In any of my various discussions with people about Christian nonviolence, I always have a twofold way of explaining the basis of why I find myself basically in the camp of Christian pacifism. (I realize that term is unwieldy, and not entirely accurate, but it’s be best I’ve got, so we’ll just work with it.) To my mind there are two basic conceptual reasons why Christians should be opposed to the use of lethal force against other human beings. (I’m not here dealing with arguments like, “Well, we should follow the nonviolent example of Jesus…” such arguments certainly have a place, but here I am concerned to offer reasons based on the theo-logic of the Christian confession as a whole.)
However, first a brief word about my basic ethical assumptions that underwrite my perspective. I assume that Christian ethics, by their very nature are for Christians, not for the “world” at large as it is. Christian ethics are irreducibly particular to members of the Christian community. Here I am operating on what John Howard Yoder would call a “non-Constantinian” methodological approach to the church’s relation to worldly powers. Christians in the United States often still operate under the assumption that we are somehow, as Christians, to one degree or another “in charge.” Or at least that we should be and should work towards that end. In this (Constantinian, if you will) frame of reference the Christian’s perspective on ethics are centered on the question of universality. A particular perspective is only viable if we can see how that idea would work out if everyone did that. And so the inevitable question for Christian pacifists from their more “established” interlocutors is always, “Well, if everyone in America did what you’re saying the terrorists would mercilessly slaughter us all while we stand by and do nothing!” What appears self-evident to folks posing this question is that Christian ethics, by their very nature should “work” to run the world on its own terms.
However, if Christian ethics are not simply universalizable, but rather are particular, and indeed only possible within a community committed to the confession and following of Jesus, the question looks different. Here I am agreeing with Yoder’s statement that the question for Christian ethics is not “What would happen if everybody did that?” but rather “What would happen if nobody else did that, but we did?” Christian ethics assumes that it is not in control of managing the world after the pattern of the powers. It assumes that it lives out of control, bearing witness in its vulnerable, cruciform life to the crucified and risen Messiah.
So, assuming we can all go with that basic ethical orientation in which Christian ethics are particular to the church as a witnessing community, where does that leave us? My first observation about the nature of the church as a distinct community is that the church is called to be one. It is called to manifest in its own life a form of unity that is characterized by relational peace, wholeness, and mutuality. The very nature of the church is to be joined, in mystical union to Christ in and through one another in baptism. All members of the church are fundamentally and irreducibly called to what Gerhard Lohfink calls “the praxis of togetherness”. So, if this is the case, if this vision of mutual shalom in communion with one another is at the center of what it means to be the church, I can’t really find a good reason why Christians should think it is alright to kill one another. The fundamental logic of relationship within the church is not one of preserving life (yours or others), but rather of expending life in service for the sake of the other. Killing, even (especially?) in the case of defense is counter to the gospel. The gospel calls us away from defence and self-protection into a life of ek-static giving, to the point of death for the sake of the other. This is the logic of resurrection.
So, if we grant that given what the church is called to be, its members should prefer their own death to the killing of their brothers and sisters, what should the Christian community think of using violence against those outside the church? Here I am driven to Jesus’ missional calling to his community of disciples in the Great Commission. While missions have often been married to violence in the history of Christianity, the logic of mission is at odds with such perversion. The missional imperative to make disciples of all people entails that all persons throughout the world are the objects of Christ’s redeeming love. Christians are called to make disciples of all people, thus all persons throughout the world, regardless of their geographic location are the object of the church’s mission of reconciliation. So, if our fundamental missional identity impels us to view all of those outside the church as the objects of Christ’s evangelical, prodigal love, how then can we, as Christians justify killing them? The provincial reasons of “national security” and other such jingoistic jargon should mean nothing to Christians in light of their vocation as ministers of reconciliation. The mission of the church is to bring all persons into the life of God’s eschatological community. If that is our mission, how could killing ever fit into that? How could we honestly claim that confining someone to death who we are in the world to save is an expression of Christian faithfulness?
So, that’s my basic theological one-two punch on nonviolence. If the Christian call to unity with one another proscribes their killing of one another and if the Christian call to mission proscribes killing the objects of mission, then I don’t really see a way to not be a pacifist. At the very least it seems to me that the logic of the Christian confession and call to discipleship requires the rejection of lethal force on the part of the Christian community. But this should not be all that “radical” or scandalous. I mean, come on! When did not killing people become a horrendous ethical burden too heavy to bear? I can’t imagine a more minimalistic ethic than one that says we shouldn’t kill each other. Not killing people is easy. The problem is that committing oneself to it requires you to live out of control, to reject the compulsiveness of purpose that drives us to secure ourselves as the expense of others. That is what Christians most often do not want to embrace. The problem with refusing to kill is not that it is hard, it is that it may mean that you have to die instead. And that’s what people just don’t want. But if the crucified one is risen, then that’s just not a good reason.