Those items to the left, along with T-shirts and bumper stickers with the same slogan seem like more American civil religion, right? Remember all the “Prayer groups for the President” during Bush’s first term? Wrong. Psalm 109: 8 reads “May his days be few and may another take his office!” It is one of the imprecatory or cursing psalms. Written by someone persecuted by one of the wicked kings of Israel, this Psalm asks for Divine Violence against the person “prayed for.” In other words, these cute teddy bears, buttons, etc. are calling Pres. Obama a “wicked ruler” like one of Israel or Judah’s wicked rulers and asking for God to smite him dead!
Look at the verses that follow: May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg, seeking food from the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruit of his toil.”” It goes on in this line. Toward the end, the Psalmist says why he is so angry at the ruler he is cursing in prayer: Because he has favored the rich and not the poor. Well, I’m one who doesn’t think Pres. Obama has yet done enough for the poor, but American Christians have not prayed for the deaths of Presidents Reagan, Bush I, or Bush II, who all did so much damage to the poor in this country.
Is it appropriate that we urge American Christians to pray cursing psalms? Is that the kind of praying for enemies that Jesus encourages in the Sermon on the Mount? I want us to share the Psalmist’s passion on behalf of the poor and the Psalmist’s fearlessness of those in high places–rather than cringing toward those in authority–but I find the violence in the heart displayed in this psalm to be exactly what Jesus was AGAINST. And it leads to actual violence.
There are people out there who have mental problems–and many have guns. What if Christians who don’t like a certain president, encourage this kind of hate and then someone decides to HELP God “honor this prayer” –to become a self-appointed instrument of God in smoting this president or another? I think all those involved in making or marketing this kind of garbage, and every preacher who does not denounce it (especially preachers who do not like the current president), will have blood on their hands if someone attempts to assassinate Pres. Obama based on this Psalm. Conservative Christians especially say that Muslim leaders do not do enough to denounce violent Islamic extremism (the Islamic leaders I know spend HUGE amounts of time denouncing such and trying to get rid of it). So, they need to be held to their own standards. This is trawling for “Christian” terrorism and should not be tolerated.
Lest someone think that my concern stems only because I voted for this president, let me say this: I refused to speak in 2005 at a peace rally that included the leadership of a secular peace organization known as A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) because ANSWER is actually a front group for an oldline Marxist organization that hates Israel (NOT just Israeli policies–ANSWER denies Israel’s right to exist at all!) and they passed out signs saying “Draft the Bush Twins.” I did attend some mass rallies that ANSWER also attended (you can’t predict who else will show up), but I denounced their signs and brought my own with better messages–and I wrote about why such signs were not helpful, no matter who made them. Everyone knew and still knows that I consider George W. Bush to deserve a trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity–but I denounced hate speech by some on the left against him and his family at every turn.
This is ALWAYS wrong–and it is especially dangerous in a society like ours with a long history of political violence. The pulpits that either encourage this or are silent about it are no different from those that encouraged or were silent about the violence against civil rights workers in my childhood.
Time to be counted. My conservative Christian friends: If you do not speak out against this, you are no worse than the hatemongers who stir up terrorists. There are times when silence equals complicity and this is one of them. Speak up–no matter how you feel about this president. In fact, the MORE you dislike him and the more your church knows that, the MORE you need to condemn this violent “praying.” It is an abomination before God.
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.
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). )
In order that we can proceed this weekend to the next post on the biblical basis of Christian pacifism, I am briefly going to respond to a challenge that pacifists must either be inconsistent, incoherent, or they must advocate a purely voluntary system of taxation by governments. The argument is that taxation is backed up by the threat of violence and therefore, to be consistent, pacifists must oppose it.
But, remember, we have distinguished violence, from force, and coercion. Governments have many tools of coercion available for enforcement apart from violence. To use the U.S. as an example, the Internal Revenue Service need not hold guns to the heads of taxpayers to get them to pay their taxes. They can, for instance, garnish wages until back taxes are paid. Alternatively, the IRS could put a lien against someone’s home or other property until the taxes are paid. These are coercive actions, but they aren’t violent.
Now, it may be true, that governments reserve violence as a final coercive measure to enforce taxation (and every other law), but that does not mean that it must do so. Pacifist need not be anarchists to be consistent. A pacifist who believes in government and the necessity of taxation need not be inconsistent or to argue for purely voluntary taxation. All such pacifists need do to be consistent is argue that governments use less-than-violent forms of coercion. Whether or not governments listen is another story.
Later this weekend, I’ll give the next installment in my biblical case for Christian pacifism. I’d appreciate if the comments and challenges to my view stick with the biblical arguments until the end. If we keep getting sidetracked to deal with such questions in the midst of the biblical case, we’ll never get anywhere. I will try to answer some such questions at the end.
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.
