Ted Grimsrud

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Christian Pacifism in Brief

In Pacifism, Politics, Theology on December 18, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Ted Grimsrud with Christian Early

[This is the Prologue to Christian Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds. A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. 1-21.]

John Howard Yoder begins The Politics of Jesus by characterizing that book as coming from “a Christian pacifist commitment.”  Yoder attempts, he states, to respond to ways “mainstream Christian theology has set aside the pacifist implications of the New Testament message.”[1]

In a persuasive way that still today, well over thirty years later, witnesses powerfully to those “pacifist implications,” Yoder presents New Testament teaching as speaking directly of social ethics in ways that remain normative for Christians—and that point directly toward pacifism.

Yoder’s essays included in the present book speak, directly and indirectly, of the significance of a pacifist commitment for how we know, for our epistemology.  However, he does not extensively explain what he means by pacifism.  As this term commonly lends itself to misunderstanding and caricature, we believe it will be helpful to begin with a short explanation of what we mean by “pacifism.”

When we present Yoder’s “pacifist epistemology” as exemplary, what follows in this chapter will show what we mean by “pacifism.”

“Pacifism” has the connotation of a complete rejection of involvement in warfare, and usually other forms of violence.  Beyond that simple assumption, however, the term pacifism is used in many different kinds of ways.  Yoder’s classic analysis, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, describes no less than twenty-nine different types of religious pacifism.[2] Given this variety, no one is in a position to make claims for all pacifists because “pacifism” is an essentially contested concept.  We wish to be very clear at the outset that our intent in this essay is to argue in favor of a particular, contestable understanding of pacifism.  We thought that perhaps it would be helpful to begin with some examples of what we consider to be misunderstanding pacifism, and then go on to give a short case for what we will call Christian pacifism allowing the rest of the book to be an exploration of the epistemological consequences of our view so that readers may judge it and its consequences more fully.

Pacifism According to its Critics

Pacifism is evil. Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist.  Pacifism for them is seen as a refusal to take responsibility for the necessary use of violence to stop evil people in our rough-and-tumble world.  This includes Christian leaders and theologians as well.  Popes Paul VI and John Paul II expressed views equating pacifism with “a cowardly and lazy conception of life” and “peace at any cost,” respectively.[3]

The right-wing American pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  In that essay, he asserted that, in relation to the war on terror, “American pacifists…are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans.  They are objectively pro-terrorist.”  Pacifists do not want the U.S. to fight back and neither do the terrorists.  Therefore they are on the same side.  And since terrorism is evil, he concluded flatly that the “pacifists’ position…is evil.”[4] Kelly did not give examples or specify whom he had in mind in his characterization of pacifism.  It would appear that he defined pacifism primarily as principled opposition to the use of American military might, including opposition to going to war to resist the obvious evils of “global terrorism.”

So, according to these two Popes and to Michael Kelly, pacifism seems largely to be understood as the refusal to fight back (or even to support fighting back) in the face of evil.  As such, it is directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil.

Pacifism is Irrelevant. The great American theological ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr in many ways shared elements of the “pacifism as evil” perspective.  In 1940, in the interim period between the beginning of the European war against Nazism in 1939 and the United States entry into that war in 1941, Niebuhr wrote his most direct critique of pacifism, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.”  In this essay, Niebuhr differentiates between “heretical” and “non-heretical” pacifism.

The “heretical” version, characteristic of many liberal Protestants in the years between World War I and World War II, according to Niebuhr naively assumed human goodness, rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin, reinterpreted the Cross so that it stands for the idea that perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory in the world, and rejected all other profound elements of the Christian gospel as hopelessly “Pauline.”[5]

While viewing this “heretical” pacifism with contempt, Niebuhr respected what he termed “the pacifist that is not a heresy.”  This pacifism, characteristic of the early Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, does not present the effort to achieve a standard of perfect love in individual life as a political alternative.  This approach disavows “the political problem and task.”  For non-heretical pacifists, setting up “the most perfect and unselfish individual life as a symbol of the kingdom of God” can “only be done by disavowing the political task and by freeing the individual of all responsibility for social justice.”[6]

This “non-heretical” pacifism “is a reminder to the Christian community that the relative norms of social justice, which justify both coercion and resistance to coercion, are not final norms, and that Christians are in constant peril of forgetting their relative and tentative character and of making them too completely normative.”[7]

Pacifism is Worldly. Hershberger, a Mennonite contemporary of Niebuhr’s, believed deeply that the message of Jesus forbade all of his followers from using violence, especially from participating in warfare.  However, he echoed many of Niebuhr’s analyses concerning what Niebuhr called “heretical pacifism,” the pacifism characteristic of many mainline Protestants that was influenced by the Social Gospel and that sought through political influence to move the world in a peaceful direction.  Hershberger, though, rejected the use of the term “pacifism” for the faithful Christian rejection of violence.  He preferred the term “nonresistance.”  When he refers to pacifism, he has in mind Niebuhr’s “heretical pacifism.”

Like Niebuhr, Hershberger charges “liberal Protestant pacifism” with an unduly optimistic view of human nature and human possibilities in the social realm.  For Social Gospel pacifism, he asserted, there is no sinful world to be renounced.  Human beings are inherently good, hence they are not in need of personal salvation.  Sin is not a personal, but rather a social evil, for these pacifists.  Their only salvation is a social salvation.  According to this view, Christ is not the redeemer of humankind, but rather our example.[8]

Along with this unwarranted optimism about the character of social life in the real world, Hershberger also believes that pacifists are way too sanguine about the use of force in trying to implement their social ideals.  He characterized pacifism as fully accepting of “nonviolent coercion” wherein the wronged person places the emphasis on a demand for justice.[9] However, in contrast to Jesus’ message of turn the other cheek and do not resist evil with coercion, nonviolent resistance is still resistance.  It is a form of coercion or compulsion.  It seeks to compel the enemy to give up.[10]

Hershberger, then, rejects pacifism because it too thoroughly conforms to a violent world.  In its optimism about human possibilities, it minimizes the depth of sin and violence that inevitably characterizes this fallen world.  And, it ends up being too comfortable with accepting worldly tactics of coercing others—these tactics ultimately contradict the message of Jesus.

Pacifism is passive. Theologian and activist Walter Wink does not reject pacifism because it is anti-war or anti-patriotic.  Nor, contrary to Niebuhr and Hershberger, does he believe that social justice compatible with the message of Jesus is possible in the real world.  He does not accept their characterization of the message of Jesus as being the basis for separation from social justice concerns or incompatible with the use of nonviolent resistance.  So he does not reject pacifism because it is too optimistic or too interventionist.

To the contrary, Wink rejects pacifism because he defines it as more or less the same phenomenon as what Hershberger would call “nonresistance.”  He writes, “pacifism must go.  It is endlessly confused with passivity.  In the nations in which Christianity has predominated, Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence has been perverted into injunctions to passive nonresistance, which is the very opposite of active nonviolence.”[11]

For Wink, pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active.  Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.  Gandhi had utter contempt for nonactive pacifism.  He regarded such a passive stance as cowardly, calling inaction “rank cowardice and unmanly,” and said he would rather see someone incapable of nonviolence resist violently than resist not at all.

However, the term “nonviolence,” preferred by Wink and others of like mind, has its own problems.  Nonviolence advocate Mark Kurlansky, who shares Wink’s critique, nonetheless admits that “nonviolence” is not a proactive word.  It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else.[12] Kurlansky’s recognition opens the door to a reconsideration of the term pacifism.  Is it possible that this despised term might actually be able to do the work needed so we can convey in a positive sense our commitment to making peace in our broken world?

Defining Pacifism

Pacifism: A Brief History.  The word “pacifism” has the virtue of being a positive term, connoting the affirmation of peace more than simply the opposition to violence.  However, as we have seen from our survey of people who do not like the term and as we would see were we to survey various ways the term is used by those who do like it,[13] there are many “pacifisms.”  We will not be arguing for one definitive or normative understanding of pacifism here.  Rather, we simply want to articulate one proposal for understanding pacifism as a positive and attractive perspective over against the negative associations summarized above.

The word “pacifism” is quite recent in English, dating back perhaps only about 100 years.  It was not listed in the 1904 Complete Oxford Dictionary.  According to the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1982, the first occurrence came in 1902 at an international peace conference as an English version of the French word pacifisme, used to express opposition to war.[14] However, the French term originally had the meaning of “making peace,” not simply “opposing war.”

The root word is “paci,” or “peace.”  If we take the word “pacifism” literally we could define it as love of peace, or devotion to peace.  We might best think of “pacifism” as the conviction that no value that could justify the use of violence takes priority over the commitment to peace.  Hence, “pacifism” is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do, it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment.

We are conscious that some may be uncomfortable with this conception of peace.  It may seem that we place peace higher even than God, effectively making peace into a God.  We confess to be puzzled by this concern.  To say that God is peace (or God is love or just or any other appropriate adjective) is obviously not the same as to say that peace is God (or that love is God and so on).  When one reverses the nominative case, one loses narrative specificity, storied concreteness.

In saying “God is peace” we mean to say that Jesus of Nazareth reveals to us that God is peace.  By contrast, saying “peace is God” is unspecified and vague, so much so that we are not sure what is being said or what examples could show us what that would look like.  We will still need to flesh much more what we mean be “peace,” of course, but we believe that the Bible supplies us with a thick portrayal of genuine peace, and that as Christians we must begin our thinking about God and peace with thinking about Jesus of Nazareth.

Starting with Jesus of Nazareth. Christian pacifists—who believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are at the center of the Bible, the lens through which we read the rest—see in Jesus sharp clarity about the supremacy of vulnerable love, peacableness, and compassion.  Jesus embodies a broad and deep vision of life that is thoroughly pacifist, even if he did not explicitly address participation in warfare.[15]

We will mention four basic biblical themes that find clarity in Jesus, but in numerous ways emerge throughout the biblical story.  These provide the foundational theological rationale for Christian pacifism.  They include first and most basic, the love command that Jesus gave as a summary of the biblical message.  The second theme is Jesus’ vision for love-oriented politics in contrast to the tyranny of the world’s empires.  The third theme is Jesus’ optimism about the human potential for living in love.  And the fourth theme is the model of Jesus’ cross that embodies self-suffering love and exposes the nature of the structures of human culture as God’s rivals for the trust of human beings.

(a) Jesus’ love command. Which is the greatest of the commandments, someone asked Jesus according to Matthew 22.  Jesus responds: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:34-40).

Mark and Luke also report this assertion (though Luke puts the actual words in the mouth of Jesus’ questioner)—as does Paul, in a slightly modified form, (Romans 13:8-10; note that Paul summarizes the Law simply as loving neighbor, effectively refuting any attempt to lessen the thrust of the second part of Jesus’ command) and John in his first letter (1 John 4:18-21).

