Christian pacifism

Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows

Christian pacifism is the theological and ethical position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Christian pacifists state that Jesus himself was a pacifist who taught and practiced pacifism and that his followers must do likewise. Notable Christian pacifists include Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy,[1] and Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy believed that adherence to Christianity required not just pacifism but, because governments inevitably threatened or used force to resolve conflicts, anarchism. However, most Christian pacifists, including the peace churches, Christian Peacemaker Teams and individuals such as John Howard Yoder, make no claim to be anarchists.


Old Testament

Roots of Christian pacifism can be found in the scriptures of the Old Testament according to Baylor University professor of religion, John A. Wood.[2] Millard C. Lind explains the theology of warfare in ancient Israel as God directing the people of Israel to trust in Him, not in the warring way of the nations, and to seek peace not coercive power. Dr. Stephen B. Chapman expresses the Old Testament describes God's divine intervention, not human power politics, or the warring king, as key to the preservation of Israel.[3] Millard C. Lind asserts the Old Testament reflects that God occasionally sanctions, even commands wars to the point of God actually fighting utilizing the forces of nature, miraculous acts or other nations.[4] Millard C. Lind further argues God fights so that Israel doesn't have to fight wars like other nations because God delivers them.[4] God promised to fight for Israel, to be an enemy to their enemies and oppose all that oppose them (Exodus 23:22). Pacifist, John Howard Yoder explains God sustained and directed his community not by power politics but by the creative power of God's word, of speaking through the law and the prophets.[5] The scriptures in the Old Testament provide background of God's great victory over evil, sin and death. Dr. Stephen Vantassel contends the Old Testament exists to put the issue of war and killing in historical and situational context.[6]

Throughout the Old Testament, there is a movement in the role of war. Dr. Stephen B. Chapman, associate professor of Old Testament at Duke University asserts God used war to conquer and provide the Promised Land to Israel, and then to defend that land. The Old Testament explains that Israel does not have to fight wars like other nations because God delivers them.[3] Starting with the Exodus out of Egypt, God fights for Israel as a warrior rescuing His people from the oppressive Egyptians (Exodus 15:3). In Exodus 14:13 Moses instructs the Israelites, "The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still." The miraculous parting of the Red Sea is God being a warrior for Israel through acts of nature and not human armies.[4] God's promise to fight on behalf of His chosen people is affirmed in the scriptures of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 1:30).[7] According to Old Testament scholar, Peter C. Craige, during the military conquests of the Promised Land, the Israelites fought in real wars against real human enemies, however it was God who granted them victory in their battles.[7] Craige further contends God determined the outcome of human events with His participation through those humans and their activity; essentially God fought through the fighting of His people.[7] Once the Promised Land was secured, and the nation of Israel progressed, God used war to protect or punish the nation of Israel with His sovereign control of the nations to achieve His purposes (2 Kings 18:9–12, Jeremiah 25:8–9, Habakkuk 1:5–11). John Howard Yoder affirms as long as Israel trusted and followed God, God would work His power through Israel to drive occupants from lands God willed them to occupy (Exodus 23:27–33).[5] The future of Israel was dependent solely on its faith and obedience to God as mediated through the Law and prophets, and not on military strength.[2] Jacob Enz explains God made a covenant with His people of Israel, placing conditions on them that they were to worship only Him, and be obedient to the laws of life in the Ten Commandments.[8] When Israel trusts and obeys God, the nation prospered; when they rebelled, God spoke through prophets such as Ezekiel and Isaiah, telling Israel that God would wage war against Israel to punish her (Isaiah 59:15-19).[9] War was used in God's ultimate purpose of restoring peace and harmony for the whole earth with the intention towards salvation of all the nations with the coming of the Messiah and a new covenant. Jacob Enz describes God's plan was to use the nation of Israel for a higher purpose, and that purpose was to be the mediator between all the peoples and God.[8] The Old Testament reflects how God helped His people of Israel, even after Israel's repeated lapses of faith, demonstrating God's grace, not violence.[8]

The Old Testament explains God is the only giver of life and God is sovereign over human life. Man's role is to be a steward who should take care of all of God's creation, and that includes protecting human life. Peter Craige explains God's self-revelation through His participating in human history is referred to as "Salvation History."[7] The main objective of God's participation is man's salvation. God participates in human history by acting through people and in the world that is both in need of salvation, and is thus imperfect. God participates in the human activity of war through sinful human beings for His purpose of bringing salvation to the world.[7] Studies conducted by scholars Friedrich Schwally, Johannes Pedersen, Patrick D. Miller, Rudolf Smend and Gerhard von Rad maintain the wars of Israel in the Old Testament were by God's divine command.[4] This divine activity took place in a world of sinful men and activities, such as war. War is considered evil. God's participation through evil human activity such as war, was for the sole purposes of both redemption and judgment.[7] God's presence in these Old Testament wars does not justify or deem them holy, it serves to provide hope in a situation of hopelessness.[7] The sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13) and the fundamental principle it holds true is that reverence for human life must be given the highest importance. The Old Testament points to a time when weapons of war shall be transformed into the instruments of peace, and the hope for the consummation of the Kingdom of God when there will be no more war.[7] Professor John A. Wood points to the scriptures of Isaiah and Micah (Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:5; 11:1-9; and Micah 4:1-7) that express the pacifist view of God's plan to bring peace without violence.[2]

