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

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism II: Why Start with Jesus?

In beginning our examination of Holy Scripture on the questions of war, violence, nonviolence, and peacemaking, we will begin with Jesus, as presented in the 4 canonical Gospels, then turn to the rest of the New Testament before examining large sections of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament.  Why are we taking this approach?  Why begin with Jesus?

We begin with Jesus (and, in a different sense, end with Jesus) because, for Christians, Jesus is the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, of doctrinal and ethical convictions and living.  The earliest Christian confession, found repeatedly in the New Testament, is “Jesus is Lord!”  That is the ultimate title of authority in the first century Roman empire in which the NT was written.  The Romans proclaimed that Caesar was lord–was supremely sovereign.  For the early Christians to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” was to say “Caesar is NOT lord! NOT supreme! NOT our ultimate authority!”  It should carry the same political weight today.  No Christian can give ultimate authority to anything or anyone else than Jesus.  There have been many attempts at political or religious or other Powers and Authorities to try to usurp that authority.  In the days of the Third Reich, the Nazi ideology claimed by the “German Christian” movement argued for “Christ for the Church, Hitler for the Fatherland!”  They proclaimed that considerations of “Blood” (racial-ethnic identity), “Soil,” (national land ownership, but also implying cultural superiority), and “Volk” (Peoplehood, a term having far more racist overtones in German than the English equivalent of “Folk” carries) could be valid revelations of God alongside biblical revelation.  This is what led the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to reject the ancient tradition of “general revelation” of God through nature and reason, along with the particular revelation of God in and through the unfolding history of Israel and the Church recorded in Holy Scripture.  The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church (which arose to combat the heresy of the German Christian movement), written by Barth declares in Article I, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we must trust and obey in life and in death.”  Then along with this affirmation, it gave a denial, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and and truths, as God’s revelation.”  

In considering a biblical case for Christian pacifism, we do well to heed the lessons of Barmen. I am not claiming that any particular government is “another Hitler,” (a charge that is flung about by both Right and Left far too quickly). I am saying that governments make idolatrous claims and they want obedient subjects whenever they want to wage war.  Even liberal democracies like the U.S., which allow for conscientious objection to military service, prefer that the numbers of conscientious objectors remain small.  They give out propaganda campaigns through military recruitment commercials and military recruitment in public school classrooms and this seeps into the minds of churchmembers almost by osmosis.

 In the 1990s, I was slightly irritated with the U.S. evangelical fad of wearing “WWJD?” (for “What Would Jesus Do?”) on bracelets and T-shirts and other paraphanelia because I didn’t think that this was accompanied by any serious examination of the Gospels to see what Jesus did in his time and place as any kind of guide to what the Risen Christ would have his disciples do here and now.  The question WWJD? was not, it seemed to me, being answered by serious Bible study, but by mere guesswork–informed no doubt by sermons and praise songs, etc., but not tested by serious NT study.  Yet, immature as that fad was, it was onto something.  It could have led to a great reformation of the Church in these United States.  It at least understood that Jesus’ life, teachings, and death are a model for Christian discipleship (1 Peter 2:20-22).  But since the attacks on the U.S. on 11 Sept. 2001, these have all but disappeared.  Most ordinary American Christians are not asking themselves anymore “What Would Jesus Do?” certainly not in responding to terrorists (or suspected terrorists), to Muslims, to immigrants, to treatment of “detainees.”  These ordinary Christians are not asking, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” or “Who Would Jesus Torture?” but are taking the name of Christ as a totem in all out war against declared national and religious enemies. (I remember how shocked I was when newspapers ran a picture of a tank in Iraq with the words “New Testament” painted on it.  See below.)


 See also my previous post on the “Military Bibles” with accompanying quotes by George Washington, George W. Bush, General Patton, etc. designed to remake Christianity into a religion of war and conquest. 









Beginning with Jesus, and reminding ourselves via Barmen, of how crucial it is to begin with Jesus, and to expect that the gospel message of Jesus will be one that other Powers and Authorities don’t quickly welcome, is a helpful corrective to the many insidious ways that rival messages try to pour Jesus into their preexisting molds:  Jesus as CEO of a Fortune 500 company preaching a gospel of capitalism; Jesus as Therapist, preaching a gospel of self-actualization; Jesus as Self-Help Guru; Jesus as Super-Patriot (forgetting that Christians are a global community, called out “from every tribe and tongue and  people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); Jesus as Warrior and not the Prince of Peace.