We see three keys points being made here that are crucial for our concerns.  First, love is at the heart of everything for the believer in God.  Second, love of God and love of neighbor are tied inextricably together.  In Jesus’ own life and teaching, we clearly see that he understood the “neighbor” to be the person in need, the person that one is able to show love to in concrete ways (not to be an insider over against non-neighbors who are “other” and whom we are not expected to love).  The third point is that Jesus understood his words to be a summary of the Bible—that is, what Christians now call the Old Testament.  The Law and Prophets were the entirety of Jesus’ Bible—and in his view, their message may be summarized by this double love command.  He quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus directly in making his statement.

In his call to love in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus directly links human beings loving even their enemies with God loving all people.  “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his son rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45).

Near the beginning of this Sermon, he makes it clear again that his message of peace follows directly from the Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Just as the double love command comes directly from the law and prophets, so too the call to imitate God’s love for all people (with its implication, as Jesus makes clear, of loving even enemies) comes from the law and prophets.  Of course, the Old Testament gives a wide variety of impressions of God’s attitude toward the Hebrews enemies.  However, Jesus’ message has deep grounding throughout the biblical story, and he provides a hermeneutic for understanding the peace message (shalom) as the core message of the Bible.

From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for human beings—for all human beings.  And, crucially, God’s means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s election of them as a people of the promise.[16] The story makes it clear that this election is pure mercy—God’s persevering love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies.

The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people, the story that he understood himself to stand within, may be summarized in Jesus’ words as reported by Luke:  “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

Following after Jesus, we find in later New Testament writers a parallel portrayal of the centrality of love, even for enemies, as a reflection of the way God loves.  We will only mention Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter five, Paul writes of God’s immense love for us that reaches out to us in Jesus’ life and death, “while we were still sinners,” “while we were enemies” (Rom 5:8,10).  A little later, Paul (who also understood himself as, like Jesus, capturing the core message of the Bible [i.e., the Old Testament]) echoes Jesus’ summary of the core message of Torah: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:9-10).

So, the first and most basic biblical theme grounding Christian pacifism, finding clarity in Jesus but reflecting the biblical story as a whole, is the centrality of the love command.  The love command provides the central building block for Christian pacifism—both in the positive sense of establishing love as the highest ethical standard that can never be secondary to some other possibly violence-justifying ethical value and in the negative sense of providing the basis for rejecting the participation in war as a morally acceptable choice.

(b) An alternative politics. Our second biblical theme compliments the love command.  Jesus articulated a sharp critique of power politics and sought to create a counter-cultural community independent of nation states in their dependence upon the sword.[17] Jesus indeed was political—he was confessed to be a king (which is what Messiah, or Christ, meant).  The Empire executed him as a political criminal.  However, Jesus practiced an upside-down politics.[18] Jesus expressed his political philosophy in a nutshell when he responded to his disciples’ angling for status.  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

When he made this contrast between the politics of the “Gentile nations” (such as, of course, the Roman Empire) and the politics of the followers of God, Jesus die not compare apples and oranges.  He did not say these represent two totally different realms of life.  He said, to the contrary, that these visions compete, with contrasting visions for the ordering of social life among human beings.

When Jesus accepted the title “Messiah” (King), when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as present and normative for his followers, when Jesus organized his followers around twelve disciples (thus echoing the way the ancient nation of Israel was organized)—he established a social movement centered around the love command, a movement focused on supporting people living transformed lives in the here and now, a movement that witnessed to the entire world the ways of God, the ways meant to be the norm for all human beings.

Jesus, however, directly rejected the notion that this new movement he initiated would seek to imitate, even replace, Rome as the dominating Kingdom (Empire) based on its military might.  He rejected Satan’s offer at the beginning of his ministry to spearhead such a dominating kingdom.

Rather, Jesus created a movement meant to operate within the nations and empires of the world as an alternative society operating according to the word of God rather than the rule of the sword.  The community Jesus founded actually modeled itself after the pattern established long before during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s words may have served to help the ancient Israelites survive as a distinct people.  He encouraged people of the covenant to seek the wellbeing of whatever society they were part of while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah (Jer 29:7).[19]

In light of Jesus’ message, and how that message lifts up Jeremiah’s prophetic word, the entire Old Testament may be read as a cautionary tale.  This tale concerns the failure of nation-state-centered, sword-oriented politics to be a viable vehicle for sustaining the people of God as people who will bless all the families of the earth.  The call to be a blessing, first given to Abraham, was later reiterated when both the prophet Micah and the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when the nations of the world would come to Zion to learn the ways of peace, turning their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-4).

In light of Jeremiah and Jesus, we may see this prophecy being carried out not through the violence of the standard nation state, but through the peaceable witness of counter-cultures scattered throughout the world in various nation states—counter-cultures that center their lives on the consistent embodiment of the double command to love God and neighbor.

So, Jesus actually followed closely in continuity with the Old Testament story in calling upon his hearers to embrace once again their vocation to spread the message of God’s love, making “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), a vocation most decidedly not dependent upon the centralized, coercive political power of a nation-state.  The power of the sword-wielding state proved not only to be unnecessary for the carrying out of this promise, it actually corrupted the promise almost beyond recognition.

Later, another prophet, John of Patmos, also juxtaposed and contrasted the ways of empires and nations with the ways of God’s politics.  The Book of Revelation poses Babylon and the New Jerusalem as competing alternatives for followers of Jesus.  Thus, Revelation echoes the choice Jesus presented his followers—join uncritically in the social order where rulers lord over their subjects, or join in an alternative social order where greatness is manifested in servanthood.

From start to finish in Revelation, the pattern of Jesus (the king of kings—a political leader) is presented as one of suffering love followed by martyrdom followed by God’s vindication.[20] The final section of Revelation directly compares and contrasts the two cities (or empires or kingdoms).  First the angel shows John’s vision of Babylon, then of the New Jerusalem.  One is the way of power politics (and death); the other is the way of suffering servanthood (and life).  These two alternatives are about life in the here and now.

(c) Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness. The third theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his approach to ethical exhortation.  Jesus displayed a profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives for life.  When he said “follow me,” he clearly expected people to do so—here and now, effectively, consistently, fruitfully.

Perhaps Jesus’ most famous extended set of teachings, what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount, begins with a series of straightforward affirmations—you are genuinely humble, you genuinely seek justice, you genuinely make peace, you genuinely walk the path of faithfulness even to the point of suffering severe persecution as a consequence.

So, when Jesus calls upon his followers to love their neighbors, to reject the tyrannical patterns of leadership among the kings of the earth, to share generously with those in need, to offer forgiveness seventy times seven times, he actually expected that this could be done.[21]

Jesus’ optimism about human possibilities reflects a central theme throughout the Bible—a theme sometimes not noticed amidst the continual litany of human failures and disappointments in relation to living out of Torah.  At the heart of Torah and at the heart of the prophets’ exhortations we see the assumption that indeed human beings are capable of walking in the paths of justice and shalom.

The biblical problem is not so much that human beings are incapable of following God’s will for their lives.  The biblical problem is that in spite of their capabilities for faithfulness, human beings nonetheless all too often turn away.  And in turning away, in worshiping idols, human beings find themselves in bondage to social dynamics of oppression, greed, and violence.  However, from the start, the remedy is always at hand—simply turn back, repent and trust in God.  Faithfulness may then follow.

Jesus does not offer radical innovation when he begins his ministry with these words: “Repent and believe in the good news.  The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  Everything that he said in the months that followed presupposed that repentance (that is, simply turning back to God) is all that it takes for people to enter into fellowship with God and live as people of humility, people who hunger and thirst for justice and peace, people who persevere even in the face of persecution and suffering.

When Jesus called his followers to make kindness and love, even for enemies, the kind of priority that can never be overridden by some other value (that is, when Jesus established the basis for pacifism), he expected that this indeed would be possible.

(d) The model of the cross. The fourth theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his willingness to persevere in the path of love even when that brought him suffering and death.  Jesus’ cross serves as a model for his followers.  At the heart of his teaching stands the often repeated saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  He insisted that just as he was persecuted for his way of life, so will his followers be as well.

The powers that be, the religious and political institutions, the spiritual and human authorities, responded to Jesus’ inclusive, confrontive, barrier-shattering compassion and generosity with violence.  At its heart, Jesus’ cross may be seen as embodied pacifism, a refusal to turn from the ways of peace even when they are costly.  So when he calls his followers to share in his cross he calls them to embody pacifism.

Jesus’ cross contradicts the caricature of consistent, lived-out pacifism as passive, safe, and withdrawn.  Jesus’ way of peace led to conflict—not conflict stemming from his own belligerence, but conflict stemming from deeply entrenched characteristics in the structures of human society that resist freedom and compassion.  Jesus’ cross points to pacifism as his style of life; it also points away from trusting in the swords and spears of empires and institutional religion, the very structures of human social life that killed Jesus.

Again, we can see foreshadowings of Jesus’ path in the Old Testament story.  The first empire we learn about there, Pharaoh’s Egypt, embodies structural violence in its enslavement of the Hebrew people.  Pharaoh’s Egypt shows empire’s pattern of violent responses when people resist imperial structural violence.  This violent response led to stubborn hostility toward Moses and his work that empowered the Hebrews.

Tragically, the nation-state formed by the descendants of Moses imitated Egypt both in its injustices and its violent hostility toward those prophets who dared to speak out against the state’s structural injustices.  The prophets’ message endured, though, even though they did not have coercive force to use to protect it or to impose it on their society.

After Jesus, we see his suffering servanthood lifted up as the basic pattern for faithfulness in the Book of Revelation—the book states the basic pattern of Jesus at its beginning: “the faithful witness (or ‘martyr,’ the Greek word is martys), the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).  Jesus is portrayed as simultaneously the one who suffers violence without retaliation, the one whom God honors and exalts, and the one who serves as the true ruler of the world.

Revelation holds Jesus’ pattern up as the model for his followers.  The ones who God heals are the ones who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4),” the ones who refuse to kill with the sword (Rev 13:10).  Those who “conquer” in God’s way in Revelation conquer with suffering love.  Those who “conquer” in the Beast’s way, conquer with violence.

The Bible, thus, provides a fourfold basis for pacifism: the love command, the calling to give loyalty to the counter-cultural community of God’s people over loyalty to the Empire, the belief that faithful human beings can be empowered to follow Jesus in the here and now, and the model of the pattern of Jesus—suffering love even to the point of death with the promise of God’s vindication.

Core Theological Affirmations.

If we understand “pacifism” as a central conviction, one that shapes all our other convictions, and if we affirm that our pacifism follows from our Christian faith commitments, then we must recognize that pacifism links with our core theological convictions.  When we view Christian theologically through pacifist lenses, we will see that several key theological motifs naturally take a distinctly pacifist slant.

Trinitarian Cues—Jesus as God. One of the distinctively Christian theological affirmations is a Trinitarian understanding of God.  Christians affirm God as a unity of three distinct “persons,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Insofar as Christians retain a commitment to understanding God monotheistically, they recognize that these three “persons” are not independent in will, but are three ways the one God is manifested in relation to human beings.  To say that “Jesus is God” provides a theological warrant to say that descriptions of Jesus apply to God.

John Howard Yoder speaks for Christian pacifists when he asserts that operating from within a Trinitarian framework, Christians recognize that Jesus of Nazareth, in his concretizing of God’s nonviolent, persevering love, reflects the very character of God.  Christians confess Jesus to be “God Incarnate,” the second person of the Trinity.

