“That the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid”

September 11, 2011

My favorite United Methodist gadfly and preacher, Will Willimon, who also somehow became the bishop of the North Alabama annual conference, wrote the following for a Christianity Today article on the 9/11 anniversary.

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.

4 Responses to ““That the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid””

  1. Willimon’s words are shatteringly true. My only fear is that he is wrong. That American Christians may never recognize the “Christological defeat.” The “triumphant” Christianity is just too easy and feels too good.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I first note that I don’t think that the United States’ military response as it has been played out is the way things should have been done. Particularly at the least, I don’t see how attaching Iraq could have been justified on the basis of 9/11. However, I think it is important to make a caveat as to the difference between how individuals are supposed to accept affronts as Christians and the propriety of governments acting to protect their citizens. For example, we have police to protect us from thieves and murderers. I don’t supposed Willimon would be in favor of disbanding our police forces. Paul seems to acknowledge their propriety in Romans 13. In the same vein, should we have sat back and allowed Japan to take over the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack? Should Britain have allowed Hitler’s takeover? I don’t think the application of Christian principles mandates such “roll over and play dead” responses of governments instituted in large measure to protect its citizenry. Although I recognize a difference in “dispensations” to some extent between the actions of Israel in the Old Testament and the “New Testament era,” I don’t think, for example, that Saul’s and David’s defensive battles against the Philistines are irrelevant to how governments should properly respond to attacks. I also don’t think “patriotism” is a bad thing in itself either. (Paul’s saying, “But I was born a Roman”?) So, should our forces have gone over to Afghanistan as “protection” against attacks from “enemies” by attempting to stop Osama and company? I totally don’t know the answer to that. However, I also don’t think the answer is so “open and shut” as Willimon would have it.

    • brentwhite Says:


      You’re right to feel conflicted about the U.S. response to 9/11. For the sake of the 3,000 or so Americans that we lost on 9/11, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the attacks on the Trade Center have been killed, directly or indirectly, by our retributive action. Not to mention thousands of American men and women in uniform. That is not any kind of proportional response.

      I’m not citing this to say that pacifism is the answer (Willimon is not a pacifist); only to say that war, even fought with the best of intentions, is evil, and justice can never be carried out very well by human beings.

      True Christian pacifists, however, like Anabaptist Christians, don’t believe in doing nothing in the face of violent aggression. They believe in bearing witness to the gospel, even if it means sacrificing their lives. As Stanley Hauerwas says (and agree with him or not, he’s a powerful voice for Christian pacifism): “We’re Christians. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? We get killed?” Easier said than done, obviously.

      We American Christians tend to think that nothing is worse than death. We’re so afraid of it, we engage in all kinds of evil deeds to prevent it. Unquestioningly. That’s Willimon’s point. Five or six years ago, I argued with some parishioners because I said that torture was inappropriate for Christians to take part in. To me, that isn’t even controversial. So, in the name of protecting our country, many American Christians are unwilling to rule out torture as an unacceptably evil action? What wouldn’t they condone when they feel that their lives or interests are threatened?

      I’m not saying they’re bad people. They’re just mixed up about allegiances. Is it to the flag or the cross? At some point, we have to choose. Every time Paul said “Jesus is Lord,” he was implicitly saying that Caesar wasn’t (and Caesar got the message). Paul was engaging in a small act of civil disobedience.

      Thanks for the comment!


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