This brings us to another problem:  If we “begin with Jesus,” whose Jesus?  That is, what view of Jesus guides our interpretation?  The “politically correct” Jesus of the so-called Jesus Seminar is very different from that planned by the folks at “Conservapedia.”  The Jesus of Rod Parsley stands in great contrast to the Jesus of Jeremiah Wright; the Jesus of Rick Warren is vastly different from the Jesus of Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis.  Whose Jesus?  How do we keep from making Jesus over into our own image?  Well, as the late theologian H.Richard Niebuhr said, we have the “Rosetta Stone” of the original Gospel portraits.  There are no absolute guarantees against misinterpretation, but we will consult a range of contemporary New Testament scholarship, and the Gospel portraits resist attempts to fully distort Jesus into an idol of our own making–as often as that has been tried. 

An objection to this method of beginning with Jesus is that God’s revelation begins with the First or “Old” Testament–with Abraham and Sarah and Moses, with the faith and history of Israel, and the critique of the prophets.  This is true.  One does not fully understand Jesus apart from his context and heritage–his teaching in parables paralleled the teaching style of the sages of the Wisdom tradition (as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job ) and he stood deeply rooted in the tradition of the prophets of Israel/Judah.  Those not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures miss all the “Old” Testament quotations, paraphrases, themes, and allusions throughout the New Testament and especially in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus.  We also misunderstand Jesus by not understanding the rival factions within first century (i.e., Second Temple era) Judaism–rivalries so sharp that some scholars speak of the rival Judaisms of the Second Temple era–prior to the “normative” rabbinic Judaism of the 2nd C.  We will have to situate Jesus (and the Jesus movement that became the early Church) within the rivalries of the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots (or proto-Zealot revolutionaries and social bandits), Essenes, or Hellenized philosophical Judaism like that of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE).  And it is important to note that what we call the “Old” Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the early church.

But we must still learn to read the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus did.  For us, all these centuries later, there is often a tendency to develop our theology from a particular reading of the Old Testament and then decide to fit Jesus in and be sure he says or does nothing to disturb our view of biblical revelation.  Yet Jesus was constantly surprising both his rivals and his disciples–who read the same Scriptures.  Flat Bible approaches end up subordinating Jesus to a doctrine of biblical authority or a reading of Scripture derived apart from Jesus. They end up becoming religions “about” Jesus that stand in contrast to the faith of Jesus.  The NT writers resist this tendency.  “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is they that speak of me.” John 5:39.  Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “Long ago at many times and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these final days God has spoken to us supremely by a Son.” Heb. 1:1. 

Christians throughout history have reacted to previous moldings of Jesus into mistaken shapes by affirming the supremacy of Jesus himself as revelation.  Thus the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1925 and 1963 said, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

So, we will begin with Jesus, with the portraits of Jesus and his teachings found in the 4 canonical Gospels. In our next installment, we will consider ways in which people try to avoid or water down Jesus–often without realizing that’s what they are doing.  And we will argue for reading the “Old” Testament as Christian Scripture, as the Bible of Jesus and the earliest Christians.

Note:  My approach is not the only way to present a biblical case for pacifism.  One could read the entire Scripture through lenses shaped by Jesus but present such a reading in a “Genesis through Revelation” canonical order.  That is the approach taken by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller in his classic, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2004).  It’s also the route chosen by Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud on his website, PeaceTheology.net in a blog series that will become a book, The Bible on Peace.  I recommend both works strongly.   But I have seen so many recent attempts to remake Jesus and distort Jesus’ message (see the picture above for an extreme example) that I am taking extra precautions that, in the words of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, “We Do See Jesus.” (The phrase comes from the essay, “But We Do See Jesus”: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth” reprinted as chapter two in Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). )

October 11, 2009 - Posted by | Bible, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, theology, violence, war


  1. I’m looking forward to this series and, later, the book?? That would be cool.

    One question to expose my ignorance: Was the Barmen Confession written by a bunch of guys at the local pub?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 13, 2009

  2. No, it was written at Barmen, Germany (near Gottingen, I think). It was supposed to be a joint statement, but was almost entirely written by Karl Barth who, though Swiss, was teaching in Germany until forcibly removed from the classroom and thrown out of the country by the Third Reich.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 13, 2009

  3. And, yes, Dan, I recognized the pun “Bar-men.” I’m happy you’re interacting and, like you, I pray the results of this are published as a book.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 13, 2009

  4. I like where you are going with this. I think that most Christians who reject pacifism (whether they know it or not) are acting out of liberalism (setting ‘human experience’ or ‘reason’ as the authority by which Jesus is measured, rather than the other way around). Too many times, we let ‘reason’ or ‘experience’ take precedence over Scripture, and that is a big mistake. Keep going, Michael!

