There’s an antebellum African-American spiritual song called “Down by the Riverside.” The song reflects upon being baptized and what it means for the one who receives the sacrament. Lines like “gonna try on my long white robe” and “gonna lay down my heavy load” are paired with “gonna lay down my sword and shield” and “ain’t gonna study war no more.”
This connection between being baptized and giving up violence is one that wouldn’t occur to many Christians. You can draw a path between the two from Scripture in a couple steps—from baptism as the sacrament that brings us into that faith, to Jesus’ exhortation that living that faith out requires nonviolence—but there is a more concrete relationship in the history of the early church.
The American Sacrament that Denies Allegiance to Christ
Here’s what the second century church father Tertullian had to say about the relationship between Christianity and going to war:
“Inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service… There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters— God and Cæsar” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, ch. 19).
Did you catch that reference to sacraments? Tertullian says that no one can take both a divine and human sacrament. Nowadays, sacrament is a church-y word that Christians use to describe a religious rite, such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Was Tertullian taking this Christian word and applying it metaphorically to serving Caesar as if it were some kind of counterfeit religious rite?
Actually, it was the opposite. The word “sacrament” was a pagan word which later took on a religious meaning for Christians.
In ancient Roman law and religious practice, a sacramentum was an oath or vow. In the first century B.C., Juliuss Caesar used the word to describe a military oath which recitation initiates the oath taker into the Roman military.
According to Daniel G. Van Slyke’s 2007 article, “The Changing Meanings of Sacramentum: Historical Sketches,” this military usage “soon became the primary referent of sacramentum in non-Christian authors” (p. 247, Antiphon 11.3, 2007)., it became primarily associated with the sacramentum militare, and this was the oath that Tertullian had in mind. The sacramentum, which functioned as a solemn, religious rite, was taken by soldiers as a loyalty pledge to the emperor.
Loyalty Pledge to the Emperor
According to the Roman military author Vegetius, in this sacrament, “the soldiers swear that they shall faithfully execute all that the Emperor commands, that they shall never desert the service, and that they shall not seek to avoid death for the Roman republic!” One not only had to be willing to die for Caesar on the field of battle, but the penalty for abdicating one’s responsibilities could be death.
The parallels with baptism seem obvious. A Christian who is baptized dies to self and former allegiances, joining the body of Christ to do Christ’s will. When Jesus asks His disciples in Mark 10:38-39 whether they are able to be baptized with the baptism that He will be baptized, the baptism is a baptism of death. The one who is baptized makes an oath of complete allegiance to Christ, even to the point of death.
R. Alan Streett, in his book Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance, summarizes Tertullian’s argument in this way:
“Tertullian… identified the act of baptism as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the emperor and Empire. By analogy, he makes the case that just as a soldier, upon his oath of allegiance, was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament (oath) of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.”
Tertullian’s argument was that one has to make a choice between which of the two sacraments he will take: will they pledge themselves to Caesar and keep studying war, or will they pledge themselves to Christ and commit to study war no more?
This is some interesting historical background about early Christianity perhaps, but what does it tell us about living in the world today? American in particular is said to be a Christian nation where God and military service don’t conflict. American soldiers don’t swear loyalty oaths to put the state above all other allegiances, do they?
Loyalty Pledge to Empire
As a matter of fact, they do. In the United States military, enlisted members are required to make this oath:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
But what about when an allegiance to the Constitution or an order from a superior contradicts one’s allegiance and orders from Christ?
The oath makes no exceptions for conscience or for allegiances outside of the United States system–God is only called on to be a witness to one’s commitment to the state–though a scrupulous soldier might risk disobeying what she deems to be an unlawful or unconstitutional order and hope to not be punished for it later–an improvement upon Caesar’s sacramentum to be sure, but has the Christian who takes this modern sacramentum truly freed herself from the impossible task of trying to serve two masters?
While Tertullian is concerned about Christians disobeying Christ’s commands of nonviolence, it is allegiance which he is most concerned about here. He writes that even where “there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments,” there is still nevertheless “no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament.” One’s allegiance must be to Christ.