As Yoder writes, “incarnation” originally meant that:

God broke through the borders of our standard definition of what is human, and gave a new, formative definition in Jesus.  “Trinity” did not originally mean that there are three kinds of revelation, the Father speaking through creation and the Spirit through experience, by which the words and example of the Son must be corrected; it meant rather that language must be found and definitions created so that Christians, who believe in only one God, can affirm that that God is most adequately and bindingly known in Jesus.[22]

Yoder argues for the normativity of a thoroughly pacifist Jesus for all Christians.  If Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is God Incarnate, if Jesus is Messiah, if Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, “fully human and fully divine,” his way of life embodies God’s will for all humanity.  “I ask…that the implications of what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man, be taken more seriously, as relevant to our social problems, than ever before.”[23] That is, pacifism as a core Christian conviction, as a commitment that shapes every conviction we have as Christians, simply follows from a “high” Christology that recognizes Jesus as part of the very being of God.

God is Nonviolent. The Bible gives us mixed signals concerning the relationship between God and violence.  However, our above recognition of the relevance of Trinitarian affirmations for how we understand the centrality of pacifism to Christianity challenges us to read the Bible christologically.  Insofar as the Bible presents Jesus as the normative revelation of God, and tells the story leading up to Jesus’ incarnation and following Jesus’ ascension as being in ultimate harmony with the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, we are charged to pay close attention to themes in the Bible that illumine the message of Jesus.

The challenge of making sense of various Old Testament and later apocalyptic portrayals of God being linked with violence certainly deserves our serious reflection and analysis.  However, if we do take Jesus as normative, we need not wait to resolve every point of tension before we lift up biblical themes that do make clear that the deepest, most profound, most coherent view of God (that recognizes Jesus as part of the Godhead) leads directly to the conclusion that the Christian God is best understood in terms of pacifism.[24]

The beginning of the Bible, Genesis one, makes clear that creation itself reflects the peace that is at the heart of God (especially when we contrast the story of origins told here with other contemporary stories such as the Babylonian account that posits profound violence at the very heart of creation[25]).  Throughout the Old Testament, though indeed often violence is linked with God, the basic story line presents God more in terms of persevering love, an emphasis surfaced early on when following the retributive judgment of the Great Flood in Noah’s time, we see the rainbow (the bow, a weapon of war unstrung) and read of God’s promise to respond to human willfulness in a different way.

Jesus, most obviously, presents his Father as characterized by mercy in response to wrong-doing (see, for example, the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32).  Jesus turns to God as “Abba,” a God worthy of trust and affection.  He asserts that we best imitate the character of God, who showers life on the just and unjust alike, when we exercise God-like mercy, even to the point of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

Paul reiterates this last point in Romans five, when he emphasizes how God loves all of us while are yet God’s enemies.  This, remember, comes from the former zealot who himself had violently persecuted Jesus’ followers in service of the God he worshiped.  Only after his life-shattering meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road did Paul realize that the God he thought served with his violence actually was most definitively revealed in the thoroughly pacifist Jesus of Nazareth, in whose service Paul spent the rest of his days.

Pacifism as A Way of Life.

A Voice Among Its Critics.  We best understand the language of pacifism, then, as the basic language of our human vocation, our way of understanding creation and our place in it.  The foundational saving event of the New Testament, God raising Jesus from the dead, both vindicates Jesus’ own pacifist way of life and reflects in the most profound way possible God’s own pacifist way of responding to the worst imaginable human rebellion and violence.

Jesus embodies the pacifist vocation, directly engaging the Powers of evil (offering forgiveness to outcasts, healing to the Powers’ victims, establishing countercultural communities of resistance to the domination system).  Jesus’ engagement, while clearly confrontive enough to elicit an enormously violent response from the Powers, provides a paradigm both for perceiving the human situation (e.g., his critique of how the so-called “Benefactors” of the nations actually exercise their power in tyranny) and responding to this situation with creative and transforming pacifism (e.g., his “transforming initiatives” in his “Sermon on the Mount”[26]).

As we turn back to the critiques of pacifism summarized above, we may see that in each case, the criticism does not reflect an adequate understanding of authentic pacifism founded on the message of Jesus.

Michael Kelly may be correct in seeing pacifism as opposing American imperialism, but for precisely the opposite reason he cites.  He claims pacifism is “objectively evil” because he assumes the interests of the American empire represent “objective good.”  Pacifism does not oppose American imperialism because it is American, but because it is imperialism.  Indeed we do have a responsibility to resist “evil people.”  However, we are called to offer such resistance in ways that do not simply add to the spiral of evil.  Pacifists argue that in fact their way of resisting evil offers the best long-term hope for actually healing the problems created by evil actions, breaking the spiral.

Pacifism, in contrast to Kelly’s caricature, does stand for objective good in opposition to evildoers.  This is why pacifists oppose all mass murder, be it the acts of those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 or the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis following the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Pacifists respect the “power of sin” at large in our world today.  We take human sin so seriously that we respect the likelihood that military and political leaders themselves are corrupted by sin so much that they can not be trusted to operate on behalf of genuine justice and fairness.

The only ultimately redemptive response to sin and how it profoundly distorts human social life is, as Paul asserted, to seek to overcome evil with good (Romans 12).  The only way successfully to resist violence without simply adding to violence in the world is overtly non-violent resistance.

The pacifism being advocated for in this book would recognize itself in neither of Reinhold Niebuhr’s caricatures of “orthodox” or “heretical” pacifisms.  It is possible to affirm human possibilities of living faithfully in response to God’s transforming love (which is central to biblical anthropology as reflected both in Torah and the Sermon on the Mount) without positing a naïve and superficial humanistic optimism.  For pacifism, our hope rests on God’s promises, not inherent human goodness.

It is also possible to be pacifist and affirm that Christian faith does lead us to political engagement that enters into human history in the “nitty gritty” of real life.  However, following John Howard Yoder, we affirm that the “politics of Jesus,” while directly involved in human social life, must not be reduced to a balance of power between competing egoisms that requires the use of the sword to be genuinely “political.”  Such a politics based on violence not only contradicts Jesus’ expectations for human beings living in the present world, it also misses the importance of cooperation, community, and mutuality in all healthy social dynamics.

The message of Jesus has direct relevance for life in the political realm.  Pacifism after Jesus helps the believer see that it is not the following of Jesus’ way that causes damage due to its neglect of Niebuhrian “rough justice.”  Rather, damage much more likely will be caused by those who fail to see that violence and militarism do not create a valuable if imperfect form of relative justice but instead only foster injustice and heighten the spiral of violence.

In contrast to Guy Hershberger’s dismissal of pacifism as unbiblical and based on unbelieving humanism, pacifism as understood in this book bases itself directly on biblical teaching, as shown above.  From the Bible, we learn of a pacifism that does seek to transform the world and that overtly resists evil and evildoers (albeit nonviolently and with the goal of lovingly transforming the evildoer, Revelation 21:24).

Justice is indeed to be insisted on—though not the retributive, abstract, and coercive justice of thinkers such as Niebuhr.  Biblical justice does seek to challenge evil, not with the threat of punishment but with the possibility of genuine healing and the restoration of broken relationships.  Pacifism helps us keep in mind that true justice requires healing both for victim and offender, seeing past the lure of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.[27]

Nonviolent coercion has a place in pacifism.  However, following Gandhi’s careful thought about coercion, pacifists believe coercion has legitimacy only when used in ways that do not violate the humanity of the one being confronted.[28] Jesus himself expressed coercive tendencies, for instance in his sharp critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and his driving of the moneychangers from the temple.

Walter Wink presumably would affirm much of what we have been saying about pacifism, except he does not like the term.  Like Wink, we affirm that the follower of Jesus is called to seek social justice and to live as if social transformation is possible in history.  Our pacifism is decidedly not “passive;” it has nothing to do with passivity.

Pacifism has a positive, constructive, active, and engaged focus.  It seeks to make peace.  Hence, the term “nonviolence” simply is not adequate.  “Pacifism” encompasses precisely the vision Wink articulates of God’s domination free reign that Jesus inaugurated.

Pacifism as a Vision. At its heart, the vision for pacifism we seek to articulate and embody emphasizes that pacifist convictions shape the way we see the world and our place in it.  Throughout the New Testament, right vision stands in contrast with blindness, idolatrous misperception, and willful distortions of reality and of God’s will.

To understand pacifism better in its fullest sense, we need self-consciously to reflect on epistemology.  We need to reflect, that is, on how we know what we know and what difference pacifism makes in how and what we know.  Pacifists have not spent a lot of time in such reflection partly because of unhelpful (and false) distinctions between practice and theory and partly because other matters seemed more urgent.  However, from what we have been saying above about the all-encompassing nature of pacifism, and about its link with the very character of God and God’s creation, we believe pacifists have a need to be more intentional in thinking through the implications of our pacifist convictions for how we think.

All human beings see the world through some sort of perspective.  We cannot help but operate with some kind of epistemology, some set of values and convictions (even if unstated) that greatly affect what we see around us and how we see it.  Consequently, such a central conviction as pacifism cannot help but play a major role in how we order our values and convictions.  The two of us have become convinced that that role is very positive.  That is, pacifism contributes to a better epistemology.

All too often, pacifism can be seen as kind of an “add on” to more fundamental convictions (hence, some of the critiques listed above that emerge because of the superificiality of a great deal of thinking about pacifism).  However, we argue philosophically and theologically for the importance of pacifism as one of the most central of our convictions.  Pacifism, if it is truly to be pacifism, must stand at the center of our awareness as we reflect on how and what we know.

Yoder’s Contribution and Beyond. John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, stands as Christian pacifism’s foremost academic voice of the last half of the 20th century.  Yoder’s seminal work, especially The Politics of Jesus, only grows in significance in the years since his death.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote several essays reflecting on epistemological themes.

Yoder understood pacifism as decisive in how followers of Jesus should understand their place in the world.  He thought long and hard about many of the implications of this understanding.  In the chapters that follow, we have gathered a number of these essays together in an attempt to bring to a broader audience Yoder’s sustained thought on how to think epistemologically as pacifists.

Supplementing Yoder’s gathered thoughts, we conclude the book with an essay suggesting how we might continue to learn from Yoder’s ground-breaking work.  This collection stands as a gathering of suggestions for how to push onward in pacifist theology more than a fully developed systematic statement.  At its best, it will stimulate the further work that must be done.  However, we will always be in debt to the brilliance of John Howard Yoder and his willingness to devote his abundant intellectual gifts to pushing us all to think as if Jesus truly matters.

Bibliography

Bondurant, Joan V. Conquest of Violence: Gandhi’s Philosophy of Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

Bredin, Mark. Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation. Carlisle, UK and Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

Grimsrud, Ted and Howard Zehr. “Rethinking God, Justice and the Treatment of Offenders.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35 (2002), 253-79.

Grimsrud, Ted. “Is God Nonviolent?” In Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007. 47-53.

Grimsrud, Ted. “Violence as a ‘Theological’ Problem.” Justice Reflections #10 (December 2005), 1-25.

