It’s time for another installment in my series of historical sketches of major grassroots peace and justice organizations, especially those with religious foundations (and, of those, especially Christian peace groups). In previous installments to this series, I sketched the history of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) (concentrating especially on the U.S. branch), and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). This time around, I’ll highlight the history of Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). (In future installments in this series, I plan to cover the Brethren-related On Earth Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee, denominational peace fellowships (especially where I have membership or a direct connection such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice, the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network and Methodists United for Peace with Justice), Pax Christi International (the Catholic peace movement), Witness for Peace (where I first put my new-found pacifism into practice in ’84), Christian Peacemaker Teams, Every Church a Peace Church (my employer for 3 years), Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Holy Land Trust, Black Voices for Peace (now defunct). Of the peace groups related to military veterans, I will highlight only Veterans for Peace since it’s members specifically commit themselves to nonviolence. Some other vocational or occupational groups I plan to highlight include Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Human Concern. I’d also like to sketch a few faith-based groups from non-Christian religions, especially the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
For now, we turn to the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). As with groups in our previous installments (F.O.R. and WILPF), the AFSC began as a specific response to World War I. The Religious Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers) began as a Christian movement out of radical Puritanism in the mid to late 17th C. Although it’s founder, George Fox, seems to have been a pacifist since his conversion, the Friends as a whole did not adopt the Peace Testimony as a defining characteristic until 1660. Since that time, Friends have been a powerful force for peace and justice–making an impact well beyond their numbers. (There are less than 1 million Friends/Quakers worldwide–the majority in Africa.)
Especially in the U.S., the 19th C. was a troubling one for Friends–leading to several schisms between various Yearly Meetings. This fragmented the peace witness after the Civil War, but numerous Friends played key roles in the development of the international peace movement in the late 19th and early 20th C. When the U.S. decided to enter World War I, Quaker Meetings formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in order to give young Quaker men an alternative form of national service to war. During AFSC’s very first year of existence, it sent women and men to France (along with British Friends) where they worked and cared for children who were refugees because of the war. They also founded a maternity hospital, repaired and rebuilt homes destroyed by the war, and provided returning refugees with the necessities to rebuild their lives.
Over the years, AFSC has been open to hiring non-Quakers, but everyone associated with AFSC must share the Quaker belief in nonviolence and peacemaking rooted deep Quaker convictions about the dignity and worth of all persons (Quaker evangelists–called Publishers of Truth–were instructed to answer “that of God in every person”), in the power of love, service, and nonviolence, and in the ability of the Light (a biblical symbol of God) to speak to all people. Quakers see their responsibility in opposing war, militarism, and other systems of domination as a calling to “Speak Truth to Power.”
The AFSC continued its work after the end of WWI. Some major highlights from the early years (1917-1938) include:
- Feeding 1 million starving children in Germany and Austria in 1919.
- Feeding and reconstruction work in Poland, including buying 1000 horses from the Polish army to lend to farmers for plowing in 1920.
- Distributed food, milk, and clothing in famine relief in Russia in 1920-1921. (This work in famine relief saw the rise in leadership of a Friend in business named Herbert Hoover who went on to become U.S. president–and then see his famine relief experience prove fruitless during the Great Depression–though he remained convinced that the New Deal’s programs were the wrong answer.)
- 1925-1934, helped with poverty relief among Native Americans, African-Americans and immigrants in the inner cities, and poor whites in Appalachia.
- 1937, provided relief to both sides of the Spanish civil war.
- 1938, sent a delegation to Germany to rebuke the new Nazi government for its treatment of Jews and worked to get it to allow Jews to leave the country.
As WWII loomed near, Friends, along with Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, managed to get Congress to pass exemptions to the draft for conscientious objectors to war (although the law limited this to those whose pacifism was “based on religious instruction”) and for COs to perform “alternative service of national importance” in work camps run by the peace churches. Many other WWII -era Conscientious Objectors, religious and otherwise, went to prison, instead. During these years, the AFSC worked to try to maintain a consistent peace witness around the world in the midst of war.
- 1941, provided medical help to civilians on both sides of China’s civil war.
- 1942, provided alternative service for conscientious objectors to war in mental hospitals, conservation programs, and training schools. Provided relocation help for Japanese-Americans and worked to protect the property of Japanese-Americans interred for the duration of the war.
- 1943, sent food to relieve severe famine in India.
- 1944, led the reconstruction efforts in post-war Europe and Asia.
In 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to both the AFSC and the British Friends Service Council on behalf of Quakers everywhere.
- As the Cold War began, the AFSC published Speak Truth to Power(1955) as a pacifist alternative to the arms race.
- 1961, sent volunteers to work in developing countries. This began earlier and, along with similar programs run by Brethren and Mennonites, was the inspiration for John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps program.
- Following the 1962 ceasefire between France and Algeria, AFSC worked in Algeria to develop garden and poultry projects, milk stations, and clinics to fight poverty-related diseases.
