Tag Archives: pacifism

Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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Pacifism and Ethical Dualism

As promised, we turn now to Cartwright’s thoughts on an ethical dualism which is characteristic of many, especially popular, expressions of Christian pacifist thought:

The bold contrast that Koontz draws between those who have converted to the Christian position and those who have not reflects a broader conception of dualist ethics, one that sharply distinguishes the moral obligations of the Church from those of the (unconverted) world. According to the dualist conception, Koontz argues, those “committed to the way of Christ” are expected to live differently from those in “the world.” The dualist conception therefore leaves open the possibility of a certain “quasi-legitimate” justification for war, provided it is chosen and waged not by Christians but by the state. This view of the “higher responsibility” of Christians has its origins in another ongoing conflict of interpretations within a number of Protestant traditions. As Koontz observes, the conflict arises out of two closely related scriptural passages, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 12:9-21 and 13:1-7, and is dramatically evident in the 1527 Schleitheim Confession: “The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills the wicked and protects the Good.”

There can be no doubt that Cartwright is correct, at least where such an ethic exists (and it is by no means a straw man). Dividing the world into two ethical spheres with equally legitimate, divinely sanctioned codes of conduct (even quasi-sanctioned) creates a problem for pacifists when it comes to being a witness for peace in the world. Fortunately for pacifists, and unfortunately for Cartwright’s complaint, much of the ethical dualism that is present in pacifist thought is only apparent, the product of semantic imprecision. The fault of pacifists, certainly, but not a great deterrent to their overarching message.

The key is in the language even Cartwright uses when paraphrasing Koontz. Christian pacifists know they “are expected to live differently” from non-Christians and, consequently, they expect non-Christians to live differently than they do. If these expectations are divine expectations which are, or ought to be, understood as identical to divine moral imperatives–if God expects a certain code of conduct from non-Christians in order to rise to the level of ethical living and a separate code of conduct from Christians to meet that same threshold, even if to different ultimate consequences–then Cartwright’s problem is real and damning. If, however, the expectations are human expectations, pragmatic realities based on a recognition of the core beliefs which govern any give person or group of persons’ behavior, the problem disappears.

To put it another way, the government expects you to obey the law, and I expect basketball players to be tall. Now, when I help a Christian convert flee the country in order to avoid sharing custody with her lesbian ex-wife, the government arrests me and puts me on trial. Rightly so. I violated their expectations which have authoritative force. Meanwhile, Muggsy Bogues was once a big name in the NBA. I didn’t try to have him expelled from professional basketball because he didn’t conform to my expectations. There is an obvious difference between normative expectations and pragmatic ones, even if Koontz does not take the care to specify which he means and Cartwright doesn’t bother to consider the alternative to ethical dualism.

With regard to the use of force by government (e.g. war), it is important for Christian pacifists to be clear about what they mean when they say that they expect, or even that God expects (particularly in this latter case, with its anthropomorphic thrust), governments to employ violence. It is not an affirmation that their use of violence is legitimate, or even quasi-legitimate. It is a recognition that non-Christians in non-Christian institutions will employ non-Christian means to achieve non-Christian ends. To expect them to do otherwise–that is, to expect them to act like Christians–is to either live in a perpetual state of disappointment or, as has been more often the case, to find one’s own view of what is Christian being slowly conformed to what is not even as Christians try to Christianize non-Christian instruments of power (e.g. civil government).

It is ultimately a matter of sequence not ethics, and it applies, for Christian anarchists, beyond the narrow scope of war. For example, when I say that I believe US government should legalize same sex marriage, that is not an endorsement of the morality of homosexuality. It is a recognition that it is inconsistent, even hypocritical, for the government to outlaw a behavior solely on the grounds that it violates morality. By the internal logic of the American system of government, in the political vision of the framers of this country, that kind of abridgment of freedom is anathema. I still think gay marriage is wrong, but I realize that expecting a country of non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians achieves nothing except to further open the name of Christ to ridicule.

