How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part Two)

[Ted Grimsrud—March 3, 2013]

I wrote in the first part of this post several weeks ago (“How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources [Part One]”) that even though most Christians are not pacifists—and in fact being a Christian seems to make it less likely that a person would oppose war, at least in the United States—we “Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems.” I went on to mention eight areas where too many Christian pacifists (it seems to me) accept non-pacifist ways of approaching key sources for our theology and ethics.

I promised a sequel where I would briefly discuss how these areas could be viewed in more consistently pacifist ways. I don’t have time or space to develop these alternative perspectives very fully, but I will go through the list. I don’t even have time to cite examples of how these alternative perspectives have been articulated except to point to several of my own writings.

Let me quote from my introduction to the first post: “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 [gave] examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically.” Now, part two will give examples of how we might read Christian sources pacifistically.

What I offer here is a bare outline of what may in the not-too-distant future expand into a more carefully detailed essay. I would greatly appreciate responses that could help me in developing the piece.

Reading Christian Sources as Pacifists

(1) Old Testament. Too often pacifists simply accept as a given the assumption that the Old Testament contradicts Christian pacifism. The task then becomes a defensive one, trying to make a case for pacifism in spite of the Old Testament.

But I believe it is the case that the anti-pacifist approaches to the Old Testament (going back at least to Augustine) are misreadings of the Old Testament itself. Certainly, when read as bits and pieces, the Old Testament contains troubling stories and commands. However, when read as a whole, as a story with a plot that has movement and direction, the Old Testament can (should!) be read as a positive resource for peacemaking and, in fact, as underwriting pacifism.

We must never forget that the Old Testament was all the Bible that Jesus had. When he taught and practiced thoroughgoing shalom (I like the term “biblical shalom” as a synonym for “Christian pacifism”), he seemed to believe he was simply embodying the teaching of his Bible (see, for example, Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus sums up the teaching of the Bible in terms of love of enemy).

The Old Testament gives a positive vision for shalom as an ideal, articulates in its portrayal of Torah a practical vision for embodied shalom, and tells a tragic story of the consequences of turning toward power politics rather than trusting in God’s directives for healthy communal existence that will lead to blessing all the families of the earth. Here is one concise statement on the Old Testament as a pacifist resource.

(2) New Testament. Too many pacifists accept the standard view that within the New Testament we find a sharp tension between Jesus’ obvious message of peace and messages from Paul and the book of Revelation that in quite different ways point toward an acceptance of violence. For example, just a few weeks ago at a conference on war and peace I heard an excellent paper from a strongly peace-oriented Episcopalian Old Testament scholar that nonetheless accepted a pro-violence reading of Revelation.

John Howard Yoder’s classic pacifist apology, The Politics of Jesus, has as one of its many virtues a vigorous (and persuasive) argument for reading Paul as complementing, not standing in tension with, Jesus’ message of peace (here’s my summary of Yoder’s book as a whole and of his treatment of Paul).

Specifically in relation to Romans 13, rather than seeing it as an endorsement of giving the state a blank check when it comes to expectations of participation in warfare, we more accurately read this text as an extension of Paul’s discussion in Romans 12 concerning peaceable Christian living. Paul is not calling for uncritical obedience, but for acceptance of the place of the state in God’s ordering of human social life—an acceptance that has at its heart the absolute call Christians have to love their neighbors/enemies (Romans 13:8-10). Here is a brief essay of mine: “Romans 13 supports pacifism!”

The more I study the book of Revelation (and I have been doing this a lot for a long time—here are some of my writings on Revelation as a peace book), the more I am convinced that pacifist Christians (or anyone else who cares about peace for that matter) only can read Revelation in a pro-violence way due by disregarding its actual teaching.

We have a strong and varied tradition of scholarship (from non-pacifists as well as pacifists) now that understands the core meaning of the book to be that the Lamb’s way (a way of self-giving love) is the way of God and the way of creation—in contrast to the way of the Beast that characterizes humanity in bondage to the Powers. Revelation calls followers of the Lamb to practice shalom and to reject the ways of violence.

