[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]
I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.
Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?
Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”
The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.
Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.
The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.
“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.
The Bible’s witness to peace
My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.
However, Christian pacifists—who believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are at the center of the Bible, the angle for reading the rest—see in Jesus sharp clarity about the supremacy of love, peacableness, compassion. That is, Jesus embodies a broad and deep vision of life that is thoroughly pacifist, even if he did not explicitly address participation in warfare.
I 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.
Jesus’ love command
One of Jesus’ most famous sayings may be found in Matthew 22. Someone asks Jesus, which is the greatest of the commandments, and 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).
I 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. 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.
In his call to love, 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). These words of Jesus, of course, are part of his lengthy manifesto on faithful living known as the Sermon on the Mount. Near the beginning of this manifesto, 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 asserts, 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. And God 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.
The original calling of Abraham and Sarah and the gift to them of descendants who will bless all the families of the earth in spite of their barrenness (and their unfaithfulness), the saving work of God to bring the Hebrew people together and to free them from slavery in Egypt (again, as the story makes clear, saving work in spite of the Hebrews’ unfaithfulness), the gift of Torah to guide their lives as the people of the promise (a priestly kingdom mediating God’s love to the entire world), and many more gifts, including the gift of new life even after the fall of the Hebrew nation state (a fall that Hebrew prophets attributed directly to the people’s unfaithfulness)—all of these gifts clearly portray God’s love as unearned, even undeserved. God loves these people—even as they at times make themselves God’s enemies.
The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people may be summarized in these words: “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).
In stating the centrality of love in this way, Jesus makes clear that he reads the whole Bible this way. The love command summarizes the law and prophets and provides the fundamental way that his followers should orient their lives in the world. If we understand pacifism as the placing of the highest priority on love, Jesus provides here Christians’ central grounding for pacifism.
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. I 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 … 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.
An alternative politics
Our second biblical theme compliments the love command. Jesus sharply critiqued power politics, creating a counter-cultural community free from nation states’ dependence upon the sword. Jesus indeed was political—he was confessed to be a king (which is what Messiah, or Christ, meant). He was executed by the Empire as a political criminal. However, Jesus’s politics were upside-down politics. He expressed his political philosophy 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).
In making this contrast between the politics of the “Gentile nations” (such as, of course, the Roman Empire, the one Gentile nation Jesus knew about) and the politics of the followers of God, Jesus was not comparing apples and oranges. He was not saying these represent two totally different realms of life. He was, to the contrary, saying these are competing visions for the ordering of social life among human beings.
In making 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 was not comparing apples and oranges. He was not saying these represent two totally different realms of life. He was, to the contrary, saying these are competing visions for the ordering of social life among human beings.
When Jesus accepted the title “Messiah,” 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, rejected the notion that this new movement he initiated would seek to be a Rome-like 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. Various times during the months that followed he turned from temptations to galvanize his growing following into a direct rival to Rome based on his ability to call down legions of angels to do battle for him.
Rather, Jesus spearheaded a movement meant to operate within the nations as a sub-culture operating according to the word of God rather than the rule of the sword. Jesus’s community modeled itself after the pattern established long ago during the ministry of Jeremiah. Jeremiah encouraged people of the covenant to seek the well-being of whatever society they were part of while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah.
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. Sword-oriented politics failed 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 prophets foresaw the nations of the world coming to Zion to learn the ways of peace, turning their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. In light of Jeremiah and Jesus, one can see this prophecy of the spread of peace 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.
Read this way, the Old Testament tells how the people’s original calling—articulated to Abraham and Sarah—to be a distinct community and to bless all the families of the earth ultimately headed down a dead end. When the elders of the people of God choose to structure their common life in imitation of “the nations,” they undermined the intended blessing. Samuel warned the elders that if they choose the kingship route their society might well be transformed. Samuel warned that the king would simply take and take, build weapons of war, centralize his power, and leave the people once again crying out in their sorrow and suffering—just as they had generations earlier amidst their slavery in Egypt.