The same logic then operates for the use of violence. I expect the government to use force not because it is virtuous to use violence beyond the walls of the church but because I understand that civil government necessarily sustains itself through the use of coercive force. The primary problem is not that Washington has a military and likes to use it. The primary “problem” is that Washington isn’t Christian. Trying to coerce the state into becoming pacifist has all the logical consistency of going overseas to invade countries so they’ll stop being hostile toward us. Which we would never do. Because it’s stupid.

The solution to the problem of violence, as with the problem of homosexuality or any other ethical problem, is first to convert the problem people in question. Before I can convince someone that war is wrong, I first have to convince them that God exists, that sin is a problem, that God intervened through the Incarnation to remedy the problem, that the work of Christ inaugurated a new, peculiar existence for those who join themselves to him, and that this new life in Christ comes with a set of covenant expectations. Only then can we share the kind of internal logic necessary to get from the world needs war to thrive to Christ has called you to love your enemy, not resist the evildoer, and bless those who persecute you. There is no dualism there. Just a recognition of the organic nature of the human transformation which occurs when someone comes out of the kingdom of the prince of this world and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Pacifism and Just War: Finding Common Ground

I recently checked out The Ethics of War and Peace from a local library primarily interested in reading Theodore J. Koontz’s article, “Christian Nonviolence: An Interpretation.” Like most people, I typically enjoy reading authors who I already agree with. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as spending an hour reading someone say what you’d like to say if you had the clout to find your thoughts in print. Unfortunately, I found very little in Koontz’s thought that impressed and instead found myself drawn to the critical response of Michael G. Cartwright to Koontz in “Conflicting Interpretations of Christian Pacifism.”

Cartwright offers a number of probing critiques of Koontz, as well as an interesting engagement with the ethical dualism often inherent to Christian anarchism (which I will treat later), but what struck me most of all was his re-drawing of the lines of conflict. Cartwright admits that there is substantial disagreement between the way Christian pacifists and just war theorists approach the problem of war and the ideal of peace, but suggests, compellingly, that by marking the primary distinction as one between Christians who live in “the house of love” and those that live in the “house of fear” (to borrow Koontz’s terms for describing pacifists and just war theorists), Christians necessarily mute what could be a common, if narrow, witness about war to the rest of the world.

If the conversation is framed as one between just war thinking and Christian pacifism, it is likely to proceed with advocates for just war focusing attention on Christian pacifists–as if they were the problem–while neglecting the challenge posed by other kinds of thinking about war and peace, such as “holy war” thinking, political realism, and Rambo-style militarism.

Borrowing Koontz’s imagery, Cartwright later suggests,

It may be true that “fearful questions never lead to love-filled answers,” but there are many kind of “fearful questions,” and not all such questions are necessarily prompted by the same kinds of fear. To refine the image of the two houses, then, we might agree that not all the rooms in the house of fear are equally well-furnished, morally speaking.

More important than making allowances for a moral continuum, however, Cartwright stresses that the commonalities between the pacifists and just war theorists have something to offer as a witness to the global community, a message both parties are interested in propagating. He offers two specific examples. First, both, in contrast with realpolitik, agree that the burden of proof for justification is for those who choose war. Both ideologies represent a voice in the world, when they aren’t too busy with internecine squabbling, that insists on “why go to war” as the dominant question rather than “why not?” Additionally, both ideologies reject consequentialist reasoning as primary in making personal or political decisions. The ends, in other words, do not necessarily justify the means for either group, and this is particularly true where war is concerned. Cartwright hints at other areas of potential common witness throughout, but these suffice to point out some of the deep ideological commonalities between the two groups.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a shared witness is, as is so often the case, destroyed precisely because of this common ground. As has been seen in countless times and in countless circumstances–for example the denominational struggles between the Baptists and the Restorationists in the 19th century South–it is when groups are most alike that their differences seem most important. Pacifists, and I am no exception, spend an inordinate amount of time assaulting just war thought. Even more incomprehensibly, just war advocates spend a disgusting amount energy trying to undermine pacifism, as if the real problem were Christians who do not go to war rather than Christians who go for sinister reasons to commit unspeakable atrocities.