Grimsrud, Ted. God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000.

Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb: A Guide to the Book of Revelation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

Hanson, Paul D. The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

Hershberger, Guy F. War, Peace, and Nonresistance. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944.

Herzog, William. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

Johns, Loren. The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.

Kelly, Michael. “…Pacifist Claptrap.” Washington Post (September 26, 2001). Accessed on-line (January 23, 2009): https://peacetheology.net/around-the-internet/michael-kelly-pacifist-claptrap/.

Kurlansky, Mark. Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Lohfink, Gerhard. Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist.” In Christianity and Power Politics. New York: Scribners, 1940.

Stassen, Glen and David Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Stassen, Glen. Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Storkey, Alan. Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Teichman, Jenny. Pacifism and the Just War: A Study in Applied Philosophy. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Wink, Walter. “Can Love Save the World?” Yes Magazine #20 (Winter 2002). Accessed on-line (January 23, 2009): http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=485.

Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Yoder, John Howard. “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun.” In For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 51-78.

Yoder, John Howard. Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism. Second edition. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.


[1] Yoder, Politics, x.

[2] Yoder, Nevertheless.

[3] Cited in Yoder, Nevertheless, 161, endnote 3.

[4] Kelly, “Pacifist.”

[5] Niebuhr, “Why,” 5.

[6] Niebuhr, “Why,” 4-5.

[7] Niebuhr, “Why,” 5.

[8] Hershberger, War, 209-10.

[9] Hershberger, War, 217.

[10] Hershberger, War, 221.

[11] Wink, “Can Love?”  For a similar dismissal of pacifism see Kurlansky, Nonviolence, 6-7.

[12] Kurlansky, Nonviolence, 5.

[13] See Yoder, Nevertheless.

[14] Teichman, Pacifism, 1.

[15] In what follows, our approach to Jesus is shaped above all by Yoder, Politics.

[16] See Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy, for a discussion of the Genesis 12:1-3 calling of Abraham and Sarah as the interpretive key for reading the entire Bible.

[17] Four biblical theologies that center on the motif of “community” and, at least to some extent, highlight this motif of the biblical community as counter-culture include: Hanson, People; Brueggemann, Prophetic; Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?; and C. Wright, Mission of God.

[18] For Jesus and politics, see along with Yoder, Politics, Borg, Jesus; N. Wright, Jesus; Herzog, Jesus; and Storkey, Jesus.

[19] John Howard Yoder first argued for the significance of Jeremiah for thinking of how counter-cultural, pacifist communities might live faithfully in his essay, “See How They Go.”  This argument is greatly expanded in his posthumously published book, Jewish-Christian Schism.

[20] See two recent scholarly books that, in parallel ways, argue for Revelation’s core commitment of a Jesus-centered nonviolence: Bredin, Jesus and Johns, Lamb. For a popular-level discussion, see Grimsrud, Triumph.

[21] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, develop their portrayal of Christian ethics as centered on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which they see as a practical manifesto for present-day life.  See also, Stassen, Living.

[22] Yoder, Politics, 99.

[23] Yoder, Politics, 102.

[24] On pacifism and our doctrine of God, see Grimsrud, “Is God Nonviolent?” 47-53.

[25] Wink, Engaging, 13-16.

[26] See Stassen, Living, and Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.

[27] For an argument of how “justice” and “pacifism” are complementary concepts, see Grimsrud, “Violence,” and Grimsrud and Zehr, “Rethinking.”

[28] Bondurant, Conquest, 9-11.

Jesus’ “Story of Two Sons” and Our Metaphysics

In Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Theology, World War II on December 14, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I reflect on Jesus’ famous parable, often called the “prodigal son” in my December 12, 2010 sermon—the tenth in my series on Luke’s Gospel.

Importantly, we should notice that Jesus’ story begins with “there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). The focus is on the father and both sons. The story doesn’t end with the younger son’s return. Rather, the story ends with the father’s unanswered plea to the older son to join in the party celebrating the return of his brother.

I approach the story in the light of big questions we have in today’s world about why so many people in our American society are so accepting of violence. I suggest one big issue is our metaphysics (our views of “what is” and “what it’s like”). I counter pose a metaphysics of redemptive violence with a metaphysics of mercy.

Jesus affirms a metaphysics of mercy—he tells his powerful story of the two sons in response to “grumbling” from religious leaders about his merciful ways (that reflect his understanding of reality as “mercy all the way down”).

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “Metaphysical Therapy.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Justice, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on December 14, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[Published in The Conrad Grebel Review 28.3 (Fall 2010), 22-38]

“One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”[i] These words opened Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers nearly twenty years ago — and voice the concern that remains at the center of many peacemakers’ sensibilities. Wink’s question about resisting evil without adding to it points in two directions at once, thereby capturing one of the central tensions we face.  On the one hand, we human beings of good will, especially those of us inclined toward pacifism, assume that at the heart of our lives we have a responsibility to resist evil in our world, to seek peace, to be agents of healing — that is, to enter into the brokenness of our present situation and be a force for transformation.  On the other hand, we recognize that efforts to overcome evil all too often end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil can lead to the use of tactics that add to the evil and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while not only remaining true to our core convictions that lead us to seek peace but also serving as agents of actual healing instead of well-meaning contributors to added brokenness?

In recent years, various strategies with potential for addressing these issues have arisen.  These include efforts to add teeth to the enforcement of international law (the International Criminal Court) and the emergence of what has come to be known as the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine affirmed by the United Nations Security Council in 2006. In this general arena of seeking to respond creatively to evil, we could also include creative thinking that has been emerging out of peace church circles related to themes such as restorative justice,[ii] “just policing,”[iii] and projects such at the 3D Security Initiative[iv] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[v]

The tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil appears in the tendency to incline either towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers, or towards “faithfulness” in ways that do not truly contribute to resisting wrongdoing and bringing about needed changes. We face a basic choice. Will we understand this tension as signaling a need to choose one side of it over the other — either retreating into our ecclesial cocoon and accepting our “irresponsibility” or embracing the call to enter the messy world in creative ways that almost certainly will mean leaving our commitment to nonviolence behind? Or will we understand the tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility?

I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension-as-opportunity-for-creative-engagement” path. A number of the people and writings cited in notes 2 through 5 below have been embodying just this kind of path; I do not mean to imply that peace church practitioners haven’t make significant progress in understanding and applying our peacemaking convictions to the “real world.”[vi] However, I am not content that we have yet done the necessary work at sharpening our understanding and articulation of the “faithfulness” side of the responsibility/faithfulness dialectic. Our creativity in engaging these issues may be drawing on increasingly depleted traditions of principled pacifism that found their roots more in traditional communities than in carefully articulated theological ethics. We may not have the resources to live creatively with this dialectic unless we do more work on clarifying and solidifying our understanding of our peace ideals.

With this essay I will articulate a perspective on pacifism that might be usable for thoughtfully engaging human security issues. My contribution is mostly as a pastor and theologian, not a practitioner. My hope is to help with the philosophical underpinnings, not to direct a program of engagement — though I will conclude with a few thoughts on how I see the pacifist perspective outlined here possibly applying to our present situation.

What is Pacifism?

The word “pacifism” has the virtue of being a positive term, connoting the affirmation of peace more than simply the opposition to violence. It is quite recent in English, dating back perhaps only about 100 years. It was not listed in the 1904 Complete Oxford Dictionary. According to the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1982, the first occurrence came in 1902 at an international peace conference as an English version of the French word pacifisme, used to express opposition to war.[vii] However, the French term originally had the meaning of “making peace,” not simply “opposing war.”

The root word is “paci” (from pax), “peace.” If we take the word “pacifism” literally, we could define it as love of peace, or devotion to peace. We might best think of pacifism as the conviction that no other value or necessity takes priority over the commitment to peace. Hence, pacifism is more than simply approving of peace (which everyone in some sense would do). It also includes the conviction that peace stands higher than any commitment that could justify the use of violence. We will need to flesh out much more what we mean by “peace,” of course. The kind of peace that pacifism values as the highest of values is widespread well-being in human communities, peace with justice, peace with equality, peace with health for all.

In what follows, I will sketch a fuller understanding of pacifism and present it as a foundational orienting point. What are the key elements that make up this orienting point? What are the key convictions that provide a pacifist context for discerning how to respond to evil?

Core Pacifist Convictions

(1) Love of neighbor is the heart of being human. At its very core, pacifism follows from the conviction that as human beings our central calling is to love our neighbors. The Bible emphasizes this call in numerous places in both Testaments. One of the strongest statements comes in Luke’s Gospel. A teacher of the Law asks Jesus what a person must do to attain eternal life — that is, what is the highest calling for human beings. Jesus asks him to answer this question himself, drawing on the core teachings of his tradition. The teacher responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

Jesus strongly affirms the teacher’s response: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (10:28). In the version of this encounter reported in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus adds an important assertion concerning Torah: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). If you were to boil the Old Testament Law down to just a few words, this would be it: Love God and love neighbor. As Luke tells the story, the teacher then zeroes in on implications of the Love Command.  “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). He recognizes that love of God and love of neighbor belong inextricably together. If you don’t love the neighbor, you simply are not loving God (see affirmations of this point in 1 John 4:20-21 and Romans 13:8-10). However, the teacher’s challenge to Jesus has to do with the definition of “neighbor.”

Jesus takes the challenge, and makes it unalterably clear that “neighbor-love” is indeed directly a call to pacifism. Imagine a friend of yours, he says to the teacher, a fellow Jew traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho (a steep, winding, dangerous trip), and imagine your friend is attacked, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Now comes the provocative part. As the traveler lies there bleeding, a couple of people pass by and notice the victim. Rather than help, they sidle to the far side of the road and continue on. These are not just random passers-by; they are the very people a Jew would consider “neighbors”: a priest and a Levite, two embodiments of the faith community. Finally, someone comes by who is willing to help — extravagantly, as it turns out. This “Good Samaritan” was in fact a Samaritan.  Shocking, because Samaritans were the last people the teacher of the law would ever imagine being “neighbors.” They were enemies, members of a rival clan.

Jesus’ story clearly defines “neighbor” as the one who cares for others in need, including those labeled as enemies. To find eternal life (to fulfill our highest calling as human beings), we must practice this kind of neighbor love. This is the only way we can embody (and validate) our claim to love God. This articulation of what it means to be fully human centers on a vision of each human being linked with each other human being. Pacifism, in light of this vision, has to do with loving each particular person — certainly the extreme cases such as the Samaritan loving his Jewish enemy but everything less extreme as well. Jesus gives us our marching orders for every relationship, every aspect of life.

(2) No value or cause takes precedence over love of neighbor.  If we understand love of neighbor to extend to each person without exception, including enemies, we are recognizing that such a call to love is our “ultimate principle.” To understand love of neighbor as the core of human morality will lead one to see that no other value or conviction or principle can take precedence over this love. As a consequence, any calculation of moral responsibility must take this commitment to love as central to discernment concerning morally appropriate action. Love of neighbor stands as the conviction that may never be compromised in relation to other convictions. When other important values come into play (such as defense against aggression, the need to hold wrong-doers accountable for their actions, one’s duties as a citizen of a particular nation-state, efforts to free people from oppression and injustice, and many others), these must be acted on in ways that do not violate the call to love each neighbor.