We can see the message of Revelation in the various metaphors that the book uses. I’ll just mention two: the sword and blood.

There are, we could say, two diametrically-opposed ways the sword is presented in Revelation. One is sword as weapon of war; the other is sword as word of witness. Jesus’ sword comes out of his mouth, a kind of bizarre image but one that makes clear that his way of victory is won through his word of witness, not through killing others.

The idea that Jesus’ sword is not a weapon of violence is reinforced when we trace the use of the image of “blood” throughout the book. The only blood that is ever mentioned in Revelation is the blood of self-giving love. Never are God’s “enemies” seen as being bloodied. Chapter five portrays the heart of the book’s message: it is the Lamb who gives his life in self-giving love who takes the scroll of meaning from God (not a conquering king) and who as a consequence is praised in such an exalted way that the inextricable link between the way of the Lamb and the One on the throne (chapter four) is made crystal clear.

(3) The Creeds. Many Christian pacifists have in recent years been emphasizing that they believe the creeds of the fourth century and following are friendly to pacifism and should be central for all Christians. However, they have yet actually to make a strong case for overcoming the suspicion that these creeds have too easily co-existed with the profoundly anti-pacifist beliefs and practices that have characterized the vast majority of Christian groups since about the time that the first of the great creeds were formulated and made official church teaching.

The key move for a pacifist approach to the creeds is to insist that the creeds be read as subordinate to the biblical story that is centered on Jesus’ life and teaching. If we place the Jesus story at the center, we may find in the creeds help in understanding how this story might be articulated in ways that link it with the very nature of the universe. That is, the creedal assertions of Jesus’ identity as God Incarnate, as the second person of the trinity, and as fully human and full divine, may serve the biblical message and our affirmation of pacifism when they are used in ways that keep the story of Jesus inextricably linked with God the Creator and the Spirit of life.

However, pacifists must approach the creeds and, especially, their legacy with a great deal of suspicion. The fact that throughout the past 1800 years the vast majority of creedal Christians have not been pacifists (and in fact have generally been hostile to pacifists and pacifism) indicates that there is nothing inherent in the creeds themselves that requires their adherents to be pacifist. The creeds seem too easily to lend themselves to readings that actually marginalize the story of Jesus. If we truly do keep the story of Jesus as central, we may find ways to affirm the creeds but we will not be hesitant to reject ideas in the creeds that do stand in tension with the Bible’s message. The creeds are at best secondary and complementary to our main biblical source for theology and ethics.

We may (and should) engage in fruitful debates about the best way to read the creeds, arguing that the close link between God and Jesus should lead believers to see Jesus’ way as  reflecting God’s own pacifist will and character. However, we must also recognize that in such a debate we are the ones offering a deviant reading of the meaning of the creeds. And we should also keep asking what it is about the creeds that has allowed such a strong anti-pacifist consensus to become so prominent.

(4) Christian history. Christian history is not pacifist history. It is true that in terms of simple numbers, Christian pacifists have been a tiny minority since the 4th century. However, pacifists should seek to read Christian history as pacifists. This means not simply taking it as a given that pacifism is peripheral to the Christian faith as almost all “objective” history writing does.

A Christian pacifist would ask questions of the historical record that a non-pacifist might not ask. What is the significance of the sense that pacifism seems to have been the default position of earliest Christianity? What were the factors that moved pacifism from the consensus conviction of the early church to the periphery? What is actually “deviant” in relation to the core message of Christianity—pacifism or acceptance of warfare?

If we truly affirm pacifism, shouldn’t we do all our historical work asking critical questions of turns away from pacifism in Christian practice and thought? And shouldn’t we lift up the pacifist voices from throughout the tradition? Why should we uncritically accept that the non-pacifist majority defines “orthodoxy” and that this “orthodoxy” provides valid bases for critiquing current pacifist attempts to challenge the anti-pacifist consensus?

