Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: November 1991

November 1991

Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?

More than once I have noted Gordon C. Zahn expressing the idea that the early Church was nonviolent and pacifist, without being challenged about his opinion. Certainly, on the basis of the clear refusal of service in the Roman army by writers like Origen, scholars such as Adolf von Harnack earlier in this century held that early Christianity was pacifist, and today one can still find such an opinion in works published by university presses.

Yet Zahn’s reference to “the nonviolence and pacifism of the early Church,” most recently expressed in the September NOR, is at the least misleading, but more likely simply mistaken. First, it is unclear, before the first provincial and general councils in the fourth century, what it means to generalize about the early Church in Zahn’s manner, to speak of a position of the Church on such an issue. It would seem that at most one can speak of the positions of individual writers. But more importantly, such books as Christians and the Military: The Early Experience by John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns (1985) seem to show that there was no uniformity of opinion or practice within the Christian community. Possibly, there was a tendency toward pacifism among Church leaders, but apparently this only had a limited influence on the rank and file. There is so much we do not know, but in any case Helgeland et al. have gathered enough evidence to discredit Harnack’s and Zahn’s views of early Christian pacifism.

Prof. Glenn W. Olsen

Dept. of History, University of Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

Jewish Humor

My first issue of the NOR (Sept.) just arrived. Thanks especially for Daniel Bell’s particle on Jewish humor. Following Bell, I offer a lilt of favorite Jewish humor, one of my favorite stories: A vicious black bear escaped from a traveling circus in Russia and was seen going in the direction of a small village. The word immediately went out to shoot the bear on sight rather than to attempt to capture it. Jakov M., a member or the Jewish community, jumped up quickly and announced: “I’m getting out of town!” His friends asked why he wanted to leave so suddenly. Jakov replied, “I can see now that someone will get the idea to start killing Jews, and after I’m dead, you will have a tough time proving I wasn’t a black bear!”

Bob Mass

Bishop of Oakland

Dayton, Ohio

Bell & Russell

I enjoyed Daniel Bell’s article on Jewish humor (Sept.). It is a particular interest of mine. I am in admiration of the variety of your writers.

I was happy, again, to see Fr. Ken Russell appear in your pages (June). I hope things are going well.

The Most Rev. John S. Cummins

Oakland, California

Bell's Not-so-Common Tongue

Daniel Bell’s piece entitled “Some Serious Thoughts Jewish Humor” (Sept.) was evocative and perceptive, but I did have a problem with part of it. Not too far into the piece appears this comment: “The extraordinary fact is that in all Western classical languages, wisdom is the feminine principle.” Bell quotes the wisdom books as examples: She is “divine secret in the created world”; “she is an aura of the might of God — the refulgence of eternal light.”

Bell’s seeming puzzlement over the idea that wisdom should appear as the feminine is natural, I suppose. Men are the ones who have been seen and heard wrestling with the definition of wisdom, have delineated the parameters and perspectives of the questions. What reason would there be for the feminine principle to have any influence in the thinking about wisdom?

This particular section of the piece left me with a vivid image: A man stands triumphantly atop the wreckage of the planet, imperiously raising a banner on which is inscribed those intellectually penetrating questions of Kant which Bell cites: “What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? And: What is Man?”

“Wisdom,” says Bell, “is the understanding that arises from the transcendence of particularity and the translations of these experiences into the common tongue.” If half the wisdom of our common humanity has been ignored and despised over the centuries, it is hard to see how there can really be a common tongue.

Jean D. Brooks

Montpelier, Vermont

Re Judge Kelly

Upon reading Judge Patrick Kelly’s advice to the Wichita rescuers in wire service reports — “They’d better say farewell to their family and bring their toothbrush, and I mean it, because they’re going to jail. It’s that simple.” — I respond:

To carry toothbrush to jail/ would pointless be./ The only cavity’s where/ your heart should be.

C.H. Ross

Nashville, Tennessee

Fragmented Anglican Orthodoxy

Thanks for Bryant Burroughs’s article “The Discomforts of Rome” (Sept.). Indeed, it’s too bad J.I. Packer needs to see things through his own evangelical glasses.

Generally, though, Packer is a good theologian and a great asset in this age of Anglican sophistry. Also, he brings out something that is being ignored in the secularist/orthodox debate within the Anglican Communion: The Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and charismatics who form the basis of Anglican orthodoxy are at root divided because they define the faith differently. This may explain their lack of effectiveness.

Rev. Miguel Grave de Peralta

Fresno, California

Cundiff's Dilemma

At the risk of seeming presumptuous, I would suggest that William Cundiff’s dilemma, as expressed in his letter entitled “Better a Good Protestant than a Mediocre Catholic” (Sept.), is really whether he is a “good” Catholic or Protestant, and that the answer already lies within his heart.

Disagreements with the Catholic Church over doctrinal matters are not unusual. The critical matter is, what is Cundiff’s response to his disagreements with the Catholic Church he finds himself within? Is his response one of humility, obedience, and faith?