Ministry of Jesus

Jesus appeared to teach pacifism during his ministry when he told his disciples:[10]

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28)
Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9)

Early Church

Several Church Fathers interpreted Jesus' teachings as advocating nonviolence.[11] For example:

I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command... Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.
Tatian's Address to the Greeks 11[12]
Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.
The Apology of Aristides 15[13]
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.
One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.
Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 19: Concerning Military Service
For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.
Arnobius, Adversus Gentes I:VI[15]
Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.
Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man's piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.
Disputation of Archelaus and Manes[17]
How can a man be master of another's life, if he is not even master of his own? Hence he ought to be poor in spirit, and look at Him who for our sake became poor of His own will; let him consider that we are all equal by nature, and not exalt himself impertinently against his own race[...]
Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes[18]

However, many early Christians also served in the army,[19][20] and the presence of large numbers of Christians in his army may have been a factor in the conversion of Constantine to Christianity.[21]

Conversion of the Roman Empire

After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in A.D. 312 and began to conquer "in Christ's name," Christianity became entangled with the state, and warfare and violence were increasingly justified by influential Christians. Some scholars believe that "the accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history."[22] Nevertheless, the tradition of Christian pacifism was carried on by a few dedicated Christians throughout the ages, such as Martin of Tours. Martin, who was serving as a soldier, declared in 336 "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight."[23] He was jailed for this action, but later released.[23]

Since then, many other Christians have made similar stands for pacifism as the following quotes show:

The Scriptures teach that there are two opposing princes and two opposing kingdoms : the one is the Prince of peace ; the other the prince of strife. Each of these princes has his particular kingdom and as the prince is so is also the kingdom. The Prince of peace is Christ Jesus ; His kingdom is the kingdom of peace, which is His church; His messengers are the messengers of peace; His Word is the word of peace; His body is the body of peace; His children are the seed of peace.
Menno Simons (1494-1561), Reply to False Accusations, III[24]
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.’
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), "Loving your Enemies" in Strength to Love[25]
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one who has love, courage, and wisdom is the one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi.
Ammon Hennacy (1893 - 1970)[26]

Charles Spurgeon did not explicitly identify as a pacifist but expressed very strongly worded anti-war sentiment.[27]

Christian pacifist denominations

The first conscientious objector in the modern sense was a Quaker in 1815.[28] The Quakers had originally served in Cromwell's New Model Army but from the 1800s increasingly became pacifists. A number of Christian denominations have taken pacifist positions institutionally, including the Quakers and Mennonites.[29]

Peace churches

Main article: Peace churches
The Deserter (1916) by Boardman Robinson.

The term "historical peace churches" refers to three churches—the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites and the Quakers—who took part in the first peace church conference, in Kansas in 1935, and who have worked together to represent the view of Christian pacifism.


Main article: Christadelphians

Although the group had already separated from the Campbellites, a part of the Restoration Movement, after 1848 for theological reasons as the "Royal Assembly of Believers", among other names, the "Christadelphians" formed as a church formally in 1863 in response to conscription in the American Civil War. They are one of the few churches to have been legally formed over the issue of Christian pacifism.[30] The British and Canadian arms of the group adopted the name "Christadelphian" in the following year, 1864, and also maintained objection to military service during the First and Second World Wars. Unlike Quakers, Christadelphians generally refused all forms of military service, including stretcher bearers and medics, preferring non-uniformed civil hospital service.[31]

Churches of God (7th day)

The different groups evolving under the name Church of God (7th day) stand opposed to carnal warfare, based on Matthew 26:52; Revelation 13:10; Romans 12:19-21. They believe the weapons of their warfare to not be carnal but spiritual (II Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:11-18).[32][33]

Seventh-day Adventists

During the American Civil War in 1864, shortly after the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Seventh-day Adventists declared, "The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teaching are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms."[34]

The general Adventist movement from 1867 followed a policy of conscientious objection. This was confirmed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1914. The official policy allows for military service in non-combative roles such as medical corps[35] much like Seventh-day Adventist Desmond Doss who was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only three so honored, and other supportive roles which do not require to kill or carry a weapon.[36]