- 1965 –worked to place 7, 000 African-American children in previously all-white Southern public schools and pushed to keep school desegregation a front burner issue. (Friends had pioneered here. Even during the days of slavery, Friends schools were open to everyone. When segregation laws in many Southern states forbade teaching white and black children together, Friends founded numerous private schools for African-Americans because of the horrible quality of the state-run “Negro schools.” Rosa Parks attended such a Quaker primary school.)
- 1966, provided free medical aid to civilians in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and areas held by the NLF. (This led to official investigations of the AFSC by the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, no longer exists.)
And on and on it goes.
Today, the AFSC has programs seeking economic justice both globally and in the USA, programs on immigration rights, equality for LGBT persons, the Wage Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq and rebuild Iraq justly, a program to combat the militarization of American Youth (including counter-recruitment), work for fairer patterns of international trade, programs to end weapons build ups and the international weapons trade (especially work to end nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and work against weapons that mostly harm civilians, such as landmines), programs for debt cancellation and debt relief in Africa, a program for a just two-state peace in Israel-Palestine, reforming the U.S. criminal justice system (including abolishing the death penalty and ending police abuse).
A glance at these many programs shows that the AFSC’s peace witness is not just a negative peace (the absence of war or armed conflict), but a positive peace built on the presence of justice and human reconciliation.
Like the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) began out of the horrors of the First World War. It also grew from the first wave of international feminism. As women in Europe and North America were struggling for the vote (suffrage) and equal rights with men, they also were leading the way to more just and compassionate societies. Many of the women involved in the struggle for women’s rights had also been part of the movement to abolish slavery and some were still struggling for equal rights for minorities. Many were working to end child labor and for better housing and working conditions for the poor. They also worked for international peace. In fact, it was widely believed at the time that women would more likely vote for peace and against war–this was an argument many feminists themselves used–that femalWhioe suffrage would transform the world because women were more naturally just and compassionate and peaceful than men. (This belief in female moral superiority was also used by men to argue AGAINST female suffrage.)
While subsequent history has proven that women are just as fallen and sinful as men are, it is true that the early feminists were also campaigners in many moral and social causes, and none more so than the budding peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Thus, the eruption of the First World War in 1914 was seen as a horror and a huge mess by many of these leaders. True, some women rallied round the flags of their various nations–reverting to nationalist militarism–and others, like Alice Paul, used the contradictions of a supposed “war for democracy” when women did not have the vote to put pressure for passage of women’s suffrage. But for many of the leaders of this first wave feminism, stopping the war became the most essential cause of their lives.
The war began in August 1914. In April, 1915, some 1300 women from Europe and North America, both from countries at war with each other and from neutral countries, gathered for a Congress of Women at the Hague in the Netherlands. They were responding to the call of Dr. Aletta Jacobs, M.D., a Dutch suffragist and feminist, who urged that women concerned for peace come to the Hague. The purpose of the Congress of Women was to protest the killing then raging throughout Europe–which would soon spread to Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa and would draw in the United States as well. The Congress issued some 20 resolutions: some short-term such as calls for cease fire and resolution by binding arbitration from neutral parties, and others with more longterm goals–to lay the foundations to prevent future wars and produce a world culture of peace. They called on all neutral nations to refuse to join sides in the war, to pressure the belligerant nations to cease fire and to pledge to help solve their differences through binding arbitration. They called for a league of neutral nations (an idea that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would later use in his argument for a League of Nations–in fact, most of Wilson’s 14 point peace plan came originally from the Congress of Women’s 20 resolutions!).
At the end of the Congress, the women elected small teams of delegates to take the messages of the conferences to the belligerant and neutral states of Europe and to the President of the U.S.A. These delegations managed to visit 14 countries (during wartime!) between May and June 1915. They also decided to form themselves into a permanent organization with an international headquarters and national branches. This beginning of WILPF was first called the International Women’s Committee. They elected Jane Addams (1860-1935) of the U.S.A. as the first president of the Congress and as the delegate to Pres. Wilson. Addams was already famous throughout North America and Europe as a pioneer in what today would be called social work and community organizing. (See Hull House.) Addams had been raised a Quaker, though her father had served in the U.S. Calvary and was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. The adult Addams left her Friends meeting, tried for a time to be a Unitarian (because of their greater acceptance of male/female equality), but eventually became a baptized member of the Presbyterian Church. She had been elected to the Chicago City Council on a reform ticket. Upon returning to the U.S. from the Hague, she not only presented the views of the Congress to President Wilson (who, as I said, “borrowed” heavily from them when he formed his own peace plan), but formed the Women’s Peace Party to try to keep the U.S. out of the war.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the rights of pacifists and conscientious objectors were greatly trampled. Speaking out against the war was prosecuted as treason, as was counseling draft resistance or even refusal to promote the buying of war bonds! Freedom of the press and speech were greatly curtailed–even ignored–during the war fever. Addams, who continued to protest the U.S. involvement in the War, did not end up in jail as so many, but she had her passport revoked and lost much of her prestige, attacked in the press. She was kept a virtual house prisoner for some time. Addams’ younger associate, Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) lost her post as Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College due to her refusal to support the war or sign a loyalty oath. Other International Women’s Committee women in other countries faced similar or worse hardships, some even being thrown into prison for the duration of the war.