I urge everyone to read this article by Frank Schaeffer. I don’t support any claim that ALL pro-life groups support anti-abortion violence. Just the opposite. Nor do I want to infringe on the civil liberties of anti-abortionist groups. I supported the Free Access to Clinic Entrance legislation, but I do not want to oppose silent (or even noisy) vigils outside clinics where abortions are performed. Even if you are very pro-choice, far more than I am, please consider the consequences–we don’t want to lose the right to protest peacefully outside military bases or recruiting centers, right? Free speech, even offensive or violent free speech, is to be protected.
But there is a far-right network of groups that supports anti-abortion terrorism that operates on the fringes of the pro-life movement. Groups like Operation Save America, Operation Rescue, Missionaries to the Unborn, etc. celebrate people like the murderer of Dr. Tiller as HEROES–comparing them to those who tried to assassinate Hitler in order to stop the Holocaust or to John Brown who tried to incite a holy war against slavery. They are NOT trying to persuade citizens to change the laws. They are not trying to create the climate in which most abortions are rejected because babies are welcomed. They are not trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies or make adoptions easier. They are not, as Feminists for Life and others do, connecting abortion to the second class status of women, to male sexual predation (including date rape, incest, and much more). They are not even trying to get <i>Roe v. Wade</i> overturned. They are, instead, trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which women fear to seek abortions because of threatened violence, doctors and hospitals fear to provide abortions because of threatened violence, and even churches and other faith groups fear to welcome pro-choice members like Dr. Tiller because of threatened violence. They are advancing their goals by means of terrorist violence–and it is working.
Frank Schaeffer shows that while most Religious Right leaders did not directly participate and usually condemn the murders, they contributed to the atmosphere that encourages this violence. I remember reading Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in 1980–it encouraged the overthrow of the American government by force if all else failed in saving “Christian civilization.” It justified violence against abortion providers and pro-choice politicians if all legal and nonviolent means failed. The Religious Right still has members and even leaders who promote this–and far more who give ambivalent voices.
Dr. James Dobson gave away 100,000 copies of Frank Schaeffer’s A Time for Anger which counseled anti-abortion violence as a last resort. During the 1990s, I engaged via the email list of the Society of Christian Philosophers, a young student at Jerry Falwell’s school, Liberty University. I was a seamless garment, consistent-ethic-of-life person at the time and, in dialogue with me, this student became one, too–eventually going to Duke Divinity School to study with famed pacifist theologian Stanley Haerwas. But the student also revealed to me that the “bomb the clinic/kill the abortion doctor” view was widely held among both faculty and students at Liberty University. When Jerry Falwell himself retreated from this view after a series of bombings in the ’80s and ’90s and called on Christians to use ONLY LEGAL MEANS to end abortions, the student (before I became his friend) led a petition drive among students to reverse this policy, calling it a sell-out to the unborn.
There are websites where rightwing anti-abortion groups make heroes out of the assassins of doctors who perform abortions–getting others to write to these assassins in jail, and even to emulate their actions.
If terrorism is the use of violence and the threat of violence to intimidate others for political gain, then this is terrorism. And if al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah are terrorist groups who promote terror tactics using warped forms of Islam, then many of these anti-abortion groups are terror networks who appeal to warped forms of Christianity for their justification. They are Christian terrorists.
Suppose I am wrong in claiming that while all abortions are tragic, some are the lesser of evils. Suppose the pro-lifers are right that all abortions are the moral equivalent of murder. Then they are right to oppose this and to try to change this. But they cannot do so by adopting violent means. Violence just begets more violence in a downward spiral.
I have seen this before. In the early 1960s, I saw the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more martyrs in the struggle against segregation. By the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, the Left in America (including factions of the peace movement and the student movement, along with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement) had adopted the same kinds of violent terror tactics that the White Citizens Councils and KKK and John Birchers had done earlier. The bombings of black churches led to the bombings of ROTC buildings and National Guards barracks–until by 1974 one had police in many cities as practically occupying armies. The very fabric of our society threatened to unravel.
I don’t want to see this repeat–by either the right or the left. Yet. the first reported arson on a clinic offering abortion goes all the way back to 1976. Since that time there have been over 200 arsons or bombings of clinics and hospitals where abortions are provided. Beginning with the assassination of Dr. David Gunn in 1993, there have been at least 10 assassinations and attempted assassinations in the U.S. and Canada of health personnel connected with providing abortions. (Dr. George Tiller himself was shot in both arms in 1993 and now has been killed in his Withita, KS church.) Both clinic personnel and women seeking abortions have been attacked with acid in over 100 cases since 1993. From 1998-2002 over 500 letters containing or threatening to contain the deadly virus Anthrax have been mailed to clinics and health care providers connected to abortion services. Women seeking to enter clinics offering abortions have been punched, kicked, beaten (all the while people yell, “We love your baby!”), given abusive speech, and much else.
The result of this terrorism has not been to change the laws–but it has reduced greatly the number of places where women can seek legal abortions in this nation. U.S. Marshals are having to provide protection to vulnerable doctors and other clinic personnel in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder.
