contending voices.When Phinehas, son of a priest, found an adulterer with anadulteress, he raised his hand with his weapon, and stood uncertainbetween the two voices of God. If he struck, he would sin; if hedid not strike, he would fail in duty. He chose the better sin, tostrike the blow.

In sum, when confronted with errors of sufficient gravity, tolerancewas a greater sin than violence. Many Church Fathers agreed.Jerome, whose edition and translation of the Bible into Latinestablished the standard text for more than a millennium, was quiteclear that normal restraints did not apply when punishing anoffense against God: "There is no cruelty in regard for God'shonor." Quoting Psalm 138, Jerome argued not for love, but forhating with a "perfect hatred" those who "hate God." JohnChrysostom, whose writings acquired an importance in the Greek Eastroughly comparable to that of Augustine in the Latin West, produceda more pugilistic prose, but his point was the same: "should youhear anyone ... blaspheming God; go up to him and rebuke him; andshould it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so. Smitehim on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify thy hand with theblow." Chrysostom himself was charged by a synod of bishops withpunching a certain Memnon in the face, then forcing him to takecommunion while bleeding from the mouth. Had he known the words ofthe early fifth-century Egyptian monk Shenoute, he might havequoted them in his own defense: "There is no crime for those whohave Christ."

I do not mean to suggest that Christians (or anyone else) found theuse of physical violence in religious disputes unproblematic. Therewere doubtless many who would have agreed that Chrysostom went toofar. Did not the Apostolic Canons-- produced in Chrysostom'sAntioch in the mid to late fourth century-- forbid clerics tostrike an errant believer? "In no way did our Lord teach this--indeed he was struck and did not strike back." We will return tothe question of whether the Lord did or did not strike back, sinceit was a question much debated in the day. My point here is thatChristians did not speak with one voice, that those supportingreligious coercion were not marginal, and that the violence theythreatened was widely felt, not only by non-Christians (pagans,Jews, Manichees, and so on) but also by many a believer in Christ.

It is this last category that most interests Gaddis. He does notskip over the destruction of temples or the burning of synagogues,but the bulk of his pages is intended as a disheartening chronicleof the destruction that Christian sectarians armed with weapons ofstate could wreak upon one another. The word "sectarianism" isGaddis's. He uses it to imply a comparison with modern religiousviolence (a parallel with contemporary Islamic extremism isoccasionally adumbrated in the footnotes), and he defines it interms borrowed from Mary Douglas: "sectarian bias" means "polarizedarguments, persons shown in black and white contrasts, evil andgood, and nothing in between." "The dangers to the sectarian idealare worldliness and conspiracy.... The remedies most easilyproposed in such organizations are to refuse to compromise withevil and to root it out, accompanied by a tendency towardintolerance and drastic solutions." The definition is perhaps notvery helpful: Gaddis sometimes cloaks his arguments in preta-portergeneralizations (returning too often to the same line by HannahArendt, about violence beginning as means but ending as ends). Butthe occasional bagginess does not conceal the underlying eleganceof the history that he tells.

Gaddis begins that history with the conflict that broke out in theaftermath of the persecutions in the late third century, as thelast pagan emperors confronted the rapidly growing Christianmovement. The Donatists refused to recognize clerics who had deniedout of fear their allegiance to Christ, however temporary thatdenial. The Catholics, on the other hand, insisted on the ongoingauthority of priests and bishops who had bowed under compulsion butthen returned to the church. The resulting struggle would lastnearly a century, during which both sides wrestled for the mantleof martyrdom and the title of persecuted church. This title wasimportant, because from its earliest days the Jesus movement hadunderstood its persecution (by Jews, by pagans, by Satan and hisprincipalities) as evidence of its righteousness. With Christians inpower, the language of persecution changed its targets but did notlose its force. Rival churches were now the enemy, and theChristian governors that favored them were the persecuting tyrants.But our church, the true church, no matter how powerful orpolitically dominant, remained persecuted and martyred.

Because the title of persecuted church was so powerful, there wereplenty of candidates for it. Gaddis begins with the Donatists, butgoes on to chronicle the numerous confrontations, whetherChristological, ecclesiological, or political, that produced thefractured religious landscape of the late Roman Empire. Anomoiansversus Homoians versus Homoousians; monks versus bishops;Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople against oneanother.... The violent conflicts and scandals of this era of"robber councils" and militarized monks are the caffeine thatcarries Gibbon through many pages of his great work, and theyenergize Gaddis as well.

He demonstrates nicely how the resulting spiral ofinter-ecclesiastical violence led many an exhausted bishop toconclude that imperial officials were a necessary counterbalance torighteous patriarchs: hence the deliberate inclusion of generals,governors, and senators at the great church council of Chalcedon,which sought to establish consensus about the human and divinenature of Jesus Christ. But secular force, however stabilizing, didnot eliminate the feeling (or the reality) of persecution in thoseprovinces, such as Egypt, whose populations held views that came tobe labeled heterodox. For many in these regions, the Christianemperor was a persecuting tyrant, and they may well have welcomedthe armies of Islam--whose dust clouds loom just over the horizonsof this book--as harbingers of religious freedom.

