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My Peace I leave with you (II): A Reformed Pacifism

Ten Stations on My Way to Christian Pacifism

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

1. I graduated from Huntington High School (New York) in 1966 and Wesleyan University in 1970. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race; the brutal reactions to the Civil Rights Movement and racial integration; the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, and of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; the executions of Caryl Chessman and Adolf Eichmann; the riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other major American cities; the war in Vietnam; the shootings at Kent State: these images of death were an inescapable and invasive reality of the years of my youth, even though my rather privileged upbringing provided a shelter, if not a bolthole, from the storm.

2. At Wesleyan I majored in English. My teachers included Ihab Hassan and Richard Slotkin. Hassan, through Freud and Norman O. Brown, introduced me to the psychic god Thanatos; Slotkin, through his work on the myth of the American frontier, to our national god Mars: violence – its appropriation and legitimation so central to American self-identity. The Power of Blackness, the title of Harry Levin’s seminal study of the leitmotif running through the fiction of Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, sums up the Augustinian take on the human condition that was shaping my spiritual formation, for, pagan that I was, the Confessions too had made a powerful intellectual impact.

3. And then there was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: I discovered that Kurtz’s heart was my heart. Although all through adolescence I never got into fistfights, I was aware of an aggressive streak running like a coal seam through my character, safely, indeed rewardingly, sublimated into a fierce competitiveness in study and sport. “The horror! The horror!” of it only became deeply personal during several ugly experiences at the tail end of the sixties and the spring of 1970. The grim months between the murders of King and Bobby Kennedy and the invasion of Cambodia were a national nadir that aptly coincided with my sense of self-defeat and depression.

4. Eventually Jesus Christ, armed only with his word, launched his attack on me, and, exposing my situation as infinitely more hopeless than I had ever suspected, rescued me from behind enemy lines – though to this day I continue to skirmish and resist. As, of course, does the world. It never occurred to me that, with the peace of God, the personal isn’t the political – and vice-versa. II Corinthians 5:16-19 was a key text and force as I headed off to Oxford for my ministerial training. While Martin Luther King was a role model (his collection of sermons Strength to Love were inspirational), it was above all Karl Barth to whom I turned during my three years at Mansfield College, as I tried to think through and work out a personal and political theology that I could live – and preach.

5. Barth seriously engaged the ethics of war, considered the “inflexible No of pacifist ethics”, and judged that it “has practically everything in its favour and its position is almost overwhelmingly strong.” However Barth rejected “absolute” pacifism, allowing for what he called the Grenzfall, the exceptional case, where war-making is not only permitted but commanded. While Barth himself did not directly cite classical just war theory (not surprisingly given his rejection of casuistry, not to mention the theory’s origins in the philosophy of natural law), nevertheless I had enough respect for Augustine, Aquinas, and modern revisionists, and sufficient scruple about the staple example of the Second World War, to factor it into my thinking. Result: about the time of my ordination in 1982, I was an “almost pacifist”.

6. Nuclear pacifism was a whistle stop. In the face of WMD, just war theory buckled and collapsed. I am proud to say that my own United Reformed Church (UK) passed a resolution on unilateral nuclear disarmament by a two-thirds majority at its 1983 General Assembly – a position, alas, not reflected in local congregations where the realpolitik idol of deterrence was – and is – widely worshipped. Such grass roots Reformed recalcitrance, and the dithering of the Church of England, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s rout of the Labour Party in the 1983 General Election (Labour’s election manifesto was unilateralist – and was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”), only hardened my resolve and drove me further to radicalise my thinking.

7. I should say that at no time did I have any truck with two kingdoms doctrine, in spite of clarifications and fine-tuning by theologians like Pannenberg. My thoroughly Reformed understanding of the universal Lordship of Christ over church and world (or state) precluded any such Lutheran “compromises”. On the other hand, Reformed theology (pace Barth) gave little guidance to my developing pacifism. Ironically, here it took a Lutheran to keep me on the straight and narrow – and a Mennonite to take me the rest of the way.

