I was always surprised by the great enthusiasm that many American Christians had for the war in Iraq, to the extent that some even perceived it as a "spiritual war" led by a Christian president. This is in spite of the purported devotion of Christians to "the God of peace" and to "the Prince of Peace," who said "blessed are the peacemakers," and of whom it was said that he would "guide our feet into the way of peace."
Evangelical Christians provided a critical base of support for the war. In October 2002 it was reported that "some 69 percent of conservative Christians favor military action against Baghdad; 10 percentage points more than the U.S. adult population as a whole." This war even found support from Christian Mark Hatfield, former senator from Oregon, who opposed the Vietnam war.
Various apologetic articles in favor of war appeared, including one in Christanity Today that said Christians were not afraid to wield the sword in behalf of the Roman empire.
But support for war is not universal among conservative Christians. For example, the web site of the Orthdox Church in America notes that
if a man will be perfect and give his life totally to Christ, he will of necessity renounce military service as well as any political service which always and of necessity is involved with relativistic values and greater and lesser evils and goods. Such a man will also renounce his possessions and follow Christ totally and in everything. Thus total pacifism is not only possible, it is the sign of greatest perfection, the perfection of the Kingdom of God.
And in very early Christianity one finds nearly universal opposition to the idea that Christians can engage in war:
"We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies." Justin Martyr
"I decline military command." Tatian
"We are not to draw an outline of ... a sword or a bow, since we follow peace." Clement of Alexandria
"The Christian does no harm even to his enemy." Tertullian
"Is it lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? Will the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?" Tertullian
"So the more anyone excels in godliness, the more effective the help is that he renders to kings. This is a greater help than what is given by soldiers who go forth to fight and kill as many of the enemy as they can." Origen
"Our prayers defeat all demons who stir up war. . . Accordingly, in this way, we are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them." Origen
"And murder - which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual - is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless- but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!" Cyprian
"Why would [the just man] carry on war and mix himself with the passions of others when his mind is engaged in perpetual peace with men?" Lactantius
"Is the [military] laurel of triumph made of leaves, or of corpses? Is it adorned with ribbons, or with tombs? Is it wet with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers? It may be made of some [dead] Christians too. For Christ is also believed among the barbarians. Tertullian
After Constantine war does become more acceptable to the Christian community, eventually developing into today's enthusiasm for the sword.
But the differing views of war in the current American Christian community really evoke earlier civilizations and gods. In other words, the Christian discussion about war can be understood not as a discussion about the Prince of Peace, but as a discussion about the divine personification of war, namely the god of war.
Both the Romans and the Greeks had a god of war, Mars and Ares, but there were significant differences between the two. One web site describes the difference thus:
Mars, the Roman God of War, was one of the most worshipped and revered gods throughout ancient Rome. He was the son of Jupiter and Juno and according to legend, fathered Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, with the vestal virgin Rhea Silvia. Because of this mythological lineage, the Roman people felt as though they were also the children of Mars and he was regarded as their protector. Mars held a special place in the Roman Pantheon not only for his patronly influence, but because of the importance of military achievement in the republic and the Roman Empire, conquering Northern Africa and much of Europe and the Middle East.
Unlike Mars, Ares never enjoyed the popularity of his Roman counterpart. Ares was tall and handsome, but vain and cruel. He was known as the despicable god of war, who "delights in the slaughter of men and the sacking of towns." Ares was loathed by all the other gods, including his own parents, Zeus (Jupiter) and Hera (Juno). He was loved only by his sister, Eris (Discord), her son, Strife, and oddly enough by the beautiful Aphrodite (the Roman Venus).
Ares fathered many children with Aphrodite, including his constant companions on the battle field, Phobos (Panic), and Deimos (Fear). They would become the names of the red planet's two moons. The animal sacred to Ares was the vulture - associated with death. There were no Greek cities where Ares was worshipped.
The very early Christians and the Christians of today who adhere to like values understood war as Ares: however attractive on the surface, war is fundamentally cruel, brutal, and ugly, and cannot be engaged in without great spiritual damage.
But many politically conservative American Christians see war as Mars: attractive, useful in accomplishing your goals, worthy of admiration. In this sense the worship of Mars ironically continues to this day, and in our own country, by followers of the Prince of Peace. Thus the quest for empire vanquishes not only other countries, but Christianity as well.