Christian pacifism in action

From the beginning of the First World War, Christian pacifist organizations emerged to support Christians in denominations other than the historic peace churches. The first was the interdenominational Fellowship of Reconciliation ("FoR"), founded in Britain in 1915 but soon joined by sister organizations in the U.S. and other countries. Today pacifist organizations serving specific denominations are more or less closely allied with the FoR: they include the Methodist Peace Fellowship (established in 1933), the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (established in 1937), Pax Christi (Roman Catholic, established in 1945), and so forth. The Network of Christian Peace Organisations (NCPO) is a UK-based ecumenical peace network of 28 organizations.[37] Some of these organizations do not take strictly pacifist positions, describing themselves instead as advocating nonviolence, and some either have members who would not consider themselves Christians or are explicitly interfaith. However, they share historical and philosophical roots in Christian pacifism.

In some cases Christian churches, even if not necessarily committed to Christian pacifism, have supported particular campaigns of nonviolent resistance, also often called civil resistance. Examples include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a grouping of churches in the southern United States) in supporting the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s; the Chilean Catholic Church's support for the civic action against authoritarian rule in Pinochet's Chile in the 1980s; and the Polish Catholic Church's support for the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.[38]

Walter Wink writes that "There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: fight or flight."[39] This understanding typifies Walter Wink's book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.[40]

World War I

Ben Salmon was an American Catholic pacifist and outspoken critic of just war theory, as he believed all war to be unjust.[41] During World War I, Salmon was arrested for refusing to complete a Selective Service and report for induction. He was court-martialed at Camp Dodge, Iowa on July 24, 1918, and sentenced to death. This was later revised to 25 years hard labor.[42] Salmon's steadfast pacifism has since been cited as an inspiration for other Catholics, such as Fathers Daniel Berrigan and John Dear.[43][44]

Episcopalian bishop Paul Jones, who had associated himself with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and had been quite outspoken in his opposition to the war, was forced to resign his Utah see in April 1918.

World War II

The French Christian pacifists André and Magda Trocmé helped conceal hundreds of Jews fleeing the Nazis in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.[45][46] After the war, the Trocmés were declared Righteous Among the Nations.[45]

The radical Christian pacifist[47] John Middleton Murry, changed his opinions on Christian pacifism in light of the Holocaust. In his early years as a writer of The Necessity of Pacifism (1937) and as editor of the weekly London newspaper, Peace News, he argued that Nazi Germany, should be allowed retain control of mainland Europe, arguing Nazism was a lesser evil compared to the horrors of a total war.[48][49] Later, he recanted his pacifism in 1948 and promoted a preventative war against the Soviet Union.[50]

Vera Brittain was another British Christian pacifist. She worked as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against the saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. Her principled pacifist position was vindicated somewhat when, in 1945, the Nazi's Black Book of 2000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.[51] After the war, Brittain worked for Peace News magazine, "writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament" from a Christian perspective.[52]

Anti-war movement

Having been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, Thomas launched the White House Peace Vigil in 1981; the longest running peace vigil in US history.[53] Over the years, he was joined by numerous anti-war activists including those from the Catholic Worker Movement and Plowshares Movement.[54]

War tax resistance

Opposition to war has led some, like Ammon Hennacy, to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their income below the tax threshold by taking up a simple living lifestyle.[55][56] These individuals believe that their government is engaged in immoral, unethical or destructive activities such as war, and paying taxes inevitably funds these activities.[57]

