A review of Mark Douglas, Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age

Mark Douglas, Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019) viii + 269pp.

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2020

Mark Douglas, Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, has written an interesting book that addresses important issues. Most of the book focuses on Christian pacifism and its history, offering a highly critical analysis of how Christian pacifists have presented their tradition. Douglas suggests that the climate crisis provides a challenging context for reconsidering Christian pacifism.

Douglas summarizes “the conventional narrative” of the history of Christian pacifism. It begins with Jesus, the New Testament and early Christians until Constantine as universally pacifist. This all changed with the first Christian emperor who oversaw the aligning of the church with imperial power and signaled the end of pacifism as a core Christian conviction. A just war ethic, especially as articulated by Augustine, replaced pacifism and “constitutes not only a change but a fall away from fidelity to a Jesus-centered ethics” (p. 3).

In much of the book that follows, Douglas uses this summary as a foil for a sharp critique of the narrative of Christian pacifism by recent pacifists (he actually only picks up, briefly near the end of the book, the theme of our current environmental crisis; the book’s title is thus misleading). He portrays the Christian pacifist narrative as being centered on that problematic construal of early Christianity—what he calls, disparagingly, the “myth of return” (pp. 7-10) where pacifists seek to recover the supposed purity of the early Christians.

Douglas sees the “conventional narrative” being strongly shaped by a series of writers he labels “the great historians of Christian pacifism” (p. 56)—namely, C.J. Cadoux, Guy F. Hershberger, Roland Bainton, and Jean-Michel Hornus. These historians, Douglas argues, misunderstood the dynamics around war refusal in early Christianity, the nature of the influence of Constantine, the stance of the church toward war and peace in the period between the 4th and 16th centuries, and how best to apply Jesus’s message about love to the present world.

Douglas continues his examination of Christian pacifism by considering the thought and actions of three influential 20th century figures: John Howard Yoder, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day. He focuses on these three because they helpfully addressed many of what Douglas as problems with “the conventional narrative” of the Christian pacifist tradition. Yet, he argues that their “complex theological visions of pacifism and their significant arguments in its defense nevertheless manifest new expressions of the very problems they attempt to escape” (p. 160).

Douglas, thus, presents Christian pacifism as problematic. He seems to recommend a mostly pragmatic approach, not seeking “to get pacifism right” as to “use [the various] pacifisms better” (p. 180), drawing on their insights but not being preoccupied with purity or perfection.

The third and final section of the book, “Re-Narrating the History of the Church and Nonviolence,” develops Douglas’s theological agenda. Pacifism actually turns out to be fairly marginal to this agenda. Douglas uses pacifism as a foil to advance a theological agenda that sees pacifism as at best a helpful, though profoundly limited, subtheme.

His critique of pacifism, ultimately, leaves a lot to be desired. He never gives us a clear and concise definition of “pacifism.” That vagueness makes it difficult to track his critique as the book moves along. His use of the notion of the Christian pacifist tradition’s “myth of return” exaggerates the role that that “myth” plays in the tradition. Certainly, Christian pacifists have referred to Jesus and the early church as key inspirations for their convictions. However, I would argue that pacifism has arisen mainly as a response to particular contexts where warfare was making demands on Christians not so much as a coherent consistent appeal to some authoritative original pacifism.

Part of the reason for Douglas’s emphasis on the “myth of return” is his reliance on “the great historians of Christian pacifism” (p. 56) for his construal of that tradition. However, these were neither “great historians” nor especially influential among Christian pacifists. C.J. Cadoux was a relatively obscure British theologian whose book The Early Christian Attitude Toward War was published in 1918 and was virtually unknown in the United States. Guy Hershberger was a Mennonite college professor and by training a historian of the United States. His 1944 book, War, Peace, and Nonresistance was important for Mennonites but was virtually unknown beyond Mennonite circles. Jean-Michel Hornus was a pastor in the French Reformed Church with a doctorate in theology. His book, It is not Lawful for Me to Fight, was first published in French in 1960 and was not published in English until 1980. Those who know of this book esteem it, but it was never widely circulated. Finally, Roland Bainton was a professor of history at Yale Divinity School and his book, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (also published in 1960), has been well known and influential. However, it is very much a popular-level survey, not a deeply researched scholarly study.

Douglas’s critique of these four books does seem mostly accurate. However, that they are mostly obscure, popular level, and by now old writings actually undermines his case that they reflect the centrality of the (problematic) focus on early Christians as central for defining Christian pacifism.

Douglas’s failure to offer a clear definition of pacifism links with his tendency throughout the book to treat pacifism mainly as a set of vague ideas. He does not have much to say about actual manifestations of Christian pacifism in history. Ultimately, this is more a book of abstract theologizing focusing on Christian doctrines (note especially chapter 7, “Time and Tradition in a Theological Framework”) than either a critical engagement with an embodied tradition of thought and action or an attempt to draw from the Christian pacifist tradition actual guidance for engaging our current environmental crises.

In conclusion, because it does discuss important issues, I can recommend that readers interested in those issues give Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age a look. But overall it is a pretty disappointing effort.

[2020 Book Reviews]

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