How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)

[Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2013]

It’s not easy being a Christian pacifist. We make extraordinary claims (that war is never acceptable) on the basis of our faith convictions, even in the face of the reality that the vast majority of people who share many of those convictions reject these claims. It seems quite quixotic to argue for Christian pacifism when the facts seem to show that being a Christian makes a person less likely to be a pacifist.

Rather than quailing before this scenario, I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems. I think it is a terrible mistake for pacifist Christians to accept as normative the ways of reading Christian sources that ignore or actively oppose pacifism—no matter how widespread and institutionally embedded these non-pacifist readings are.

My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the “common beliefs” we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one will give examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically. And part two will give examples of pacifist readings of these sources.

Reading Christian Sources Non-Pacifistically

(1) One of the most common steps that immediately puts pacifists on the defensive is the acceptance of the assumption that the Old Testament is ultimately a problem for Christian pacifism. What matters most, it is assumed, in reading the Old Testament in relation to issues of violence, peace, and justice are the stories of God commanding warfare and exercising violent judgment. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and practices punitive, retributive justice.

With this starting point, the pacifist must explain away the obvious normativity of violence. This is a challenging situation, to say the least. Pacifists have tried various strategies to retain their pacifism, but in general they allow the assumption of the Old Testament as a problem to stand. At best, it seems, the Old Testament is “messy” and gives us mixed messages. We will have to ground our pacifism on other sources—a resignation that invariably weakens the bases for that pacifism.

(2) Just about all Christian pacifists see Jesus’s life and teaching as providing strong bases for their pacifism. Many accept that some other parts of the New Testament are less supportive of their stance. In particular, the infamous Romans 13 passage and the equally infamous visions of the book of Revelation are generally presented as underwriting violence—albeit of very different types in these two writings.

Romans 13, it is assumed, teaches that Christian citizens should submit themselves to the government of their nation, and these nations are defined by wielding the sword (what political scientists call “the monopoly on legitimate violence”). With this as a starting point, pacifists must then make a case against the default assumption that this submission should mean the Christian citizens take up the sword when called upon to do so. It’s a defensive stance that, once it is granted that God ordains the nation to use justifiable violence for the sake of social order, leaves pacifists scrambling to find exceptions that can leave them, in their special pacifist vocation, off the hook of acting violently themselves.

The violence in Revelation, according to non-pacifist ways of reading the text, mainly comes from God, who judges and punishes non-believers with terrible, bloody plagues. In this reading, Revelation provides a promise of God’s end times judgment that will pay back evil-doer with fully justified revenge. At best, then, pacifists can argue for a strong distinction between what God does and what God wants human beings to do. Our pacifism, then, is not imitative of God but a special vocation that God calls us to.

(3) The Christian church articulated formal, official doctrinal statements in the fourth century with the great creeds of the Western church. At this point, official Christianity had left behind the pacifism of the early Christians and had irrevocably broken from its Jewish roots.

These official doctrines provided the boundary lines for what would be considered valid, “orthodox” understandings of core Christian beliefs. Though later Christians read them as being authoritative interpretations of the thrust of biblical teaching, they draw heavily on Greek philosophical thought and place Christian thought in a framework of abstract dogmas rather than stories and practical morality. The various creeds show no evidence of pacifist sensibilities.

Yet they provide the bases for many definitions of what is central to Christian faith even for professing pacifists (see A. James Reimer’s “God is Love but not a Pacifist”). In a recent article arguing against the view of God as nonviolent, pacifist theologian Darren Snyder Belousek draws heavily on the creeds in developing his critique (“Nonviolent God: Critical Analysis of a Contemporary Argument”). It’s seems ironic and counter-intuitive to me that pacifist theologians would use such non-pacifist theology as a basis for criticizing pacifist theology.

(4) Christian history is read as a non-pacifist history. Theologians such as John Howard Yoder and J. Denny Weaver, who seek to think consistently as pacifists, have been sharply criticized by fellow pacifists for what is described as a selective reading of the Christian tradition that minimizes the normativeness of the post-fourth century theological tradition (e.g., see John W. Miller, “In the Footsteps of Marcion” and A. James Reimer, “Toward Christian Theology from a Diversity of Mennonite Perspectives”).

This criticism gives a normativity to the mainstream Christian tradition simply, it seems, because this tradition has been “victorious” in various debates about Christian convictions. The result, in terms of reading the history of Christianity, is to marginalize pacifism and, in some ways, even implicitly to accept that pacifism is “deviant” or “heterodox.” The default position in the mainstream Christian has been the acceptability of warfare. Accepting this default position leads to a way of reading Christian history that treats pacifism as extraordinary, if it’s treated at all.

(5) When it comes to systematic theology and confessional statements, the standard (post-fourth century) account of the core doctrines such God, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology is taken at face value as definitive of Christian beliefs.

