Should we take pacifist Christians seriously? What’s at stake?

Pacifism is making a comeback in the Christian church. It used to be that if you were a pacifist you were either a liberal academic or some sort of sectarian Anabaptist. Now many of the most significant (and best) ethicists and theologians in the church, scholars whose influence on evangelicalism is only growing, argue that the New Testament clearly calls Christians to practice a nonviolent ethic (think John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays). Even the Roman Catholic Church, thanks in large part to the work of Pope John Paul II, has moved significantly in the direction of pacifism (though Rome still holds to just war theory).

For conservative theologians and pastors the temptation is simply to react. We can trot out the old ideas, list off the many centurions and soldiers described as Christians in the New Testament, and quote Romans 13’s reference to the civil magistrate as the minister (or deacon) of God who has been given the sword in order to maintain basic justice. If we are unaware of the way in which neo-Anabaptists and other pacifist minded Christians read their Old Testaments through Christ, we may even unthinkingly point to all the great Old Testament saints who were sword-bearing warriors and magistrates, or to the Israelite conquest (and genocide) of the Canaanites. If all else fails, we can always remind the pacifists of what would happen if no one ever used violence to protect the weak. What about Hitler (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer)? What if you saw a murderer about to explode a bomb that would kill hundreds of people and you had a momentary second to stop him with the loaded gun you were holding in your hand?

The problem with all of this is that it is so defensive and reactionary that it leads us to miss the most important point that the pacifists are right to emphasize: the New Testament does indeed call Christians to follow the example of Christ by devoting themselves to peace, practicing nonviolence, and being willing to suffer in love for their enemies rather than take up the sword against them. However we might qualify this affirmation by taking equally seriously Paul’s teaching about government in Romans 13, we should also be historically sensitive enough to realize that just as often as just war theory has served to restrain the violence of Christian magistrates and soldiers, it has been used as an excuse to justify wars waged in the name of honor, glory, and self-interest, wars characterized on a breathtaking scale by murder, rape, enslavement, and theft.

The fact is, it may well be the case (and I believe it is) that Romans 13 does indicate that a Christian can be faithful to Christ while bearing the magisterial sword, and yet the vast majority of war and violence in which Christians have participated on that basis be immoral and contrary to the teaching of Christ. It may well be the case (and I believe it is) that the overwhelming weight and emphasis of the New Testament falls on the call upon Christians to be nonviolent and love their enemies, rather than on those passages that point to potential exceptions. It may well be the case (and again, I fear that it is), that many Christians have turned the exceptions into the norm, and the norm into the exceptions. We have glorified the coercive power of the state to the point of losing all perspective on just how hard it is for a Christian to be a politician, or a judge, or a soldier, and yet remain faithful to his master.

This week I hope to build on Saturday’s post about pacifism in the early church by reflecting on this difficult question. I plan to summarize the New Testament scholar Richard Hays’s defense of pacifism based in particular on the gospel of Matthew, and then to follow up that presentation of the case for Christian nonviolence with a post offering some thoughts on Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. I’ll also take a look at Calvin’s approach to the problem, particularly his response to the Anabaptists of his day.

For now, I want to make one point often ignored by those who can’t figure out why a simple glance at the Old Testament ends the discussion once and for all. Although Chris Smith’s recent article on Rousas John Rushdoony in California reminds us that there are plenty of conservative Christian who still view the letter of the Torah as the timeless statement of how God wants to be served by human beings (and how he wants us to punish those who don’t), most Christians, from the early church to Augustine, from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, have always rejected this assessment of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament. In particular, they have emphasized that although the Old Testament does help us to determine God’s timeless moral law, its witness is significantly qualified by the fact that its primary purpose was to point the faithful forward to the messiah, to Christ, and not to be the final statement on Christian ethics. For that reason, the Christian tradition has always emphasized that we read, interpret, and apply the Old Testament, and the law, only through the lens of the teachings and example of the one who fulfilled it, Jesus Christ.

At minimum this involves recognizing that not to relax “one of the least of these commandments” and to do them and teach them is to follow the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20). It requires recognizing that the curse of the law from which Jesus redeemed us when he was executed and hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13) was nothing less than the curse of the Torah’s civil (or judicial, or penal) law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Any discussion of the meaning of the Christian call to nonviolence, though obviously informed by the Old Testament, must therefore be focused on what it means to follow Jesus Christ.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on September 24, 2012, in Law, Neo-Anabaptism, pacifism, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Should we take pacifist Christians seriously? What’s at stake?.

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