Last thoughts (this week) on Christian pacifism

February 25, 2015

A few weeks ago I heard a new argument for changing our United Methodist Church’s stance on human sexuality. It wasn’t a good argument, mind you, but it was one I hadn’t heard before. I reflected on it in this blog post. A United Methodist pastor in Birmingham named Wade Griffith applied Jesus’ words in John 16:12-13 to our sexuality debate: Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

One of the “many things” that Jesus still had to say to us, the church, was that homosexual practice—at least in the context of committed, monogamous, lifelong relationships—was blessed by God. God’s attitude toward homosexual practice wasn’t different back then; it’s only that the idea was so radical that no one back then could have handled it. So, by Griffith’s logic, first Jesus and later the Holy Spirit waited until the sexual revolution of the late-twentieth century had sufficiently prepared the world—at least the wealthy Western industrialized part—for this previously radical idea.

The Holy Spirit, said Griffith, waited until the right time…

As I wrote in the blog post:

But the Spirit didn’t wait, did he? Because within 20 years of Jesus’ words in John 16, this same Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ, who makes Christ present to us, who reminds us of Christ’s teaching and how to apply it to our lives—inspired Paul to tell us through scripture that homosexual behavior contradicts God’s intentions for humanity.

Did the Spirit not know back then, when Paul was writing the so-called “clobber verses,” how confusing Paul’s words would later prove to be for Christians? Couldn’t the Spirit at least have had Paul remain silent on the subject? Or did the Holy Spirit really have so little to do with producing the canon of scripture?

My point is this: Griffith’s argument falls victim to the idea that the revelation of God in Christ is different, even at times opposed, to the revelation of God in holy scripture.

How can an evangelical committed to the authority of scripture endorse this line of reasoning?

Yet, in my own way, I was unconsciously accepting its premise in my previous blog post (and comment section) regarding Stanley Hauerwas’s view (by way of Kevin Hargaden) of “Christological non-violence.”

In distinguishing Hauerwas’s pacifism from secular pacifism, Kevin writes, “Christological non-violence is different from generic pacifism because it holds that Jesus, not war (or its absence), is the centre of ethical reality.”

In other words, our basis for rejecting war in all cases—not to mention (although Kevin never does) any violent police action, and, indeed, any violent action to defend our families or ourselves—is Christ’s own teaching and example, not our commitment to non-violence, per se.

As an evangelical, I could almost accept that principle if I believed that Jesus taught that Christians can never resort to violence as part of a military, a police force, or in an effort to defend themselves or their families.

I say “almost” because I’d have to interpret Jesus’ words and actions against other passages in scripture, including Jesus’ unqualified praise of the Roman centurion as a paragon of Christian faith, or Peter’s uncritical acceptance of centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, or Paul’s words about the state’s “sword” being a “minister of God” in Romans 13. I would then avail myself of Christian tradition: how did the saints of the past interpret these verses, and were they, as a result, pacifists?

By the way, when it comes to tradition, I always assume, as a rule of thumb, that I’m not morally superior to the Christian saints on whose shoulders I stand. Even if I were a Christian pacifist, it wouldn’t be because I’m smarter or more virtuous than, say, Augustine, who most assuredly wasn’t a pacifist. If the case for Christian pacifism were as easy and obvious as some Christians today seem to make it, then what does that say about Augustine?

I know that there are arguments from scripture and tradition to be made for pacifism. I don’t find them convincing, but they can be made. But I wonder if Hauerwas’s “Christological non-violence” isn’t an ethical principle that he believes is embedded in the life, suffering, and death of Christ, which supersedes any argument from scripture, even where it contradicts the direct words of scripture.

If so, you can count me out. Christological non-violence must be an argument, first, from scripture, all of whose words are a gift from the very Spirit of Christ to us. It’s incomprehensible to me that Christ would teach something (through his words and actions) that the Spirit would contradict when the Spirit inspired these biblical writers to write these words. This is yet another application of that badly distorted “Jesus lens” I’ve written about before.

While we’re on the subject, Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian from New Zealand, applauds his government’s decision to send members of the New Zealand Defence Force to Iraq to train Iraqi troops in their fight against ISIS. His thoughts on the subject reflect mine. Follow the links below on Christian pacifism and “Turn the other cheek.” Among other things, he writes (emphasis mine):

“But Christians should be pacifists!”

