Foreign Policy Blogs

Not Peace, But A Sword

As I’ve written of Passover and Chanukah, Easter too is, ultimately, a story about the oppressed becoming the oppressors.  One can interpret the Gospels to mean that Jesus advocated violence.  After all, he did say “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), though many disagree on the meaning of the passage and the appropriate translation.  He himself committed violence, driving people from the temple, using a whip to do so, according to John 2:15.  But in general his story is interpreted as being one of non-violent resistance waged under the banner of the Golden Rule and pacifism.

When the powerless are empowered, though, the typical pattern plays itself out.  Jonathan Kirsch, in God Against The Gods, recounts the aftermath of the AD 313 Edict of Milan, which intended to usher in an era of religious toleration in the Roman Empire after an age of perpetual persecutions of Christians:

By the greatest irony of all, the freedom of religion that Lieinius and Constantine established at Milan was the source of a wholly new kind of terror.  For the true believer in monotheism, as we have already seen, the freedom to embrace any faith raised the risk that some benighted men and women would embrace the wrong faith.  For the Christian rigorists, that risk was itself intolerable: “So, in the century opened by the Peace of the Church,” explains Ramsay MacMullen, “more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions.”  With the Peace of the Church begins a new, remarkable and terrible phenomenon – some Christians hastened to turn themselves from the persecuted to the persecutors.

Another test of Christianity came in 1756, in an event noted in the book I reviewed recently for The Mantle.  The Quakers, devoted pacifists, held power in the Pennsylvania colonial assembly, and refused to respond militarily to acts of terrorism committed by Native Americans against Pennsylvania frontier residents.  Military action, even in defense, the Quakers believed, would contradict their pacific principles.  But the Native American raids continued, political pressure on the Quakers mounted, and they decided to resign, in part so they could escape blame for the atrocities.

The Quaker abdication paved the way for the political rise of Benjamin Franklin, who took the view that there was no viable peaceful option, or as he put it, “I do not believe we shall ever have a firm peace with the Indians, till we have well drubbed them.”  In historian Daniel Boorstin’s interpretation of the episode, the Quaker abdication indicates that the principles of pacifism and the responsibilities of political leadership are irreconcilable.  And this view endures, embodied in George Kennan’s statement that “a good deal of trouble comes from the anthropomorphic urge to regard nations as individuals and apply to our own national conduct, for instance, the Golden Rule…”  Either the oppressed become the oppressors (as in AD 313) or they are pushed from power (as in 1756).  Like Passover and Chanukah, the story of revolt against tyranny is inspiring, the ultimate result less so.