Religious coercion and violence of this type will strike some modernreaders as incompatible with a Christian faith that teaches that"God is love." This "incompatibility" was perhaps less sharp forancient Christians, who did not think that God's love excluded hisanger or his jealousy; but still they worried about the problem agood deal. As usual, one of the most constructive of these worrierswas Augustine, and the solution that he proposed in (among otherplaces) his Epistle 185 proved enduring:

It is indeed better, as no one ever could deny, that men should beled to worship God by teaching, than that they should be driven toit by fear of punishment or pain; but it does not follow thatbecause the former course produces the better men, therefore thosewho do not yield to it should be neglected. For many have foundadvantage, as we have proved, and are proving daily by actualexperiment, in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that theymight afterwards be influenced by teaching.... While those arecertainly better who are guided aright by love, those are certainlymore numerous who are corrected by fear.... "He that spareth therod hateth the son."

In other words, the violence of the true church was justifiedbecause it was motivated by love, and in the best spiritualinterest of the victim: "she persecutes in the spirit of love; they[the impious] in the spirit of wrath; she that she might correct,they that they might overthrow." The metaphors that apply to thisChristian violence are those of child-rearing, shepherding, andmedicine. We pull the hair of children who are about to play withserpents, and we cut gangrene from the sick no matter how much theycry. If children were never disciplined, would they not grow up tobe intolerable? Through such "disciplinary violence"--the phrase isGaddis's, not Augustine's--God corrects creation, parents andteachers correct children, and the church of Christ corrects thosewho do not believe in her truth.

We need not adhere to the parenting techniques of Augustine's age(in the Confessions he compares learning grammar in school tomartyrdom, so often were the students beaten) in order to recognizethat there is nothing trivial about his claim that compulsion canbe an act of love. From a parent's perspective, Augustine's viewprobably makes far more sense than Kant's enlightened argumentagainst any coercion of children. In less careful hands thanAugustine's, however, it becomes difficult to know where "toughlove" ends and righteous abuse begins. Medieval theologians andcrusaders considered the killing of Muslims an "act of love,"because the victims were thereby prevented from living to commitmore mortal sins. The difference between "sharp mercy" and "uttermercilessness" was so small for Martin Luther that he used the twoas synonyms in 1543 in his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies.

Moreover, the paternalistic claim here is not limited to children,to Jews, or to others commonly agreed to be especially deficient inreason. It is extended to all humanity. No matter their age orreligion, no one may be allowed total freedom to follow their willor their reason if it leads them into error. This view was by nomeans confined to the Catholicism of late antiquity, the MiddleAges, or the Counter-Reformation. It provided a powerful strandalso in the church's modern critique of liberalism. To granthumanity the right of freedom of conscience would be, in the viewof Pope Pius IX in 1864, "delirium."

Gaddis calls the Constantinian period of the union betweenChristianity and Roman Empire a "time of unique importance."Certainly no one who reads this book will fail to appreciate thedouble bind in which the sectarian monks and bishops of Gaddis'sworld found themselves: struggling with new weapons of state forthe universal validity of each of their various particular truths,but subject to the rule of emperors who prized unity, stability, andconsensus above all. It may well be, as Arnaldo Momigliano oncesuggested, that the resulting mess is evidence that monotheism wasnot well suited to the task of managing diversity in ancientempires. Still, it would be useful to know just how "unique" thesedifficulties were. Is the Christian problem with violence entirelythe contingent product of a spiritual faith's necessary compromisesas it assumed imperial power? If so, then it should be possible toreturn, through Christian reform, to the pristine love of a moreprimitive church. Or is the potential for violence in some wayembedded within the fundamental beliefs of Christianity itself?

The question has for centuries been a loaded one. Gibbon, in thefifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,suggested that the origins of the problem lay not with empire, butwithin the institutional structures of the church, and above all inthe ambitions of its bishops. Primitive Christians would havenothing to do with power, Gibbon declared. They "refused to takeany active part in the civil administration or the military defenseof the empire .. . [and were] dead to the business and pleasures ofthe world; but their love of action ... soon revived, and found anew occupation in the government of the Church." Coercion andcompulsion were the result. Echoing Locke's essay on toleration,Gibbon granted that "it is the undoubted right of every society toexclude from its communion and benefits such among its members asreject or violate those regulations which have been established bygeneral consent." But many bishops (Cyprian of Carthage is afavorite culprit) became "rigid and inflexible casuists,"abandoning the "milder sentiments" of the "purest and mostrespectable of the Christian Churches," and "covering their ambitionwith the fair pretense of the love of order." And more: "Sometimeswe might imagine that we were listening to the voice of Moses, whenhe commanded the earth to open, and to swallow up, in consumingflames, the rebellious race which refused obedience to thepriesthood of Aaron; and we should sometimes suppose that we hearda Roman consul asserting the majesty of the republic, and declaringhis inflexible resolution to enforce the rigor of the laws."According to the Protestant Gibbon, then, the bishops of the earlychurch displayed "Mosaic" tendencies toward love of power,compulsion, and theocracy long before they were ushered into thehalls of imperial palaces.