If you and your church oppose abortion without making clear your opposition to all such violence, then you are part of the problem. If you use terms like “Tiller the killer” and make comparisons to Nazis or talk about the the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide,” then you are part of the problem. You are contributing to an atmosphere of violence.
But you aren’t ending abortions, but merely driving them back underground. You are not creating the kind of culture which can welcome life. And, like the Left wing zealots that bombed ROTC buildings or the Rightist racists which bombed black churches, you are threatening the fabric of our democratic society.
Vigorous debate, yes. Political organizing, yes. Peaceful protests, yes. Creating alternatives, yes. In all issues of conscience this is our duty. But violence, no.
Christians in this nation have been shocked by the recent Pew Report showing that all churches are declining and that “none of the above” is a growing religious category. I’m not. When the German churches backed Hitler, the next generation grew disillusioned with the churches–and they have never fully recovered. When the American churches of the 50s and 60s supported segregation and the Vietnam war, they lost the next generation. Now we have a generation which has seen huge church support for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for torture, for the demonization of Muslims and gays, and for anti-abortion violence. So, we look to lose another generation.
U.S. Christians, it is time we took a long look in the mirror. In the words of the famous Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Operation Rescue is a group that constantly tries to have it both ways. It always bemoans clinic violence, but spends more time saying that the doctors like Tiller had it coming (Randall Terry,”He reaped what he sowed.”). They also tend to share membership overlaps with the crazies in the fringe groups. For instance, it seems that people in Operation Rescue helped Dr. Tiller’s assassin track his victim’s movements.
Groups encouraging anti-abortion terrorism in the name of being “pro-life” include:
The Army of God; American Coalition of Life Activists; 34 signers of the “Justifiable Homicide” statement celebrating the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993. Operation Save America; Missionaries to the Unborn (has deck of “black heart” cards with “death merchants”–doctors who perform abortions–on them; rebukes pro-life groups for denouncing Tiller’s murder or for offering to aid the police in capturing those who would commit clinic violence);
On 12 October 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, Matthew Wayne Shepherd, a student at the University of Wyoming, died of head injuries. These head injuries were sustained on 06 October when he was attacked, tortured, and murdered. Although a later 20/20 report questioned this, at trial witnesses claimed that Shepherd was targetted because he was gay. Ever since that time gay rights advocates have tried to get strong legislation passed that would combat anti-glbt violence as hate crimes, along with violence based on racism, sexism, bigotry against certain religions. Some (not all) conservatives oppose the very idea of “hate crimes.” Former Pres. George W. Bush used to say that all murders were “hate crimes” and therefore no special categories were needed.
I disagree. By targetting crimes motivated by various forms of bigotry, law enforcement is pushed to treating them more seriously–and the law becomes a moral teacher that register’s society’s strong disapproval of both the hate-crime itself and of the bigotry that leads to such violence.
Yesterday, we made a stride in that direction for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folk. The House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Bill and sent it to the Senate. President Obama supports the bill and urges its speedy passage so that he can sign it into law. It is important to not that the bill would not criminalize anti-gay feelings or restrict free speech: It targets violence motivated by bigotry, but only undirectly targets the bigotry itself. It doesn’t criminalize bigotry, but by targetting the violence spawned by that bigotry registers strong disapproval–and calls hate for what it is.
There is a petition to Eric Holder, Obama’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General (who must be confirmed by the Senate) to appoint a Special Prosecutor to indict and try any Bush administration officials found guilty of crimes, especially torture and other war crimes. (VP Cheney last week admitted on TV that he was involved in authorizing “waterboarding,” which used to be called water torture. In the Vietnam War, we prosecuted U.S. soldiers who did this to captured soldiers. After World War II we HUNG Japanese soldiers who did this to American prisoners of war. At least one U.S. Senator, Carl Levin (D-MI) of the Armed Services Committee, has said that he believes the VP just admitted to a war crime.) In order to prevent a recurrence under future administrations, we don’t just need a change in policy with the Obama folk–we need to indict and try those who committed these crimes under the Bush admin.
It won’t be easy. Congress, including FAR too many Democrats, cooperated with much of this. The Obama folk are not going to want to appear in the political revenge business–it doesn’t look post-partisan. But it is necessary and we citizens are going to need to keep the pressure on for it to happen.
Yes, I want the economy fixed and the ecology, etc. But if I have to choose between living in a poor country that respects human rights and obeys the rule of law, including international law, or living in a rich country that ignores laws and suppresses rights when it feels like it, I’ll choose the former. Sign the petition here, then write an op-ed for your local paper and call your congressperson in support.
By the way, Mr. Holder has already responded with “I hear you.” So, the petition is working. Keep it up, since “I hear you,” while significant, is not exactly a commitment.
I also think human rights groups (faith-based and otherwise) should plan major events to highlight these issues in ’09 and keep the pressure on–including protests and acts of civil disobedience if necessary.