Is it humility through studying Church doctrines more deeply with an open heart and mind, trying to see the Church’s point of view, and being willing to acknowledge that, perhaps, it is his beliefs that need correction? Does Cundiff’s response reflect obedience through accepting these doctrines now, without intellectually understanding them? Does it show faith through believing that if his views are indeed God’s views, God will eventually lead His Church to accept them? Does it show faith through knowing that acceptance of these doctrines, in love and obedience, in spite of doubts, is a powerful form of prayer and offering to God? If Cundiff can, or even simply desires to, react in this way, then he already is a “good” Catholic despite his conflicts. Note that Cundiff can respond in these ways without giving up his current beliefs.

Is Cundiff’s reaction, on the other hand, one of rebellion, pride, and protest? In this event, Cundiff is already a “good” Protestant.

Rick S. Conason

New York, New York

What to Do About Poverty?

A New Oxford Review Forum on poverty was held August 24 at the Loyola Law School in downtown Los Angeles. The principal speakers were Jeff Dieterich of the L.A. Catholic Worker community and Fr. Frank Colborn, chaplain at the Claremont Colleges. Other participants in the stimulating dialogue that followed included a number of people who work in poverty programs, several with Catholic agencies, who drew on their direct experience with the homeless, the mentally ill, battered women, abused children, and the aged.

Dieterich spoke of his 20 years on L.A.’s Skid Row, admitting that, from a “worldly” standpoint, his Catholic Worker activities could be seen as a “consistent failure” in that they do not produce many measurable “results.” He denounced, however, the official programs for the homeless as mostly hypocritical “garbage-dump therapy,” which handles human beings as so much refuse, and described most programs for “rehabilitating” the poor, even if well-intended, as futile in that they succumb to the contemporary “idolatry” of middle-class materialist goals and professional techniques. He spoke passionately of the inhabitants of Skid Row, not as simply deprived or displaced, but as modern lepers sacrificed to the idols of wealth, power, and technological efficiency. Their need, more than government programs and social workers can offer, is the radical hope of the Gospel.

The Catholic Workers offer no encompassing “answer,” politically or economically, for poverty or homelessness, but believe that they must bear witness to “the crucifixion of the poor” among us, and offer human contact and solidarity. Dieterich dismissed liberal and even revolutionary politics as “panaceas.” Fundamentalist religion also fails the poor, he stated, by placing the burden of their plight strictly on individual sinfulness, thereby absolving society. The poor, he maintained, must have jobs, dignity, family life, and a sense of purpose.

Dieterich drew heavily on the writings of French Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul, who sees the whole of modern society as succumbing to the idolatry of technological progress. Following Ellul, he stressed the dichotomy between modern culture and Christian faith, and concluded that the only path to follow is that of the simplest commandments, to love God and our neighbor, and that to “be human” is to choose “servanthood, not power.”

Fr. Frank Colborn, an academic as well as a community activist, was in sympathy with much of what Dieterich said, but was less exhortative and carefully delineated his differences. He began by defining aspects of poverty: “absolute” poverty or destitution, which is a symptom of sin and an evil in itself; “relative” poverty, which is characterized by powerlessness and is often the result of injustice; and “spiritual” poverty, which he saw as a tragic “inability to love.” While expressing reservations about the term, if used to relativize the suffering of the poor, he stressed that we must first recognize our own “spiritual” poverty before we can cope with the poverty of others. There is also an “evangelical” poverty, in the tradition of the saints, in which austerity affirms faith and values.

Colborn was less despairing and condemnatory of the legacy of the Enlightenment than Dieterich, though he agreed (citing Robert Bellah) that the concept of the “common good” now seems eclipsed by extreme individualism and the myth of the marketplace’s “invisible hand.” Colborn identified his primary differences with Dieterich (and Ellubpas stemming from a different theology of sin and grace. While he agreed that Catholic theology may have been too optimistic in the past about human institutions, Dieterich/Ellul seem rooted in a Protestant overreaction which views the whole of the modern world as depraved. Human institutions, like individuals, Colborn contended, can be both good and bad, and, while needing “the purification, of the cross,” should not be abandoned. Colborn also made a defense of technology based upon economic necessity, asserting that “without modern technology, millions of our brothers and sisters will die of starvation.”

The discussion, which went into the late afternoon, centered on the fundamental question, as posed by Colborn: What is the Gospel message today for middle-class American Christians? The attempted answers elicited further questions and thought, but perhaps that is sufficient justification for our Forum.

Ronald Austin

Studio City, California

You May Also Enjoy

Letter to the Editor: April 2000

Two Sciences: Creationist vs. Evolutionist... You Orthodox Bigots!... An Insider Speaks... Oops, There Go The Dominoes?... Dismayed? You Betcha!

The Other Side of Mercy

Meditation on divine mercy is counterproductive if it crowds out our fear of Hell, along with our recognition that God can and will allow souls to go there.

A Case Against "Inclusive Language"

The debate over “inclusive language” rages on. The average parishioner may not follow the volleys…