Such an understanding of the love command calls us to action, not to withdrawal and passivity. As John Howard Yoder points out, Jesus faced one central temptation throughout his public ministry: to use violence in order to uphold the core concerns of Torah.[viii] Jesus did not take seriously the temptation to withdraw in order to “love” the world through avoiding impurity or through his own suffering. This “Essene option” was not a serious temptation for him. But the “Zealot” option clearly was, the option to bring God’s rule into being by force, to “do good” at the expense of treating some people as means instead of ends. Jesus understood the call to love the neighbor as a call actively to resist the injustices of the day and actively to seek to empower and liberate those oppressed by such injustices.

However, this call is not a call to draw lines between the “neighbor” whom one fights to support against enemies who are not considered neighbors. From early in his ministry, Jesus makes it clear that his kind of active love refuses to draw such lines. The kind of transformation Jesus embodied meant injustice would be resisted in ways that did not visit suffering upon the enemy but instead accepted self-suffering as the cost of genuine love.[ix]

Jesus’ approach challenges pacifists today to hold two truths together at all times. The first truth is that love of neighbor leads to involvement in resistance and transformation work.  The second is that this love requires a refusal to exclude anyone. Hence, the need for creativity. How do we involve ourselves in ways that show love toward everyone? How do we resist evil in ways that are consistent with love for each neighbor?

The term “pacifism” connotes that “peace,” holistically understood as pertaining to widespread well-being linked with all-encompassing love of neighbors, stands as our core value. This is the one “ism” that does not elevate the penultimate to an ultimate, because holistic peace (love of God and neighbor, in Jesus’ terms) is the ultimate.

(3) Pacifism has to do with life in every aspect of human existence. Since pacifism stands at the center of our understanding of human morality, we believe it informs all areas of life. For example, we recognize that Jesus’ message speaks to life here and now. So we reject a present/future separation as if Jesus’ love-centered ethic is normative only in some future heavenly setting. Jesus used apocalyptic imagery to “reveal” God’s rule in the present, requiring immediate choices about our loyalties. Jesus called for a commitment to God’s kingdom vis-à-vis Caesar’s kingdom, a commitment that could lead to a confrontation to the death.

As well, we reject any kind of personal/social separation, as if Jesus’ love-centered ethic is normative for his followers’ personal lives in families, neighborhoods, and faith-communities, but another ethic of “responsibility” governs their actions as citizens. This “responsibility” ethic has traditionally been understood to call for violence on occasion, where enemies of one’s nation-state become non-neighbors. Jesus did speak directly to political relationships from start to finish.[x] His most alluring temptation was how to shape his political practices, not whether to be political or not. The love command calls pacifists to seek wholeness in all areas of life but always in ways consistent with love. This calls us to see all areas of life both as places where we should participate and as lending themselves to being shaped by the call to love.

This is a call to think and act as if pacifism is always one’s core moral value.[xi] One does not limit the relevance of one’s convictions by accepting a high level of incommensurability between pacifist convictions and the “real world.”[xii] The Bible contains myriad examples of prophets and teachers who understood the word of God, the message of Torah, the teaching of Jesus, to speak to the world of kings and empires, wars, and rumors of wars.

Pacifists will always challenge leaders who wield power to consider the requirements of respect and compassion for all people, and will expect that such challenges can be understood and acted upon. Because of the universal applicability of pacifist values, pacifists should also recognize that their role need not always be one of standing outside the “corridors of power” beseeching decision-makers to take them seriously. Pacifists need not exclude themselves from the exercise of power in principle. The responsibility to practice consistent love should lead anyone in power to make decisions that are respectful and always move away from violence and injustice.

(4) We are destined for wholeness; the key issue is how we reach that destination. We may think of human destiny in two mutually reinforcing senses: destiny has to do (a) with our nature and purpose and (b) with our final outcome. A pacifist anthropology understands human beings to be capable of living at harmony with one another and with the rest of creation, with the hope that such harmony is the direction toward which we are moving.

This peaceable destiny may be derived from understanding human evolution to be grounded in the fundamental reality of cooperation (more than competition).[xiii] Of course, many evolutionists argue that humans are naturally inclined toward violence. This debate may be interminable, though it seems clear that debaters’ assumptions provide a powerful influence on how ambiguous data are interpreted. Pacifist assumptions may not be easily vindicated, but neither are they easily refuted.[xiv]

The biblical story also seems to lend itself to various interpretations. However, the most fundamental orientation of the Bible assumes that human beings are indeed capable of moral responsibility.[xv] Torah, the teaching of Jesus, and the moral exhortations of Paul all presuppose the likelihood of faithfulness. The call to peaceable living is doable in this life, which is why humans are accountable for their failure to live in peace.

The Book of Revelation — despite the tendency of many to read it as a book of violence — makes clear that human beings who so choose may indeed “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4). Revelation portrays the culmination of human history in a healed community populated by reconciled enemies (Rev. 21–22; note especially the presence of “the kings of the earth” [21:24] and the healing of “nations” [22:2], both of which are specified earlier in the book (and throughout the Bible) as enemies of God and God’s people. The message of Revelation speaks to the human need for hope and purpose. In the face of the overwhelming power of the idolatries and blasphemies of the Roman Empire, Revelation promises an outcome of healing and restoration. The focus, however, is not on a pre-determined happy outcome of history regardless of humanity’s actions but on the means to achieve that hopeful outcome.

Revelation portrays Jesus’ path to peace, summarized in 1:5-6: “the faithful witness” who lived according to the love command and suffered martyrdom as a consequence, “the first born of the dead” whose witness God vindicated through resurrection, the “ruler of the kings of the earth” who reveals the true nature of the grain of the universe, and the one who makes of his followers “a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” The message of Revelation thus illustrates the conviction that regardless of how certain we may be about the actual paradisical conclusion to human history, we may be certain about the only means for achieving that outcome. The New Jerusalem is home for those who embody the way of Jesus, following his path of love even in the face of overwhelming violence and domination. Revelation promises that in following this path, Jesus and his followers may hope to transform the very nations who have persecuted them through the ages.

(5) We understand our social ethics in relation to the Powers — and the hope that they might be transformed.  An understanding of human beings as not inherently violent and having a peaceable destiny leads to paying close attention to the dynamics in human existence that do foster violence. If the terrible violence that bedevils our world does not originate in human nature, how do we understand its presence?

We may draw on New Testament language of “principalities and powers.” A Powers analysis such as articulated by Walter Wink[xvi] suggests that violence has mostly to do with “fallen” social structures that shape our environment in ways which move us toward violence. The Powers are simultaneously created good, fallen, and redeemable.[xvii] We live our lives amidst these social dynamics that reach into every area of existence.

The “goodness” of the Powers means they are necessary for the functioning of human life. The Powers enable society to organize for accomplishing tasks needed to sustain life — for example, local government provides for public utilities, the Postal Service delivers our mail, colleges educate, agricultural structures provide our food. The purpose of human institutions is to serve human well-being. The “fallenness” of the Powers means these structures tend to seek our loyalties in ways that foster alienation and conflict. We require organization for economic activity, yet some of the organizations that have evolved become hungry for more and more profit at the expense of environmental health. The nation-state meets many important human needs but also becomes an object of violence-enhancing idolatry. The “redeemability” of the Powers means the structures do not have to be idolatrous and destructive to human well-being. We do not have to have a criminal justice system that focuses more on punishment and privatized profit than on the healing of victims and offenders. We do not have to have an agricultural system that treats farming as an extractive industry rather than a sustainable and cooperative effort.

Wink argues that violence in our society stems from religious-like beliefs in the redemptive nature of violence. Hence, the Powers of militarism benefit from this myth of redemptive violence. Our nation goes to war because of the momentum created by those Powers shaping our country’s values and practices, not because of careful moral discernment. We Americans believe (blindly, against the actual evidence) in the efficacy of investing more money in our military-industrial complex than does the rest of the world combined.

Pacifists argue that self-awareness about our core values (human community; suspicion of the story told by government and popular culture about the necessity of militarism; careful assessment of the true consequences of preparing for and making war) frees us from the spiral of violence our world currently is locked into. Such a freeing requires awareness of how the Powers shape our consciousness toward self-destructive, irrational policies and practices. The Powers analysis helps us understand the roots of violence in society,[xviii] the possibilities of resistance, and the hope for transformation. Pacifism plays an essential role in discernment. Pacifists suggest that the presence of violence is always likely a sign of the domination of fallen Powers; violence serves as kind of a canary in the mine signaling the presence of distorted loyalties.

(6) The enemy is evil-doing itself, not any particular nation or group of human beings. In our moral discernment, we should focus on stable understandings of the values that we see as central — not on more fluid uses of values language that serve particular interests (fallen Powers). Only with stable understandings applied evenly may we hope actually to discern and respond in ways that address the true problems of violence and injustice.

Consider, for example, the issue of “terrorism.” We can agree that terrorism is a bad thing and should be opposed. People of good will should also agree that terrorism should be opposed and overcome, regardless of its source. We start, then, with a reasonably stable definition of terrorism so we know what we are opposing. The US Army in the Ronald Reagan administration, facing the emergence of terrorism as a central national security theme, presented this definition: “The calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.”[xix] This definition may not be the best we could imagine, but it would surely strike most people of good will as reasonable and a good start. The key moral issue, then, is to seek a consistent and objective application of this definition. If terrorism itself is our problem and our responsibility is to resist it, we would oppose any and all incidents of “the calculated use of violence” to attain “political, religious, or ideological” goals.

When we follow a stable definition of terrorism and apply it consistently, we will see terrorism itself as our key problem — not any particular group of alleged terrorists. That is, if we truly oppose terrorism, we will not allow the rubric of terrorism to lead us to label only certain people as “terrorists” in a way that serves political agendas. We will be especially sensitive to the proclivity to use the label both to stigmatize political opponents in ways justifying violent responses to them and to justify acts that according to a stable definition of terrorism are terrorist acts themselves.

In his history of the use of car bombs, Mike Davis shows that the driving force in using such bombs has been covert American operatives and allies such as Israel.[xx] This illustrates how tactics that clearly fit the US Army’s definition of “terrorism” are not generally defined as terrorism when used by status quo powers. The use of terrorist methods (which by definition surely include aerial bombardments and “targeted assassinations”[xxi]) is immoral, regardless of who uses them. Pacifists could agree that terrorists must be brought to account for their actions; terrorist acts are indeed crimes of the most heinous variety. However, such accountability must be applied consistently.

(7) In the name of “realism,” we should not trust our nation’s power elite when they use violent methods. While operating with an essentially optimistic anthropology that denies human beings are inherently violent, pacifists also take seriously the human proclivity toward selfishness and seeking advantage over others. However, in contrast to “realists” who highlight such proclivities (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Hobbes, and Reinhold Niebuhr), pacifists draw from this awareness of human sinfulness the opposite of support for coercive discipline from the power elite to “keep sinful humanity in line.” Because of their realistic view of morality, pacifists insist that people in power are the ones least likely to be capable of careful, morally constructive uses of “limited” violence. In the name of “realism,” pacifists argue for a strong attitude of suspicion toward justifications of violence coming from people in power. If humanity is shaped powerfully by sin and selfishness and thus prone to misuse of power, those most likely to be guilty of such misuse are the people with the most power.

