On Christianity, promoter of violence and promoter of peace

William T. Cavanaugh weighs the mixed legacy of the church.



William T. Cavanaugh weighs the mixed legacy of the church.

Christianity throughout history has been both a promoter of peace and a promoter of violence, in different ways. The early Christians, for the first three centuries, assumed that what Christ’s sacrifice meant was that you would prefer to go to your death rather than shed blood. And so the early Christian church is full of martyrs, and the few Christians that joined the Roman military were most often criticised by their fellows. It’s not until the Roman emperor himself becomes a Christian in the fourth century that Christians begin to develop justifications for the shedding of blood. So Christianity has been a force for peace and a force for violence. 

Constantine himself says that his victory over his rival at the Milvian Bridge in 312 was because he saw a sign in the sky of a cross saying in this sign you’ll conquer. And so the cross can be a sign of conquering; it can also be a sign of martyrdom. It’s been used in both ways. But you find also, I think, throughout the Middle Ages that there are serious attempts to invoke the gospel as a way of limiting violence. People don’t forget that Jesus says turn the other cheek, love your enemies, bless those who persecute you – and so there are very serious attempts to put restraints on violence. The just war tradition is an idea that says you have to meet these very stringent criteria in order to justify departing from the central core of Christianity, which is non-violence. There are things like the Truce of God and the Peace of God that put certain people, and certain places, and certain times off limits from war during the Middle Ages.  

And so it’s a very mixed kind of legacy. But I think that you promote peace, not by marginalising the gospel, or not by taking the gospel less seriously, but you promote peace by taking it more seriously, and taking seriously the idea that God comes and walks among us, and we do violence to him, and he offers forgiveness rather than a kind of continuation of the cycle of violence. That, I think, is the heart of Christianity.