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My Peace I leave with you (III): The Baptist Tradition

Gospel Nonviolence: An Anabaptist-Baptist Approach

A guest-post by M. L. Westmoreland-White

When Halden asked me to contribute to this series, I suddenly felt as if I was failing to heed the Petrine command to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15b).” Do I really know what “my tradition” of Christian pacifism looks like?

The problem is that I was not raised in a peace church tradition, and my denomination, the Baptists, have never been a “peace church,” though we have always had a pacifist minority. That minority has been larger or smaller, less influential or more, in various times and places–but always a minority. (For a survey of this tradition see Paul R. DeKar, For the Healing of the Nations: Baptist Peacemakers[Smyth & Helwys, 1993.]) I came to gospel nonviolence from the U.S. military, so my “pacifism” may be a reaction, a rebellion, as much as a theological tradition. I was not formed in nonviolent virtues like a Mennonite, Quaker, or member of the Church of the Brethren would have been. So, I feel unworthy to participate in this series. But here goes, anyway.

Baptists began as radical Puritans who were influenced at key points by Dutch Anabaptists. The General, or more Arminian, Baptists began earlier (1609-1611) with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and were influenced by Waterlander Mennonites from Amsterdam. The Particular, or more Calvinist, Baptists (who were to become the dominant strand) began a generation later (1638-1644) and were influenced by Collegiant Mennonites (and a translation of Menno Simons’ Foundation-Book) from Leiden. From the Anabaptists, we took a radically Christocentric orientation and an emphasis on a visible church and active discipleship. From the Reformed/Puritan heritage, we took a strong emphasis on God’s Sovereignty and Christ’s Lordship over all of life (thus rejecting either Lutheran or Anabaptist “two-kingdoms” thinking).

Both those strands inform my pacifism. Because Christianity is “following after” Jesus Christ, I must love my enemies and be an active peacemaker. The Anabaptist heritage (mediated to me especially, but not only, via John Howard Yoder) keeps my pacifism centered in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of Jesus’ teachings. It means that my refusal to kill is part of a larger pattern of non-conformity to “the world.” That pattern includes simplicity of living (striving against materialist consumerism), radical egalitarianism in home, church, and society (resisting the heirarchies of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation), mutual servanthood, economic sharing. The Anabaptist orientation means that I cannot separate my love of God (my “spiritual life” or piety) from my love of neighbors–and that I must continually recognize personal, communal, or national enemies as tests of the seriousness of that neighbor love.

Because God is Sovereign and Christ is Lord over ALL of life (not just Lord of the Church or of some “inner realm”), then my nonviolent witness cannot be apolitical. The Baptist defense of “separation of church and state” is not out of any Lutheran “two-kingdoms” theology in which God works through the state with a radically different ethic (the Left hand of God, as Luther put it) from the ethic of personal relations in which the Gospel is to be followed. The idea that “religion and politics have nothing to do with each other” is heresy. Rather, we Baptists (at our best) defend the institutional separation of church and state precisely so that the church is free to give prophetic witness to the state.

Baptists, at least, non-fundamentalist Baptists, are fond of self-descriptions that use a set of principles, axioms, or “identity markers,” rather than by reference to a formal “creed” of confession of faith. Though, unlike our “cousins” in the Stone-Campbell movement, we Baptists have often written confessions of faith, we have seldom treated them as creedal “tests of orthodoxy,” but as guides to biblical interpretation and witnesses to outsiders of our faith. We have often given these statements elaborate “preambles” that deny their creedal status and explicitly claim that they are not to be used as substitutes for simple faith in Christ and that they are always subordinate to biblical authority. Many Baptists have identified with the Restorationist motto of “No Creed but the Bible,” whatever other disagreements we have with those we often term “Campbellites.”

Consider one widely popular such list of “Baptist identity markers”:

  • Biblicism, understood not as preference for one or another theory of inspiration (or “inerrancy”), but as the humble acceptance of the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice and accompanied by a Christocentric hermeneutic. (This is related to the Baptist “primitivism” which desires to replicate “New Testament churches.”)
  • Liberty, understood not as the overthrow of all authority for an anarchic individualism, but as the church’s God-given freedom to respond to God without the intervention of the state or other Powers. (Related themes are intentional community, voluntarism, “soul competency,” and separation of church and state.)
  • Discipleship as normative for all Christians and so understood neither as a vocation for the few nor an esoteric discipline for adepts, but as life transformed into service by the lordship of Jesus Christ. (Signified by believers’ baptism–usually by immersion to signify the believer’s identification with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to new life; related themes are “the rule of Christ,” and “the rule of Paul.)
  • Community, understood not as some group’s privileged access to God or to sacred status, but as sharing together in a storied life of witness to Christ exercised in mutual aid and in service to others. (Signified by Communion or Holy Eucharist, most often called by Baptists the Table or Supper of the Lord; a related theme is the regenerate or believers’ church, i.e., the concern for churches of “visible saints.”)
  • Mission or evangelism, understood not as an attempt to control history for the ends we believe to be good, but as the responsibility of all Christians to bear witness to Christ–and to accept the suffering that such witness often entails. (The deep missionary impulse is connected to claim that all true faith is voluntary and uncoerced and thus leads back again to the defense of liberty of conscience for all–including for those whose views we deem wrong or even wrongheaded.)

Now, I do not claim that pacifism or gospel nonviolence is entailed or demanded by such any vision formed through such principles. That claim is too strong considering how many non-pacifist Baptists there are! Rather, my (slightly more humble) claim is simply that gospel nonviolence fits such a vision, such principles and that each of these “identity markers” are strengthened and their unity more apparent in pacifist perspective. If space permitted, I could run through each principle and spell out the pacifist implications, but I leave that to the reader’s own reflections. It is my rather audacious claim that the pacifist minority among Baptists for our 400 years have had it right: That gospel nonviolence makes us more authentically Baptist, as well, of course, as more authentically Christian.

So “my” pacifism has a deeply “Baptist” shape as well as ecumenical influences. It is informed by the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (both Baptists), as well as from the nonviolent strands of liberation theologies. I deeply adhere to a saying from Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Biblical peace, shalom, is a product of justice–of right relationships throughout society. So, “my” pacifism, must always be an activist peacemaking: Engaging in nonviolent struggle for a better world–not in a vain attempt to “bring in the Kingdom,” (God does that–although God may use us as instruments), but to bear witness of God’s character and actions for redemption–and, to prepare the way for the Ultimate realization of God’s Reign by penultimate actions for a relatively just and peaceful world. (See Bonhoeffer’s Ethics).

It has been said that Baptists are “practical idealists.” Insofar as I belong to a tradition of Christian pacifism, it is one informed by the practical idealism of the Anabaptists of the 16th C., the “democratic” impulses of early Baptists like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Bunyan, and Richard Overton; the Levellers of the 17th C., 19th C. abolitionists and evangelical feminists, of Social Gospel and Civil Rights radicals, and of nonviolent struggles for justice globally. With such “practical idealism” I try to bear witness to the nonviolent Christ who is my Lord.

4 Comments

  1. Aric Clark wrote:

    Very nice, Michael. You situated your views in their context well. I’ve always had the impression of you that your commitments came from your tradition, though I also find your viewpoint to be rather exceptional among Baptists I’ve met.

    One minor quibble – I would understand Christian Liberty as something slightly different from church-state separation. I agree with the above, but to me the Liberty we’re given is completely independent of our relationship to the state. Meaning, even in an oppressive regime the liberty of Christ empowers us to be an effective witness (sometimes even more so then!). You use the words “God-Given” and I would just put those in bold face. It is horrible when Christians mistake the liberty we have as a gift of the government.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hi Michael,

    A thousand thanks for that. It is good and helpful to locate your pacifism theologically, though of course I am not surprised that it fits no formula, nor that you have had a “long, strange trip” to get there.

    I know that papal statement (Pope Paul VI also said that “the new name for peace is development”), though I like the more vivid “The tree of peace has justice for its roots.” However I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the inverse is just as true, if not truer, though I would be content to concede that the relationship between peace and justice is dialectical. In any case, the biblical concept of shalom certainly includes justice.

    Finally, you say, in modest conclusion, that you “try to bear witness to the nonviolent Christ who is my Lord.” We all try, Michael, but (though far be it for me to anticipate our Lord’s judgement!) it’s rare guys like you who succeed.

    Shalom – and salaam,
    Kim

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  3. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Aric, you are right. Bonhoeffer observed that U.S. Christians are always tempted to confuse the freedom of the gospel with religious liberty. Karl Barth’s work, How to Serve God in a Marxist Land makes your point, nicely. But did not exactly say that Christian liberty was identical with church-state separation. I said that church-state separation was a related theme.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Kim, that praise was excessive, but thanks very much. People who truly bear witness to the nonviolent Christ are folks like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Rachel Corrie, Daniel Berrigan, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. I’m a pale reflection of such lights, at best.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 8:30 am | Permalink

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