When the war ended in 1919, the International Women’s Committee attempted to be true to its promise to hold a parallel Congress to the official peace meetings of the belligerant nations. Because the French government would not allow German delegates to meet in France, the IWC’s Congress met not at Versailles as they’d planned, but in Zurich, Switzerland. A small number of women “ran shuttle” from the Zurich meeting to the governmental deliberations at Versailles–though they do not seem to have made much of an impact. The Treaty of Versailles was so brutal in its treatment of Germany and other defeated nations that historians widely credit it with sowing the seeds of the rise of Naziism and the Second World War. The Women’s Congress denounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as revenge of the victors and correctly predicted that it would lead to another global war. They decided to make the International Women’s Committee permanent, called it the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and stated its purpose as “to bring together women of different political views, and philosophical and religious backgrounds, to study and make known the causes of war and to work for a permanent peace.” That remains the purpose of WILPF to this day.
In 1922, WILPF tried to get the League of Nations to convene a World Congress to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles at a “Conference on a New Peace.”
In 1924, correctly seeing the development and global sale of arms as a major cause of war, WILPF worked to mobilize scientists to refuse to work on weapons of war or on projects funded by the military.
In 1927 WILPF first went to China and Indochina, moving beyond the European and North American scope of its concerns.
In 1931, first WILPF president Jane Addams, now in failing health, was belatedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was too ill to travel to Oslo to receive it. (Addams would finally die in 1935.)
In 1932, WILPF delivered over a million signatures for complete global disarmament to a disarmament conference.
From 1940 to 1945, WILPF found ways to aid victims of fascism, Naziism, and Japanese imperialism.
In 1946, WILPF was at the founding of the United Nations and pushed for the concept of mutual security–urging that security be based on justice and freedom from want, rather than on military might and prestige. WILPF gained official UN status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at that founding meeting of the UN.
In 1946, Emily Greene Balch, first International Secretary of the WILPF, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1958, WILPF sent missions to the Middle East. In 1961, WILPF convened the first of many meetings between American and Soviet women to break down the barriers of the Cold WAr.
From 1963 onward, WILPF was a major force urging an end to the Vietnam War, undertaking investigative missions to North and South Vietnam. In 1971, they went to Chile, where the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) had just toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed military dictator Pinochet, to investigate Pinochet’s human rights abuses.
From Northern Ireland to the Middle East to East Timor, WILPF has been a force for peace. With an International Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, WILPF has a UN Office in NYC, and national “Sections” on every continent except Antartica. There are 36 national Sections in all. WILPF works on peace, disarmament, racial justice, economic justice, environmental health, the democratization of the United Nations (especially the reform of the Security Council), defense of human rights. It also pushes for greater roles for women in negotiating peace treaties since women and children are often disproportionally affected by war and conflict. And it recruits young women peacemakers for the next generations.
As WILPF approaches 100 years of work (2015), it’s vision is still that of its founding:
- the equality of all people in a world free of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
- the guarantee of all to fundamental human rights including the right to sustainable economic development
- an end to all forms of violence: rape, battering, exploitation, military intervention, and war.
- the transfer of world resources from military to human needs, leading to economic justice within and between nations
- world disarmament and the peaceful arbitration of conflicts through the United Nations.
The U.S. Section has a Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA) that focuses on peace education among children.
In addition to Nobel Prize winners, Addams and Balch, WILPF has had numerous amazing members and leaders including Coretta Scott King, Phyllis Bennis (whom I suggested as Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, though no one took me seriously), Evelyn Peak, Dr. Elise Boulding, and many others. I urge women who read this blog to check out WILPF and its national sections and men to pass this page on to the powerful peacemaking women in your life.
Sorry it took so long to get to this entry, Gentle Readers. I was interrupted by the move..
I argued that Jesus does not teach impossibly hard ideals in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the New Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel (Jesus goes up on a high mountain to deliver the new teachings), this is not “new law” in the sense of new burdens, harder rules to keep. It is, as I argued in the section on the Beatitudes, grace–the delivering love and empowering grace which enables faithful discipleship. The Beatitudes describe the virtues, the character traits, of disciples living into the Kingdom/Rule of God which Jesus brings. We aren’t burdened with this “hard teaching” as a way to earn divine favor, but are invited into the adventure and joy of the in-breaking Rule of God.
After the Beatitudes, the Sermon can be diagrammed as 14 (twice the holy number 7) triadic statements in which the first part of the statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle (all but one of them drawn from the First Testament), the second part describes the “cycles of bondage” or “mechanisms of enslaving sin” that keep us from following that moral rule or principle, and the third part (Jesus’ commands) shows the process of deliverance out of those sinful cycles of bondage. In this exposition, I am closely following my teacher, Glen H. Stassen and will also draw from the work of NT theologian Walter Wink. (See Stassen’s full exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount here which reproduces an article he first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.)
