A branch of the WFU School of Divinity keeping you informed
Shane Claiborne made pacifism cool. From Philadelphia to Calcutta to Baghdad, he jetted around the world, preaching his gospel of nonviolence and getting arrested for that gospel on a few occasions. His first book, The Irresistible Revolution was published in 2006, just as I discovered the writings of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite ethicist who advocated pacifism most famously in his book The Politics of Jesus.
Claiborne and Yoder both forced a new kind of Christianity on me. I grew up in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that has long-since renounced its pacifistic tendencies in favor of a role largely subservient to the state. The American flag waved next to the Christian flag in all of the churches I attended. Like many young southerners, I thought seriously about joining the U.S. military after high school and even visited the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. So you can imagine my consternation when I read that Christianity and violence are totally antithetical.
In my sophomore year of college I was faced with a terrible crisis of faith: Must I become a pacifist in order to remain a Christian? Ethically speaking, I saw no way that I could maintain my faithfulness to Jesus and not be a pacifist. On the question of violence Jesus is unambiguous:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5.38-39).
All Christians who take the Bible seriously—particularly the words of Jesus—must confront the awful truth that should their lives be threatened, Jesus would have them turn the other cheek. This fact is all the more pressing in light of Jesus’ refusal to take up the sword to save his own life.
For all the idealism associated with Jesus’ brand of nonviolent resistance, it is not exactly an effective program for social change. Stanley Hauerwas, the renowned ethicist at Duke, candidly admits that the pacifism embodied by Jesus offers little hope to those invested in transforming the world. “Christian nonviolence is not a strategy to rid the world of violence, but rather the way Christians must live in a world of violence. In short Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.”
For pacifists like Hauerwas, vengeance belongs to God alone and justice is an eschatological hope rather than a present fact.
This is, in my opinion, too big of a risk. Hauerwas, Claiborne, and Yoder have abandoned reason, slavishly devoting themselves to a standard they acknowledge might contribute nothing quantifiable to the world. Instead, their ethic is founded upon a parousial deus ex machina that may or may not come anytime soon.
I, on the other hand, take Jesus’ words as a springboard into a conversation about the value of unexpected pacifism, the refusal to retaliate in every situation, the admission that humanity’s default ought to be peace and not war. But I am not a biblical literalist. Jesus was not the architect of an all-encompassing ethical system and his followers must be willing to improvise. Inspired but not constrained by Jesus’ love, a Christian may actually encounter situations that require one to act violently on the behalf of his or her neighbor (though not with the intent to kill). Although I hope for a universal brother and sisterhood, I believe that such a reality is only possible when loving justice (not vengeance) intervenes in order to purify the oppressors and exalt the oppressed. Such a mindset takes seriously the moral idealism of Jesus, but recognizes the moral ambiguity of decisions that are not so readily classified as black and white.
This pragmatic approach to nonviolence recognizes pacifism’s use, but also sees value in the periodic employment of violence (though only with great hesitance). I do not own a gun and probably never will. I have no plans to enlist in the military and believe Christians who do so risk imperiling their witness to the kingdom of God. I affirm the evil of all violence and cannot deny its destructive effects on both the object and the subject. Still, I am not a pacifist, because I care about the world too much to leave it solely in God’s hands.