What follows in the Old Testament story is an account of the Israelite nation-state heading precisely in that direction. The prophets offer critique after critique. Finally, Jeremiah actually accompanies some of the defeated Israelite leaders into Egypt (Jeremiah 42–44), symbolizing that Samuel’s warnings of Israel’s fate had been vindicated.
The story does not end, though. The survival of the people of the promise did not require the assumed pillars of identity—the king’s palace and the temple. These pillars lay in ruins, the nation-state fell, crushed by the Babylonian empire. But the peoplehood, the promise to Abraham and Sarah, the call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth remained, even after the Israelite nation-state bit the dust. Through this failure, the true nature of God’s promise became more clear to prophets such as Jeremiah, with his exhortation to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city wherein they were living.
So, Jesus actually echoed the Old Testament story in calling upon his hearers to embrace their vocation to spread 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 almost corrupted the promise beyond recognition.
A couple of generations after Jesus, another prophet, John of Patmos, also juxtaposed and contrasted the ways of empires and nations with the ways of God’s politics. As one of its central themes, the Book of Revelation poses Babylon and the New Jerusalem as competing alternatives for followers of Jesus. In this way, Revelation echoes the choice Jesus presented his followers—join uncritically in the social order wherein rulers lord it over their subjects, or join in an alternative social order wherein 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.
The final section of Revelation directly compares and contrasts the two cities (or empires or kingdoms). First the angel shows John Babylon, then Jerusalem. One is the way of power politics (and death); the other is the way of suffering servanthood (and life).
So, we have two foundational themes at the heart of Jesus’ message that catch up enduring elements of the Old Testament story and find resonance in later New Testament writings, themes that provide the theological heart of Christian pacifism—(1) the double command to love God and neighbor combined with (2) the vision for an upside-down politics, an alternative to the sword-based politics of the nations and empires of the world. Christian pacifism rests upon this disillusionment toward the powers and this commitment to placing the highest loyalty on the community of faith and its counter-cultural politics.
Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness
The third theme that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in Jesus’s approach to ethical exhortation. Jesus displayed a profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives for life. Certainly, Jesus spoke to human sinfulness, the corruptions of selfishness, blind ambition, domination, and deception. However, 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.
Back in the Old Testament, at the heart of Torah and at the heart of the prophets’ exhortations we find 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.
So, again, 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 later 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.
The model of the cross
The fourth theme is how Jesus’s cross and resurrection serves as a model for his followers. At the center of his teaching we see this saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” At its heart, Jesus’ cross may be seen as embodied pacifism, a refusal to turn from the ways of peace even when costly. So his call to his followers to share in his cross is also a call to his followers to embody pacifism. And this call is joined with the promise of vindication. God’s love conquers violence through resurrection.
Jesus’s cross certainly puts the lie to the idea that consistent, lived-out pacifism is passive, safe, and withdrawn. Jesus’s 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’s cross, besides pointing to pacifism in terms of his style of life, also points away from trusting in the swords and spears of empires and institutionalized religion—these are 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 response to resistance to that structural violence in its hostility toward Moses and toward the fruit of Moses’ work of empowering the Hebrews.
As we consider the Bible, we may see this 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 of suffering love even to the point of death with the promise of God’s vindication.
Pacifism in the Christian tradition
For a number of generations following the time of Jesus, those who named themselves his followers indeed did generally express a commitment to pacifism. The pacifism of the early Christians shows that those closest in history to Jesus understood his message calling them both to radical love that precluded violence and to resistance to the domination system centered in the Empire’s call to give it their highest loyalty.
We may, thus, call pacifism Christianity’s original position, or, we could say, its default position. Jesus was killed around 30 CE. The first evidence of Christians serving in the Roman military date around 170 CE. While this indicates that pacifism was not the absolute norm for all Christians by that time – nonetheless, the only reason we know about this incident is because of church leaders speaking against military involvement. In fact, it is not until after the beginning of the 4th century that church leaders openly articulate an acceptance Christians in the military.
