The Martinian Difference: Fight or Serve

In my last post on the subject, I described the error in conflating the Question of Killing with the Question of Military Service. This mix up isn’t just a product of modern war, either, the Church has been trying to figure it out for some time.

We know that two early theologians, Tertullian and Origen, refused to baptize soldiers unless they left the military and threatened excommunication to Christians who joined after being baptized. Because we have writings of theirs like this, we can safely assume some soldiers came to be baptized (see Luke 3:14 for example) and some confirmed Christians expressed interest in becoming soldiers or were conscripted (like Maximilian of Tebessa), otherwise why would they have written them? The term “Christian soldier,” to these two theologians at least, was mutually exclusive; you could not be both, for to be one prohibited you from being the other. But this was to confuse military service itself with specific acts which not all soldiers do, like killing.

The typical Latin way to refer to a soldier, miles, has more to do with orderly service than belligeri, Latin for “men who wage war.” Notice the subtle reference to thousands, milia, like the modern metric system, milli. The emphasis is on order and quantity, not so much on martial strength. One Christian soldier highlights this distinction between serving and fighting, between miles and pugnare, better than most others.

Martin of Tours was born in 316, just four years after the Emperor Constantine had a famous vision in the midst of battle, the effect of which was the decisive end to all formal persecution of Christians in Rome. Martin’s dad was a veteran, which may have been why he was named after Mars, the Roman god of war. Being a male military brat also meant he would be obligated to serve just as his father had. When he reluctantly joined up, he was assigned to the unit that guarded Caesar himself, the Praetorian Guard. Just like the Secret Service doesn’t go to war very often, Martin wouldn’t have expected to see much combat.


Saint Martin cuts his cloak in half. Stained glass in Basilique de Saint Martin in Tours, France.

One winter when the emperor was in Amiens, in northern France (it was called Gaul at the time), Martin encountered a freezing beggar. As an aspiring Christian, he desired to help the poor man, but had only his luxurious lambskin cape which had been issued to him. Cutting it in half, he clothed the freezing beggar and went on his way. That night he dreamt of Christ addressing the heavenly host, saying “Here is Martin, not even baptized, who has clothed me.” The next day, he goes to be baptized and becomes a Christian.

Most pacifists, including Martin’s own biographer, read this incident and want to believe that he immediately leaves the army for good. But this isn’t quite right. According to the biography, the moment which leads to his reluctant departure from the military doesn’t occur for another 20 years, at the Battle of Worms. Sulpice, his biographer, insists the episode in Amiens occurs only a few years after entering the military, which the historical record supports. However, that same historical record makes clear that Julian is not in Worms, whereMartin makes his stand against war, until 356. If Martin was born in 316, he entered the army in 331 at age 15. Then, 25 years later, he finds himself on the battlefield for the first time.

If this sounds like a stretch, remember – the Secret Service deployed to warzones with Presidents Bush and Obama even though it is not a central feature of their occupation. But now imagine that the men and women in black identify not as an “agent,” but as a “soldier,” because that is what members of the Roman imperial guard were. Martin could distinguish between serving by protecting the life of an earthly ruler from fighting indiscriminately in war. As Caesar Julian reviews his troops, giving them a pep talk on the eve of battle, Martin interrupts loudly;

Christi ego miles sum: pugnare mihi non licet,

“I am a soldier of Christ, it is not lawful for me to fight.”

Listen to how he distinguishes between service and fighting; Christi ego miles sum: pugnare mihi non licet, “I am a soldier of Christ, it is not lawful for me to fight.” His service as a soldier is to Christ, and this service forbids the kind of fighting found on the battlefield. There is nothing wrong with being a soldier, and even Paul uses martial metaphors in his letters, but there is something that Christians pushback against when that service requires blind obedience and indiscriminate violence.

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