[This is the first of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 11, 2013. The second lecture was “The New Testament as a peace book” and is posted here.]
What I will do in this lecture on the Old Testament and my second lecture on the New Testament is share about some things I have been passionately engaged with now for about 40 years.
A journey to pacifism
When I went to college in the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War was coming to an end. I registered for the draft, and was ready to fight if called. The draft ended, though, before I was called. That marked a turning point in my life, nonetheless.
I had just become a Christian. I was taught a Christian should be patriotic and be willing to fight for one’s country. However, I was also urged to read the Bible, especially to read the story of Jesus my savior in the gospels. The gospel story presented Jesus as a peacemaker. This challenged me as I struggled with the possibility of going to war. I also learned to know a number of veterans returning from Vietnam. They told horrific stories—and themselves quite often were traumatized. War didn’t seem so attractive.
About the time I finished college, I came to a clear conviction that I could not fight in war, that I was a pacifist. This conviction came shortly after I had deepened my commitment to live as a Christian—the two went together, as I resolved to be a serious Christian I committed myself to be a pacifist. What I meant by “pacifist” first was “the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to fight in or support war.” My current definition is more like this: “The conviction that no causes or values can override the commitment to treat each life as precious.” In either case, to be a Christian pacifist is to affirm these convictions due to one’s understanding of Jesus’s message.
My task then became—and remains—one of faith seeking understanding. What does it mean to be a Christian pacifist? How should I read the Bible in relation to these convictions? What about all the questions and problems—and the stubborn fact that just about all Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years have not accepted pacifism?
It helped that I had some experience being a minority. I was the only boy with four sisters. I was the only University of Oregon fan in a community filled with Oregon State fans. I was used to being a bit different, so being part of the tiny pacifist minority in a religion filled with warriors was not itself enough to make me think I was wrong….
Not long after my moment of clarity, I discovered a Christian tradition with a long history of pacifist belief and practice—and in time my wife Kathleen Temple and I joined with these Christians and became Mennonites. It has been crucial to not feel totally alone—to have a little bit of critical mass—in these strange beliefs. Continue reading