8. The Lutheran was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had already discovered and dismissed the four traditional interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount: as a “counsel of perfection”, reserved for the monastery; as a “mirror of sin” (Luther’s usus pedagogicus legis), driving us to despair and the sola fide; as an “impossible ideal”, inspiring us to high moral endeavour; and as an apocalyptic “interim ethic” (the thesis of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer). However it took Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, to resurrect the perfectionist conception – what he called the “extraordinary” – only now understood as gospel, not law, and for all disciples, not just the few. It was also Bonhoeffer who taught me to take “activist non-violence” (Ronald Sider), which he admired in Ghandi and would be deployed to such effect by Martin Luther King, not just as a tactical ethic, the answer to the “realist” utopian critique, but as a divine command to be obeyed irrespective of results.

9. The Mennonite, of course, was John Howard Yoder (with a nod to the then Methodist Stanley Hauerwas as a sandal-bearer). The Christology of The Politics of Jesus deepened my imitatio Christi pacifism and added an eschatological context with resurrection power to its cruciform shape. Yoder’s kingdom-centred ecclesiology combined with his ecumenical vision re-energised my commitment to a Just Peace Church. Then Karl Barth and the Problem of War pinpointed several major inconsistencies in Barth’s ethics of war, suggested a failure in Barth’s theological nerve as well as his political imagination, and resolved any lingering suspicions that Christian pacifism might be a hubristic occlusion, rather than an obedient expression, of the freedom of God.

10. Finally, if Christian pacifism has – and it has – its basis in Jesus, the non-violent one whose power is perfected in weakness, and if Jesus is – and he is – the human hermeneutic of God, and, further, if theological construction begins with the economic Trinity and works back to the immanent Trinity as its eternal source and substantiation – in short, if God is non-violent, and in him there is no violence at all – then, clearly, not only urgent ethical, but also major doctrinal reconfigurations are in order, not least in soteriology, which should be very high, as a pacifist’s Christology should be very high. And pneumatology too. And that takes me back to – me, the violent me, the reluctantly peaceful me – the me thus so suitably equipped for pacifism. Because (purloining Barth), pacifism is an impossible possibility, and because (purloining Jüngel) pacifism is not necessary but more than necessary, at the heart of Christian pacifism lies prayer, the prayer: “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”

Postscript:

There is, of course, no single variety of Christian pacifism, and several typologies have been suggested delineating various historical and normative positions. You will find a recent, helpful classification in David L. Clough and Brian Stiltner, Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (Georgetown University Press, 2007). In their “scales”, my own brand of Christian pacifism is principled rather than (merely) strategic (calculative and consequentialist); classical rather than absolute (the former allowing for legitimate domestic and, in theory, international policing functions, the latter entailing anarchism); politically engaged rather than separatist; and universal in intent rather than (merely) communal (because Christ is Lord not just of the church but of the world).

5 Comments

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Kim, this is a brilliant blend of personal narrative and theological reflection.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Thom Stark wrote:

    No doubt.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  3. adamsteward wrote:

    I’m curious to see how many of the coming essays will tip their hats to Yoder. The Politics of Jesus was the first legitimate theology/ethics/biblical studies book I ever read. It absolutely changed my life. And it seems it has done the same for so many others.

    Friday, August 24, 2007 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  4. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    I would guess, Adam, that the “Yoder tip” score will be high. At least among those with theological educations (laity & beginning students often find Yoder very difficult to read(, The Politics of Jesus is probably the single most influential pacifist argument in the 20th C.

    Friday, August 24, 2007 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    One brief historical note from someone a half-generation younger than Kim (born in ’62 to parents who were bit players in the Movement). The National Guard killed unarmed students at Jackson State U. earlier the same year that they did so at Kent State. I mention this because Kent State is seared into the U.S. national memory in a way that Jackson State is not–and Kent State was, at the time, a mostly white university while Jackson State was and is a Historic Black University.
    Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not accusing Kim of anymore personal feelings of racial prejudice than all of us–and probably less than many. But one thing that soured the “Black and White together” movement for the separatist nationalism of Black Power–perhaps faster than any young impatience with nonviolence–was that it was so clear that white lives “counted” more than black ones. When white civil rights workers were murdered, the FBI was sent to investigate. When black civil rights workers (or innocent bystanders) were murdered, hardly anyone noticed.
    If this is ever to change, we must remember horrors like Jackson State just as much as we do those like Kent State.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

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