Christian pacifism as fully compatible with evangelical theology: Reviewing Ron Sider’s recent books on pacifism

Ronald J. Sider. If Jesus is Lord: Loving Enemies in an Age of Violence. Baker Academic, 2019. Xvi + 240 pages and Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Our Enemies. Herald Press, 2020. 199 pages.

Ted Grimsrud—July 11, 2020

Ron Sider, a longtime theology professor at Palmer Theological Seminary at Eastern University, has added to a long list of writings on social justice from an evangelical Christian perspective a kind of capstone on Christian pacifism. If Jesus is Lord is a solid, comprehensive account of biblically based Christian pacifism. Speak Your Peace is a somewhat more popularly written version of the same book. In this review, I will focus on the first of these two books.

What gives Sider’s books an authoritative heft is his long, sustained commitment to articulating and living out a Jesus-centered commitment to nonviolent engagement. Dating back to his influential bestseller Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (first published in 1977 and revised numerous times, most recently in 2015), Sider has vigorously challenged his fellow evangelical Christians to take the wholistic gospel of peace seriously both with his writing and his organizing work with Evangelicals for Social Action. His first book on pacifism, Christ and Violence, was published way back in 1979 and has been followed by numerous others in the years since.

A Jesus-centered argument for pacifism

As would be expected (and this is a strength of the book), Sider moves immediately to the life and teaching of Jesus. The first four of the 14 chapters focus on Jesus’s practices and teachings that establish that the Bible’s core message is a message that calls upon believers to follow Jesus’s path of mercy, forgiveness, and nonviolent resistance to evil. Sider asserts that orthodox theology (which he defines especially in terms of an affirmation of Jesus’s divinity and identity as the second person of the trinity) actually strengthens the call to Christian pacifism. As the title of the book insists, “if Jesus is Lord” then his message of nonviolent engagement is a mandate for all who trust in him as their savior.

After developing the christological core of his pacifist convictions, Sider addresses a wide range of issues that often come up in discussions about pacifism. He shows how the rest of the New Testament emphasizes peace and in general reiterates Jesus’s message, while also refuting the claims that the rest of New Testament points away from pacifism.

Sider devotes a strongly argued chapter to the question of the Old Testament’s seeming embrace of violence in its portrayal of God and God’s commands. Appropriately emphasizing that the Old Testament presents problems that are not fully resolvable for anyone with an evangelical understanding of biblical inspiration, Sider’s answer to the “problem” is, essentially, that we have full clarity about both Jesus’s message of peace and his identity as God Incarnate. This clarity takes precedence over the ambiguities of the Old Testament’s portrayal of divinely initiated violence, in part due to the Christian recognition of the partialness of the Old Testament as revelation.

Sider seems to finesse the tension between his affirmation of a strong view of biblical interpretation and his rejection of any kind of normative appropriation of Old Testament violence. He appreciatively summarizes Greg Boyd’s massive grappling with that tension in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but in the end takes exception with what he sees to be Boyd’s implicit acceptance of the approach of “modern authors who say we must simply say that the Old Testament is wrong and must be rejected at crucial points” (p. 158). Ultimately, though, Sider seems also to come close to that kind of rejection, using the idea of the Old Testament as “partial” revelation as his basis for choosing Jesus’s pacifism. However, it could be that he recognizes that he cannot explicitly deny the truthfulness of the Old Testament’s pro-violence stories without tripping evangelicalism’s wires in relation to biblical authority, so he remains quite vague and hence less than fully helpful on this difficult issue.

An especially helpful emphasis is Sider’s interaction with broader theological themes. Essentially, he argues for the full compatibility of pacifism (properly understood) with orthodox theological affirmations such as the central motifs of the early Christian creeds, the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection, the centrality of a personal salvation experience, and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. The theme of “nonviolence and atonement” receives in depth, chapter-length treatment, where Sider argues for affirming all three of what he calls the historical atonement theories—substitution, moral view, and Christus Victor.

The breadth of Sider’s coverage also includes defending pacifism against common misrepresentations, criticizing the just war theory, and the history of Christian attitudes toward war and peace, with a particularly useful discussion of the pacifism of the Christian movement during its first several hundred years (here he draws on his excellent 2012 book, The Early Church on Killing).

The difficulties in writing about Christian pacifism

So, If Jesus is Lord is a clearly written, thoughtful, well-informed introduction to a certain approach to Christian pacifism. Surely any reader who shares Sider’s evangelical Christian faith will find much that is attractive in this book, even if they might not be fully persuaded by its arguments. Those Christian readers who are not evangelicals may have a less positive reaction to this book—as might those who are not Christians.

Sider’s worthy effort does point to the difficulties in writing about Christian pacifism. He does not always seem to be as careful as he could be in noting that evangelicals are not the only Christian pacifists—nor in appreciating the common ground Christian pacifists share with those of other faiths or no religious affiliation. For example, he never mentions the Fellowship of Reconciliation and its long history of religiously based war resistance (see Joseph Kip Kosek’s excellent history, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, that in an interesting [and troubling] reversal of Sider’s approach scarcely mentions Christians who aren’t theologically liberal). I’m left wondering what an account of Christian pacifism that took both sides seriously would look like.