No they shouldn’t. I know that some say that Christianity was universally a pacifist movement (a movement that taught that there is never any justification for the use of force against others) until bad people like Augustine came along and corrupted the church with the doctrine of the just war. The kindest thing to say about this is that it is an oversimplification, but the ordinary way of describing this is as a lie. There existed pacifists among the Church Fathers, but as I have explained before, the evidence does not support the claim that they were all pacifists up to the time of Augustine. “Turn the other cheek,” some say. “Learn what that means,” I say in reply.) For those interested, I discussed this issue, albeit briefly, on a panel for Elephant TV, and that discussion is available on Youtube (I do not know for how long it will be available).

We must confront IS, not because we hate them, but because we love those who are in the firing line.

Certainly, Christian reflection on vengeance, violence and hatred (and love!) should feed into our thinking about what the right response to IS looks like. But the result of such thinking does not push us to pacifism. Engaging with IS need not be about hatred at all, but about love. It is one thing for people to say “love your enemy,” as though acting against IS must be viewed as contrary to love. But what does it mean to love those who are left at the mercy of IS if the world does not intervene? What kind of false piety is it that would say to them, “although we could intervene to protect you, our love for those who are about to cut off your heads prevents us from doing so. PTL.” If I were more of a mocking person (I am sometimes, but this is too serious to engage in such triviality), there would be an exposed target in the attitude that calls on men, women and children to lie down and die so that we can keep our halo untarnished. We must confront IS, not because we hate them, but because we love those who are in the firing line.

8 Responses to “Last thoughts (this week) on Christian pacifism”

  1. victorgalipi Says:

    Brent, that last paragraph is awesome.

    That’s what I was driving at in your earlier post about pacifism when I said I believe the inaction of non-violence could itself be an act of violence.

    Way to point out that violence is not always hate but may be an act of love.

    It reminds me of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader threatens to turn Luke’s sister Leia to the dark side and Luke attacks him viciously and defeats him. The Emperor basically tells Luke good job for using his hatred. But what the Emperor did not and perhaps could not understand is that Luke, who loved his father Darth Vader, did what he did out of love for his sister, to defend her.

    Can we love people like the ISIS terrorists and still attack them out of love for those they slaughter? I think so.

    Can we love people who attack family members because we love our family members? I know so.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Good call on the Star Wars reference. I wonder if too many of us Christians don’t share the Emperor’s point of view: if we respond with violence we’re automatically surrendering to the Dark Side.

      • victorgalipi Says:

        Yes, Brent, I think so. I think a lot of Christians are the same with violence as they are with anger, believing both are always wrong, even though Jesus Himself shows both anger and violence in the Gospels. For example, in the clearing of the temple, which I am writing a sermon on for this Sunday (Jn 2).

        I am not calling all pacifists cowards, but for a Christian, cowardice is also of the “dark side”. And so, sometimes, is inaction when action could be taken.

  2. Michael Snow Says:

    As a Christian pacifist, I totally agree with your rejection of the ‘new’ argument which begins this post. I cannot speak to Hauerwas as I’ve not read him. But your biblical reasons for rejecting pacifism need some clarification. Would Jesus’ praise of the Centurion lead you to also endorse his role as a slaveholder?. . . And Romans “13” needs to be read with care, in context.

    Let me use the ISIS example to show how this cashes out in my view. I agree that it was urgent for nations to take action to try to mitigate the slaughter.

    But without the U.S. invasion of Iraq (supported by countless Christians and evangelical leaders), which opened Pandora’s Box, there would be no ISIS. A line was crossed; we (and unfortunately, others) reap what we sow.

    [The same could be said of the WWII ‘Hitler’ argument in light of WWI.]

    As C.H. Spurgeon said, “. . . if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible,. . .”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Michael, we don’t know anything about the centurion’s servant. Was he a slave as we think of slavery in the antebellum South (very unlikely, since most slavery in the first century was entered into voluntarily), an indentured or bond servant, or some kind of servant in training, working for the centurion completely willingly? We don’t know, but slavery in the first century wasn’t, in general, the same as African slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. I know it isn’t popular to say, but it just wasn’t.

      We also have to deal with Peter’s response to Cornelius in Acts 10, or Paul’s words in Philippians about Praetorium in 1:13. I’ve also heard that the Philippian jailer in Acts would have been a soldier.

      But look: if you’re arguing scripture for your position, I respect that, even if I disagree. Hauerwas doesn’t argue scripture—not primarily.

  3. Michael Snow Says:

    As to the faith of a few soldiers in the NT era, as Spurgeon wrote, “, I always rejoice to find a soldier a Christian, but I always mourn to find a Christian a soldier, . . . ”
    And that faith does not negate the teachings of the NT.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, but from my perspective, it’s hard to see how their actions as soldiers and warriors wouldn’t negate their otherwise praiseworthy faith. As for the teachings of the NT, that’s where we disagree.

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