So, pacifists counter the claim that pacifism is unsuited for the real world by saying that those who believe people in power tend to act objectively and in the service of genuine human security are the ones who are the most naïve and romantic.

Just one set of examples may be cited. A close, objective examination of the US war in Vietnam shows a large web of self-defeating, immoral policies that arose from ignorance, incompetence, and willful selfishness on the part of the American power elite. As the internal processes of the US government have become clearer in the years since 1975, their problematic character is more obvious. For many years after policy analysts understood that the Americans could not win this war, the government pressed on. The continuation of the war caused unimaginable death and destruction, not in hope of actually winning the war but mostly for domestic political concerns.[xxii]

To the extent that human beings, especially in groups, are shaped and motivated by selfishness and hindered from acting on the basis of neighbor love, we should be especially wary of giving the power of death-dealing violence to people in leadership. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “moral man, immoral society”[xxiii] analysis contains wisdom. However, rather than concluding the “immorality” of groups should encourage more acceptance of the “rough justice” of order-based public policy, awareness of such immorality should instead lead to heightened resistance to allowing people in power to decide in favor of enhanced military power.[xxiv] Pacifists should especially be wary of the temptation to accept the “rules of the game” made by people corrupted by holding death-dealing power. We indeed should take every opportunity to work within the system to reduce its reliance on violence.[xxv] However, we must also recognize the tendency toward corruption in these halls of power.

(8) We may believe that the system always has the potential to make decisions for less (or no) violence, but a pacifist commitment to peace over loyalty to the system also requires us to stand aside on occasion. Even though the nation-state’s systemic dynamics tend consistently to select for violence,[xxvi] pacifists understand that in each choice policy-makers make, options exist for less, rather than more, violence. So, we do have justification for advocating alternatives to the most violent actions in the midst of conflicts. Even more may we advocate farsighted policies that diminish the likelihood of conflicts emerging.  Pacifists should join with others of good will, including those seeking to adhere to a just war theory that is applied rigorously,[xxvii] in supporting and seeking to enact violence-reducing policies.[xxviii]

Traditional historical discussions minimize or ignore altogether currents of creative nonviolence in world history. However, we are learning that such currents can indeed be identified.[xxix] Alternatives to violence do exist and have been followed.[xxx] Yet pacifists also recognize that their advocacy may be ignored, and nation-states may make irrevocable choices in favor of violence. In such cases, pacifists simply will not be able to play a public policy role while still adhering to their convictions about the centrality of love of neighbor.

This recognition of the need to “stand aside” does not stem from a quest for purity. Rather, it stems from a sense that pacifists’ central calling is seeking actively to love neighbors, not to hold power or to further the interests of any particular nation state or other human institution. Pacifists recognize that in the name of pursuing genuine peace they must at times seek other avenues of involvement than policy-making and state-centered activities. If the core criterion for appropriate action is seeking to love neighbors, pacifists will reject the claim that the only way to be “responsible” is to act within the paradigm of inevitable violence.

For example, numerous American pacifists were aware of the danger facing Jewish people in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They actively sought to address that danger in numerous ways, tragically finding their efforts generally rebuffed by the American government.[xxxi] When events evolved to the point of total war, pacifists turned their efforts to other problems, offering  assistance to deal with the wounds of war and addressing other human needs (such as care for mentally ill people). They did not believe violence could solve the problem of Nazi hostility toward Jews, but when they faced a series of dead ends in seeking to save Jewish lives, they found other avenues to protect life.

The twentieth century saw the emergence of remarkable efforts by pacifists to meet human needs and thereby provide alternatives to violence-centered politics. Quakers with American Friends Service Committee, Mennonites with Mennonite Central Committee, and Brethren with the Brethren Service Committee created organizations that greatly expanded their work as needs increased. These works of service are a remarkable witness to the powerful commitment pacifists have made to being responsible and relevant in face of human security needs. And this witness stands as proof that commitment to love of neighbor may bear remarkable fruit, even when not channeled through the coercive dynamics of state politics.

Engaged Pacifism

These eight convictions concerning engaged pacifism may be summed up thus: We live most authentically as human beings when we love our neighbors. We best understand this call to love the neighbor as a call to consider each person as our neighbor and thus deserving of our love. That is, we love even those considered to be enemies; we love even those who are committing acts of evil.

Seeing the call to love neighbor as a commitment that cannot be superseded by any other cause or value leads us in two directions simultaneously: (1) that we have a calling to engage, to actively resist evil, and to help vulnerable people, and that this calling applies to all areas of life; and (2) that however we do engage, we remain bound by the call to love wrong-doers and enemies. These two parts of our calling — actively engaging in resisting evil, and while doing so remaining committed to loving our adversaries — may be a particular burden for engaged pacifism. However, they are also a call to creativity.

In regard to the question of pacifist perspectives on strategies of intervention such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, we may think both of general political support for governmental officials and of specific support for, and participation in, these strategies. Pacifists may support governmental officials who seek to involve their countries in institutions that respond to evil-doing with “police action” founded on international law and international cooperation. Such support especially contrasts with tendencies all too common in the US to oppose international collaboration in lieu of the mostly unilateral projection of American military power. Pacifists should also challenge officials to treat values and laws as stable entities that apply equally to all parties. Hence, for example, insofar as the ICC ignores violations of international law in incidents such as the US invasion of Iraq, we should be calling for more rigorous and morally consistent practices.

Pacifists will remain suspicious of the use of R2P philosophies that too easily justify violence and that in practice serve the interests of wealthy and powerful nations.[xxxii] A key criterion will be whether the R2P proposals provide loopholes that would allow countries such as the United States to conduct their own military operations under the cover of R2P. Since pacifism concludes that violence is never consistent with the fundamental call to love all neighbors — and that this conviction is true of all violence — pacifists will not be able to offer direct support for, or participation in, responses to evil-doing that do rely on violence.

The fruitful work of non-governmental organizations (e.g., the peace church service committees) in enhancing human well-being in conflict situations without violence provides clear alternatives. The choice for pacifists is not either to support “necessary” violence at times in the name of responding to evil doing or else to withdraw into irresponsible purity. Pacifists may actively participate in these alternative means to enhance well-being, and may also provide critical input to the practices of the ICC and R2P in hopes of moving those practices toward a consistent practice of neighbor-care. In the end, though, the discussion of responses to evil-doing should challenge people of good will, especially pacifists, to cultivate a healthy skepticism towards nation-states and the proclivity of the state to enhance its own power via violence. The nation-state as we experience it today is a human construct that needs to be critiqued, not deferred to, when it comes to responding to the human need for security.[xxxiii]

Notes


[i] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 3.

[ii] See Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, 3rd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005) and Jarem Sawatsky, Justpeace Ethics: A Guide to Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008).

[iii] See Ivan J. Kauffman, ed. Just-Policing: Mennonite-Catholic Theological Colloquium 2002 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2004), and Gerald W. Schlabach and Jim Wallis, eds. Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007).

[iv] The 3D Security Initiative was founded by Lisa Schirch, formerly Professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The “three Ds” are development, defense, and diplomacy. The Initiative’s website (www.3dsecurity.org) summarizes its focus thus: “The 3D Security Initiative is a policy voice for civil society and conflict prevention with a new take on human security: connecting policymakers with global civil society networks, engaging in civil-military dialogue, and increasing investments in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.”

[v] The fruit of MCC’s study project was published in Duane K. Friesen and Gerald W. Schlabach, eds., At Peace and Unafraid: Public Order, Security, and the Wisdom of the Cross (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005).

[vi] For background leading about up to the point where the Mennonite-related efforts at creative engagement alluded to above became operational, see Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994).

[vii] Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War: A Study in Applied Philosophy (New York: Blackwell, 1986), 1.

[viii] This is the central argument of John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[ix] On this point, Gandhi captured the essence of Jesus’ message better than the vast majority of Christians. See Joan Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1958), 16-34.

[x] Again, see Yoder, Politics.

[xi] See Gerald Biesecker-Mast and J. Denny Weaver, eds., Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); and James C. Juhnke and Carol M. Hunter, The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001).

[xii] For a critique of one attempt to guide pacifists for living with this incommensurability via a “two-language” analysis, see Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” in Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 141-59.

[xiii] See Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2003 [1902]); Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976); and Mary E. Clark, In Search of Human Nature (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[xiv] See Wink, Engaging the Powers, 33-39.

[xv] For a defense of this assertion, see my chapter, “Humanness: A Blessing or a Curse?” in Theology as if Jesus Matters (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2009), 106-19. I also challenge the “nature as red in tooth and claw” perspective in the chapter, “This is God’s World: So What?” in that same book, 75-89.

[xvi] Key writings by Wink include Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986); Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); and The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998). See also Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds., Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

[xvii] Wink, Engaging the Powers, 65-85.

[xviii] James Gilligan, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam, 1996) argues for the social dynamics that lie at the heart of American violence, thereby providing support for a Powers analysis.

[xix] United States Army Operational Concept for Terrorism Counteration (TRADOC Pamphlet No. 525-37, 1984).

[xx] Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (New York: Verso Books, 2007). See also an earlier version of Davis’s research on the TomDispatch website (tomdispatch.com) posted April 11 and 13, 2006.

[xxi] See Jane Mayer, “The Predator War,” The New Yorker 85.34 (October 26, 2009), 36-45, on one example of the CIA’s “targeted assassination,” authorized by President Obama, of a Taliban leader hiding in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud was finally killed in August 2009, in a drone missile attack that also killed eleven others. Mayer notes that the effort to kill Mehsud involved 16 missile strikes and killed perhaps as many as 321 people.

[xxii] See Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), and John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (Lawrence, KS: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2009).

[xxiii] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002 [1932]).

[xxiv] See James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), for one case where access to death-dealing power corrupted American leadership.

[xxv] Note the career of longtime American Friends Service Committee director Clarence Pickett, who used his direct access to President Franklin Roosevelt to good effect but maintained a consistent stance in opposition to state violence. See Lawrence McK. Miller, Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence Pickett (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1999).

[xxvi] Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983).

[xxvii] See John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking, 2nd edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1996).

[xxviii] See Wink, Engaging the Powers, 220-29.

[xxix] See, for example, Juhnke and Hunter, The Missing Peace, and Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

[xxx] See Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Boston: Porter Sargent, 2005).

[xxxi] See Nicholson Baker, The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), and Clarence E. Pickett, For More Than Bread: An Autobiographical Account of Twenty-Two Years’ Work with the American Friends Service Committee (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953).

[xxxii] See the critique of Noam Chomsky, Human Rights in the New Millennium (London: Centre for the Study of Human Rights, 2009), drawing a distinction between two formulations of the Responsibility to Protect philosophy, one from the Global South reflected in the 2005 United Nations World Summit and the other from the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect (known as the “Evans Report” for the leading role played by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans).