Of course, when this change from pacifism to acceptance of military involvement came, it came decisively—indicating that the way had been prepared for quite some time. Probably the most central factor then, and in the generations down to our present day, in Christians turning away from their default pacifist position was a rejection of the distinction between loyalty to the community of faith and loyalty to the nation-state. When Christians merge these two loyalties, the community of faith and the state seen as being in harmony, Christians almost inevitably understand themselves as appropriately accepting the state’s call to take up arms.
Christian pacifism survived, but at the margins the church, as the conviction of just a tiny minority of Christians. As rule, Christian pacifism surfaced among small groups that tried to restore a more Jesus-oriented, Gospels-based approach to faith. A few of these groups managed to stay in good standing with the Catholic Church – monastic movements such at the Benedictines and Franciscans to some extent championed a Gospels-oriented spirituality. A number of other pacifist groups were considered heretical – the Waldensians in northern Italy in the 12th century, the Czech Brethren in the 15th century, the Anabaptists in the 16th century.
All of these pacifist groups embodied the four themes I have mentioned—understanding Jesus’s love command as the center of their ethics, privileging their faith communities over the state, believing that present-day faithfulness is possible, and understanding persecution and suffering to be the expected response of the wider world to their convictions.
A little more than one hundred years after the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, a British radical named George Fox led a movement in England that sought to apply Christian pacifism more widely. Members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, not only shared the Anabaptist view of the genuine possibility of the Christian to follow Jesus’s love command in present life, they also had more optimism about responsiveness to that command in the wider world. For the first time, pacifism entered into the world of government with the establishment of colonial Pennsylvania, the “holy experiment” founded by the Quaker William Penn.
After a couple of generations, Quakers became a smaller and smaller minority within the colony, and ultimately under pressure due to what was called the French and Indian War of 1756, Quakers withdrew from leadership in Pennsylvania. Their influence in United States history has been incalculable, however. Not coincidentally, it has been in North America that Christian pacifism has taken hold the strongest.
The gradual emergence of pacifism beyond the peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren) may be dated to the first half of the 19th century with the formation of several peace societies in the United States, a few which became linked with the movement to end slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, an important abolitionist, remained deeply committed to pacifism as the best philosophy for fostering genuine social change—though when the efforts to end slavery ultimately led to the American Civil War, Garrison more or less remained silent, implicitly at least accepting that the abolition of slavery took priority over pure pacifism.
In the twentieth-century, massive violence and oppression, two world wars, nuclear weapons, colonialism and continual militarism brought forth a great expansion of the efforts of pacifists. Pacifist opposition to the 20th-century’s first “Great War” was muted, at least as measured by the small number of draftees who claimed conscientious objector status. However, great disaffection grew after it ended. A widespread peace movement emerged in the 1930s. However, when World War II began, most of the churches of North America again expressed strong support. Still, whereas in World War I, just about 4,000 men served as conscientious objectors in the US, almost all from the peace churches, during World War II about 12,000 COs performed alternative service, only about one-half from the peace churches.
It took an Indian Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, to demonstrate the potential of nonviolent action for effecting social change without bloodshed. Gandhi, of course, drew deep inspiration from the life and teaching of Jesus – and, in turn, inspired 20th-century Christians to take more seriously the possible confluence between the quest for social change and pacifism.
Following World War II, an increasing number of concerned people began to explore the application of Gandhian approaches to the need for racial justice in the United States. A number of Christian pacifists who had been COs during World War II worked at this application. However, it was a younger Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., who established the linkage between civil rights activism and nonviolence in a way that captured the imagination of millions. King’s pacifism was forged through on the ground experience more than a beginning point based on theology or philosophy.
The twentieth-century saw tremendous expansion of Christian pacifism; surely a much higher percentage of Christians came to understand themselves as pacifists than had ever since the fourth century.
As we enter the 21st century, Christian pacifism continues to expand. The basically nonviolent ending of apartheid and of Communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe have inspired pacifists to continue to imagine how nonviolence can serve as an alternative to violent revolution. As well, the influence of theologians of nonviolence such as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Walter Wink reaches wider and wider, among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals.