Now, scholars have often been misled at this point. They haven’t seen 14 Triads, but 7 antisthenes or contrast statements (“You have heard it said of old/But I say unto you.”) But this view sets Jesus in opposition to the First Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that were his own Bible and the Bible of the earliest Christians. But that cannot be right because Jesus constantly affirms the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, in the very Sermon on the Mount, he rebukes those who would claim that he comes to replace the Torah or Law instead of fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17-19). Also, in the phrases following Jesus’ “but I say to you” refrain there are no commands–no imperatives. What follows instead are participles and gerunds–i.e., forms of speech showing continuous or ongoing action (the cycles of bondage). The commands, the Greek imperatives, come later–showing the way of deliverance. So, we have a three part structure in which Jesus does not contrast the traditional Jewish teaching, but rather affirms it, shows why it is often hard to keep, and then shows a way of deliverance than goes beyond the older teaching but does not contradict it. The following chart shows the entire pattern from Matt. 5:21-7:12.
THE FOURTEEN TRIADS OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
|TRADITIONAL RIGHTEOUSNESS||VICIOUS CYCLE||TRANSFORMING INITIATIVE|
|1. You shall not kill||Being angry,or saying, You fool!||Go, be reconciled|
|2. You shall not commit adultery||Looking with lust||Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk 9:43ff.)|
|3. Whoever divorces,give a certificate||Divorcing involves you in adultery||(Be reconciled: I Cor 7:11)|
|4. You shall not swear falsely||Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim||Let your yes be yes, andyour no be no|
|5. Eye for eye,tooth for tooth||Violently/revengefully resisting by evil means||Turn the other cheek; Give your tunic and cloak; Go the Second mile; Give to beggar & borrower|
|6. Love neighbor & hate enemy||If you love those who love you, what more is that than the Gentiles do?||Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your Father in heaven is|
|7. When you give alms,||blowing a trumpet like hypocrites||but give in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|8. When you pray,||making a show like the hypocrites||but pray in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|9. When you pray,||babbling like Gentiles, thinking the wordiness will be heard||Therefore pray like this: Our Father….|
|10. When you fast,||appearing gloomy to others,like the hypocrites||but dress with joy, and your Father will reward you|
|11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12:16-31)||Where moth & rust destroy, and thieves enter & steal||But pile up treasuresin heaven|
|12. No one can serve two masters||Serving God & wealth, worrying about food & clothes||But seek first God’s reign and God’s justice/righteousness|
|13. Do not judge, lest you be judged||By the measure with which you judge, you’ll be judged||First take the log out of your own eye|
|14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs||They will trample themand tear you to pieces||Give your trust in prayer to your Father in Heaven|
The items in bold show places where Jesus’ teaching is paralleled elsewhere–in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, in Luke 12, in Mark. There are also partial echoes in Paul’s writings, in the Epistle to James, and even in Revelation. These echoes are seldom in the sections describing the cycles of bondage (which some have viewed as impossible teachings or new rules) but either in the first section (reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures) or in the third section (describing the way of deliverance and new life)–thus showing where Jesus was heard to place his emphasis.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “You have heard of old “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you “Don’t be angry.” Who could never be angry? Jesus was moved with anger (at the way that ritual rules harmed the sick) when he healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:41) and he demonstrated anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (an incident we will revisit later in this series). Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t ever lust.” Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces must give a certificate,” but I say to you, “Never divorce.”
Instead, Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you that nursing anger (the Greek is the verb for holding onto –the way some people treasure grudges) and calling people “Fool!” leads to judgment. ” So, how to get out of this bondage to anger than leads to various forms of judgment and sin–including, often enough, killing? Here comes Jesus’ gracious command! “If your brother has something against you GO TO HIM and seek to be reconciled.” This is so important it must take precedence even over worshipping God (leave your sacrifice and go). Now, THAT we can do! We cannot guarantee that the brother will want to make peace (Jesus’ audience would surely have remembered Cain and Abel). But we don’t have to wait for him to come to us. We can take the initiative, no matter who was at fault. We can seek to repair the breach in fellowship (“brother” was probably also heard by Matthew’s readers as referring to “fellow church members”) instead of nursing our anger or calling names or congratulating ourselves on our self-righteousness.
And nations can do this, too. One government offends another. Can we ask that a government not be angry? No, but we can ask that it not nurse that anger or refuse to speak to the enemy nation or congratulate itself on its own righteousness. We can ask that one government go to the other and seek to make peace. After all, when you speak of the grievance between you it may include hard words of truth that the other might not want to hear–so we should be prepared to hear such ourselves. Will this guarantee peace? Of course, not! But REFUSING to speak almost always guarantees strife and war–vicious cycles of violence and judgment.
Likewise, we avoid committing adultery by removing the causes of temptation that lead us to lust. Here, Jesus uses typical Hebrew hyperbole. We should not literally pluck out our eyes (I can lust with both eyes closed) or cut off our hands (I can lust without any hands!). But we should remove ourselves from temptation. If working late nights with a beautiful colleague alone is tempting you to break your wedding vows, then don’t work with that one alone–always meet where there is plenty of light and crowds. If you have to, get another job. Don’t troll the internet for pornographic sites. Don’t do things which are likely to lead to your lusting (“committing adultery in your heart”) which will all too often lead to actual adultery. Walk away from the conditions or people or contexts which tempt you.