[xxxiii] Two recent, quite different, books enhance our awareness of the violent tendencies of nation-states: William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009) and James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009).  For a challenge to the idea that in face of natural disasters we need state and military centered top-down order, see Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009).

Ted Grimsrud is Professor of Theology and Peace Studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Why we pay attention to Jesus

In Biblical theology, Jesus, Salvation, Theology on December 12, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Article published in The Mennonite [13.12 (December 2010), 12-15].

Jesus is pretty amazing.  He’s an ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  He barely made it to his 30s and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. Certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this person who history can’t let go of.

We still must ask, though, why do we pay attention to Jesus?

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant young German scholar and musician who paid attention to Jesus.  The seriousness with which he paid attention to Jesus led Albert Schweitzer to abandon a career that combined being a professor of religion with being a world-renowned organist.  He returned to school, earned a medical doctorate and spent the rest of his long life as a medical missionary in Africa and gained enough renown to be named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

Schweitzer’s most important scholarly work was about Jesus.  In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he surveyed attempts by European scholars in the 19th century to produce a purely objective, historically accurate portrayal of Jesus and get behind the obvious biases of the gospel writers to the supposed bedrock of fact.

Schweitzer scorned these efforts. He concluded his book with the famous image of various scholars peering deep into the wells of history looking for the face of the historical Jesus.  They don’t realize that the face they see looking up at them is actually their own.  They are not really looking at Jesus but only at a reflecting pool of water.

This image makes an undeniable, and very important, point. We all look at Jesus through our own perspective.  We all look for stuff that matters to us and that speaks to our world.  None of us can be objective about Jesus.  We all run the risk of turning Jesus simply into a caricature of our own values and our own culture.

One impact of Schweitzer’s cutting insight, though, has been to serve as a kind of cynical debunking tool.  It’s a way to mock attempts to take Jesus seriously: Ah, you’re just projecting your own interests onto Jesus and calling them his.

When we look at what people say about Jesus we see such incredible diversity and  contradictions and self-justifications.  I have two recent books that focus on how Americans have presented Jesus—one’s called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004) by Stephen Prothero, the other Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (HarperOne, 2005) by Richard Wightman Fox.  These books make it clear how so many in our culture have confused a reflection of themselves for a picture of Jesus.

And yet….

There just may be something we could call revelatory in this cacophony of images of Jesus humans have generated these past 2,000 years.  Maybe we do see something truthful in the sum of what humans, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old, westerner and easterner, say about Jesus.

Jesus has become a metaphor for human aspirations. He symbolizes what people want. Some people want sick things.  So we get images of Jesus wielding an assault rifle or a picture called “Undefeated” with Jesus the boxer, muscle-bound, leaning back against the ropes in the corner of the ring, his gloves hanging next to him, a satisfied, victorious, post-fight smirk on his face, and a banner labeled “Savior” hanging next to him.

But even skeptics recognize that this super-macho Jesus isn’t right.  Comedian Bill Maher, in his movie Religulous (the title comes from merging the words religious and ridiculous) goes on a 90-minute rant against religion, especially conservative Christianity.  But several times he invokes Jesus as evidence on his side in his critique.  You Christians are contradicting what Jesus was about, he says.

Several years ago, The National Catholic Reporter held a contest for artists to create representations of Jesus.  The winner, a powerful painting called “Jesus of the People,” used a young African-American woman as its model. I bet if you showed a cross-section of people this picture and asked who it was, most would say, Jesus.  Most people do see him as “Jesus of the people” (all the people, not just white, wealthy, powerful male people).

If we pay attention to what people say and think about Jesus, we actually get an overall picture of something interesting—and not necessarily that far from the gospel portrayal.

This is why this quote from historian Jaroslav Pelikan: “As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Now he belongs to the world.” Jesus has escaped the bounds of formal doctrine and top-down church domination.

With this loosening of control over how Jesus is presented to the world, we do see an inability to prevent misuse and abuse of the message and image of Jesus. Yet we also see a ministering to wounded hearts, an empowerment for resistance to the domination system, a reminder to so many of how the core convictions Jesus stood for contrast so sharply with the “American way.”

We see in the story of the story of Jesus in our world a powerful reflection of God’s vulnerability. Go back to the story of Noah and the Flood. Instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing, above-it-all patriarch in the sky, we get in the Flood story a God brought down low by grief, a God whose heart can be broken by creation.  The story does tell us that out of this distress, God creates an overwhelmingly destructive flood.  But the story goes on to make clear that this retribution is dissatisfactory to God.  What comes out of the Flood is a new approach, one we could say embraces the vulnerability.  God starts a long, fragile process of dealing with brokenness and alienation through persevering love.

The story of biblical Israel reemphasizes God’s vulnerability in the tangled path of faithfulness, alienation, obedience, injustice, destruction, renewal, tears and fears.  Then in the New Testament Gospels we again see vulnerability. God’s very son enters human life.  He embodies persevering love and gets executed as a revolutionary for his trouble.

The vulnerability of God becomes our most powerful basis for belief.  God’s vulnerability stands in contrast to all the energies Christians exert trying to construct airtight arguments, to create and enforce overpowering doctrines, to restrict access to God and salvation with closed membership and closed rituals, and to silence doubt and questions and expressions of dissent.  The true power of God to transform human hearts is the kind of power that, in Isaiah’s words, “does not break a bruised reed” (42:3).

God allows many versions of the story to be told, even contradictions and counter-stories. And in this cacophony of versions and representations, as well as in the cacophony of the turmoils and traumas of life in this fallen world that seems so far from God’s intentions, we nonetheless see Jesus.

We can see in the amazing variety of responses to Jesus and representations of Jesus an affirmation by God of human aspirations.  When you get down to it and acknowledge all the terrible exceptions, many human beings want to be like the “Jesus of the people.”

Another great, and in the best sense, I would say, iconic representation of Christ is the woodcut “The Christ of the Breadlines” by artist Fritz Eichenberg.  The picture, which was created for and has become identified with the Catholic Worker movement, shows a Depression-era lineup of hurting people waiting in line for some food.  Standing in the midst of the line is a humble-looking character clearly recognizable as Jesus.

Even skeptics like Bill Maher it seems, believe that images such as the Christ of the Breadlines give us an accurate sense of the true Jesus—and challenge us to be more like that ourselves.  This is what Pelikan had in mind when he wrote that Jesus now belongs to the world.  Jesus has been freed from church dogma and, remarkably, the result has been growth in awareness of what his message actually was, and this message centers on our highest human ideals.

We pay attention to Jesus because he does embody a lot of what we want to embody ourselves—to be truthful, kind and courageous, to say no to domination and oppression, to be in solidarity with people in need, living simply with generoity sharing our resources.

However, and this is a big however, while many of the various representations of Jesus in our world point us toward a healing Jesus, a biblical Jesus—we still would do well to solidify our understanding.  The general sense of Jesus echoes the gospel accounts.  This then should encourage us to look more closely at, to take more seriously, those accounts.  They provide all that we can know about the Jesus who walked among us.

We should read the gospels now in a post-Christendom, or Jesus-who-belongs-to-the-world, sense.  What do we learn from this flesh-and-blood, pre-dogma Jewish prophet who speaks to our flesh and blood lives?

Luke, 7:18-23 can serve as an entrée into the story.  Let’s assume that when John the Baptist’s disciples go to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” they had in mind, Are you the promised Messiah, the Christ, the one God will send to bring wholeness to the world.

But what is meant by “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” (Greek)?  Maybe the story becomes more clear if we say that by “Christ” we mean one who truly shows us the possibilities of living as fully human, healthy and whole.  A model, a guide, an empowerer.  So, Christ is a character in solidarity with humanity, not who stands over and against humanity.

John’s disciples ask our question: Is Jesus this kind of character, a Christ, a model and empowerer for helping us be whole and faithfully  human?

How does Jesus answer? Typically, he doesn’t simply say yes or no.  Partly he recognizes that so much depends on what kind of Christ we are looking for.  What he does do is name what it is that he stands for and does: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the leapers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).

The meaning of these words, their reception in Jesus’ world, the ways God vindicates them, make up the story of the gospel.  Let’s notice a couple of things.

We face a test here. What kind of people do we want to be?  How we answer will determine how we understand the validity of Jesus’ answer.  Do we passionately desire healing in our own lives and at least as much in the lives of others?  Do we believe such healing, regardless of the resistance from those who benefit from the brokenness and alienation, is truly good news?  If so, we will recognize that Jesus is the Christ. We will pay attention to him because we believe he can and will help us find healing for ourselves and find power to be healers of others.

Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

In Biblical theology, Old Testament, Pacifism, Theology on December 12, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Paper presented in the Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Consultation

American Academy of Religion—Atlanta, October 31, 2010

Ted Grimsrud

The “just peacemaking” project has made a great start in a practical effort to overcome the curse of war. The desire to expand the project beyond Christianity is welcome—in fact absolutely necessary. My paper points in two mutually reinforcing directions—one is to challenge Christians in our understanding of the bases for our peace theology, the second is to work at finding common ground between Christian peace theology and other traditions (most obviously Judaism, but potentially beyond).

Christian peace theology tends to be New Testament centered, especially drawing on the gospels. Most Christians seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to offer for the work of overcoming war and violence. The comment of a friend of mine many years ago may be representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” Many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine, have used it to justify warfare.

So it’s no surprise when a Christian peace theologian such as Jack Nelson-Pallmyer writes a polemical book critiquing Christian acceptance of violent theology, he would portray the Old Testament pretty strictly as a problem. Even peace theologians who don’t share this antipathy do little to develop a positive Old Testament centered peace theology.

Happily, numerous Old Testament scholars have helped us better to see the Hebrew scriptures as conveying a positive message of peace. But as yet, these scholars have mainly produced historical and textual studies more than biblically based peace theologies.

As a constructive theologian drawing on the work of biblical scholars, I try to develop a present-day peace theology that will be usable both within Christian communities and as we relate to fellow peacemakers outside our faith tradition. I am especially concerned to push strenuously the value of reading the Bible as a whole. I believe we find in the Bible a coherent story that provides a powerful basis for peace theology. The Old Testament plays a crucial role in this story—not as a preliminary to the essential part, but by providing the core message of peace and salvation that Jesus and the New Testament confirm and vindicate.

I don’t want to deny that the Old Testament contains numerous challenging elements for peacemakers. However, we misread the Old Testament and impoverish Christian peace theology when we let the problems overshadow its positive message of peace. In what follows, I will outline that positive message. I will speak to three points: the Old Testament peace vision, the Old Testament justice vision, and the Old Testament critique of state-centered power politics.

The psalmist tells us that “peace and justice shall embrace” (Ps 85:10), tipping us off that “peace” and “justice” are not in tension with one another in the Bible but rather are complementary. The “peace vision” and the “justice vision” are mutually reinforcing.

From the very start, the Old Testament gives a vision for peace—both in the sense of the immense value of peace but also a clear sense of how peace is achieved and the form it takes. The creation story tells of God bringing order and harmony out of chaos. This harmony is a gift, though, not order imposed by coercive force. This “original peace” empowers humanity to share in God’s work of cultivation. The creation story presents harmony between humanity and God and among human beings as our default human circumstance. We start as peaceable creatures in harmony with (even in the image of) a peaceable God.

