I have been interested in Christian pacifism for quite some time. Jumped on board when I first heard about it, actually. The idea that Christians should be committed to a non-violent way of life because Jesus was non-violent was, and still is, a no-brainer. I suppose what I mean is that I was already a pacifist except in name, from the time I had grown up in a church context that believed it, and through becoming familiar with stories about Jesus from a young age. Christian pacifism proved to be the label for something I already believed but had never articulated.
I hate violence. It should make every human sick to the stomach – yet sadly we know that all too many people have exercised violent aggression, and too many more people have become victim to it.
Pacifism is never a ‘passive’ stance. To hold it is to put oneself (ironically) in conflict with a world that uses violence to get its way. I will continue to be a pacifist and resist the worldly urge to succumb to violence in order to control and dominate, and follow the way of Jesus who did not resist the violence done to him but overcame through the way of love.
Anyway, all this is to introduce what to some readers might seem like a more frustratingly academic point. Having got your passions on board with those opening paragraphs, I wish to pause and point out with the head that, as one begins to read around the subject of pacifism, one encounters quite a broad spectrum of applications – historically, politically and theologically.
We have to take history, politics and theology together, of course. History tells the story of a politic, in this case, informed by theology. Put another way, theological discourse has led to political action that has made history. Martin Luther King Jr., informed by his Christian commitment, believed that equality for blacks in America was mandatory, but urged his followers to protest through non-violent means. Through a thick storm of violent opposition which on the whole went unmet by King’s supporters, they persisted and eventually made history. Similarly the Anabaptists, taking root again in the Gospels and in the example of Jesus, turned the other cheek when they were violently arrested and in some cases put to death by the established church, knowing that they were followers of the Prince of Peace. They didn’t die out though, and have been the flag-bearers for Christian pacifism ever since.
However, it is interesting to observe the number of ways in which “a Christian commitment to nonviolence” might be interpreted and applied. While the few Christian pacifists I have read (named below) seem to agree that Christian pacifism stems from the example of Jesus and ought to be the model for his followers, there are a number of divergences that flow from there.
You might, for example, believe that Christians should not exercise violence, but that a state is free to exercise the power of the sword as it is ordained by God to do so. For many this is the interpretation given of Romans 13, often hand-in-hand with ‘just war’ theory. But not all hold to this reading of it. Stanley Hauerwas argues for a finer reading of Romans 13 (for example in this impassioned video) which doesn’t allow for Christian endorsement of state-sanctioned violence; that kind of reading, he suggests, is exactly the kind that led to German Christians supporting Hitler. Debate around the interpretation of Romans 13 is key to many discussions about political pacifism. How far should Christian commitment to pacifism extend? Only as far as our own individual lives? Or to our church community? Or should we take an active role in petitioning governments – most of which in the West are ‘secular’ – to exercise restraint or even disarmament? Hauerwas has been a signatory on documents relating to national disarmament. Another pacifist from the UK who has turned this theological issue into an active political one is Alan Storkey, who also has made moves to support disarmament agendas and campaigns. For these theologians a Christian commitment to pacifism cannot logically remain solely the conviction of individual believers but must have some application to the governments of the countries in which those Christians live, where possible, though I suspect Hauerwas and Storkey would vary on how the Christian is to interact with the state.
Hauerwas’ work frequently encompasses these issues, but his book The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics outlines his position. He says however that you don’t need to read his book if you’ve read John H. Yoder’s seminal work The Politics of Jesus, a landmark work in pacifist ethics from an Anabaptist perspective. Hauerwas is heavily influenced by Yoder’s work and is in many ways a torch-bearer for the latter’s position, continuing to apply and outwork it in theological ethics. The Politics of Jesus is well worth reading as a main introduction to Christian pacifism as grounded in the life of Jesus.
As for Alan Storkey in the UK, I have yet to read his work Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, but as I understand it, it does address more the question of political engagement as opposed to mere ethical theory.
So to varying degrees, and very much as it did for MLK, pacifism has application for political engagement. But this ethical conviction also reflects not only outwards to this kind of engagement with the world, but also inwards to Christian theology. To say that the non-violent Jesus is the perfect image of God (Hebrews 1:3) has massive implications for how many Christians read the Old Testament. The issue is unavoidable: once we consider that Jesus, of whom it is said that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish” (Is 42:3) said of himself “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), one has to return to the Old Testament and ask the question: how is Jesus the image of the warrior God YHWH?