This is not to say that debate should not continue or that–as Cartwright, with his professional ecumenical bent would seem to suggest–both positions are legitimate expressions of a common set of truths in Christ. It merely admits that war is evil, both in an absolute moral sense and in a utilitarian sense, and that as Christians we have a common duty to “speak the truth to power” against these evils. Where the alliance between Christians modes of thinking is possible it should be embraced rather than rejected because it is incomplete. At the end of the day, a just war theorist and I can sit down and lament the dropping of the bomb and, with any luck, convince the world that the consequentialist logic Harry Truman used and defended throughout his life fails to live up to the highest impulses of our created nature and, more importantly, with the divine expectations God expressed for us in Christ.

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and Hyperbole

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


Allison’s fifth and final argument, the last, desperate refuge of every uncomfortable exegete, is to claim hyperbole and then lean back in his armchair puffing his pipe and thumbing his monocle sinisterly.* Before launching into the “even if I’m wrong, I’m right” portion of his argument, he concludes, “It is, furthermore, even possible that the pictures offer impractical advice. If, after being struck on the right cheek with a back-handed insult from an enemy’s right hand, one were literally to turn the other cheek, the slapper would either have to switch hands to give a back-handed insult or use a fist. And if one were to give away one’s undergarment as well as one’s overgarment, the result would be nudity. The very strangeness of these images warns that we may have here exaggeration or hyperbole.” Admittedly, the advice Jesus gives here, and frankly just about everywhere else, is impractical by almost ever standard of pragmatism. Unfortunately, Allison had not yet realized, though he would on the very next page, that “the Sermon on the Mount does no promote utilitarianism.” Jesus is concerned ultimately with what is right not with what is practical.

Hyperbole is that delightful hammerspace into which scholars like to cram all the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, particularly those on discipleship, which are unsettling. They then, of course, turn around and laud how revolutionary the Gospel is, but they apparently only want it to upset things they think need upsetting and in ways they think need upsetting. The Sermon on the Mount is the worst offender in hyperbolic language. Giving to everyone who asks of you. Being better to maim yourself than to sin. Going into a closet to pray. Not letting our right hand know what our left is giving in alms. (The only alms we like to give secretly are to politicians.) Not judging others for sins which we are presently committing. Can you imagine a world where people actually did those things? Me either, but it has more to do with the inability of my imagination to overcome human frailty than it does with the absurdity of the suggestions. Allison’s suggestions aren’t even the most shameful attempts at hyperbolically arguing for hyperbole I’ve witness. I was personally present when Sean Hannity–responding to a question about speaking at historically pacifist Harding University–said to a student, “If someone broke into your house and was raping your wife, are you telling me you wouldn’t stop him” (paraphrase), Hannity apparently confusing what a university freshman would do if transported into a horror film with what is morally upright and commanded by Christ. The appeals, whether they be to nakedness or to home invasion and rape, all fall along the same lines. I admit that hyperbole is a legitimate rhetorical tool, one which was available to the biblical authors and figures and one which they likely made use of, but I am skeptical about painting every radical command with the nullifying label “hyperbole” as an expedient so we can all sleep easier at night.

The truth is, there seem to be very good biblical examples of Christ and early Christians taking these commands very seriously. After all, when someone begs a coin of Peter in the temple, he is forced to confess that he has no money–mirroring perhaps the radical poverty and charity of his teacher. More on point, Paul apparently had no problem being naked for Jesus, impractical though it may have been to labor, to toil, to lose sleep, to thirst, to go without food, and to endure the cold naked. He even thought nothing of becoming the scum of the earth, blessing when he was reviled, entreating when he was slandered, and enduring all manner of persecution. It could be, just possibly, that Paul took seriously the teaching and, more importantly, the example of Christ himself who, in the words of Peter, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” And what is more radical, more impractical, more difficult to believe: that someone might be naked for Christ or that someone might die for him? The problem with painting this particular text as somehow invalidatingly hyperbolic is that there are too many biblical examples of it being lived out in a very literal way.

