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Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: Militarist Christendom and the Gospel of Peace

shubin.jpgThis book review is long overdue, but I get so many things that have to be blogged and, you know, I also have to live my life.  So, here goes:

Daniel H. Shubin, Militarist Christendom and the Gospel of the Prince of Peace (Airleaf Publishing, 2006). $16.95 U.S.

Daniel Shubin is a Bible teacher and part of the Conscientious Objector Advisory Board for his denomination (the Molokans) in Southern California.  He is a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of Every Church a Peace Church and was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War who did alternative service.  His father was a C.O. in World War II. He is the author of several books, including a history of Russian monasteries used as prisons, and a 4-volume, History of Russian Christianity.  This is an expansion of his earlier work on gospel nonviolence, Conflict of the Ages.  Daniel also has two websites dedicated to aspects of Christian peacemaking and conscientious objection.  Although they do not have blogs attached (as I have urged), Daniel as joined these websites to the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring and will be the subject of a future Peace Blogger Interview here.  He is currently blogging through the book under review at the website of Every Church a Peace Church.

This book is both an argument for gospel nonviolence/Christian pacifism and a history of that position throughout church history.  It begins with a chapter that surveys the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament from a pacifist theological perspective and then a similar chapter on the New Testament.  Since these chapters are not very informed by critical exegesis, they are arguably the weakest in the book, but, although I disagree with interpretations of particular passages, the overall survey is one I largely support.  To say these chapters could be stronger, which I do, is not to dismiss them out of hand, which I don’t.  They show one important way that Christian pacifism has viewed the Scriptures over the centuries.

The bulk of Militarist Christendom is a history of the dominance of gospel nonviolence during the first three centuries of church history, the rise of “militarist Christendom” beginning with Constantine, and the survival of Christian pacifism in minority Christian movements since the 4th C.  Even though I have read widely in this area for over 20 years, this is where I learned new insights, especially about some minority Christian pacifist movements arising in Russia, such as the Dhoukabors (now mostly found in Western Canada), the Molokans (Daniel’s own denomination), now found mostly in the U.S. Southwest, especially Southern California.  There is an unfortunate tendency in this section of the book to paint every Medieval group which dissented from Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in glowing terms if they recovered pacifism: i.e., Manichaeism, the Paulicians, the Bogomiles, Marcion, the Cathari, etc. are ranked alongside more orthodox Christian dissenters such as the Waldenses, the Unitas Fratrum (called “Moravians” today in North America), Mennonites, and Quakers.  As a Baptist who has repeatedly had to refute the ficticious “trail of Blood,” by which some in my tradition since the 19th C. have claimed that we are part of a “true church” (“Baptist in all but name”) which stretches through all these dissenting groups back to the New Testament, I know all too well that many of these groups were heretical and not part of any chain of gospel righteousness as an alternative to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Shubin is not arguing for a “trail of blood,” but he gives that impression, at first, because of the way he ranks all dissenters together.  Later, this “all pacifists together” perspective is seen in his treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and his admiration for the atheist Bertrand Russell because of the latter’s anti-war views. 

On the other hand, Shubin argues well against the rise of militaristic Christendom.  Reviving a thesis of Adolf Harnack, Shubin argues, mostly persuasively, that the widespread acceptance of Platonic philosophy in the early church, and especially the study of Plato in place of the Hebrew Scriptures as a preparatio evangelica (“preparation for the gospel”), may have been a major factor in the replacement of pre-Constantinian Christian pacifism with post-Constantinian acceptance of Christian militarism and the rise of Just War Theory.   I think he argues very successfully against the apology for Just War thinking in St. Augustine, for instance.

The book finishes with chapters on militarist Christendom vs. Christian pacifism in America, current dilemmas facing militarist Christendom, and contemporary Christian pacifism.  This last section would have been strengthened by paying more attention to the revival of gospel nonviolence in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations whose roots are not pacifist.  As an activist, moreover, I dissent from Shubin’s rejection of nonviolent protests, civil disobedience, and other active forms of nonviolence for an apolitical nonresistance. This difference reflects a different interpretation of the TYPE of pacifism urged by the gospel.

In all, I recommend this work not as groundbreaking or original, but as an excellent survey that would make a great introduction to Christian pacifism for the unintiated. It is easy to read and judicious footnotes and an extensive bibliography give the reader much guidance in “where to go from here.”  The work would be good for church studies and for classes in either church history or Christian ethics, though I would want to add other perspectives, too.

May 5, 2007 - Posted by | books, nonviolence

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Michael. Shubin’s book has been sitting on my must-read shelf for months now, but I’ve just never found the time to get to it. Your review will help me

    Comment by Kerry | May 5, 2007

  2. oops! hit the wrong button! As I wanted to say, your review will help me selectively read Shubin’s book. Thanks!

    Comment by Kerry | May 5, 2007


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