In order to keep this post brief enough, we will skip several of these to go to another that bears directly on our topic of Christian pacifism. The 5th Triad (5:38-42) gives the traditional teaching, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the First Testament, the intent of this rule was to limit revenge. The common pattern in the ancient world, and today, is for unlimited revenge. You take my eye, I take both your eyes. You take my tooth, I just may take your life. You take my life, my brother wipes out your family. This is the “morality” of the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is the “morality” of street gangs–and of most nations during wartime. To this, the Hebrew Scriptures tried to place a break: All you may take in revenge for a lost eye is the enemy’s eye. All you may take for a tooth is the enemy’s tooth. But Jesus knows this is not sufficient. If we seek revenge, we get caught in escalating cycles of vengeance and violence.
Now, most English Bibles are not helpful here. Verse 39 is usually translated as “Do not resist evil” (KJV) or “Do not resist an evildoer” (NIV). The first is ridiculous. Jesus resisted evil every time he cast out demons or confronted the Scribes and Pharisees. “Resist the Devil,” we are told, “and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). The NIV translation is grammatically possible, (taking ponero as a substantitive dative) but it doesn’t fit much with Jesus’ own actions, either. As Clarence Jordan and others have noticed, ponero is most likely an instrumental and so should be translated as either with evil or by evil means. Further, as Walter Wink’s exhaustive search of secular Greek shows, antistemai doesn’t mean any kind of resistance, but VIOLENT resistance–it is the term used for rebellions and armed insurrections. So, 5:39 should be translated something like, “You have heard it said of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you “Do not resist violently or by evil means.” Rather, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .
Now, many people read the Sermon at this point to be teaching a “doormat” approach to life. In fact, in popular speech, “turn the other cheek,” is code for “let people abuse you–even invite their abuse.” Even many who see a positive dimension to these teachings often view them as “surrending one’s rights” for the sake of God’s Rule. Instead, I follow the work of New Testament theologian Walter Wink in seeing Jesus’ transforming initiatives here as teaching nonviolent resistance to evil, a “third way,” other than surrender or violence. Wink urges the reader to pay close attention both to the language of the text and to the historical and cultural background in first-century Palestine. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek. . .” In Jesus’ culture the left hand was reserved for “unclean” acts (it was an age before toilet paper) and the cultural taboo against touching someone with the left hand was very strong. In fact, one could be fined heavily for touching someone with the left hand. So, we are to imagine that the striker used his right hand. But the only way to strike the right cheek with the right hand is to use the back of the hand. So, this is not a punch, but a backhanded slap across the face. But this immediately tells the audience that this is not a fight between equals, but the abuse of a social inferior by a social superior. One does not backhand someone except to humiliate him or her, to publicly put the inferior in his or her “place.” Equals do not backhand each other. Masters backhand slaves or servants; the rich backhand the poor; abusive husbands backhand wives; tyrannical fathers backhand children (maybe even an adult or nearly adult son who is being deeply humiliated). In such a situation, the social inferior usually does not dare to strike back. The rich man who backhands his servant has guards or can get them. The wife, in a culture where divorce can only be initiated by the husband and where restraining orders for domestic abusers are unheard of, must live in the home. Does the inferior nurse resentment and plot revenge in the night? Does s/he instead simply “take it” and cooperate with her or his own oppression and self destruction? No, Jesus says, “turn to him the left cheek also!” But the social superior cannot backhand the left cheek without using the taboo left hand–which would humiliate the oppressor and leave him open to court action! If he strikes with the right hand, he has to punch the inferior, which involves treating him as an equal!” In “turning the other cheek,” the abused person refuses to be a victim, but also refuses violence and revenge. Instead, the “victim” confronts the abuser with her or his full humanity and demands to be treated as an equal–inviting repentance from the abuser. If the humiliating slap was public, the tables have been turned. Like the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement, the abused one is told by Jesus to refuse to cooperate with evil or to respond with violence–a way of deliverance from the cycle of abuse–culturally specific–is demonstrated.
Jesus’ next example of this “third way” involves corrupt law courts. “If anyone would sue you for your coat. . .” The basic attire in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, as it had been for centuries, was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner robe and a thicker, heavier, outer robe. If someone was so poor (homeless) that they needed a loan and had no other collateral, the Law of Moses, allowed the lender to take the outer garment in pledge. But, the outer garment or cloak had to be given back at every sundown because, of course, the poor man would need to sleep in it. Without it, he could die of exposure in the desert air. But courts can become corrupt and side with the rich against the poor. Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had condemned those whose corruption was so great they were copulating on “garments taken in pledge,” (Amos 2:8). This may have been hyperbole, but it shows the prophet’s anger at the abuse of the poor and the rejection of the protections for the poor in the Law of Moses.