All of this without mention of Allison’s most ridiculous point of all. The idea that turning the other cheek literally is logistically problematic is far and away that worst possible argument that could ever be made against pacifism. If you’ll pardon the hyperbole.

*I don’t actually know what Dale Allison looks like, but I suspect he doesn’t smoke a pipe or wear a monocle or do anything remotely sinister…Or does he?

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Unforgiving Servant

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The fourth error in Allison’s argument, his exegesis of the parable of the unforgiving servant, is intended to augment the third, but for the sake of keeping my comments brief I will treat it here separately. Picking up in the omitted portion of the previous quote, “But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-25 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?” The answer is, unequivocally, no. Why? Because that implication isn’t even present in the parable. It has been devised by Allison as a possible exemption from the ethical strictures of the Sermon on the Mount and then superimposed onto an unrelated parable.

It is simple enough to discern the correct intent of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, primarily because Jesus explains it at the end. Allison’s mistake can be understood (and, yes, forgiven) when one considers that the idea of a king being personally forgiving and institutionally violent fits very nicely with his other justification for ignoring the “resist not the evildoer” command. Still, Allison makes a fatal flaw by identifying the king with a human agent when Jesus himself says that the king figures “the heavenly Father” who “will do [likewise] to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The figure which represents the questioner, in this case Peter, is the unforgiving servant. If there is a figure whose behavior is an analog to Christians’ it is the servant and not the king–lest our egos run away with us.

More than just being a gross exegetical failure, Allison’s reading of the text as a tacit approval of institutional violence to correct injustice misses entirely the point which Jesus is making to Peter. When Peter asks how often to forgive, Jesus gives him an astronomical number and, just in case Peter thinks he’s exaggerating, he follows up with a parable explaining the consequences of not forgiving. Quite in line with Christian pacifism, God is the only agent authorized by the parable to decide when “mercy gives way to justice.” Human agents are expected to forgive because God has forgiven then and to expect the Father to remove that mercy if they are unwilling to emulate it. The suggestion that the parable might decide when Christians should be allowed to punish instead of forgive not only misunderstands the clear purpose of the story, it directly contradicts it. A more careless reading hardly seems possible.

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and Love

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The third attempt Allison tries to make to undo any pacifist interpretation of Matthew 5 sees a contradiction between total pacifism and the all-important command to love. He argues, “One can also, on the basis of the command to love (7:12; 19:19; 22:37-39), question the pacifist’s interpretation. Each situation envisioned in 5:38-42 is one in which the disciple alone is insulted or injured. But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured…Non-retaliation is one idea embodied in our text; but what if the equally important imperatives for justice or defense of the innocent appear to demand the exercise of force?” Allison proposes some interesting problems, but the assumed answered to his own questions leave a lot to be desired, as, to a degree, do the questions themselves.

For example, he makes an allusion to the imperatives for justice and defense of the innocent in the Sermon on the Mount but curiously offers no citation. He came up with three separate verses from Matthew as a whole for the command to love but can apparently offer none at all for the command to defend the defenseless or dole out justice. That is not to suggest that justice and concerned for the defenseless are not biblical principles. If Allison were willing, he might point to the command to give alms in Matthew 6 as an example of such a measure on behalf of the weak. Of course, it would, unfortunately for him, be an example of positive yet non-violent social action and wouldn’t further his point. In fact, the absence of a supporting citation turns out to be because there is no text which might further his point, in Matthew or elsewhere in the New Testament. The reader is never presented with an occasion when “defense of the innocent appear[s] to demand the exercise of force.” Perhaps the biblical authors just left it out. After all, the Greco-Roman world was such a friendly, well-policed place—unlike the modern West. They probably never encountered the kind of injustices demanding violent reaction that we do on a daily basis in America.

