Skip to content

My Peace I leave with you (IV): An Ad hoc-Evangelical Pacifism

“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.

13 Comments

  1. Halden, thanks for the opportunity to write this post. It has been a very interesting and worthwhile series.

    Thursday, August 30, 2007 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Great addition to the series, D.W. I understand your concern about the low view of the sacraments of most evangelicals, but low Christology? If you are talking about Mennonites, you must be reading different ones than I do. I doubt you could find much of a higher Christology than in the “Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective” which you can download from the Mennonite Church, U.S.A. website (and it is the identical confession of the Mennonite Church, Canada). Most Mennonites would consider themselves evangelicals and most Hutterites or Amish would be considered “fundamentalist” by many.
    There is a greater range of theologies among the Church of the Brethren, but I still think you would be hard pressed to find a low christology in any major Brethren theologian.
    Also, there are liberation theologies that are neither Latino nor Catholic.
    But this is still an excellent essay and represents the low ecclesiology of trans-denominational American evangelicalism–out of which you come–quite well. Thanks for letting us see some of your journey. I love the Romero connection, especially since I have traveled to El Salvador (and twice to Nicaragua) with Witness for Peace.

    Thursday, August 30, 2007 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  3. A very interesting essay, D. W.! It sounds like you are somewhat confused in your ecclesial identity, which of course would make you a wonderful Methodist!

    Seriously though, I am not aware of any low christology associated with Anabaptist ecclesiology.

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  4. very nice, david. thanks!

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  5. To clarify, I said that Anabaptists (from my perspective) seem to have a “lower christology.” I did not say “low”; I used the comparative on purpose.

    Regarding the low christology bit, I think Yoder, for example, has a lower christology than I am comfortable with. It is definitely not a “high christology,” in the sense defined by Athanasius and Barth. But it’s also not as low as many.

    And I am well aware that there are liberation theologies that are not Latino or Catholic. But I was just trying to make a point. I thought that was clear enough.

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    David, how do you see Yoder as having a “low christology”? Most Yoder scholars that I am aware of argue that Yoder’s insistence on the radical ethical centrality of Jesus is radically Barthian and radically Nicene in character and trajectory.

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Yoder was completely committed to a Chalcedonian Christology. He often used language that could apply across a range of theological positions, though.

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  8. HR Niebuhr tried to say that a Christocentric pacifism (such as Yoder’s) wasn’t fully Trinitarian, but Yoder actually showed it was HR Niebuhr who wasn’t fully Trinitarian. Yoder occasionally had less than complimentary things to say about the creeds, but that was in no way reflective of a lower christology. Yoder placed emphasis on following Jesus, but his christology (if anything) was higher than the Protestant liberal tradition that was dominant in his early career.

    Friday, August 31, 2007 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  9. I don’t want to argue about Yoder (though I agree that his christology is higher than that of the “liberal tradition” of the early 20th century), because my point was that Anabaptist does not, in my opinion, place Christ at the center of theology. Instead, it all too often seems that Anabaptists place the church at the center, which means that the church is either conflated with Christ or ends up displacing Christ. Their christology might be Nicene and Chalcedonian, but I don’t think that is nearly enough.

    Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Danny wrote:

    In a certain way it is difficult for me to make sense of what pacifism looks like in the American context. When I do think of great pacifist (Jesus, MLK Gandhi, etc.) their situation has always been characterized by the temptation to be violent, their rejection of violent action, and hence their greatness. I have had very few opportunities to be violent; nothing much has provoked me or tempted me. Perhaps one might say that I am tacitly being violent by accommodating myself to a structurally violent system. In this case, in order to be a pacifist I would need to consent to some form of radicalism. However, most of the people I know who are pacifist are not radicals, or have never truly been in a situation in which they were tempted to do violence. In fact, pacifism often, at least in my context, seems to be predicated on a series of beliefs and not practices. However, in order for you to be a pacifist you would have to exercise practices and habitats in a context in which being violent is a real option. Otherwise, it analogous to one saying they are against stealing, but never have had the experience of being so poor that stealing is a real temptation. I am not saying that you have to be violent at least once in your life to appreciate pacifism, but rather that you must at least be tempted to be violent (and I am not talking about a sibling squabble or something of this nature, but the real possibility of death).

    I have a question. Somewhere Stanley Hauerwas has stated that you cannot understand the Gospel unless you are a pacifist. It would seem that he is basing this on the gospel narratives, the same narrative, which states that looking at someone lustfully when married constitutes adultery. The same gospel which states that you should not get divorced (then in a historically latter gospel provides a proviso allowing it in the case of adultery). Alasdair MacIntyre has been divorced three times and Hauerwas has been divorced once. I would suggest that if only a pacifist can understand the scriptures then also someone who has not been divorced can understand them as well. Why would this be incorrect according to the Hauerwasian logic? Plus, how could such writers inspire you when they have lived so contrarily to what they write about (MacIntyre’s divorces means his life has been just as fragmented as the modernity he rejects). Of course, I would not hold them under such scrutiny, but I am wondering how someone who resonates with their ideas would respond to such a harsh criticism.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Danny, I agree with you about the ambiguity of being a pacifist in America. Or at least the ambiguity of people like us being pacifists in America. However, I don’t think the fact of safety necessarily mitigates the viability of having a moral stance on violence. However, one’s social location would certianly inform the moral weight and significance of one’s views. Because, as you say there isn’t too much danger in being a pacifist in America, and that just should be acknowledged by anyone claiming that label.

    Your Hauerwas question is a bit different, and of course it illustrates the inflated rhetoric that he is given to at points. Obviously he does not really believe that statement given how much Barth, Augustine, and Aquinas inform his readings of Scripture, none of whom were pacifists.

    I think your example of divorce wouldn’t quite work with Hauerwasian logic because he doesn’t say that you can’t understand the gospel unless you’ve never ever committed and act of violence. That would be the analouge to your statment about divorce. I know that Hauwerwas never says that Christian pacifists are completely non-complicit in violence. His point, I think is that in order for people to understand the gospel they have to be part of a community which embodies the gospel, allowing of course, for the fact that the church is unfaithful to that calling and that we all fall short of a full understanding and practice of the gospel’s claims.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Danny wrote:

    Thank you for explicating the Hauerwas view.

    In terms of pacifism, I would find it impossible to be a pacifist if one always lived in safety. First, consider the three examples of Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK that I mentioned. If they wanted to they could have all lived in basic safety or at least without the threat of physical violence by going with the flow of the status quo. Yet all three were either radicals or revolutionaries in that their actions stimulated such provacations as to be threatened with violence. Violence did not come looking for them, but they came looking for violence only to resist it. Put differently, it would be difficult to imagine the nature of their pacifism if they did nothing in which they might have to exhibit it; that is if they practiced pacifism in safety. You cannot practice pacifism in safety because their is nothing safe about pacifism. Otherwise, what would be the difference between someone who does not committ acts of violence and pacifism?

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I suppose it would depend on one’s definition of pacifism. I generally use the term in the broadest possible sense to indicate people who believe that violence is immoral. Is it impossible to believe that when not in danger? I think so. But, I agree that just doing that is nothing like pursuing peace in a manner that befits a Christian.

    Maybe the sticking point shouldn’t be “pacifism” but rather how we are called to be a subversive people of peace. Of course on that question the church in the west gets a D- at best.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site