One suggestive example of a historian taking pacifism as his starting point in looking at the history of Christian is John Driver, Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church (Pandora Press, 1999).

(5) Confessions of faith. What might it mean to produce a confession of faith that addresses the core convictions of the Christian faith from a pacifist point of view? I suggested in Part One of these thoughts on reading Christian sources as a pacifist that even the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) does not address the core Christian theological convictions in ways that reflect pacifism (here is an outline of a paper I hope to write that will address this theme).

I believe that how we think of God is affected by whether we are pacifists or not. Likewise with how we think of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, creation, the church, the sacraments, the end times, and ethics (here is my series of sermons on these themes; these were expanded into a book: Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictionshere is a review of this book and my response to it).

If pacifism is truly a core conviction for Christian pacifists, we should be able to write the kind of short statements that make up Confessions of Faith in ways that reflect that core conviction. It should be unthinkable that we would simply repeat confessional statements that do not take that core conviction into account.

(6) 16th-century Anabaptism. The Anabaptist movement of the 16th century had an important role in the history of Christian pacifism. Between the decisive 4th century movement of mainstream Christianity away from pacifism to the emergence of the Anabaptists in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, numerous small groups that affirmed a largely Gospel-based rejection of participation in warfare did arise. Few if any survived with their pacifism intact, though. The Anabaptists were the first group who sustained their embrace of pacifism for an extended period of time.

Even though it is true, as more recent historians of Anabaptism have asserted, that the Anabaptist movement was never completely unified on the issue of pacifism, I still believe that the pacifism that emerged deserves our continued attention. Anabaptist pacifism certainly has relevance for present-day Christians such as Mennonites and Brethren who consider themselves “genetic” heirs of the Radical Reformation. However, all Christians should be attentive to the Anabaptist story because we see there a sustained commitment to a Christianity that did not see acquiescence with state power and its attendent violence necessary for the well-being of the faith community. Here is a link to various articles I have written on the present-day significance of the Anabaptist tradition.

(7) Science. Modern science (both “hard” science and the social sciences) is not usually overtly considered a “Christian source.” However, science strongly affects Christian theology. One of our assumptions as educated Americans is the sense that we as human beings are inherently selfish, even inherently violent. Academic disciplines such as biology and economics especially are hotbeds for these assumptions. Such assumptions seem to have been largely shared by many educated Mennonites and other Christian pacifists (and dovetail nicely with beliefs about God’s violence).

There have always been dissenters from economic social Darwinism and sociobiology with their negative views of human nature—including some pacifists. However, Christians pacifists have not created a very substantial body of reflection on how our optimistic views of human possibilities to live generous, nonviolent lives might shape our theological anthropology.

A number of years ago I spent some time working on this theme. I did not get very far, but I did outline an argument in favor of a more positive view of human nature that might still sympathetically take into account Darwinian understandings of human evolution and more recent scientific and anthropological work. Here is an account of that argument, “Violence and Human Nature,” seriously in need of updating and expanding.

(8) World War II. If Christian pacifists all too easily accept non-pacifist ways of reading the history of Christianity (see #4 above), they have also all too easily accepted non-pacifist ways of reading the history of 20th-century world affairs. These ways of reading, not usually considered in theological terms, nonetheless shape Christian ethics and theology in significant ways. Most notably, we see this impact in the acceptance by many Christian pacifists in the United States (and at least in parts of western Europe—at a conference I recently heard this acceptance reflected in the comments of a peace-oriented British church worker) that World War II was a necessary and possibly even good war.

I will soon publish a book that will challenge those positive assumptions (here are early drafts of most of the chapters from that book and some other essays on the theme—my tentative title is The Good War That Wasn’t and Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II). In a nutshell, I will show that the causes for the US entering the war were not as clearly “just” as usually assumed, that the conduct of the US in the war clearly violated just war criteria, that the cost of the war was enormous and not clearly less than the benefits accrued, and—most importantly, perhaps—the legacy of the war for the US has been one of enormous and on-going destruction.