A clear example of this dynamic is the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. The core of this Confession follows closely the most influential creeds and confessions going back to the fourth century that ignore pacifism. It is only in the tenth article, “The Church in Mission,” that “the gospel of peace” is mentioned. Through the first nine articles and commentaries (on themes such as “God,” “Jesus Christ,” “the Holy Spirit,” “Scripture,” and even “the Church”), the reader would have no idea that this is the Confession of a pacifist tradition.

Again, this approach gives the impression that pacifism is peripheral and optional to core Christian beliefs. Later articles in this Confession do articulate a strong pacifist commitment, but the basic thrust of the overall statement is that this pacifism is kind of a special vocation that Mennonites have and that we have our core theological convictions in common with the non-pacifist mainstream of the Christian tradition. There is no hint that a pacifist might understand convictions concerning God, Jesus, and scripture in fundamentally different ways at their core than non-pacifists.

(6) The study and teaching of Anabaptist history seems to have gone into a bit of an eclipse in Mennonite contexts these days. In reaction against Harold Bender’s famous World War II era speech (1943), “The Anabaptist Vision,” that triggered a renaissance in Anabaptist studies with a special emphasis on the pacifism of the Anabaptists, more recent generations of historians working in Mennonite contexts have taken great pains to present a picture of an Anabaptism that had a whole variety of views of the sword. That is, pacifist historians seems to have affirmed a non-pacifist reading of the Radical Reformation (see Mennonite historian Arnold Snyder’s recent essay, “The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism, 1520-1530,” that challenges the notion that even the early Swiss Brethren were consistently pacifist, and various critical responses).

Perhaps one of the reasons why Mennonites and other pacifists pay less attention to 16th century Anabaptists these days is the sense that that period in history is no longer as likely to be an important resource for the present. One question that arises is why this sense would have gained a foothold. Could it partly be that historians (even within the Mennonite world) tend to read the 16th century with the assumption that pacifism is a peripheral theme (an assumption understandable among non-pacifists but questionable among pacifists themselves)?

Bender’s essay and its influence are seen as problematic by many recent Mennonite historians because of his normative concerns, which have been echoed by some of his intellectual descendants. A more “neutral” and “let the sources speak” kind of approach may nonetheless still be shaped by (largely non-spoken) normative assumptions, as well, though. And these latter normative assumptions are clearly non-pacifist.

(7) Turning to an entirely different arena, I am acquainted with numerous pacifist scientists who accept the anti-pacifist views of human nature, especially in relation to violence, that have been articulated by thinkers in the movement that used to be called sociobiology and more recently has used the term “evolutionary psychology.” This 7th example is not of a reading of “Christian sources” per se, but rather a reading of the world around us. However, Christians agree that the natural world is also a source of revelation, what is sometimes called “natural revelation” (in distinction from the “special revelation” of scripture and [to some degree] tradition). So, perspectives on human nature based on observation and scientific analysis may still be recognized as a kind of Christian source.

I had a public debate a number of years ago with a Mennonite biologist who claimed E. O. Wilson as a major influence in his view that “nature is red in tooth and claw” and that human instincts are inherently violent. Around that same time I had a private debate with a Quaker biologist who expressed similar sentiments. More recently, I heard a top-level Mennonite college administrator give a chapel address that gave praises to Steven Pinker and in conversation heard a Mennonite chemist claim that Richard Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene, was one of his favorite books.

Wilson, Pinker, and Dawkins are all resolutely anti-pacifist (as well as, famously, anti-theist). Yet they are major sources for these Christian pacifists on the subject of human nature and violence.

(8) A final example is also not something that fits in the rubric of “special revelation.” However, Christians would also tend to agree that “secular” human history is nonetheless an important Christian source for understanding and articulating our convictions.

For Americans thinking about war and peace, World War II is an enormously important source. Non-pacifists tend to use it as a core part of their rationale for insisting that war can be necessary and even good and that our nation must be prepared to go to war.

However, it is also the case that many pacifists read World War II in light of the perspectives of non-pacifists about that war. It is common for pacifists to grant that World War II was a “just” war and that our grounds for Christian pacifism must, ultimately, be centered on our distinctive spiritual calling as Christians and not pragmatic and historical bases. Two examples of recent statements of this view are Ted Koontz’s 2003 article, “Thinking Theologically About War Against Iraq,” and Stephen Long’s essay, “What About the Protection of Third Party Innocents” (in the book, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolenceas of right now most of this chapter may be read on Amazon preview).

[Part Two of this post looks at these eight examples and suggest alternative ways pacifists may read these sources in pacifistic ways.]

3 thoughts on “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)

  1. “… I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems.” –Should we become more militant pacifists? Just kidding.
    I enjoy, and need more of, your well-written thoughts on Christian pacifism, which I passionately believe in and need to learn to live out more consistently.
    I can’t read part two soon enough, confidently hoping for some satisfyingly sound pacifist insight!

  2. Great Writing Ted! I’m an anabaptist Pastor in Manila planting a Peace Church and your writing is encouraging as we try to articulate and point to the biblical/early church convictions about pacifism.

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