More importantly than the now characteristically extra-biblical methodology, however, is the implied answer to Allison’s question. It is true that ethical cases do arise in which the love of neighbor and the love of enemy do conflict, and Allison seems to admit that to respond with violence toward our enemy is to do something other than to love him (something which not all proponents of violent Christianity are willing to admit). Setting aside the evocation of the illusory moral category of “innocents,” the problem, unfortunately, with choosing love of neighbor over love of enemy is that it seems to directly contradict the very logic of Jesus presented in the command to love one’s neighbor. Jesus makes the point very explicit, and Paul will later as well, that human logic would suggest that we give preferential treatment to our neighbor. In Christ, however, no one gets preferential treatment. The commands to love our neighbor and our enemies are parallel, and there is no ethical hierarchy about them. If anything, indulging the vulgar tendency to love our neighbors just a little better than our enemies undermines the Christian spirit and nullifies the teaching. Allison admits, and I agree, that the conflict between loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy are impossible to resolve perfectly and logically. We differ in that I embrace the reversal of terrestrial logic imposed by God in Christ and argue that it is nearer to the heart of the Gospel to shower your enemy with love than to love him only when there is no impediment to that love, when it doesn’t get in the way of you loving the people you really want to love.

(Parenthetically—which is a word I feel strange using when there are actual parentheses visible—my wife joked with me that we ought to buy each other guns so that, by Allison’s logic, so long as we’re together we can be protected. If someone attacks me, she could shoot him and be morally justified because her action was the defense of others rather than self. If someone attacks here, the situation could play out in reverse. It was so magnanimous of God to give us such a convenient end run around ethics.)

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and Institutional Ethics

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The second flawed argument that Allison makes against pacifism is acheived by bifurcating personal and institutional ethics. He writes:

Jesus and Matthew and the pre-Constantinian Christians were outsiders or belonged to minorities, as have most proponents of pacifism. Now outsiders and minorities are not, by definition, responsible for the institutions of society. This circumstance makes it easier for them to promulgate ideals that seemingly take little or no account of the conflicts that inevitably arise when the follower of Jesus becomes involved with such institutions. But others, in contrast to Jesus and Matthew, have found themselves both Christians and members of governmental organizations; and they have necessarily found new ways of understanding 5:38-42. Rather than condemning the exegetical changes brought by the Constantinian revolution we should regard them as inevitable and consistent with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount offers examples that call the moral imagination into play.

No wonder I didn’t find my moral imagination inspired reading Allison’s work. His idea of moral imagination is the ability to re-imagine Christian ethics if Jesus had wanted to be involved in the same things we want to be involved in. Allison actually makes a number of very telling concessions in the above quote. For starters, he admits—as do most responsible historians and biblical scholars—that the pre-Constantinian (or at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius) church did in fact understand the Sermon on the Mount as enjoining total non-violence on Christians. He also admits that this interpretation, the antique interpretation, directly conflicts with the exigencies of governmental involvement. (So far, he sounds almost like a Christian anarchist, no?) Finally, he admits that his reinterpretation of Christian ethics only works if you admit (1) that Christian comingling with government is inevitable and (2) that the teachings of Jesus (not to mention the example, which modern Christians, he admits, incidentally contrast with) are intended to be inspirational rather than normative.

Of course, that’s where he loses me. I do, obviously, agree with the accepted historical fact that the early church was pacifist. I also, clearly, agree that the obvious conflict between the traditional Christian ethos and the new involvement with government constituted a conflict for fourth century Christianity at large. What I cannot accept is that the choice of power over ethics was inevitable—unless, of course, we mean by that temptation and succumbing to it are inevitable. Allison speaks about the political ascendency of Christianity as something which occurred by happenstance, something which the Christians had no control over and for which they are therefore not responsible. Then, the reinterpretation of Matthew 5 changes from a deviation to necessarily finding new ways of understanding the text. Of course, Christian involvement in government is by no means mandated. It was not a historical inevitability. It is not a present imperative.