Asking this question, among others, is Greg Boyd. There are a whole variety of treatments of the question of course, but the pacifist one usually runs along the lines of it being antithetical to God’s nature to exercise violence, therefore any picture of God from the Old Testament that appears to sanction or indeed exercise violence must be somehow ‘incomplete’. It is all too easy to caricature this position as ‘Marcionite’, after the early church heretic Marcion who rejected the God of the Old Testament outright as being a different God than the Father of Jesus, however it is I think rare to find this among contemporary pacifist critiques of Old Testament portraits. What will be interesting to see is what Greg has to say in his much-anticipated, large forthcoming volume The Crucifixion of the Warrior God which deals with this whole subject – that, and of course the reaction to it, should be very instructive. (Incidentally as I prepared to publish this post, I was made aware that the release date for this book has finally been announced – 1 April, 2017. Having waited so long, I hope they’re not just trying to fool us…)
It’s not just understanding the portraits of God in the Old Testament that come under scrutiny, though. The doctrine of the atonement comes under the spotlight for some pacifists. Now I remind readers, that this is for some pacifists – those that are reflecting ‘upwards’ into theology; I don’t know, for example that the political pacifists I mentioned above would make anything like this kind of move; for Hauerwas, Storkey and others pacifism is an outward stance towards the world by believers. But for Boyd, and many others (a couple of whom I will name below) reflecting on pacifism theologically entails a rejection of penal substitutionary views of the atonement. Traditional penal substitution states that Jesus suffered the cross as a punishment in our place; he bears the punitive consequence of our sin. Theological pacifists therefore have rejected this, unable to accept the idea that God would seek and be satisfied by a violent means to an end in the crucifixion of Christ. “It puts violence front and centre of the whole Gospel message,” argued Boyd when once asked about this on Justin Brierley’s show Unbelievable. The God revealed in Christ as being non-violent, turning the other cheek, conquering through love, cannot in Christ be reconciling the world to himself through violent means, say Boyd and others.
Therefore the cross is usually seen as something the world and the devil do to God-in-Christ, which God uses as the means of their ultimate defeat and his justification. Boyd favours the ‘Christus Victor’ view of the atonement which states, more or less, that. This view was also articulated by another, perhaps less well-known, Anabaptist (and I will add, liberal) pacifist, Michael Hardin, when he visited our Ichthus Bible School. He made the admission, shocking as it was to us who were there, that he thought Peter could have got it wrong when he wrote that Jesus himself “bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 3:24); though as I wrote in that last linked article, he then went on to elucidate a possible interpretation of that verse which was about institutionalised Sin, not each of our own individual sins.
Hardin is a disciple of René Girard, a social anthropologist and philosopher who contended that (and I summarise Wikipedia’s opening paragraph as it is, I think, fair):
- desire is mimetic (imitated);
- all conflict originates in mimetic desire (I want what you have);
- the scapegoat mechanism (one is found to bear the penalty for all) is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture.
While his proposal was a critique of religion that relies on sacrificial systems, Girard believed that the Bible revealed the ugly circularity of this system and the fault of a scapegoating culture that, of course, ‘scapegoated’ an innocent man in Christ – and denounces it.
Hardin, after Girard, and others who follow a similar line, perhaps take this kind of theological pacifism to its furthest possible extent. While I find many of the propositions Hardin makes in his book The Jesus Driven Life attractive, I find its Biblical liberalism unattractive and frankly unnecessary, having myself been spoilt by such rich Biblical teaching and understanding rooted in Christ through the teaching of Roger Forster in Ichthus, who in his teaching shows how only the whole Bible taken together will give us a complete picture of Jesus, if we read it looking for him. There is something to be paid attention to in the work of Girard and perhaps in Hardin’s application of him, though the frustrations I have with The Jesus Driven Life have meant that I haven’t finished it yet, despite being kindly given it by the author two years ago.
There are other pacifists I haven’t read, of course; and there are certainly other pacifist movements in history worth noting. Especially prominent and intriguing in modern history is the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a committed pacifist during his life but in the end, it seems, part of a plot to assassinate Hitler; a plot which, ultimately, failed; and Bonhoeffer himself was killed by the Nazis.
We return to what is clear above all else: the way of Jesus can only be described as a way of peace. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he told Pilate. If it was, “then my servants would be fighting…but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36) Whatever it means for us, politically or theologically, we have an unambiguous starting point. Most importantly our own discipleship should reflect the way of nonviolence. I hope, in coming years, to explore what else that means for our engagement with the world, and our understanding of God in Christ.