The “blank check” and critical just war thought
Of course, pacifists still remain a small minority among Christians throughout the world and in the United States. The decisive move away from the default position, as we know, came many, many years ago. The emergence of Constantine as the supreme leader of the Roman Empire at the turn of the fourth century often is seen as the key symbol of the end of pacifism as the characteristic position of Christianity. Each of the fourfold bases for pacifism in the Bible discussed above were transformed. The love command became more about attitude than overt ethical concern. The church as counter-culture in contrast to the Empire became the state-church. Christianity became more pessimistic about human possibilities in this life. The cross came to symbolize Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin rather than a model for politically dangerous compassion and dissent.
The fourth century provides us with the key symbols that provide a framework for understanding the general practical philosophy of Christianity toward warfare. Constantine the Emperor at the beginning of the century and Augustine the Bishop at the end of the century may be said to reflect two poles within post-pacifist Christianity—what I will call the “blank check” as one pole and “critical just war” as the other pole.
Constantine symbolizes Christians deferring to national leaders and national interests concerning warfare. The large majority of Christians have essentially uncritically understood it to be their responsibility simply to obey their government when it calls upon them to fight—that is, to give the government a “blank check.”
The other pole of the post-pacifist context concerning Christians and war may be called the “critical just war” approach. We find in Augustine’s writings allusions to criteria for just wars—both in terms of just causes and of just tactics and behavior in war. These criteria provide material for a critical approach to warfare—bases for criticizing rationales for war and for saying no to unjust tactics. However, I would suggest that it is only with the 20th century that the critical just war pole among post-pacifist Christianity began to play a genuinely active role. For most of the past seventeen centuries, the fundamental approach to warfare among the vast majority of Christians has been the blank check—the basic Christian responsibility has been simply to follow the dictates of their government. Only in this way could you have war after war where Christians take up arms against other Christians.
Nonetheless, just as the century of total war stimulated an unprecedented expansion of the numbers of Christian pacifists and the creative application of pacifist convictions to a wide range of issues, so also did the 20th century lead to an enlivening of the critical just war approach.
The events of August 1945 changed application of just war principles forever. The use of nuclear weapons galvanized an outpouring of horror at the incredible level of destruction visited by those weapons. Eventually a position called “nuclear pacifism” emerged—a view based on just war criteria that say, ahead of time, that a nuclear war could never be justifiable. So, here, just war criteria actually become a basis for opposing real wars (and, implicitly, for opposing one’s government’s policies). “Nuclear pacifism” among Christians received a tremendous boost with the 1983 pastoral letter from the United States Roman Catholic bishops that pointed strongly toward nuclear pacifism.
Also as a consequence of World War II, a challenge to the blank check’s assumption that citizens must simply obey their governments (and leave moral accountability to governmental and military leaders) was articulated in the war crimes trials of Nazis. The Nuremberg principles asserted that each soldier has the responsibility to say no to unjust orders. This responsibility could be seen as a personalization of the critical just war approach, where each person in a sense becomes a judge of justifiability—and accountable for how he or she behaves in relation to what is understood to be unjust behavior.
In the 1960s, for the first time the United States engaged in an extended war that did not meet with overwhelming public support. During the Vietnam War, a new category emerged, “selective conscientious objection.” This category included people who objected to participation in this particular war—not because they were pacifists but because they believed that that particular war was unjust. Just war thought served a critical function in fostering a refusal to participate in what seen as an unjust war. Just war thought served, as well, as a resource for those who actively opposed a war as it was being fought and not only after the fact.
Finally, in the run up to our current war on Iraq, widespread public opposition found expression in massive demonstrations and various articulations of dissent to government policies. Even among pacifists, the arguments expressed in public opposing the war were framed, as a rule, in just war terms—this was not a last resort, there was not a legitimate authority (that is, the United Nations) declaring war, it is a war of aggression not self-defense. Never before has such an outpouring of opposition been expressed in advance of military action.
So, what has emerged over the past sixty years with the Nuremberg principles, nuclear pacifism, selective conscientious objection, and pre-war opposition to military action, has been a revitalized just war tradition. Christian pacifists should warmly welcome these developments. We may be seeing a confluence among Christian pacifists who have learned from Gandhi and King that nonviolence can be a force for social change and critical just war people who have learned from the events of the past century that we must find ways to end war or it will end us.