When it is realized that Christianity will be just fine—dare I say better off—without getting into bed with human structures of power, then Allison’s argument falls apart. Christian politics not being inevitable, we return to the fateful decision (condensed and dramatized as if it were a single deliberative moment) between Christian ethics as they were preached by Christ and as they have always been practiced and a modification or total abandonment of them in an effort to pursue what seems right on the surface. If only there were a biblical example that might offer guidance, say the disciples’ choice between allowing Christ to die as he taught them he must and taking up arms in his defense. And if only Jesus gave a clear teaching in response to this, say Jesus rebuking Peter for his armed defense or telling Pilate “if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight.” Of course, if, like Allison, you believe that biblical teaching and example are intended exclusively or primarily as stimulants for the moral imagination, then these examples can be creatively reexamined to fit with whatever happens to us, quite passively, as the human race floats aimlessly through history.

What ultimately struck me, however, is the somewhat less logically rigorous but more evocative nonsense of dividing personal behavior into essentially occupational categories. Set aside for a moment that Allison gives no biblical reasoning for his separation of the two categories, no testimony of Jesus for how governments are allowed to operate by a different moral code than people, and consider instead the ethical absurdity of that line of reasoning. Allison is of the belief—as, notably, was Augustine, the founder of modern just war theory—that if a man walks up to you with a gun and murderous intent, you as a private, Christian citizen should not defend yourself. If, however, that same day, you happen to be wearing a uniform and badge, it magically becomes ethical for you to shoot that assailant in the face because you are an agent of the government which operates by a different set of ethical rules. Our society realizes the absurdity of such a position and makes self-defense permissible. Pre-Constantinian Christian ethics realizes the absurdity of this defense and labels institutional violence immoral. Only Allison (of course, not only Allison, but follow me here) believes that the tension can be maintained. When Obama kills a thousand men through the office of the presidency, it is just. If I were to kill the same thousand men, it would be unjust. It simply does not compute.

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Law

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.

The first, perhaps most absurd and opportunistic, of the arguments pertains to the role of the Law in the New Covenant. Allison writes, “There is force in Calvin’s [just war] view. For if indeed Matthew understood 5:38-42 to enjoin an absolute pacifism and so to outlaw participation in all wars, it is very difficult to see how he could have included in his Gospel 5:17-20, with its strong affirmation that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law.” With no further explanation, Allison marshals to his cause the verse which has been the source of so much confusion and debate throughout the course of Christian history since, after all, Jesus seems to be immediately in tension with his own words as he juxtaposes his teachings with those of traditional Jewish wisdom and jurisprudence. The standard line is, of course, that Jesus is not erasing the Law so much as getting to the root of what it was trying to achieve, in a partial and anticipatory way, for human ethics. This is, of course, entirely consonant with a pacifist reading which sees in the Law, relative to alternative legal codes, an attempt to ameliorate violence and enshrine love and mercy in its place.

But Allison’s argument doesn’t even require so sophisticated of a refutation. It is enough that he offers no further explanation of the ongoing influence of the Law to demonstrate just how facile the attempt to unseat pacifism is. After all, all Christians throughout Christian history have agreed both that Jesus did not abolish the Law and that the Law no longer as legal force in Christianity. Allison might just as easily have argued that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and therefore the Sabbath or ritual sacrifice must be enforced on Christians. Admittedly, at least one of those positions has manifest itself on occasion historically, but Allison will have trouble pressing it now in a world of workaholics. In the absence of a more comprehensive hermeneutic of the Law in light of the New Covenant, the reader is left to curiously wonder just how much Allison thinks has gone unabolished. Frighteningly, he seems repeatedly to recommend lex talionis as an eternally valid legal principle, which would give the Sermon on the Mount all the restraining force of Shari’ah (if I can sound momentarily like an alarmist Oklahoman) and would seem to directly contradict Jesus’ monumental transition from a justice that springs from superficial fairness to one that is born out of love.