See also


  1. Colm McKeogh, Tolstoy's Pacifism, Cambria Press, 2009, ISBN 1-60497-634-9.
  2. 1 2 3 Wood, John A. Perspectives on War in the Bible. Mercer University Press. pp. 13, 15. ISBN 978-0865545649.
  3. 1 2 Thomas, Heath A.; Evans, Jeremy; Copan, Paul (2013). Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8308-3995-7.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Lind, Millard C. (1980). Yahweh is a Warrior. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press. pp. 25–27. ISBN 978-0836112337.
  5. 1 2 Yoder, John Howard (1972). The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing. pp. 81–82. ISBN 978-0802807342.
  6. Vantassel, Stephen. "Pacifism and the Bible". Retrieved October 25, 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Craige, Peter C. (2002). The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. p. 63. ISBN 1-57910-883-0.
  8. 1 2 3 Enz, Jacob (2001). The Christian and Warfare: The Roots of Pacifism in the Old Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 46. ISBN 1-57910-706-0.
  9. Lind, Millard C. (2015). Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 143. ISBN 978-1498232654.
  10. Orr, Edgar W. (1958). Christian pacifism. C.W. Daniel Co. p. 33.
  11. Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, ISBN 0-664-22810-0, p. 125: "There is no doubt that the early church was pacifist, teaching that Christians could not be soldiers."
  12. "Tatian's Address to the Greeks". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  13. "The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  14. "The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  15. Arnobius, Adversus Gentes, Book I, Chapter VI.
  16. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle I, to Donatus, 6.
  17. Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 6, p. 179: Disputation of Archelaus and Manes
  18. Gregory of Nyssa on the Beatitudes, in Ancient Christian Writers, Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord's Prayer & The Beatitudes, tr. Hilda C. Graef, (The Newman Press, London, 1954), pp. 94-95
  19. J. Daryl Charles, Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just war and Christian tradition, InterVarsity Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8308-2772-2, p. 35.
  20. Gregory M. Reichberg, Henrik Syse, and Endre Begby, The Ethics of War: Classic and contemporary readings, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, ISBN 1-4051-2377-X, p 62.
  21. John Helgeland, Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, in Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung, Walter de Gruyter, 1979, ISBN 3-11-007822-8, pp. 724 ff.
  22. Roland Bainton, quoted in Robin Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics, 3rd ed, Continuum, 2006, ISBN 0-567-03112-8, p. 194.
  23. 1 2 Kurlansky, Mark (2006). Nonviolence: Twenty-five lessons from the history of a dangerous idea, pp. 26-27.
  24. The Complete writings of Menno Simons: c.1496-1561, tr. Leonard Verduin, ed. John Christian Wenger, Herald Press, 1966, p. 554.
  25. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), Strength to Love, quoted in Martin Luther King, Jr: Civil rights leader, theologian, orator, Volume 1, David J. Garrow, Carlson Pub., 1989, ISBN 0-926019-01-5, p. 41.
  26. Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon, p. 149
  27. Long have I held that war is an enormous crime; long have I regarded all battles as but murder on a large scale. India's Ills and England's Sorrows," September 6, 1857
  28. The New conscientious objection: from sacred to secular resistance Charles C. Moskos, John Whiteclay Chambers - 1993 "The first conscientious objector in the modern sense appeared in 1815. Like all other objectors from then until the 1880s, he was a Quaker.4 The government suggested exempting the pacifist Quakers, but the Storting, the Norwegian "
  29. Speicher, Sara and Durnbaugh, Donald F. (2003), Ecumenical Dictionary: Historic Peace Churches
  30. Lippey C. The Christadelphians in North America
  31. Bryan R. Wilson Sects and Society 1961
  32. Doctrinal Points of the Church of God (7th Day)
  34. F.M. Wilcox, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War, p. 58.
  35. "Seventh-day Adventists and Project Whitecoat". Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  36. "Adventist Review: BETWEEN PACIFISM AND PATRIOTISM". Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  37. "Network of Christian Peace Organisations".
  38. Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6, pp. 58-74, 127-143 and 197-212.
  39. Walter Wink, writing in Roger S. Gottlieb, Liberating Faith: Religious voices for justice, peace, and ecological wisdom, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, ISBN 0-7425-2535-X, p. 442.
  40. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Augsburg Fortress, 2003. ISBN 0-8006-3609-0
  41. Robert Ellsberg (1997). All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. p. 77.
  42. "WW1 Conscientious Objectors Database". Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Retrieved February 24, 2010.
  43. John Dear (February 23, 2010). "Ben Salmon and the Army of Peace". National Catholic Reporter.
  44. Berrigan, Daniel. "The Life and Witness of Benjamin Joseph Salmon". Jonah House. Retrieved February 24, 2010. He brings to mind the buried treasure of the Gospel story, this unlikely hero
  45. 1 2 Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There Philip P. Hallie, (1979) New York: Harper & Row, ISBN 0-06-011701-X
  46. Brock and Young, p. 220.
  47. "Quotation by John Middleton Murry". London: 1944, Peace News. Check date values in: |date= (help);
  48. Richard A. Rempel, "The Dilemmas of British Pacifists During World War II", The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 50, No. 4, On Demand Supplement (Dec. 1978), pp. D1213-D1229.
  49. Lea, pp. 310-12.
  50. David Goodway,Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006), Liverpool University Press, 2006. ,ISBN 1846310261, p. 208.
  51. Berry, Paul and Bostridge,Mark, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995, ISBN 0-7011-2679-5 (p. 445).
  52. Loretta Stec, "Pacifism, Vera Brittain, and India". Peace Review , vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 237-244, 2001
  53. Lloyd Grove (December 14, 1984). "Birth of a street person". The Washington Post.
  54. "Significant Peace Park Vigilers from the Past".
  55. "Anarchists and War Tax Resistance". National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC).
  56. "Low Income/Simple Living as War Tax Resistance". NWTRCC.
  57. "What is War Tax Resistance?". NWTRCC.

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