Pacifist apologetics

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2012

Christian pacifism faces an uphill climb in contemporary America. Since 1940, our country has embarked on a massive effort at world domination based on military firepower. This could be seen as the logical progression for a country whose founding rests squarely on warfare and other forms of violent conquest. And the Christian churches have, as a rule, joined enthusiastically in this project. Hence, today in the United States people self-identified as Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support war and the death penalty.

And yet, American Christianity has always produced, or at least tolerated, counter-voices. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established themselves in colonial Pennsylvania in a remarkable effort to try to operate a political system heavily influenced by pacifist convictions. The results were mixed, to say the least. One clear achievement, though, was to establish a haven for religious freedom that drew other Christian pacifists to Pennsylvania—most notably Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.

In the nineteenth century, some of the world’s first peace societies emerged in Antebellum America, and these often linked with abolitionist efforts. The Civil War more or less put an end to such activist pacifism, but that war also saw pioneering efforts by the state to accommodate conscientious objectors. Still, part of the reason the state could be open to tolerance of pacifists was because their numbers were so small.

In the twentieth-century, in face of terrible, unbelievably destructive world wars, the numbers of Christian pacifists grew significantly, and well beyond the Historic Peace Churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren). However, when the United States entered an enormously popular war against Germany and Japan in 1941, the numbers of legal conscientious objectors totaled about one per 1,000 young men who joined the military—and the large majority of all of these soldiers were Christians.

From the start, Quakers worked hard to convey their convictions to the wider world—one term they used of their work was “publishers of truth.” Other pacifists in more recent generations have also taken up the challenge to try to present attractive and persuasive arguments for their convictions. And some fine literature has been produced. But we always need more.

So this new collection of essays, Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Peaceable Kingdom) (Cascade Books, 2012), is to be welcomed. I am not aware of any other single, relatively short, volume that tries to address as many challenges to pacifism. Several of the essays make particularly excellent contributions to the task of defending pacifism, and all the essays are well worth reading.

In a second post I will engage a couple of the pieces with a more argumentative sensibility. But here I want to focus on some of the good things I have found in this book. In general, I am delighted with the book in the sense that it does a fine job of stimulating thought and pushing those who reject pacifism to rethink their conclusions. It contains a good mix of well-known, established writers and younger scholars. And it is pretty wide-ranging in the Christians traditions represented (e.g., Catholics, evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Anabaptists).

As a rule, the strongest of the fifteen essays are those that most directly address the specific question they were assigned. For example, Lee Camp’s discussion of Romans 13, Andy Alexis-Baker’s treatment of the Centurion’s faith, and Nelson Kraybill’s analysis of Revelation 19 each stick closely to the texts the authors were assigned to reflect on and provide solid insights.

A couple of the essays, Ingrid Lilly on war and violence in the Old Testament and John Dear’s reflection on Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, are a bit brief for the weightiness of their topics (especially Lilly’s piece), but what is presented is strong and insightful.

Gerald Schlabach’s treatment of the issue of Christian pacifism and policing is significantly longer than any of the other chapters and also, correspondingly, gets into more theoretical depth. He moves beyond the specific issue of support (or not) for policing and develops a sophisticated typology that insightfully accounts for a spectrum of pacifisms and approaches to social ethics. Schlabach makes an excellent contribution, though the contrast in tone between his piece and a more inspirational article such as that John Dear’s creates a bit more unevenness in the collection than I would find ideal.

Though this is an excellent volume for what it purports to do (provide thoughtful responses to the kinds of questions commonly raised to refute Christian pacifism), it does not provide a balanced introduction to Christian pacifism. Interestingly, the subtitle of the book uses “nonviolence” instead of pacifism (these are tricky terms), but the book itself does not spend much time discussing nonviolent action. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi are scarcely mentioned. Nor is the fascinating and complicated history of Christian pacifism in the 20th century centered around the Fellowship of Reconciliation—and well recounted in Joseph Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2011). Quakers are notably missing from this book, and the recent tradition of Catholic pacifism gets little attention (I don’t think the great activist and prolific author Jim Douglass gets mentioned anywhere).

Walter Wink’s great question at the beginning of Engaging the Powers, “how do we resist evil without adding to the evil or becoming evil ourselves?” would have been a good additional chapter and provided entré for bringing in the more activist strain of the Christian pacifist tradition.

So, part of what A Faith Not Worth Fighting For might actually do (I hope) is stimulate more discussion about what Christian pacifism (or Christian nonviolence) entails. It strikes me that more effort needs to be taken to be more inclusive of the various strands of Christian pacifism. This book unfortunately feels a bit like it was written mostly from the perspective of recent converts to pacifism who don’t know or don’t respect their forebears in the pacifist tradition enough.

Three of the book’s essays struck me as especially problematic in presenting too narrow a view of Christian pacifism. Interestingly, these were contributions from the some of the book’s most well-known authors: Stephen Long, Robert Brimlow, and Greg Boyd. In my next post, I will address my concerns with their pieces in more detail.

9 thoughts on “Pacifist apologetics

  1. I expect that the early history of Pentecostalism and the Church of God (Anderson, IN) regarding pacifism is missing. Too bad that contemporary RC pacifism is missing in this volume. I listen to a local RC radio station and was surprised to hear a (now deceased) Charismatic RC priest, Al Lauer, give a very fine homily on the difference between “eye for eye” retaliation and “love your enemies.” He went beyond personal ethics and included the futility of war.

  2. Ted, thanks for the good introduction to “A Faith Not Worth Fighting For” and for the call for being more inclusive of Christian pacifists.

    It that regard, I noticed that you made no mention of the Hutterites, which is certainly a very small Christian group. But last month I had the privilege of visiting a Hutterite colony in South Dakota and went to the cemetery where two Hutterite martyrs, Michael & Joseph Hofer, are buried. They were killed in 1918 because of their refusal to fight in WWI. Like others in the Anabaptist tradition, the Hutterites continue to be persistent pacifists.

  3. Interesting comments. My book on pacifism was dedicated to a Church of God-Anderson pastor of the church I attended when stationed at Camp Pendleton. I did not know anything about their history. And I am interested in learning more about the Hofers. I live near a Hutterite Colony here in SD.

    1. Norman Hofer, who lives near Freeman, SD, took my wife and me to visit the Oak Lane Hutterite colony near Alexandria. And then he took us by the Friedhof Cemetery to see the Hofer martyrs’ graves. The two young men who became martyrs because of their pacifism were first cousins of Norman’s grandfather.

      1. Norman was a friend of ours when we lived in Freeman for two years in the mid-1990s. I am delighted to hear that he still does such tours. We sure appreciated ours.

      2. We were put in contact with Norman (and Darlene) through a friend at Rainbow Mennonite Church, where my wife and I attend (and soon will join). We found them to be very gracious people. They gave several hours of their time just to take my wife and me to Oak Lane and by a few other Hutterite colonies.

  4. I don’t know if it’s just me or if everybody else
    experiencing issues with your site. It appears like some of the text within your posts are
    running off the screen. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let me know
    if this is happening to them as well? This could be a issue with my
    browser because I’ve had this happen before. Appreciate it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s