The Wishful Thinking of the Neo-Anabaptists: could government avoid using the sword?

In my doctoral program at Emory University I have come into contact with many graduate students who consider themselves pacifists. Some of these individuals consider themselves liberals, but many more self-identify as Evangelicals. The most prominent Christian ethicist in the academy today is a sharp critic of liberalism as well as of the Christian Right, and although he is no ordinary Evangelical he is highly influential among Evangelical students and scholars. He also happens to be a strong defender of the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence, which he learned from the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, and he is the leading representative of the school of thought many have taken to calling Neo-Anabaptism.

Why is it Neo-Anabaptism? Over at the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Mark Tooley explains,

A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in government, as Mennonites and their brethren in past times typically did.   They refused to serve in the military, or in any form of government.  They usually did not dispute that government was God ordained.  Nor did they criticize others’ involvement in it.  They largely lived as separatists, accepting the government without trying to influences its policies.

Modern day neo-Anabaptists are less consistent.  They adamantly reject, for themselves and for everybody else, all “violence” and force, disputing the civil authorities’ vocation especially for military action.  Often they are vaguer about domestic police.

Tooley goes on to point out some of the absurdity of the Neo-Anabaptist position, noting how odd it is for someone who opposes coercion to support the government’s coercive suppression of the right to bear arms.

In my experience in the academy Tooley’s critique here is spot-on. Virtually all of my pacifist friends insist that while war is wrong, and even the violent suppression of criminals is wrong, the basic functions and work of government do not depend on these immoral practices. Both Yoder and Hauerwas, in various places, suggest that it is a myth that civil government depends at all on violent coercion, or on the use of the sword. They use this basic claim to defend various forms of involvement of Christians in civil government. Yet as Tooley writes,

All government is premised on force.  Every government everywhere, at all times, if it has any power, will dispatch armed individuals to apprehend any persons who violate its laws and, ultimately, detain them in places surrounded by armed individuals empowered by lethal force.

In that sense the basic flaw of Neo-Anabaptism is its wishful thinking. The early Anabaptists may have condemned the involvement of Christians in violence, but while they recognized that civil government is outside of the perfection of Christ, virtually all of them insisted that it was nevertheless legitimate, ordained by God, and had the right to use force. They never suggested that the basic functions of government could proceed without such coercive force. And as a result, they usually abstained entirely from involvement in the work of civil government.

In fact, early Anabaptism relied heavily on its insistence that all of life should be interpreted through the lens of the conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. There was no room for compromise in this conflict, and therefore while Christians could recognize God-ordained purposes for the state, they could not participate in its methods.

Although it is often forgotten in contemporary debates, Calvin articulated the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine in part to demonstrate the problem with Anabaptist views of the state. While he agreed with the Anabaptists that churches should discipline Christians to ensure that they live consistent with God’s moral law, and while he agreed that the kingdom of God becomes increasingly manifest in the life of the church even in this age, he utterly rejected the idea that the kingdom could be realized to the point that civil government would not be both necessary and good. Because he recognized that Christians still live in the present age, and that God still orders the present age morally, he argued that Christians function in two kingdoms, the spiritual kingdom and the political kingdom. In their vocations in the latter, including political and civil vocations, they might sometimes do things that will never take place in the kingdom of God – such as take up the sword.

One of the reasons why many of my own professors at Emory are interested in my project on the two kingdoms doctrine is because they recognize that the two principal trajectories dominant in academic Christian ethics – the first being that of the social gospel and liberation theology, the second being that of Neo-Anabaptism – fail to take seriously the character of Christian life as lived between two ages. Both the liberals and the Neo-Anabaptists abandon realism at key points in order to stress the immanence of the kingdom of God. There is a desperate need for a new ethical paradigm, and the resources in the Reformed tradition for this new paradigm, particularly in its two kingdoms doctrine, are impressive.

Critics of the two kingdoms need to take seriously the major alternatives out there. For years Christian ethics has been dominated by the social gospel and liberation theology. Now it is becoming dominated by Neo-Anabaptism. Is returning to the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine really such a bad way to help us avoid these two options?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 25, 2012, in Academy, Calvin, Neo-Anabaptism, pacifism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Wishful Thinking of the Neo-Anabaptists: could government avoid using the sword?.

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