Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Pacifism: The Case For Christian Non-Violence (Jan-Feb 2001)

Filed under: — @ 1:26 am and

by Lee Camp
January – February, 2002

Our Christian tradition has a great tendency to debate, in order to win arguments. Public forums, moreover, present one with a particular temptation to want to prove one’s positions. But if one’s opinion is that Christians must not fight in this world’s wars, it will not do to merely show that one is “right.” Instead, the question is how all those who claim Jesus as Lord can bear witness to the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called. Our primary task, according to Paul, is to live as agents of reconciliation, rather than agents of strife and hostility. Thus any argument for Christian non-violence must always embody the utmost love for those who articulate a divergent viewpoint; if so-called “pacifists” speak in such a way that they only foster enmity, then they have failed from the start.

So any dialog between “Pacifists” and the “Just War Tradition” (JWT) ought to begin with what these two viewpoints held in common. At the theoretical level, there are fundamental differences between the two, but a great deal of pragmatic agreement also exists between them. For example, the JWT proclaims that vengeance is an illegitimate intention for warfare, and that the means of warfare must be sharply limited. (For example, nuclear warfare, or economic sanctions that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, are immoral according to the JWT, because these practices do not respect the “immunity of the innocent.”) If taken seriously, the JWT will often lead Christians to refuse to fight in particular wars.

All such objections flow not from “Pacifism” but from the JWT. For all of these things, the Pacifist ought to deeply respect the Christian Just Warrior. However, the fact that, historically, few JWT adherents make the kind of moral judgments required by their tradition indicates that a great number of Christians are not, actually, adherents to the JWT; instead, many Christians turn out to be nationalists, who arrogantly profess, “it’s my country, right or wrong.” To say “if you don’t love it, leave it”—this is acceptable rhetoric for neither the Just Warrior nor the Pacifist. And so the Pacifist encourages the Just Warrior to have the courage of his convictions, and speak boldly to such concerns.

But the JWT, in the end, fails to take account of a fundamental part of the New Testament witness. Unless we impose upon scripture the unbiblical Lutheran viewpoint that sharply separates the “social” from the “spiritual” (as have many in Churches of Christ, following the work of Foy E. Wallace), we will discover that Jesus provides alternative answers to perennial political and social questions. Jesus does not teach us to be passive, to merely stand by in the face of injustice and harm and violence and “do nothing.”Instead, he is providing redemptive, concrete alternatives: How does one deal with scarcity? By sharing one’s provisions. How does one deal with offenses? By forgiving them, and working to bring about real reconciliation. How does one deal with injustice?Not by returning evil for evil, but by bearing witness to the truth that the powers-that-be want silenced. How does one deal with one’s enemies? By loving them. How does one get a community to question its false pretences? By preaching, teaching, and turning over tables in the temple.

This alternative socio-spiritual reality is what is meant by the expression “the kingdom of God.” “When you pray,” >Jesus said, “pray this way: … Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The parallelism employed here provides Jesus’ succinct definition of the nature of God’s kingdom: that the Father’s will be done on earth, even as it is in heaven. For Jesus, the kingdom was not a way that awaited the eschaton, or the “end of the world”—instead, it was a reality in which Jesus’ hearers were invited to participate at that very moment.

Not surprisingly then, Jesus’ proclamation of the coming near of the kingdom of heaven is also always accompanied by the admonition to “repent.” Metanoia primarily connotes change: in order to participate in the kingdom, one must change. Jesus never rebuked his disciples for expecting a kingdom — he rebuked his disciples instead for mistaking the shape and manner in which that kingdom would be made manifest. To those who apparently expected a violent militaristic overthrow of their oppressors, Jesus embodied the way of Suffering Servanthood. To those who desired the nationalistic triumph of a restored Israel, Jesus proclaimed that the Gentiles, too, were to be part of the people of God. To those who thought they knew (quite wrongly) what it meant for Messiah to be present in their midst, Jesus told them quite simply to keep their mouths shut. To all these many different (wrong) expectations, Jesus announced a different way.

With regard to peacemaking, Jesus explicitly did not allow his disciples to take up the way of the sword. It is often forgotten that Jesus was ministering in the midst of very real, concrete, historical situations of violence and oppression. There were numerous “false Messiahs” in the first century, and one professed way of being Messiah was to seek to take up arms against the Roman empire. Jesus spent most of his ministry in the midst of people that experienced the very real oppression levied by a world super-power, and there were many activists among those people who wanted to take up arms in the name of justice. It was to these very people that Jesus said, “love your enemies.”

In other words, the way of the cross becomes the way not only of Christ, but the way of Christ’s disciples. That is, the cross becomes the way that God brings about reconciliation in this world of injustice. So, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The “pattern” for disciples is always the same as that for Christ: cross and resurrection. We walk in faithfulness, even if it means our death, and trust in the power of resurrection.

This is an important difference with many secular forms of “pacifism,” which naively believe that “being nice” will mean that others will simply be “nice” in return. Christian non-violence does not labor under such a foolish conviction. Instead, the call of the cross means that being present in the midst of situations of injustice—seeking to non-violently bring about reconciliation—may result in one’s death. But Easter follows Good Friday, and we thus trust in the power of resurrection. If injustice appears to “win” in the short-run, that’s not the final word: God will vindicate the righteous in the resurrection.

The way of the cross provides the foundation for discipleship not only in the Gospels, but throughout the New Testament. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, no, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . .’” (Romans 12:14-20). The way of the cross likewise informs Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 6 that it is better to be defrauded than to take a brother to court. Or consider I Peter: when you suffer unjustly, you are simply living out your calling—”for to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Even the picture of Revelation, in which the wicked are destroyed and the righteous vindicated, is dominated by an often overlooked controlling metaphor: the one who reigns triumphant in the heavenly scene depicted by John is none other than the slaughtered Lamb (Rev. 5:6). One thus finds here and elsewhere in the New Testament a recurring pattern for Christian ethics: it is through cross and resurrection that God is at work bringing about reconciliation. This consistency in biblical teaching led Gandhi to say that “the only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as non-violent are Christians.”

“But that’s just not realistic,” some will object. “We live in a fallen world—it’s naïve to think that you can always love your enemies.” Jesus explicitly addressed such concerns: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” In other words, says Jesus, everyone can respond with “love” when they are treated with “love.” Jesus’ point is precisely that we must love in response to abuse and injustice. To assert that this is not “realistic,” or that we must “take account of a fallen world” appears to make Jesus a utopian fool. Was Jesus, indeed, “unrealistic”? Or instead, is he Lord? The question is — what is most real? The fallen world? Or the kingdom of God?

(See also Rubel Shelly’s Response and his article Just War: Quandary of Christian Conscience, and the teaching resource A Deeper Look.)New Wineskins

Lee Camp

No Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post.TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

© 2022 Wineskins Archive