I believe that Christian pacifism, nonetheless, still remains grounded in central theological affirmations, not simply a commonsense awareness of the folly of modern warfare. Christian pacifism follows from the confession that love for all people (love, even, for our enemies) is our highest, never to be overridden, ethical commitment. Such love forbids the use of violence.
For Christian pacifists, this confession of the supremacy of love is inextricably linked with our belief in Jesus as the normative revelation of the God who created the universe. Jesus reveals God to be a God of love—and Jesus reveals the harmony with this God requires that we, in turn, be people of love.
The peace position for the 21st century: Mennonite options
Now, I want briefly to focus more directly on contemporary Mennonite views on pacifism and on participation in politics in general. To provide a general sense of orientation, we may set up a spectrum. I recognize this is over-simplified, but I think it may help show the diversity even within this one tradition of Christian pacifism.
On one side of the spectrum would be the view that the Mennonite understanding of discipleship and the way of Jesus has little direct relevance for the wider society; the application of Jesus’s message to social life is more particular to the faith community. On the other side of the spectrum would be the opposite view, that the Mennonite understanding of discipleship and the way of Jesus is directly relevant and even normative for the wide society; the application of Jesus’ message to social life is more general to the wider society.
In between, of course, we may see more moderate understandings, some tending toward an emphasis on the one hand that the relevance of the way of Jesus is primarily for the sake of the community of faith but has some relevance, especially articulated in terms of witness to Jesus’s peace message through the faithfulness of the faith community, some tending toward an emphasis on the other hand that the relevance of the way of Jesus is to be mediated to the wider society in terms of general values that can be understood and affirmed by a wide spectrum of citizens regardless of their religious commitments.
Within this spectrum, I suggest four tendencies that we may identify.
- Strong separation. Towards the side of the spectrum characterized by seeing the way of Jesus as not directly relevant for wider society, we may start with a view of strong separation from wider society. This view would basically understand the way of Jesus as being intended for those in close-knit faith communities and not being intended for the wider world, at least during this time prior to Jesus’s Second Coming.
In this perspective, not much time is spent speculating about how Jesus’s way applies to wider society. Those holding this perspective focus almost strictly on their communities of faith, with little interest in or sense of responsibility for the world outside these communities. They may actually expect wars, and injustice in the wider world, assume that it is basically the way of the world, and leave directly dealing with problems to God.
We could call this a “strong two kingdom” view, or a strong nonresistance view. The main task of followers of Jesus is to focus on the kingdom of God as manifested in the community of faith, to refuse to resort to violence or coercion in responding to evil, and to respect that those who are outside the community of faith do not adhere to the same values.
- Distinct vocation. Moving somewhat toward the middle of the spectrum, we could see a view that would, somewhat on pragmatic grounds, argue that the Christian community has a vocation to focus especially on the faithfulness of its internal life. This vocation certainly includes witness to the wider world and a hope both that people from the outside who see this witness might want to join the faith community and also that they might learn some lessons from the faithfulness of Christians that might help them in their “secular” work.
However, people with this approach are not going to expect policy-makers to understand or seek to implement the radical social values of Jesus. Too much of a focus on speaking direction to policy makers and secular society might likely lead to a weakening of people of faith’s commitment to the way of Jesus.
- Pragmatic pacifism. People in this general category will be seeking to make their pacifism relevant to social life. They would be open to adapting Anabaptist values to be understandable to the broader world. Here you might have a willingness to “compromise” (at least on a rhetorical level) in order to have a wider influence for the message of peace.
Here you might find Mennonites who are comfortable being directly involved in the political process, even willing to hold public office. You also might find here the newly emergent efforts of Mennonites (and others) to serve the wider society in conflict resolution and other peacebuilding tasks that require working with a wide spectrum of people and institutions. People in this category would be more optimistic about their pacifist values being accessible to all people of good will, though often they would seek to articulate these values in less “absolutist” (or less overtly pacifist) terms.