Jesus shows similar anger at the courts of his day who were letting lenders actually sue homeless people for their outer garments–in effect condemning them to death by exposure! So, Jesus says, “give to him your tunic also.” In other words, strip butt naked in the courtroom! Now, remember, that while Jewish society had strong nudity taboos, the shame fell mostly on those VIEWING the nudity rather than on the nude person. Thus, drunken Noah’s curse on son Ham and grandson Canaan for laughing at his drunken, naked old body. And thus, the faithful sons walk backward to cover Noah. (Gen. 9:20-27). So, Jesus is again advocating a nonviolent protest that could shame the court (literally EXPOSING its lack of justice) and of the lender! (Jesus’ original hearers were probably dying of laughter at the imagined scene.) Of course, this move probably would result in getting the nude protester thrown in jail, but he would at least not die of exposure. And it probably would result in some new rule against nudity in court or something. Jesus is not giving hard and fast rules, but trying to teach a METHOD of confronting evil and oppression without violence. Thus, he is also inviting his hearers to use their own liberated, sanctified, imaginations to think of continuous similar examples in ever-knew situations as one lives the Third Way of the in-breaking Kingdom in the midst of this still-Fallen, often oppressive, world order.
Jesus’ third example comes from the Roman occupation of Palestine–which, like all occupying armies, was hated by the locals. But Rome was a smart empire that liked to limit the times it needed to use the Legions to suppress local uprisings. So, Roman law had limits placed on the oppressive actions of the occupying troops and strict penalties (usually death) for breaking them. One of those rules allowed for any Roman soldier to grab any local in a conquered territory and force him to carry a burden, such as the soldier’s pack, for the soldier. (When Jesus is crucified, this is what happens to Simon the Cyrene, who is forced to carry Jesus’ cross. See Mark 15:21) But the local could be forced to carry such a burden only one mile. After that, the soldier had to take back the burden or get another carrier. The Roman roads were marked throughout the empire with mile markers for many reasons, but they made it easy to check that this rule was carried out.
Now, even though this was limited, naturally locals hated ANY forced labor by occupying troops. It reminded them that they were not free. Specifically in Palestine, it reminded faithful Jews that the Holy Land was occupied by godless, pagan, Gentiles who could, like Egypt of old, treat God’s people as slaves any time they felt like it. Imagine the anger, the resentment that could build up, the cycles of bondage to violence that could result. (Note to American readers: Then imagine how the local Iraqi or Afghan people, EVEN IF THEY FIRST WELCOMED THE U.S. TROOPS as an alternative to Saddam or to the Taliban, respectively, feel about the occupying troops. The longer those troops stay, no matter how noble they believe their mission, the more hated they will be. Think how the average American would feel if foreign occupying troops paraded down our cities and towns! Back to Scripture.)
In that situation, many Jews associated with the resistance movement (later called Zealots) advocated assassination of Roman soldiers. By contrast, the Herodian puppet government and the Sadducees and Temple elites, urged cooperating with the Romans no matter what they did. Jesus does neither. Instead, he says, go a second mile. The enemy soldier wonders what’s going on. Is this Jew trying to get him in trouble with his commander? Is he leading him into an ambush? Is he insulting his strength, saying that the mighty soldier is too weak to carry his own pack? Imagine him begging to get his pack back or ridiculously knocking down the pack carrier to take it back! On the other hand, the second mile, provides the pack carrier time to confront the soldier with the injustice of forced labor and of the occupation at all. It gives time to sow seeds of repentance and peacemaking. At any rate, the pack carrier is transformed from a forced laborer–an object–into a volunteer–a free moral agent. Here is the pattern. Jesus teaches not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent, creative, transforming, resistance to evil that can deliver both oppressors and oppressed from cycles of destructive anger and revenge.
The 6th triadic statement reinforces our theme. The traditional teaching is to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:9) and, in Jesus’ day, many interpreted that to mean also “hate your enemy.” There is no command to hate enemies in the First Testament. But that is how the command to neighbor love was understood in Jesus’ day–Love your fellow Israelite. Much as contemporary Americans seem to think they are to love only other Americans (or only “REAL” Americans) and hate people in other countries–a view surprisingly found in many U.S. churches! The second section, the mechanism of bondage, is given as a rhetorical question, “If you love only those who love you, what more are you doing than the Gentiles?” Even the pagans have THAT much morality! By giving this as a rhetorical question, Jesus calls into question the supposed moral superiority of God’s people and reminds them of how often they have failed to be a “light for the nations,” and fell under God’s judgment. He invites them to remember the destructive cycles just described as the results of just loving those who love you.
The way of deliverance is to love your enemies. (This command of Jesus, to love enemies, is quoted throughout the New Testament and throughout early Christian literature. Nothing else Jesus said was remembered by the early church as being so central as this command.) And Jesus tells how one is to love enemies: praying for them. This will show that one is “perfect” (i.e., perfect in compassion) as God is–giving rain and sun to both the just and unjust.
Here is the heart of Christian pacifism because one cannot love an enemy by killing him or her. Notice how practical Jesus is–he assumes his hearers, including his disciples, will have enemies. This is not pie in the sky naivete. Too many Christians think they are too “nice” to have enemies. Jesus is more hard-headed and practical. He often is matter of fact about how following him will give one enemies. But the key to Christian living is how one deals with enemies–loving them and praying for them. Working to make peace. One may have to confront their evil actions as the previous triadic teaching showed. One may need to confront massive evil with massive nonviolent direct action. But one must hold out hope for the repentance of the enemy, for their conversion. One must not respond with violence that continues the cycle of revenge.