In other words, a blind appeal to the Law—even to the “spirit” of the Law, which Jesus makes plain is love and not violence—has no force in determining an interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer.” Unless Allison would have us return to Israelite jurisprudence for ruling the world, something which I doubt he or, especially, Jesus wanted, then shallowly claiming that the Law is not abolished and therefore violence is somehow ethical is insufficient on its face. More importantly, it makes the fatal error of assuming that violence was ever considered virtuous, even in the Old Covenant. One need only look at the numerous denunciations of violence—the violence which precipitated the flood, the violence which precluded David from building the temple, the violence which God “hates” in Malachi—to understand that Jesus’ command, if a truly pacifist one, would be more consistent with the Law than Calvin’s just war understanding (which, curiously, finds not clear foundation in the Law).

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Anarchy in May: Jesus on Ethics

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.

We began this investigation of Christian anarchism with a brief definition of the idea that stressed, in part, the necessity of all human structures of power to perpetuate themselves through immoral means. This observation about the intrinsic violence in government has often been the cornerstone for anarchist thought, and so I would like to conclude the series–on this final Wednesday in May–by quoting by far the oldest and most important anarchist text: Matthew 5. Unlike Eller, I shy away from calling God the “Primal Anarchist,” because Christian anarchism is only anarchic with regard to human powers. God, therefore, is not an anarchist but the Supreme Archae, the only true and legitimate source of authority. It is with this authority that Jesus ascends the mount and delivers the famous sermon which is the greatest and fullest expression of Christian ethics. Within this sermon, no teaching has come to symbolize Christianity more than teachings at the close of chapter five (with the possible exception of the golden rule in chapter seven), and yet no teaching has been so diluted and distorted in an effort to escape its uncomfortable implications. Christian anarchism makes an effort to embrace those implications and to carry them to their logical ethical conclusions. If I must love my enemies, I cannot wage war against them, and I cannot elect someone else to wage war against them on my behalf. If I must not resist the evildoer, I cannot detain or execute criminals, and I cannot elect someone else to detain or execute them for me. If I must pray for those who persecute me, I cannot legislate that persecution away, and I cannot elect someone to legislate it away for me. No amount of ethical or exegetical contortionism has ever been able to convince me that the following means anything other than what it appears on its face to mean:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And lest the interpretation and application of this passage be seen as the invention of a squeamish modern mindset, let me offer a few words of commentary from the second century Christian Athenagoras who, long before Anabaptists and Garrisonians and Tolstoyans, embodied the original spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and appealed to its honest and literal manifestation in the lives of ordinary Christians as the single greatest testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Above logic and apologetics and theology, the authentically lived Christian life confirms Christ:

If I go minutely into the particulars of our doctrine, let it not surprise you. It is that you may not be carried away by the popular and irrational opinion, but may have the truth clearly before you. For presenting the opinions themselves to which we adhere, as being not human but uttered and taught by God, we shall be able to persuade you not to think of us as atheists. What, then, are those teachings in which we are brought up? “I say unto you, Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven, who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”39 Allow me here to lift up my voice boldly in loud and audible outcry, pleading as I do before philosophic princes. For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such like instructions to make them happy: who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them (to abstain from which is of itself an evidence of no mean forbearance), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? On the contrary, they never cease with evil intent to search out skilfully the secrets of their art, and are ever bent on working some ill, making the art of words and not the exhibition of deeds their business and profession. But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.

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Anarchy in May: Bender on the Anabaptist Vision

The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
Up to this point in our exploration of Christian anarchism, all connections to Anabaptists have been only by allusion or association. This was deliberate, in an effort to show that anabaptism does not represent the bounds of Christian anarchism by any means, not any more than the “historic peace churches” represent the extent even of sectarian Christian pacifism. It would be an error, however, to exclude the Anabaptists entirely from explicit mention. They represent the most visible face of Christian Anarchism in Western thought, antedating and undoubtedly influencing the figures outside the movement whom we have already met: William Lloyd Garrison, David Lipscomb, and Leo Tolstoy. So, in an effort to give them a full hearing, the below is an extended section of Harold S. Bender’s essay, “The Anabaptist Vision.” It will quote from a number of historical Anabaptist figures on the ethic of nonresistance before Bender draws from this principle conclusions about what it means to be non-resistant in a society which subsists on coercive violence:

The third great element in the Anabaptist vision was the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships. The Brethren understood this to mean complete abandonment of all warfare, strife, and violence, and of the taking of human life. Conrad Grebel, the Swiss. said in 1524:

True Christians use neither worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely, for we are no longer under the Old Covenant…. The Gospel and those who accept it are not to be protected with the sword, neither should they thus protect themselves.