- Transformative radical pacifism. This view, which we might place at the far end of the spectrum, would understand the message of Jesus to point uncompromisingly toward pacifism, but would believe that this pacifism is a realistic possibility for the entire world (or, if not realistic, at least imaginable).
This view would seek to engage any and all people with the message of radical pacifism, differing with those who would tend to want to find less extreme categories for applying their convictions to the wider world and differing with those who would tend to suppose that the wider world cannot understand or respond to the message of thoroughgoing pacifism. This view believes that the way of Jesus is normative for the whole society and witnesses with hope that everyone might respond.
We can imagine responses toward our political distresses in the U.S. varying according to the four tendencies identified above. For the “strong separation from culture” tendency, the main response may be to focus primarily on riding out the storm, hunkering down in the separated community, focusing on its survival, and waiting for times to get easier in the wider world. In effect, using imagery from Revelation 13, this tendency seeks to avoid the Beast. The danger here is that the faith community taking this approach may not ultimately be successful in such avoidance and will have few resources for negotiating a confrontation with the Beast should it come.
For the “distinct vocation” tendency, the community of faith devotes its energies in such a context to cultivating healthy communities. These communities seek to counter the Beast’s influence among its members. However, this tendency does not overtly challenge the Beast’s power. For the “pragmatic pacifism” tendency, the concern is to try to find common ground and seek peaceful reform, to transform the System from within. This approach with seek to reason with the Beast, find ways to reorient the Beast’s totalitarian tendencies. The dangers here are of failing to see the depth of the crisis and, perhaps, of being co-opted by the Beast.
The “challenge the system” tendency would articulate a strong critique of the System, seeking to bring to the surface the anti-humane dynamics that are reflected in the crisis of democracy. This tendency might seek, like the “distinct vocation” tendency, to create an alternative community, but here the focus of this community would be much more overtly on resisting the System and articulating a challenge to it that would speak to the wider society. This approach, thus, seeks to confront the Beast, to make clear the clear distinction between the way of the Beast and the way of the Lamb. The dangers here are of, in the midst of the confrontation, simply being crushed by the Beast (“crucifixion”). As well, this tendency runs the risk of exaggerating the differences, dehumanizing people identified with the Beast, and actually encouraging a strong us vs. them mentality.
Wartime preaching (two examples)
To conclude these reflections, I will reflect briefly on my own experience of preaching during wartime and focus on two different sermons. I presented the first one, “Reflections on Sin: Brokenness in the World,” in 1991 during the first Gulf War. The second, “Grieve with God,” was presented in 2001 shortly after the September 11 attacks.
The 1991 sermon came in the middle of a sermon series on the book of Romans. I found that book helpful amidst my concerns about speaking to the war. I was in my fourth year as pastor in a small, college-town congregation that had a strong peace orientation. We all agreed that the war was a terrible thing, and in the run up to the war we prayed for peace and expressed our anger and fear quite openly in our worship services. With the strong support of the congregation, I helped lead an ecumenical group that worked at responses to the war, including a candlelight vigil through downtown just prior to the war and a large grieving service in a Catholic Church shortly after the war ended.
I had a good pastor friend, a Methodist, who was also a strong pacifist. He hold me around this time how envious he was that I could be so open with my views. He felt he had to be much more careful in how he expressed himself during this time.
However, while I felt the need to help all of us in our congregation find expression of our feelings about the war, I also became clear about the need to be self-reflective. I ended up focusing more than I expected on how our anger an frustration about the leaders of our country taking us to war may be signs that we need to look within ourselves, as well. Just as Paul turns the tables at the beginning of Romans 2 to challenge those who condemn others, so also we needed to be attentive to our own call to seek truly to be peaceable in our own lives.
By the time of the 2001 sermon, I was teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and only preached every once in a while. As it turned out, I was by chance scheduled to preach on September 16. Then the World Trade Center went down on September 11 and I found myself needing to articulate some kind of response. Coincidentally, the lectionary texts for that Sunday included some verses from Jeremiah. So I sat with those for a couple of days, and came up with some reflections that focused on the need for a double kind of response (reflecting Jeremiah’s own response to the catastrophe of his day). Grief and critique.