Writing roughly a century later, around 1900, the great Germantheologian Adolph Harnack pushed the problem even further back.Beginning with Paul if not already before, he argued, earlyChristian thought drew heavily on metaphors of war and violentcombat. Early Christians were the militia Christi, the "army ofChrist," locked in combat with demons, and bound to God theirgeneral and to each other through the "sacramentum," the soldier'sloyalty oath. Non- Christians were at best pagani, "civilians" inthis struggle. At worst they were, like Jews and persecutingemperors, the enemies of Christ's militia, soldiers of Satan andhis Principalities. According to Harnack, such sentiments, and thepotential for violent action that they might facilitate, were aliento the teachings of Jesus himself. But they had been an essentialpart of Christianity's mother religion, Judaism, and it was onlynatural that the young daughter-church could not quite shake thisinheritance.

Much as we might want to know the answers to these questions aboutearlier Christianity, it was perhaps prudent of Gaddis not toengage them, given the polemics that they seem to provoke. He doesdedicate two pages of his introduction to Christian violence beforeConstantine, and in these he alludes to the tendency of earlyChristianity to postulate "a world sharply divided between truthand falsehood, beset by perceived enemies both outside and within." He goes no further, beyond a gesture to Elaine Pagels's work onhow first- and second-century theologians "demonized" theirenemies. But his book contains plenty of evidence that when hisangry fourth- and fifth-century clerics asked themselves, as theyfrequently did, "What would Jesus do?" they found sufficientjustification for their actions in the records they had of hiswords and deeds. In this sense, their arguments are themselves anearly inquiry into the potential for violence and compulsion in theteachings of Jesus Christ.

The trial by synod of Bishop Rabbula on charges of beating clericsprovides a case in point. The bishop defended himself by invokingthe example of Jesus, who chased the money changers out of thetemple. His colleague Theodore of Mopsuestia contradicted him,citing Matthew 21:12: Jesus overturned the tables, and "drove out"(exebalen) the money changers, but he never hit anyone. Yetaccording to John 2:14-16, Jesus had wielded a whip of cords(phragellion ek skhoinion). Did he use it against people, as BishopRabbula insisted, or only against livestock, as Theodore claimed?All the scriptural passages that suggest a Jesus willing to useforce were subjected to this kind of scrutiny in late antiquity.The same is true of those passages that could endorse compulsion inreligion. Did Jesus not say, in his parable of the banquet, "Go tothe open roads and the hedgerows and force people to come in to makesure my house is full?" This, for Augustine, was evidence thatpeople should be "compelled to follow righteousness."

We can see these exegetical sensitivities at work in many of thestories that Christians told about violence, even when they cite noscripture. Julian the Apostate, for example, died of woundsincurred at an unknown hand in battle against Persia in 363.Although Julian did not persecute Christians, his attempt tore-orient the empire toward pagan worship had made him, from thechurch's point of view, a persecutor and tyrant. Not surprisingly, a"revenge" legend about his death became widespread:

Basil, the most holy bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, saw in adream the heavens opened and the Savior Christ seated on a throneand saying loudly, "Mercurius, go and kill the emperor Julian, whois against the Christians." Saint Mercurius, standing before theLord, wore a gleaming iron breast-plate. Hearing the command, hedisappeared, and then he reappeared, standing before the Lord, andcried out, "The emperor Julian has been fatally wounded and hasdied, as you commanded, Lord."

To those raised in more modern versions of Christianity, theseancient stories may sound more like The Godfather than like the Godof love. This is not because our ears are better than theirs, butbecause theirs were attuned to a register of Jesus' voice that manytoday can no longer hear: "As for my enemies who did not want mefor their king, bring them here and execute them in my presence."

The point of Michael Gaddis's book is surely not that Christianityhas a propensity for violence, or that its professions of love arehypocritical. Its point is simpler, more banal, and, although it ismentioned almost in passing, much more important: that "Christianscripture and doctrine contained the basis both for violence andfor the condemnation of violence." The same could be said of everyrich scriptural tradition in the world. The great Christiantheologians of late antiquity seem not to have forgotten thisambivalence; and neither, at a time when religions are againbeginning to test their moral muscles against one another, shouldwe.

By David Nirenberg