There is a great irony that occurs every November 11th in the life of the Church. Nowadays most churches in the West have chosen on that day to commemorate Veterans Day. It is a day set-aside by many churches to honor those Christians who have bravely served in the military. However, historically throughout the centuries, the Church has paused on that very day for quite a different reason. Traditionally, November 11th was set aside by the Church to reflect on the life of a Christian military deserter named Martin of Tours.
Martin was born in AD 316, four years after Constantine became emperor. It was a time when the Roman Empire was in major transition. In the decade before Martin’s birth, Christians faced severe persecution from the Emperor Diocletian, who in AD 303 passed edicts that ordered the destruction of all Christian places of worship and the death of any Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman pagan gods. But with the conversion of Constantine in AD 313, Christianity became a legal religion. Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman Empire, and by AD 321 (at the time when Martin was five years old) Christianity had become the established religion of the empire. During Martin’s childhood, Christianity shifted from being an intensely persecuted religious sect to being the official religion of the Romans. Christianity was now powerful and central.
Martin was born into a non-Christian family. His father had progressed through the ranks of the Roman army to the point of becoming a senior officer. The military mindset was so engrained in the minds of Martin’s parents that they chose to name him after Mars, the god of war. Most historians believe that during this time the Romans had a policy that required sons of military officers to join the army. Against his will, Martin was assigned to a cavalry unit. Thankfully, for the first couple years, Martin’s unit saw no combat since their orders were to protect the emperor during ceremonies.
During this time, Martin attempted to live more like a monk than a soldier. For example, military officers in the Roman army each received a servant. However, Martin switched roles with his servant. He would clean his servant’s boots, instead of the other way around.
One day Martin’s regiment was sent to Gaul (present-day France). His once ceremonial unit would now see combat. It was in Gaul, on a bitterly cold winter day, that Martin’s life would forever be changed. That day as he rode his horse to the gates of the city Amiens, Martin met a poorly dressed beggar. The man was huddled beside the gate, shivering in the cold. Overcome with compassion, Martin stepped down from his horse, took off his warm wool cloak, cut it in half with his sword, wrapped the one half around the freezing beggar, and then attempted to keep himself warm with the remaining half.
That night Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half of the cloak he had given the beggar. In his dream, Jesus remarked to the angels and saints surrounding Him, “See, this is the half-cloak that Martin gave me, though he has yet to be baptized.”
The next morning, on the day before a planned battle, Martin committed his life fully to Christ and then laid down his weapons, saying to his military commanders, “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not permissible for me to fight. I will not draw sword again.” When ridiculed as a coward, he offered to stand unarmed in front of the ranks. He would rather be slain than slay. Martin chose to risk death in order to love his enemies.
It is this event that the Church throughout the centuries has paused to remember every November 11th. Needless to say, this day now signifies a drastic contrast in the life of the Church.
On the very day when throughout history churches have paused to honor the Christian soldier who would not fight, we now honor those Christian soldiers who do.
Regardless of our personal stance on the matter, hopefully we can all agree that November 11th serves as a stark reminder that the Church throughout time and place has often taught and embodied opposite ethical stances on the permissibility of Christians using violence.