Given the sharp opposition Sider himself has often faced in evangelical circles for his advocacy of pacifism, I find it a bit surprising that his focus would be so narrow. He surely knows better than anyone how pro-war the vast majority of American evangelicals and fundamentalists have been throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

I would suggest that one of the major elements of the phenomenon of pacifism that is missing in this book is a sense of pacifism’s historical concreteness. Sider does not introduce us to particular pacifists but presents pacifism mainly in terms of its ideas. But how were these ideas formed and shaped in the crucible of actual struggles to live faithfully amidst specific wars and other challenges?

In my research of World War II conscientious objection in the United States (a rare case where the actual commitments of American Christians to pacifism were directly and measurably tested), I learned that there were surprisingly few conscientious objectors at all (probably no more than 0.1% of those who were drafted) and of the COs more than half were from the three tiny historic peace church traditions (Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers) with virtually none from the traditions that were joining in the newly established National Association of Evangelicals. The stories of those who did say no to war in real life should be important data in our formulation of the meaning of Christian pacifism.

Interestingly, though Sider insists on the centrality of the Bible in his account of pacifism, he has almost nothing to say about how to read the Old Testament as a book of peace. He jumps directly into an account of Jesus as the teacher and exemplar of pacifism, but he does not provide the context the Bible itself gives us of Jesus’s rootedness in a specific tradition. Jesus insisted that he was offering a faithful application of the teaching of the Law and Prophets. For Sider, though, the Old Testament appears mainly as a problem, something, in effect, replaced by Jesus and his new Christian religion.

Now, certainly the problem of violence in the Old Testament requires careful consideration. As I mentioned above, Sider does provide guidance for how that problem might be navigated. Part of the inadequacy of his guidance, though, is due to his failure to frame the discussion of the “problem” in the context of a recognition of how the Old Testament is a book of peace. And given Sider’s focus on the centrality of Jesus, it is disappointing that he does not spend time reflecting on biblical sources for Jesus’s pacifism.

Is pacifism compatible with “theological orthodoxy”?

It is encouraging that Sider believes so strongly in the full compatibility of Christian pacifism with theological orthodoxy. Since so many Christians adhere strongly to orthodox theology, to imagine that that theology can support pacifism is good. However, at the least it seems misleading for him to emphasize that compatibility without struggling more with the historical reality that theological orthodoxy has, almost unanimously, rejected Christian pacifism. Currently in the United States, self-identified evangelical Christians are far more likely than non-Christians to support American militarism and the death penalty.

Obviously, Sider believes that orthodoxy and pacifism are intellectually compatible. However, since that view seems decidedly to be in the minority, he probably should have made some attempt to explain why he feels so comfortable going against the grain. And he doesn’t seem to entertain that possibility that theological orthodoxy itself might be part of the problem in the failure of Christianity to resist violence and domination.

In the history of Christianity since the move that the Roman Emperor Constantine made in the 4th century to embrace Christianity, we may see a tendency for Christians who have been pacifists to emphasize Jesus’s life and teaching and for Christians to have not been pacifists to emphasize doctrines about Jesus Christ. It appears that there is nothing in those doctrines (including the early creeds on Jesus’s divinity and the satisfaction doctrine of Middle Ages) to guard against the acceptance of warfare. Therefore, I believe that any present-day attempt to develop an argument for Christian pacifism has a large burden of proof to overcome in showing that orthodox is not a hindrance rather than an asset. Is it possible that ultimately one has to choose—theological orthodoxy or pacifism?

Sider obviously does not accept the need to make such a choice. However, based on this book it does not appear that he could even imagine that such a choice might be necessary. I tend to suspect that failure may be due more to unquestioned assumptions than to a reasoned consideration of the issues. The question I am left with is this: Given how well argued and well supported Sider’s argument in favor of Christian pacifism is, why has it made so little inroads in the broader North American evangelical Christian world? Could it be that the christological evasion of Jesus that characterizes orthodox theology is a major factor?

Sider’s second book

Somewhat confusedly, Sider has almost simultaneously published a second book on Christian pacifism, Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Our Enemies. This second book, with a different title and published by a different publisher, is essentially the same book as If Jesus is Lord. The two books have the same fourteen chapters, though with some variation in chapter titles, and cover the same territory.

Speak Your Peace is somewhat shorter, with fewer footnotes and no bibliography. It is written in a more popular style and is geared toward study groups. One strength of the shorter book is that its argument has a smoother flow. However, the clear writing and thinking of If Jesus is Lord makes it quite accessible and usable in most settings.

Either of these books serves well to introduce Christian pacifism from an evangelical perspective. Today’s Christian churches desperately need more written resources that challenge them better to embody Jesus’s call to peacemaking. Ron Sider has helped to meet that need with these books. For that we should be grateful, even as we pacifists have yet more work to do.

2020 Book Reviews

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