We’ll stop here for this post. The biblical case for Christian pacifism, for gospel nonviolence, is much broader, but nowhere is it clearer. This is the heart of God’s call in Jesus to a new life, a new way of life, which shows a new pattern to the world. The church, as the disciple community of Jesus, is to be the first fruits of the in-breaking Rule of God–and this is what that fruit looks like. The heart of Christian living is love of enemies.
Thanks to Derrick Crowe of Rethinking Afghanistan and Return Good for Evil for this video.
We have to speak truth to power–always. In season and out, regardless of change of administrations.
There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples. I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus. Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.) If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.
- The Dispensationalist Dodge: Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God. My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile. In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace? All these teachings seem very much for this world. And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
- The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.” He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church. This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off. Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative? It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic. When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
- The public/private split dodge. Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic. This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then. The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts. Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.” The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality. We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
- The “inner attitudes” dodge. This one was popular with John Calvin. Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions. We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them. There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace. We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles. None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
- There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death. Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion. It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss). While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2 ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples. The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!” The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too. The answer is clear: Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20). Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”
There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians. Readers can bring up others in comments. Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts. For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory. We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.
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). )
We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism. To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem. First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture. There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case. This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.
Second, this is a biblical case. Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members. Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters. Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church. But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.
For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity. I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal: understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.
Defining some key terms in this study:
- Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ. “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.]. So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up. “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives. It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
- Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study. But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence. For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Update: Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right. But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc. Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil. Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong. We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong. The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism. There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear. Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.” But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
- As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion. Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion. Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires. Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence. If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.” However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent. Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
- These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important. Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children. That is not so. Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome. Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car. I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm. So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
- Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue. Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent. Nor are intentions everything: If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence. The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
- Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence. It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent. Examples of such practices include: strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc. We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
- Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence. These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
- Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.” In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking. For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter). (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention. See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005). This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
- Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice). This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles. Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking. I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.
I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow. The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions: “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.
We have more posts to come in the Economic Justice Primer, but I think this series on Christian pacifism will start this weekend. I have written on this blog of my pacifism in terms of testimony of my conversion to that view and brief explanations of my version.I have interviewed many people in the blog ring, Christian Peace Bloggers, and some of those interviews were reprinted here. I have also written on Just War Theory and the practices of Just Peacemaking. But I have never laid out a full biblical defense of Christian pacifism. I started to as a debate with a Just War Theorist, but he suddenly quit blogging and the series never materialized. So, it is long overdue. With constructive criticism from you, my Gentle Readers (there must be a dozen or so of you by now), I may turn it into a small book geared for those with no theological training, rather than for scholars, pastors, or seminarians. Here is the outline as I now envision it–although my experience with previous series has shown that I may need to adjust in light of your comments.
- Prologue: The Bible and the Christian Life.
a. Why Start with Jesus?
b. The Old Testament as Christian Scripture
2. Jesus’ Teachings and Example on Peacemaking and Nonviolence
a. The Sermon on the Mount: Matt. 5-7
b. How the Sermon on the Mount fits the Rest of Matthew’s Gospel (5 teaching blocks; Jesus’ actions in Matthew; The Judgment of the Nations; The OT in Matthew: Moses and Isaiah; The Great Commission and Pacifism)
c. Binding the Strong Man: Mark’s Gospel Structured Around Two Campaigns of Nonviolent Direct Action
d. The Politics of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (The Nativity Stories: The Coming of the Prince of Peace; The Nazareth Sermon–Jesus Platform; The Sermon on the Plain: Luke 6; The Parable in Luke; The Passion of the Peaceful Messiah)
e. The Acts of the Holy Spirit: The Peacemaking Missionaries of the Earliest Church
f. Becoming Children of God: Johannine Faith and Nonviolent Liberation
3. The Pacifism of Paul the Apostle (including Deutero-Pauline Letters)
a. Paul’s Peaceful Actions in Acts and His Epistles
b. Paul’s Cosmic Christology and His Soteriology of Peace
4. Pacifism in the Book of Hebrews
5. The Practical Pacifism of James
6. Violence and Nonviolence in the Revelation to John at Patmos
Looking Back: New Testament “Problem Texts” for Christian Pacifism: (Roman soldiers as Christian converts; The “two swords” at the Last Supper and in Gethsemane; Jesus’ Anger in the Temple; Paul’s admiration of soldiers; Romans 13; Revelation 20)
7. The Old Testament Paves the Way to NT Pacifism I: Peaceful Creation, Violent Fall, God’s Response
8. The Old Testament Paves the Way II: Violence and Nonviolence in the Patriarchal Narratives
9. The Old Testament Paves the Way III: Exodus and Torah; The Failure of Judges and the Monarchy
10. The Old Testament Paves the Way IV: Breakthrough Scenes in the Former Prophets
11. The Old Testament Paves the Way V: The Latter Prophets (Jeremiah as War Resister; The Exile and Israel’s New Mission)
Excursis II: Remembering to Read the Old Testament as Jesus and the Early Church Did.
Excursis III: The Problem of “Holy War” in the OT, Especially Joshua & Judges.