After disharmony enters the story, we read of God’s retributive response that ends with God’s decision not to respond with such violence in the future. Then, Genesis 12 begins the main story line of God’s chosen people as agents of God’s blessing for all the families of the earth. In a nutshell, we find here the basic message of the rest of the Bible (Old and New Testaments). God will bring healing to broken creation through the establishment of a people who will know God’s peace, live in light of that peace, and be a conduit of peace to all the families of the earth.

The rest of Genesis is dominated by stories of Abraham’s direct descendents. Two of the core stories emphasize the call to brotherly reconciliation—Esau and Jacob reconciled, Joseph’s mercy toward his unjust brothers. Both provide a peaceable message in contrast to the “original sin” of Cain murdering his brother in Genesis 4.

The Old Testament’s central act of salvation also has at its core God’s commitment to peace. The Egyptians enslave Joseph’s descendents, the Hebrews. They cry out in their trauma. God hears and acts to liberate them from slavery.

The God of the exodus responds to the suffering of slaves, and is not a God of kings, emperors, or Pharaohs. The Hebrew leader, Moses, very clearly does not have the status of king nor of military leader. They do not win their freedom through wielding the sword. The only stereotypical weapons of war in the story (the Egyptians’ “horses and chariots”) are destroyed. The violence in the story stems from the structural violence of Egypt’s slave culture. The exodus events break from that violence.

As the liberated Hebrews move through the wilderness, they are given a written framework for their future society, Torah. The heart of the commandments may be accurately characterized as a concern for shalom, wide-ranging social wholeness—that is, “peace.” Torah called for a society centered around the well-being of all people in the community….

The key point to note about justice in the Old Testament that it is not a stand-alone concept. It is often linked with other related concepts such as “peace” (shalom) and “mercy” (chesed). Peace and justice shall embrace (Psalm 85). What does the Lord require? Do justice and love mercy (Micah 6). And justice is most of all about faithfulness in the context of relationships—between the people and their God and among the people.

“Justice” provides the standard for the quality of life in the community of God’s people. They have been delivered from the injustice of enslaved life in Egypt so they might know the wholeness of genuinely just relationships within their own community. And so they might witness to the nations of this justice in ways that will bless all the families of the earth.

At its heart, Old Testament “justice” is a life-giving force more than an impersonal principle of impartial fairness. The book of Amos contains a thoroughgoing meditation on the meaning of justice. Amos’s most vivid metaphor likens justice to water, an ever-flowing stream. In a desert environment, a stream that does not dry up brings life like nothing else.

As much as any Old Testament writing, Amos speaks of judgment. Israel has left the core justice-enhancing elements of Torah behind. Maybe worse of all, injustice finds expression in the midst of an active religious life. There will be hell to pay. Amos speaks of inevitable judgment.

However, the judgment is not characterized as an expression of justice. Judgment is what happens when justice is missing. Do justice and the judgment will not come. In the end, Amos somewhat incongruously presents the final word as being one of healing, not punishment.

The vision of healing at the end of the book is both a reminder that it is never too late to repent, to turn back, to return to the way of life—and a promise that Israel’s unfaithfulness will not in the end be more powerful than God’s faithfulness. Many may miss out; the consequences for turning from Torah are genuine. But healing will come. Justice will be served.

The driving force in the justice vision is hope for healing. Amos’s vision for restoration following judgment echoes the other major prophetic books. Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah each are structured in similar ways. They tell of brokenness and trauma due to the community’s departure from Torah. But each one, in distinctive ways, concludes with a vision of healing. The prophetic message portrays justice ultimately as restorative justice.

Of the three main elements of the Old Testament message that provide bases for Christian peace theology, the two I have just summarized are positive: the Old Testament peace vision and the Old Testament justice vision, two themes that are fully complementary.

The third element is negative—the Old Testament’s critique of power politics. The surrounding empires provided models that Torah presented itself in contrast to. However, as it patterns itself more and more after “the nations,” Israel itself becomes a counter-example for the visions of peace and justice. The failure of the Israelite nation-state to embody Torah’s shalom leads to a new kind of political vision. This new vision presents biblical shalom as channeled not through nation-states so much as through decentralized trans-national faith communities.

God’s work of liberation in the Exodus established both God’s identity as a God who takes the side of slaves over against their oppressors and the community’s identity as an alternative to the way of empire that defined Egypt’s political economy.

The community is shaped by a human leader, Moses. But Moses puts his liberating God, Yahweh, at the center of the community’s political consciousness. Yahweh stands over against human kings and empires. The political dynamics of the Hebrew community emphasize decentralized human power dynamics and trust in God rather than in weapons of war.

After the escape from Egypt, God gave the people Torah, the blueprint for their common life. Torah throughout presents itself as based on a political philosophy grounded on values opposed to the political philosophy of empire. In contrast to Egypt, Torah requires the community to show care and support for the most vulnerable people in their midst—the widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

Yahweh’s direct intervention, independent from any human power blocks (no human king, no permanent military, no large collection of horses and chariots) gains the Hebrews their new home in Canaan with a political organization centered on trust in God rather than in the power of the sword.

However, the story tells of many and profound struggles in this community. The leaders of the Hebrews see themselves continually at risk and demand that God allow them to choose a human king, “like the nations.” The judge Samuel outlines the consequences of such a move. Essentially, the people will return to “Egypt” should they take this path, with a human king who (like Pharaoh) will take and take. God, though, allows Israel to embark on this path, that ultimately does lead to the destruction of their nation-state.

The book of Deuteronomy contains a brief vision of what a Torah-respecting human king would be like. The faithful king differentiates himself from the kings of the nations by refusing to gather great wealth or to marry many foreign wives or to collect many horses and chariots. As it turned out, King Solomon violated each of these commands.

Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam, continued the practice of forced labor, and faced a rebellion that split Israel in two. Both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, conformed to the ways of the nations in ordering their social life. I Kings 21 tells of King Ahab rejecting inheritance laws intended to keep people on the land. Ahab frames and murders a faithful follower of Torah who refused to give up his land due to his commitment to the inheritance laws.

A number of generations later, by Amos’s time, Israel had evolved into exactly the kind of society the inheritance legislation meant to prevent. The largest part of the community had become disinherited, landless, with few resources and little power—and vulnerable to the exploitation of the wealthy and powerful minority. The legal system, intended to protect the welfare of the vulnerable, had been corrupted and the religious practices, rather than remind the people of Yahweh’s will for justice embodied in Torah, had become exercises that reinforced the unjust status quo.

Most of Judah’s kings proved also to be just as corrupt as Israel’s. Manasseh proved to be the worst, actually implementing the practice of child sacrifice. His successor was assassinated and young Josiah became king. In Josiah’s reign, the scrolls of Torah are rediscovered and important reforms instituted. In the end, though, Josiah’s reforms came too late to save the nation-state. Manasseh’s sins were simply too big to be overcome.

However, Josiah’s most important accomplishment, recovering Torah, kept the promise alive. The prophet Jeremiah provided a theological grounding for Judah’s fall that helped people of faith to see in that fall not the defeat of God but actually a vindication of Torah. From the start, Israel’s place in the land was contingent on the people’s faithfulness. When they departed from Torah, their fate actually shows God’s presence not God’s absence.

Jeremiah also provides a template for the sustenance of the promise apart from the nation-state. “Seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves” (29:7). From now on, the promise to bless all the families of the earth will be carried out through faith communities in the Diaspora and in geographical Israel (but without political power) who rely on their own lived witness and word of testimony, not horses and chariots and geographical boundary lines.

The original promise in Genesis 12 was not linked to horses and chariots and any particular nation state. The move to tie the people of the promise to a geographical locale was a failure, reinforcing the problematic dynamics of power politics and clarifying once and for all that the way of the promise was as an alternative to power politics. This clarification then stood at the center of the message of Jesus, a message flowing directly from the story of Israel.

The New Testament presents Jesus’ life and teaching as grounded in Old Testament faith. Jesus intended to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. His summary of the path to salvation—love God and neighbor—is the core message of the Law and Prophets.

Jesus, though, provides a particular angle for reading the Old Testament. He emphasizes the call to bless all the families of the earth, the critique of power politics, special concern for vulnerable people, mercy over sacrifice. Jesus ignores many elements of the Old Testament. The parts that seem exclusivist and chauvinistic. The parts that glorify wealth and power. The parts the portray God primarily as judgmental and coercive.

Jesus models discernment in reading the Old Testament and applying it to our peace concerns. He does so in a way that accepts without qualification the truthfulness and authority of this collection of writings as a whole. But he follows a particular reading strategy and emphasizes the parts that best serve his sense of shalom.

Jesus furthers Jeremiah’s insight about diasporic politics vis-à-vis nation-state politics. Jesus himself lived and ministered within the geography of the ancient Israelite nation state. However, his message of the kingdom of God followed Jeremiah’s vision, not the vision of the old geographically focused nation state. Jesus challenged his followers not to imitate the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over their subjects but rather to follow the path of the Servant. He created a community suited to be leavening within whichever nation state his followers might find themselves—leavening that would be a form of seeking the peace of these various cities.

In Acts, Jesus outlines a Jeremaic strategy: take the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Don’t imitate Rome spreading “good news” through the sword but take the “good news” as a message of peace, embodying its transforming power through defenseless communities of witness and service. This is how all the families of the earth will be blessed.

So, Jesus’ meaning in relation to the Old Testament is best seen not as “promise and fulfillment” where the partial revelation of God through Israel finally gained its full expression in something (in key ways) different from what has come before. Rather, it’s “revelation and embodiment.” The original revelations in the creation story, the calling of Abraham and Sarah, and the liberating acts of God in the Exodus and giving of Torah was complete. The further revelations in Jesus simply embody the original. The Old Testament reveals, fully, God’s ways of peace in the world—Jesus embodies that way, not something different.

Reading the Old Testament (and the story of Jesus) in the way I am proposing has major interfaith significance. Most obvious would be points of contacts with Judaism. My direct sense of common ground comes from my reading of two major 20th century Jewish thinkers whose work has greatly influenced my own: Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Buber’s Two Kinds of Faith and, even more so, Heschel’s The Prophets, seem to me to capture the heart of the biblical message as embodied by the Old Testament prophets and Jesus as well (or better) than most Christian writings. Heschel’s work, especially, makes it clear that the message of shalom, mercy, and justice as complementary elements of a transformative faith that we Christians see in Jesus is equally present in the Old Testament prophets. A more recent book such as Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, also provides many points of common ground, I think.

If we who are Christians understand our commitment to just peacemaking to be most of all based on the message of the entire Bible as I have sketched it, we should be well-suited to make common cause with all others of good will who also articulate a complementary peace vision and a complementary justice vision and a complementary critique of power politics.

The specific sources for these visions should not matter so much as the common ground the visions provide. The view of “chosenness” that lay behind the biblical story emphasizes chosen to bless, not chosen to stand over against.