Pilgram Marpeck, the South German leader, in 1544, speaking of Matthew 5, said:

All bodily, worldly, carnal, earthly fightings, conflicts, and wars are annulled and abolished among them through such law… which law of love Christ… Himself observed and thereby gave His followers a pattern to follow after.

Peter Riedemann, the Hutterian leader, wrote in 1545:

Christ, the Prince of Peace, has established His Kingdom, that is, His Church, and has purchased it by His blood. In this kingdom all worldly warfare has ended. Therefore a Christian has no part in war nor does he wield the sword to execute vengeance.

Menno Simons, of Holland, wrote in 1550:

[The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife.]… They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war…. Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value.

In this principle of nonresistance, or biblical pacifism, which was thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century, the Anabaptists were again creative leaders, far ahead of their times, in this antedating the Quakers by over a century and a quarter. It should also be remembered that they held this principle in a day when both Catholic and Protestant churches not only endorsed war as an instrument of state policy, but employed it in religious conflicts. It is true, of course, that occasional earlier prophets, like Peter Chelcicky, had advocated similar views, but they left no continuing practice of the principle behind them.

As we review the vision of the Anabaptists, it becomes clear that there are two foci in this vision. The first focus relates to the essential nature of Christianity. Is Christianity primarily a matter of the reception of divine grace through a sacramental-sacerdotal institution (Roman Catholicism), is it chiefly enjoyment of the inner experience of the grace of God through faith in Christ (Lutheranism), or is it most of all the transformation of life through discipleship (Anabaptism)? The Anabaptists were neither institutionalists, mystics, nor pietists, for they laid the weight of their emphasis upon following Christ in life. To them it was unthinkable for one truly to be a Christian without creating a new life on divine principles both for himself and for all men who commit themselves to the Christian way.

The second focus relates to the church. For the Anabaptist, the church was neither an institution (Catholicism), nor the instrument of God for the proclamation of the divine Word (Lutheranism), nor a resource group for individual piety (Pietism). It was a brotherhood of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed.

The Anabaptist vision may be further clarified by comparison of the social ethics of the four main Christian groups of the Reformation period, Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anabaptist. Catholic and Calvinist alike were optimistic about the world, agreeing that the world can be redeemed; they held that the entire social order can be brought under the sovereignty of God and Christianized, although they used different means to attain this goal. Lutheran and Anabaptist were pessimistic about the world, denying the possibility of Christianizing the entire social order; but the consequent attitudes of these two groups toward the social order were diametrically opposed. Lutheranism said that since the Christian must live in a world order that remains sinful, he must make a compromise with it. As a citizen he cannot avoid participation in the evil of the world, for instance in making war, and for this his only recourse is to seek forgiveness by the grace of God; only within his personal private experience can the Christian truly Christianize his life. The Anabaptist rejected this view completely. Since for him no compromise dare be made with evil, the Christian may in no circumstance participate in any conduct in the existing social order which is contrary to the spirit and teaching of Christ and the apostolic practice. He must consequently withdraw from the worldly system and create a Christian social order within the fellowship of the church brotherhood. Extension of this Christian order by the conversion of individuals and their transfer out of the world into the church is the only way by which progress can be made in Christianizing the social order.

However, the Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. He agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that the life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfyingly full of love and joy.

The Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but the Brethren did believe that Jesus intended that the kingdom of God should be set up in the midst of earth, here and now, and this they proposed to do forthwith. We shall not believe, they said, that the Sermon on the Mount or any other vision that He had is only a heavenly vision meant but to keep His followers in tension until the last great day, but we shall practice what He taught, believing that where He walked we can by His grace follow in His steps.

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