Excursis IV: Christian Pacifism Was Normative for the First Four Centuries of the Church. The Challenge of Constantine and Imperial Christianity.
Summing Up and Loose Ends from Reader’s Questions.
Suggestions as to how I could better organize this at the beginning of this process?
Biblical Studies on Nonviolence and Peacemaking
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Daniel: Under the Siege of the Divine. Plough Publishing House, 1997.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Exodus: Let My People Go. Cascade Books, 2008.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust. Orbis Books, 1997.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. Augsburg-Fortress, 1996.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God. Fortress Press, 1999.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Job: And Death, No Dominion. Sheed and Ward, 2000.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. The Kings and their Gods: The Pathology of Power. Eerdmans, 2008. (On 1 & 2 Kings.) People are familiar with Berrigan as a nonviolent activist. Some others know him as a poet. But this radical Jesuit priest is also a very powerful biblical scholar. Yet these works are not technical, historical-critical, biblical commentaries (though Berrigan’s work shows how intimately familiar he is with biblical scholarship), but spiritual readings of biblical texts through the eyes of his radical, nonviolent faith and activism.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Fortress Press, 1940.
- Borg, Marcus. Jesus: A New Vision. Fortress Press, 1994.
- Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. HarperOne, 2008.
- Borg, Marcus and N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
- Brown, Dale W. Biblical Pacifism. Evangel Publishing House, 2003.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Peace. Chalice Press, 2001. This is a revised edition of Brueggemann’s much earlier work, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom.
- Cassidy, Richard J. Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel. Orbis Books, 1978.
- Cassidy, Richard J. John’s Gospel in New Perspective: Christology and the Realities of Roman Power. Orbis Books, 1992.
- Cassidy, Richard J. Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles. Orbis Books, 1987.
- Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus; An Intimate Portrait. HarperOne, 2008.
- Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography. Image, 2005.
- Chilton, Bruce and R. Jacob Neusner, eds. The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission. Westminster/John Knox, 2004.
- Crosby, Michael H. House of Disciples: Church, Economics, and Justice in Matthew. Wipf and Stock, 2004.
- Crosby, Michael H. Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew’s Vision for the Church in an Unjust World. Orbis Books, 2005.
- Dear, John, s.j. Jesus the Rebel: Bearer of God’s Peace and Justice. Sheed and Ward, 2000.
- Dear, John, s.j. Mary of Nazareth: Prophet of Peace. Ave Maria Press, 2003.
- Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, and New Creation–A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. HarperOne, 1996. I don’t agree with Hays everywhere, but he does an excellent job of showing how nonviolence and peacemaking are in every strand of the New Testament.
- Herzog, William II. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God. Westminster/John Knox, 2000.
- Howard-Brook, Wes. Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Orbis Books, 2004.
- Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation, Then and Now. Orbis Books, 1999.
- Howard-Brook, Wes and Sharon Ringe, eds. The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship. Orbis Books, 2002. If you want a 1 volume introduction to the New Testament that focuses on radical discipleship, sharing possessions, peacemaking and resistance to the violent Powers and Authorities, Howard-Brook and Ringe have edited that book here. Perfect for beginning scholars or for adult Bible studies in churches.
- Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Fortress, 1993.
- Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Fortress Press, 2002.
- Horsley, Richard A. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.
- Jordan, Clarence. The Substance of Faith and Other Sermons, ed. Dallas Lee. New York: Association Press, 1972.
- Jordan, Clarence. The Sermon on the Mount. Rev. Ed. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974.
- Lapide, Pinchas. The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? Orbis Books, 1986. The late R. Lapide was Jewish, of course, but this work belongs in the biblical studies on nonviolence.
- Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Orbis Books, 1988.
- Myers, Ched and Elaine Enns. Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 1: New Testament Perspectives on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Orbis Books, 2009. (Vol. 2 focuses on contemporary practices rather than biblical study.)
- Rensberger, David. Johannine Faith and Liberating Community. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988.
- Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.
- Schussler-Fiorenza, Elizabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Fortress Press, 1998.
- Stassen, Glen H. Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance. Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Swartley, Willard M. Mark: The Way for All Nations. Wipf and Stock, 1999.
- Swartley, Willard M. Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans, 2006. This is Swartley’s masterpiece. Most New Testament scholars finish their active careers by writing a New Testament theology that is the culmination of their scholarship. Instead, Swartley wrote what they often leave out: the centrality of peace to both NT theology and ethics.
- Swartley, Willard M. Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
- Swartley, Willard M. , ed. The Love of Enemies and Nonretaliation in the New Testament. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
- Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Herald Press, 1983.
- Swartley, Willard M., ed. Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking. Pandora Press, 2000.
- Trocme, Andre. Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution. Rev. & Exp. Ed. Orbis Books, 2003.
- Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Discernment. Fortress, 1992.
- Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press, 2003.
- Wink, Walter. The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. Fortress Press, 2002.
- Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Augsburg Fortress, 1997.
- Wright, N. T. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship. Eerdmans, 1997.
- Yoder, John Howard. He Came Preaching Peace. Herald Press, 1985.
- Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution. Herald Press, 2003.
- Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Eerdmans, 1994. Original edition, 1972.