A Pacifist Cambellite? Contradicting the Contradiction
A guest-post by Thom Stark
I am a pacifist.
I was born and raised in what’s called the “Restoration Movement” (RM), a “non-denominational” movement for Christian unity born primarily out of Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, originally headed by Alexander Campbell, his father Thomas Campbell, and Barton Stone. Over time the movement split off into three branches–the more conservative Churches of Christ (non-instrumental), the theologically liberal Disciples of Christ (which among other things adopted a kind of hierarchical ecclesiology over against the ostensible congregationalism of the others), and the increasingly evangelical Independent Christian Churches (from which tribe I hail). The RM was born in the 19th Century and arose out of a widespread frustration with the endless doctrinal disputes that plagued and divided the denominations. The Campbells, Stone and others sought to build Christian unity by systematically refusing to make any “man-made” doctrine a test of fellowship. Its mottos were “No creed but Christ” and “No book but the Bible.” The RM ideal (as implied in the name “Restoration”) was the retrieval of apostolic Christianity. Only what the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, expressly forbids should be forbidden. Only what it expressly commands should be commanded. The principle was an old one: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
Yet charity did not always mark the inevitable disputes over what was “essential” and “non-essential.” Indeed, there are a host of problems with the RM’s vision. Its principles were heavily indebted to Enlightenment philosophy, especially Baconian “common sense,” and the scientific worldview, in which light the Bible is read as a textbook and the meaning of the text is its “plain sense.” The RM vision was rooted in the myth of objectivism in which the only right reading of the text is the reading not shaped by any man-made tradition or human interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas once quipped to me that a “non-denomination” was just a denomination-in-denial. Nonetheless, for all its philosophical flaws, the RM rightly taught me to see denominations as a threat to the unity of the catholic body of Christ (cultural diversity of course is another question). Granted, I also learned that Baptists were going to hell because they didn’t believe Baptism was necessary for salvation, and that Roman Catholics weren’t really Christians even if there could be a real Christian or two hiding inside a Roman Catholic Church. Still, parochialisms and inconsistencies aside, the RM made me an ecumenist. Unfortunately, the RM did not make me a pacifist. That I learned (like many people in the past three generations) from Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.
While Hauerwas opened my eyes to a world of cultural and political criticism I never knew existed, and in which I now live and move and have my being, it was Yoder who sealed the deal for me, of course with The Politics of Jesus (which I read right after Resident Aliens back in the Summer of 2004). I quickly followed Politics with He Came Preaching Peace, The Christian Witness to the State, What Would You Do?, The Priestly Kingdom, and others. What was the most important thing for me was Yoder’s commitment to making primarily biblical arguments. This is due in part of course to Yoder’s occasionalism. He often reasoned from the Scriptures because he was speaking to audiences who thought it important to reason from the Scriptures. But it is also due to his own deep commitment to the Scriptures. One could call this his “Barthianism,” of course, because his commitment to the Scriptures is probably better defined as a commitment to making Christology primary in theology and ethics. (We are of course talking about narrative Christologies and not the so-called “high-Christologies” of the Nicene and Post-Nicene councils. Of course, Yoder argued that even the “high-Christologies” served a narrative function and were only later abstracted from those narratives.) That is something that resonated with me, as a product of the RM. If the Scriptures give it to us as part of the “grammar” of being Christian, then we ought to have no other practice. I discovered I was able to take RM principles and turn them against the widespread commendation of “just-war” theory in the RM.
Yoder also taught me, however, that to be committed to the Scriptures does not mean one has to be opposed to tradition as such. The question is not whether tradition should or should not guide our faith and practice, but whether our traditions are faithful or unfaithful. According to Yoder, if it makes sense to talk about tradition that is faithful to the Apostolic teaching, then it must make sense to talk about tradition that is not faithful. Primarily in The Politics of Jesus but really in various ways throughout his entire corpus, Yoder has convinced me that to be a faithful participant in the so-called Restoration Movement, I cannot be anything other than nonviolent. (Whether I have been thus faithful since I proclaimed myself “nonviolent” is another question, and an irksome one.)
Little did I know, however, that I was not the first Restoration hound down the pacifist trail. Actually, I was delighted and mortified this year when I discovered that every single significant early leader in the Restoration Movement was not only pacifist, but taught that Christian nonviolence was part of what needed to be “Restored” after the fall of the church. I was delighted, of course, because now I had traditional pacifist precedent on my side whenever I found myself in debate with the (majority) non-pacifists in my little non-tradition. (I find myself in such debates frequently, and so my delight has grown exponentially.) But I was mortified because I felt betrayed–betrayed that I had been born and raised in the RM, trained for more than four years in an RM Bible College, without once having heard that our movement at its inception was practically a pacifist movement.
It all fell into place, especially after I read Craig Watts’s Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence, and the State. I discovered that the call to Christian unity upon which our movement was founded was also in part a call to do away with war. As Alexander Campbell himself put it, when Christians go to war they are in fact dividing in the name of America or Britain, North or South, what God has joined together in the name of Christ. The rejection of the doctrine of the invisible body of Christ in favor of the pursuit of actual Christian unity was seen by the Campbells, by Stone and by over a dozen other RM leaders in the first two generations as (certainly more but no less than) the renunciation of all violence. What’s more, Alexander Campbell called patriotism a “pagan’s virtue” and taught that Christians can have only one allegiance, that to the kingdom of God. I saw all the connections. Our rejection of infant baptism and our adoption of adult immersion. Our rejection of denominationalism and our adoption of what might be called “biblical catholicity.” These two staples of the RM which have been sustained were in fact once indistinguishable from a renunciation of war and violence, and a commitment to the separation of church and state. Turns out that the RM isn’t Evangelical after all. It’s the kid sister of the Radical Reformation. (Just don’t tell the RM!)
That reminds me. I once heard George Lindbeck say that the best way to be ecumenical is to be radically committed to one’s own tradition. That’s a very Wittgensteinian thing to say. That’s why, as a Wittgensteinian myself, I’ve decided to study for the next few years at Eastern Mennonite University, in order to become a more committed Campbellite. . . in order to become a better servant to my non-tradition.