I saw in Jeremiah some great insights for pacifists. He cried heart-rending tears with his fellows who suffered the destruction of much that was central in their world—the loss of temple and king’s palace. He shared their grief, giving voice in powerful words to God’s own grief with the people. This was a great model. Lives were lost; profound damage was done; people were horrendously separated from loved ones. We had every justification for proclaiming that God shared this terrible pain—and we had tears to share with those who were weeping.
However (and, delicately we express this “however,” meaning in no way to qualify the grief), we also see in Jeremiah words of critique. While being very careful not to go too far in equating the U.S. with ancient Israel (our country is no more “God’s country” than any other in our world today), we still could learn from Jeremiah’s critique. Most centrally, Jeremiah’s words challenge us to reflect on the violence and injustice of our country. 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. At that point, now well over four years ago, it was imaginable that many Americans could take those events as a sign to turn away from the sword of violence and imperialism.
My conclusion, though, was that such turning away was unlikely. So I raised the likelihood that the ideals of pacifists would not play a major role in shaping the immediate responses of our country to those events. (Of course, things turned out far worse than my most pessimistic imaginings.) My hope, my challenge, was that we think not in the short term but in the long term—that, as I said, “it may be most hopeful and sustaining to think of our work being done for” future generations. We have good prophetic warrant for this idea—almost all of the Old Testament prophets surely died with little or no sense of the power their words would have for those way in the future. Most of the prophets were only recognized as genuine prophets by those who came much later—and realized how perceptive the prophets had been.
From preparing and delivering these sermons, I will suggest a few lessons I learned:
(1) It seemed important to me to have a lot of clarity about my own convictions. In order to speak before those congregations in times when people were intently concerned, trying to sort through their own feelings of fear, anger, and sorrow and to do so in light of their faith, I had to have a sense of grounding. I had to be able to speak from my own heart, sharing my own feelings, conveying a message I felt clear about.
(2) It also seemed important that I convey my words with a sense of humility, or at least self-reflection, and a sense that we all need to look inside our own hearts to work for peace. That is, it wouldn’t work simply to point fingers and complain about others. I wanted to think how can we grow and be challenged in our own lives.
(3) I had my trust in the profundity of the Bible and its applicability to our world greatly strengthened. In both cases, I came with my needs to texts pre-chosen without the wars necessarily in mind. And I found those needs spoken to. It was quite an encouraging process to go to these texts with an open heart and find sustenance in them.
(4) Finally, I sought for a level of honesty and straightforwardness because I needed that myself—these sermons were quite therapeutic for me. What a gift to be able to work through my own grief in these ways. Yet, in both cases, my own honesty and working through my grief fit with the needs of the congregation on those Sundays. In speaking to my own heart, I was able to speak to others’.
My family also has a long history of military service — 3 GGreat Uncles served in the American Civil War (Iron Brigade) one is burieed at Mannassas; my Grandfather was in WWI; Great Uncle in WWII (SeaBees Pacific Theater); my father and both his brothers are Korean War era veterans, myself 15 yrs USMC (left as a C/O in 1991), a son in the Army still and a stepson in the Texas National Guard. While my family accepts my C/O status, many people do not.
Thank you very much for this post. as always it was an inspiration.
Thank you Ted this is an excellent and thought provoking presentation.
It came in my email very timely as I will be preaching Sunday on Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am.”.
I like your observation: “In making 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 was not comparing apples and oranges. He was not saying these represent two totally different realms of life. He was, to the contrary, saying these are competing visions for the ordering of social life among human beings.”
I believe this perfectly applies to Peter who immediately following his confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God wants Jesus to become an earthly minded messiah who does not have to go to the cross. Peter is still double minded as many of us are thinking we can serve both the earthly and the heavenly kingdom.
I would also highly recommend the writings of anthropologist/theologian Rene Girard along side this presentation.
It’s great to see a Christian blogger/web owner out there. It is inspiring, even for a 15 year old like me!