I don’t believe that Christian pacifists actually have access to insights that others don’t. However, Christian pacifist should be disposed to be suspicious toward any argument that asserts (or even accepts) the “necessity” or, especially, “goodness” of any war. This should cause Christian pacifists to insist on a level of critical scrutiny in relation to such an argument that may not be as likely from more “objective” analysts. That is, I will show in my book that positive assumptions about World War II are not warranted by the historical reality and impact of that war.


All I have offered here are several examples of how a Christian pacifist might think differently about various sources for basic faith convictions. Some surely are more more solid than others. All are merely suggestive. The sum of these various examples, though, I believe points to the likelihood that Christian pacifism should actually convey a distinctive theological perspective and even a distinctive epistemology.

I have the impression that pacifism as a strong commitment (or, perhaps, some might be more inclined to use a term such as “principled nonviolence”) has become more attractive to more people in recent generations. Certainly part of the reason for this is the terrible devastation of the wars of the 20th century. As well, the emergence of Gandhian nonviolent action as a means to resist oppression without the use of violence has made pacifism much more attractive to many. We could also add as factors for increased attraction to pacifism a growing awareness of the devastation violence on more personal levels brings to human communities and the growth of thoughtful and creative pacifist theologizing and biblical interpretation.

We still have a long ways to go, though, in thinking through and putting into practice consistently pacifist ways of being in the world. But it’s exciting to think that progress is possible.

4 thoughts on “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part Two)

  1. You could also note the traditional Quaker heavy use of Revelation, from which Friends got the concept of The Lamb’s War – a war with spiritual weapons not carnal weapons.

  2. Dear Ted –

    Everything I read by you gives me the distinct impression that you have your cart before the horse, so to speak. This article is a prime example, where the interpretive parameter is defined before it is written – that is, you demand that the Bible be interpreted as a de facto “pacifist” document.

    Consequently, your body of doctrine resembles an artificial construct about as valid as, for instance, the Talmud in all its wondrous glory.

    Gandhi, for example, was honest in that he admittedly “weaponized” pacifism, and also without any ethical conflict endorsed the right to arms and self-defense of the Indian population. He made no claim to being a “Christian” but in his dying, repeatedly uttered “Ram, Ram, Ram” with interlaced groans, as befits a pantheist Aryan seeking a “higher” reincarnation.

    As a historical instance, during WWII, one of the groups who passively resisted the Nazi Reich in the largest numbers were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, both in Germany and throughout the occupied nations..
    Would you declare them de facto “Christians” on the basis of their pacifism, knowing that their translation of the first verses of John’s Gospel are willfully deficient and deny outright the Incarnate Logos, Yeshua HaMessiah, thus demanding that they be necessarily placed into the category “anti-Christ”?

    What I am asking is this:

    Would you please elucidate the difference between being “led of the pneuma hagion” as contrasted with being led by “core theological beliefs”?

    I have read your “Journey with Jesus” and note that it fails the recommend of Herr Luther for checking the “words” of prophets, namely that you speak only of a resurrected Messiah, and not the spiritual events preceding, including the priceless blood of His Acceptable Sacrifice.

    My experience with Mennonites is largely anecdotal, and that indicative of an overweening legalistic approach to behavior, without the corresponding Biblical truths of a Luther, or even Calvin – not that they are “anything”.

    I don’t think I have written anything above that is also insulting, especially since you make public proclamation of your “theological core values” and in accord generally with Mennonite practice.

    Thanks –

  3. Thanks for this excellent post. I can think of no more striking distinction between the Christians of the first three centuries of the faith and those of today, than on the subject of pacifism. For the early Christians pacifism was a defining characteristic of the faith. As you say, these days, even among many pacifist believers, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m glad to see your work on this. Now that the alliance of church and empire is finally ending, I wonder if pacifism will once again come to be a core belief of most Christians.

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