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | October 13, 2009

  5. Yes, Jonathan, although many who do this think of themselves as “conservative,” or “orthodox” and claim that all pacifists are “liberal.” I was invited in 2002 to debate on the campus of SBTS pacifism vs. just war theory–in the context of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and the impending war in Iraq. Knowing that the seminary now championed “inerrancy,” I made my case biblically, which would have been my preference anyway. I had hundreds of biblical references. I saved the Holy War texts and other “problem texts” for the period of questions and response.

    After 10 questions–all about how to protect the United States from terrorists–I finally asked if anyone had a biblical question for me. None did. So, I asked them why they thought that I was a “liberal,” when they were acting as “secular humanists” in their reasoning. That just made them angry–but did not provoke any biblical reflection.

    Defense of the U.S., patriotism, and the necessity of Christians using violence were just so ASSUMED that they were impervious to being questioned by the Word of God. They seemed to find the concept of BEING questioned and challenged by the Word (rather than using the Bible to prove what they believed anyway on other grounds) to be a foreign language. It was totally weird–and so different from the days when I was a student there.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 13, 2009

  6. Interesting story.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 14, 2009

  7. After 10 questions–all about how to protect the United States from terrorists–I finally asked if anyone had a biblical question for me. None did.

    I wish I were there for that. Can you recall any more specifically what that conversation was like? You said, “Do you have any BIBLICAL questions for me?” then there was silence? Then you responded as you did and what did they have to say specifically? Do you recall?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 14, 2009

  8. Joe Phelps of Highland BC got me invited to that session–about 4 months before you and I went to NYC to march against the upcoming invasion of Iraq.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 14, 2009

  9. No, I tried much to blur that experience. It wasn’t pleasant. At that meeting someone I respected greatly defended the war on terror on JWT grounds. The student and faculty questions to me were said in a sneering, mocking, voice. I got the feeling that I was being held up as Exhibit A of “the liberalism that we thankfully purged from this seminary” which may be why I made such an angry response as to accuse them of reasoning like secular humanists. That, of course, shut down dialogue rather than opening it up. Not my finest moment.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 14, 2009

  10. I don’t have a question as much as I would just comment. I know that this series is being written for the lay person. I just wonder if, in the end; is there going to be some type of reference section for those who would a)want to know more and b)not exactly understand who some of the characters are (probably the more important)?

    As much as I really like what is being written and truly appreciate all the work. If this is meant for the lay person, they may still need some background information as to where Barman is and it’s significance or who is Karl Barth.

    You wanted comments…

    Comment by Georgianna Miller | October 15, 2009

  11. Well, Georgianna, I plan on a “further reading” bibliography. I did identify Karl Barth as a Swiss theologian living in Germany and writing the Barmen Declaration for the Confessing Church (the church resistance to the pro-Hitler “German Christian” movement). I didn’t think I needed a long explanation about how important Barth has been for the history of theology.

    I might need to give slight more information on Barmen. But I was trying to give just enough to understand Article 1 on Jesus Christ as the ONE Word of God. I figured more than that was chasing rabbits.

    The same goes for later references to Luther and Calvin–I identify them as Reformers and then give just the part of their thought I’m arguing against.

    What do the rest of you think? I’m trying to keep these posts brief. Thus, I have broken up what will be chapter 1 into 4 posts. I also want the resulting book to be brief enough to sell.

    Should I (a) give more explanation on historical references, cast of characters, etc., (b) drop them altogether, (c) some other option?

    Thanks to Dan Trabue and Georgianna Miller for keeping me focused on my primary audience. That’s why I am writing this series here first.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 15, 2009

  12. I liked the part about how the German Christian movement’s views led Barth to reject “general revelation” through nature and reason. I knew Barth didn’t care for the general revelation idea, and also that he opposed the Nazis, but I didn’t know much about the connection between the two. That’s my vote, anyway!

    Comment by James Pate | October 16, 2009

  13. James, I think Barth began his rejection of general revelation during WWI (when all his liberal professors signed onto the Kaiser’s war aims), but the Nazis radicalized his Christocentrism.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2009

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