Is Christian Nonviolence Unrealistic? Is it Un-Christian?

Jason Micheli —  September 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

matthias-grunewald-947266Mark Tooley, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, had this post recently, in which he wildly caricatures Christian pacifists, like Stanley Hauerwas.

First, Tooley lobs the, predictable, Nieburian charge that Christian pacifism is ‘unrealistic.’ (It’s appropriately ironic that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology is passe to every one but Mark Tooley and Barack Obama.

Secondly, Tooley goes a step further and discounts Christian pacifism as even a legitimate form of Christian witness, which will come as a surprise to Mennonites who for half a millenia have seen no other conclusion to draw from the story of the Cross.

And Mennonites are not liberal.

If you make your own clothes but DON’T sell them on Etsy or post them on Pintarest– you’re not a lefty.

To the second charge, that Christian nonviolence is not a legitimate form of witness to the faith.

Pacifism refers to the rejection of all war or participation in war- by Christians.

Radical? Leftist? Utopian? Unrealistic?

Who would, in good conscience with the injustices of the world all around, support such a way of life?

The first Christians, that’s who.

Like the first 3 centuries of them.

As in, the followers of Christ most proximate to Christ himself.

Like Jesus’ brother, who like his elder, went non-violently to his death having been condemned unjustly by the Sanhedrin.

While there is evidence to suggest the early Christians recognized the legitimacy of war as an instrument of the state, they assumed their primary citizenship (the Kingdom of God) barred their own participation.

There were a variety of reasons for this pacifism.

For some, they had the expectation that Jesus would soon return and history as we know it would quickly be at an end. There is no need even to participate in attempts to preserve order and justice if a new order is about to be inaugurated.

As well, participation in the Roman Army—the primary option for early Christians—involved pledging allegiance to Caesar (a god) which Christians refused to do.

Not to mention, of course, the Roman Army was often involved in violent persecution of Christianity. Obviously, there was little incentive for participation in the Roman Army, and Christians were hardly welcome in it.

Nonetheless, above all these factors, it was the abiding sense that it was impossible to obey and follow Jesus- who’d taught his followers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, carry their own crosses and who’d died on a cross himself rather than kill- and participate in state-sanctioned killing.

While the commitment to pacifism did not last beyond the first three of centuries (once the Empire was ‘Christian’ it was easy to baptize any cause or action taken up by the Empire) there has always been a significant minority of Christians who have regard participation in war as inappropriate.

There have always been some Christians who refuse to go to war in obedience to Jesus’ teaching and example and as a witness to Christian convictions and hopes.

Other Christians have justified pacifism by also insisting that non-violent means are effective as instruments of justice and order, more effective, indeed, than violence and war, which sow seeds of hatred and disorder that only contribute to an ongoing cycle of discord.

If that sounds unrealistic, consider how the Christian pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. is now the only non-President on the National Mall.

That is-

Not too far from where the IRD issues its a-theological screeds against Christian non-violence is a hulking huge monument to the transformative power of exactly what the IRD asserts lacks both persuasive power and biblical warrant.

And, to make the point, MLK’s monument will presumably endure much longer than the IRD.

As will the theological legacy of Stanley Hauerwas.

As King himself taught, what Jesus taught was not passivity or acquiescence to injustice, evil, or abuse, but creative non-violent resistance that affirms and expresses the dignity of those who are oppressed.

Jesus’ third way, between violence and inaction or passivity.

Early Christian commitment to pacifism was related to the Roman imperial context in which the early church existed.

A significant body of contemporary scholarship has lifted up the way in which Christian faith and life was understood as a conscious and explicit resistance to Roman imperialism and the theological claims which were used to justify Roman authority.

For example, the earliest Christian affirmation of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” was intended as a repudiation of the claim that “Caesar is Lord.”

Now, to the first charge.

To call Hauerwas’ pacifism unrealistic is to miss (willfully I can only guess, for no one can be that philosophically dense) the radically Christocentric, and thus deeply realistic, character of Hauerwas’ vision.

As JR Daniel Kirk puts it:

The earliest Christians were not naïve about how power worked. They were not blind to the brutal realities of tyranny and the need to stand against it.

That’s precisely why the earliest followers of Jesus lived in eager anticipation of the time when Jesus would overthrow their Roman overlords. That’s precisely why they literally could not hear Jesus’ promise that he was going to die as messiah. That’s precisely why they wanted to call down fire from heaven on those who rejected them. That’s precisely why they thought Jesus a failure after he was crucified.

“But we had thought he was the one who was going to redeem Israel?”

The temptation didn’t go away. The temptation to imagine that true peace, true freedom, could only be had if someone came who acted like Rome but out Romed Rome–better deployment of troops, better handling of swords.

The next generation of Jesus followers faced it to.

That’s what Mark 13 is about: false Christs will arise saying, “I’m the guy!” What’s the context? The time when Jerusalem’s stones will be thrown down. The time when Rome executes its next devastating act of military victory over Judea in AD 70.

The time when Christians are not to get carried away, thinking that the way to the reign of God, of peace, of justice upon the earth is to be had by way of the sword.

The temptation didn’t go away.

The idea that the transformation of the economy of power in the world might happen by something other than the sword has never caught on. Rome’s been gone for over a thousand years, Jesus is still proclaimed as Lord long after such an acclamation has ever been given to a Caesar, but still we do not believe it.

The innocence of the dove alludes us, even as we call ourselves Christians.

The subversive alternative of the Dove to the Eagle alludes us, despite its descent upon Jesus at his anointing to his messianic office

While I don’t insist the witness of Mennonites is the necessary form of faith for all Christians, I do not think it legitimate.

You would be outraged, wouldn’t you, if I said you must concur with the Mennonite vision to be a true Christian, serious about both the Gospel and the world?

You should be so outraged when someone like Tooley insists on the very same thing but in the opposite direction.

Jason Micheli

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