“The Most Dejected and Reluctant Pacifist in all America”
A guest-post by D.W. Congdon
In his autobiographical memoir, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes himself on the night of his conversion as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (228-29). In a way, I share this with Lewis, in that I was probably the most reluctant convert to pacifism in all America.
I grew up in a stereotypical American evangelical home, in which all of the usual adjectives apply: Republican, conservative, inerrantist, literalistic, dispensational, creationist. But of all the various descriptors of the evangelicalism in which I was raised, pacifist is not one of them. I grew up rather in the kind of church that sang patriotic “hymns” on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July. I watched (with approval) pastors and elders year after year pray over young men going to serve in the military, giving them the Lord’s blessing and asking for their protection (seemingly unaware that they were asking for the death of their “enemies,” though I did not realize this until much later). I did not bother reading the news or following politics, because I simply assumed that as long as there was a Republican majority in Washington, the right decisions would be made for this country. I viewed pacifists the same way I viewed Catholics and Democrats: they were hopelessly flawed humans whose minds were clearly corrupted by sin.
But that’s not all. I was not merely a non-pacifist; I was resolutely anti-pacifist. I argued in a casual high school class debate in favor of the death penalty. I argued against the appeals process, saying that people sentenced to death should be executed immediately without investigation. In response to the counter-argument that innocent people are often executed, I said that such mistakes should be overlooked since the death penalty has the bonus “virtue” of being a form of population control. Even up through my final year at Wheaton College, I remained thoroughly opposed to pacifism. When a friend of mine came across the arguments against pacifism by John Milbank, I latched onto them, even asking him to send me a copy of the text just so I could add it to my anti-pacifist armory. I never actually read the argument; it was enough that I had it in case I ever actually encountered a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. It was like insurance: the more one has, the safer one feels. (Interestingly, another weapon in my armory was the essay by Lewis, “Why I Am Not A Pacifist,” which was more an argument on the basis of name power, because the arguments in the essay are criminally weak.) But the one thing I never bothered to do was examine the actual arguments for and against pacifism. I never engaged in any investigation of the biblical texts or of the theological presuppositions. And thus my views remained relatively static until my final year at Wheaton College, when I started to read theology—i.e., when I consciously began my journey as a theologian.
The disintegration of my views on violence and peace was, for the most part, indirect. I did not read a book by Yoder or Bonhoeffer or Hauerwas that suddenly changed my mind. No single friend or professor challenged me with a cogent argument for nonviolence. The first direct influence came when I watched the film Romero about Archbishop Oscar Romero for my theology class at Wheaton. I did not realize it at the time, but the seeds for my eventual flip-flop on nonviolence and peace were planted then. In the end, the revolution in my own views was part of the larger disintegration of my relationship with American evangelicalism—at least the form in which I was raised. When the walls of the Religious Right “Jericho” came tumbling down—thanks in large part to Mark Noll, among others—my position against pacifism was dealt a fatal blow. All of this occurred within the past four years, and since then my views have only deepened through thorough study of theology and Holy Scripture.
My “conversion” to pacifism means that I must now face the kinds of arguments which I once used against people like myself. One of the most popular arguments raised against the pacifist position involves some version of the following scenario: A man breaks into your home and threatens your wife and children with death, and the only way to stop him is to kill him. The scenario is the most extreme case possible and is meant to coerce the obvious conclusion: kill the man. There are three problems with this argument: (1) first, the scenario is manipulative and circumvents the issues at stake by coercing a certain response; (2) second, the notion that we can discard the position of non-violence on the basis of an extreme case is highly problematic, since our ethical views should never be arrived at via contrived, manipulative situations; and (3) third, Jesus calls us to respond in a way that does not conform to the values of the world. We find in the Gospel of Matthew one of the hardest sayings of Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). It would be hard to find a more direct response to the situation. Certainly, Jesus does not respond in the way American evangelicals—who tend to worship unborn children, the nuclear family unit, individual rights, and protection of life and property—would like him to respond. But the call of Jesus is clear: we must follow him on the via crucis, on the way of peace and justice, the way of enemy-love and costly discipleship.
In the end, where does this leave me in terms of a tradition? I would like to call myself a Reformed pacifist—a mix between Karl Barth and André Trocmé. But I did not grow up in the Reformed tradition, and I am only Reformed in terms of my theological commitments and not in terms of my ecclesial commitments. I have leanings toward an Anabaptist ecclesiology, but I am uncomfortable with the lower christology and even lower sacramentology that goes along with this movement. I like elements of the Catholic social movements and the liberation theology born in Latin America (e.g., Oscar Romero), but I am neither Catholic nor Latino.
Where does this leave me? I suppose, when all is said and done, that I am an ad hoc pacifist. Karl Barth says of himself that he is a “chastened non-pacifist,” but then later in his Church Dogmatics he calls his position a “practical pacifism.” If Barth himself resides in the gray zone between these two positions, I myself would like to be a practical pacifist. I share Barth’s own discomfort with pacifism as a system, just as I am uncomfortable with universalism as a system. Both of them replace a person with a principle. I would rather place Jesus at the center of my faith and let him determine how I ought to think and to live. Instead of universalism, I confess that Jesus Christ is the Salvator Mundi, the savior of the world. Instead of pacifism, I confess that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and that he has called his people to take up their crosses and follow him in the way of the cross. Practically, this makes me a pacifist. Personally, I think this makes me a Christian.