On Military Force

by St. Ambrose of Milan

This is reprinted from the Nov. 11th, 2010 entry on the excellent blog Lord, I have cried unto Thee.

This being Veterans’ Day here in the USA, it is a time when we are compelled to rightfully give thanks to our countrymen who serve and have served in our armed forces, especially in times of war.

Understandably, this can be difficult for the Christian conscience. How can we condone killing when we are explicitly told to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies? Well, this is nothing new for Christians, and I figured I would share some words of St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) in regard to the matter. The material I’m sharing here is from Message of the Fathers of the Church: The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, by Louis J. Swift (pp. 97-102).

It is important to note that St. Ambrose writes in the fourth century, at a time when Christianity went from being persecuted to being tolerated, then to being adopted by the Roman Empire as the official imperial faith. It should not be surprising for us, then, that Christians were having to come to terms with the reality that human existence would be fraught with violence, no matter how much we might want to turn the other cheek. St. Ambrose’s words reflect this and contributed to the emerging voice that Christians would have when it came to dealing with matters of national security.

I don’t make this post as some kind of political expression, but simply to illustrate how early Christians began to come to terms with this difficult matter. There are parallels to current American politics and society, but they are not exact, as America is not officially a Christian nation. However, in looking at the Christian response to its increasing civic responsibility in its early centuries, we can reflect on what it means to approach the reality of war with sobriety and with a wish to behave, in the most unseemly of human interactions, in the best way possible, so as to try and glorify God in all things.

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[O]ne must keep in mind that Ambrose’s election as bishop in 374 AD occurred while he was enjoying a distinguished public career and was, in fact, governor of the province of Aemilia-Liguria in Northern Italy. It should come as no surprise, then, that his attitudes on war and violence were much influenced by Roman sentiments of justice, loyalty, courage and public responsibility.

Ambrose says quite plainly that

“the kind of courage which is involved in defending the empire against barbarians, or protecting the weak on the home front or allies against plunderers is wholly just” (On the Duties of the Clergy 1.27.129).

He talks of courage in war as noble and comely

“because it prefers death to slavery and disgrace” (Duties 1.41.201),

and he speaks with pride about the fearlessness of Old Testament figures such as Joshua, Jonathan and Judas Maccabeus (1.40.195). If a man fighting for personal gain deserves condemnation, that same individual is in quite a different position when he risks his life for the welfare of his country.

There is nothing that goes against nature as much as doing violence to another person for the sake of one’s own advantage. Natural feeling argues that we ought to look out for everyone else, to lighten the other man’s burdens and to expend our efforts on his behalf. Any man wins a glorious reputation for himself if he strives for universal peace at personal risk to himself. Everyone believes it is much more commendable to protect one’s country from destruction than to protect oneself from danger and that exerting oneself for one’s country is much superior to leading a peaceful life of leisure with all the pleasures it involves (Duties 3.3.23).

[…]It would be simplistic and misleading, however to suggest that Ambrose is merely putting the stamp of Christian approval on common Roman practices and principles while paying little attention to the evangelical precepts about peace and forbearance. He is aware that the

“whole purpose of virtue and physical courage is to re-establish peace when war is over” and that “military courage itself very often militates against peace” (Discourse on Psalm 118, 21.17).

He states unequivocably [sic.] that

“it is not permissible for a Christian to withhold his love even from his enemies” (ibid. 12.51),

and he is sensitive to the different approaches that are called for by the Old and the New Law in this regard:

The law calls for reciprocal vengeance; the Gospel commands us to return love for hostility, good will for hatred, prayers for curses. It enjoins us to give help to those who persecute us, to exercise patience toward those who are hungry and to give thanks for a favor rendered (Discourse on Luke’s Gospel 5.37).

For Ambrose one of the most obvious instances in which this advice is to be followed quite literally is in the matter of personal self-defense. On this point the Bishop of Milan, in his Duties of the Clergy is a pacifist.

Some people inquire whether a wise man caught in a shipwreck can or should take a life preserver away from a fool. Though common opinion would argue that it is better to have the wise man escape drowning than a fool, it does not seem to me that a Christian who is both wise and just should try to save his own life at the expense of another’s. Indeed, even if a man comes up against an armed thief, he cannot return blow for blow lest in the act of protecting himself he weaken the virtue of love. The Gospel supports this position in a clear and obvious way: ‘Put up your sword; everyone who kills with the sword will be killed by it’ (Matt. 26.52). Who is more detestable than the thief, the persecutor who approached Christ with an eye to bring about his death. But Christ who sought to cure everyone through his own wounds did not want to be protected by doing harm to his persecutors (Duties 3.4.27).

Violent self-defense is unacceptable in Ambrose’s view because it inevitably destroys the virtue of love — elsewhere called piety — which unites man to God and is the foundation of all the other virtues. Harming an assailant in order to protect one’s own life or property is tantamount to preferring a human good to a divine one, and such a reversal of the proper hierarchy of values undercuts any benefit that might accrue from preserving one’s life.

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The same principle does not apply, however, whenever a third party is involved.

Here Ambrose is very explicit.

The glory that courage brings resides not only in strength of arm and body but in the virtue of the soul, and the essence of the virtue is not to be found in inflicting injury but in preventing it. For anyone who does not prevent an injury to a companion, if he can do so, is as much at fault as he who inflicts it. Following this principle Holy Moses provided an early proof of his courage. For when he saw a Jew being injured by an Egyptian, he defended his countryman to the point of killing the Egyptian and hiding him in the sand (Duties 1.36.178).

The significance of this statement for the development of Christian ideas on violence and war is difficult to exaggerate. What is denied to an individual in his own case is not only permitted but morally required of him when it comes to defending another against aggression. Moreover, the example cited by Ambrose makes it evident that he is not thinking of passive resistance alone. The responsibility for looking out for one’s neighbor can require a person to use force on another’s behalf even to the point of taking an aggressor’s life. … For all subsequent discussion of the problem of war in a Christian context this is a critical point…

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