Book Review: A Faith Not Worth Fighting For
August 14, 2012 14 Comments
*Disclaimer: I received the book from one of the editors as a gift for providing comments on a draft of his chapter. It is my pleasure to return the gift of a free (and signed!) book with some unrequested publicity and (maybe) a sale or two.
I was converted to Christian nonviolence by the words and life of Martin Luther King Jr. My commitment to this way of life was deepened by reading the works of Mohandas Gandhi, John Howard Yoder, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, and, most importantly, Jesus of Nazareth (and those commenting on his life). This conviction was hardened by my experiences in American ghettoes and slums in east Africa and India. It has been refined through my academic pursuits and my engagement with historical and contemporary politics, especially wrestling with the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr.
It was after much of this process that I was finally introduced to and took seriously the work of Stanley Hauerwas. And I must admit, I found him a strange kind of advocate for Christian nonviolence and have had an uneasy relationship with his work. On the one hand it seems, with his commitment to nonviolence and appreciation for Yoder and the historical Jesus, that we would be intellectual compatriots. On the other hand, I find his reluctance to incorporate the liberationist aspects of those mentioned above a weakness in his work that makes Christian nonviolence seem more like a privilege for middle class suburban Christians who depend on state violence for their lives than as a commitment with real consequences for the form of life Christians are to embody in their everyday engagements of justice-seeking and neighbor-loving. However, it is hard to understate the importance of his work on virtue ethics, critiques of political liberalism, emphasis on “being the Church,” and ardent advocacy of truth-telling, on the field of Christian social ethics. In addition, like Reinhold Niebuhr, he is a thinker who I continue to read for his provocative writing and ability to make me consider and reconsider positions I have previously been unconvinced of. He is a worthwhile interlocutor for any Christian theologian and ethicist.
The thing Hauerwas is most famous for is his avid and consistent advocacy for what he calls in the forward to this book “Christological pacifism.” He attributes this stance to Yoder, though it seems fair to say that he considers himself an advocate of this position (along with what is perhaps called ecclesiological pacifism?). Christological pacifism claims that a pacifistic stance makes sense only because of what Christians confess about Jesus Christ. Only those who follow the way of the cross bestowed by Jesus upon his followers practice a pacifism that can make any sense in our world. As D. Stephen Long says in his essay, “[Christological pacifism is] the pacifism that claims that we are called through our baptisms to participate in the life of Christ and bear witness to the world as God has borne witness to us. It asks us, what happened to us at our baptisms into the life and death of Christ? … and it only works when we take seriously dogmatic Christian convictions (p. 25).”
For Long and most of the other essayists, such a pacifism is uncompromising and absolute. It demands of us that we let others die for our convictions (Long), reject participation in warmaking (and for some, policing), and that we fail and die in the face of powerful evildoers (Robert Brimlow). Christological pacifism accepts these conditions because it rests assured that God will – in the end – be triumphant and because Christ’s resurrection is the evidence that death is not the last word nor the greatest evil in human life.
This, it seems to me, is not the Christian nonviolence I was converted to. It is not wholly dissimilar, but it does seem to embrace a tragic acquiescence to injustice that is absent from King, Romero, Tutu, etc. Christological pacifists, it seems to me, would critique such thinkers for being too optimistic about the power of nonviolence to effect positive change no matter the social/political situation – on this they agree with just warriors and the like – and it is for this reason Long (and others) claim that it is the only realistic pacifism in the world. Pacifism makes sense and is “realistic” only if the story and picture of Jesus found in the canonical gospels is true and we can be assured that faithfulness to the way of Christ is what living in the ultimately real world, i.e. the eschatalogical world now breaking into the contemporary fallen world, looks like.
It is this form of pacifism that the authors seek to defend in this book. They all begin with these assumptions and put the onus on those who think otherwise to defend their stance rather than the other way around (which is the stance usually forced upon Christian pacifists). They answer many of the most commonly asked questions of Christian pacifists (like “What about Hitler?”, “What if someone was attacking a loved one?”, or “What about Jesus using the whip in the temple?”) through the lens of Christological pacifism. For some of the authors, this requires a reframing of the questions.
The most effective reframing of one of the questions in the book is the job done by Amy Laura Hall and Kara Slade. They do a marvelous job demonstrating the gendered assumptions about power and violence in the question, “What if someone was attacking a loved one?” In addition, they reject any easy answer to the question but allow the complexity of lived experience to remain. They remind us that “[b]oth miracle and martyrdom are indeed possible, but miracle is beyond our capacity for faithful expectation and martyrdom is beyond our capacity for faithful desire…Thus trapped between the ‘either’ of ethical abstraction and the ‘or’ of the desire for a poetically satisfying witness to love, the reader looking for answers in terms of a path to faithful action may have found far more frustration than moral clarity in these pages. In the end, to encourage persistence in that frustration is the clearest guidance we can give (p. 43).”
Others, rather than reframing a question, address head-on and in an unapologetic manner their posed question. They assert boldly that there is only one truly faithful path, and that path is nonviolence. Robert Brimlow, Andy Alexis-Baker, and Tripp York’s essays are along these lines. These essays serve to remind readers that this book is more than a college textbook. Rather, it is an apology for Christological pacifism and is unashamedly so. It is, then, an evangelical text for a particular form of Christian nonviolence.
And there are other essays that are simply excellent pieces of contemporary theological scholarship. The already mentioned essay by D. Stephen Long is one, and is, for me, a more compelling articulation of Hauerwas’s position (Long admits his debt to Hauerwas in the essay) than anything I’ve actually read written by Hauerwas himself. And Gerald Schlabach’s essay on a Christian pacifist stance on policing, with its nuanced articulation of the continuum of Christological pacifism (p. 74), is another. There are, then, serious contributions to scholarship on Christian pacifism that theologians and ethicists should familiarize themselves with.
In this way, then, the editors achieved their goal of answering these, for them sometimes tired, questions in a way that is clear, articulate, and, perhaps most importantly, fair to the often well-intentioned concerns of those asking the questions. However, they refuse to grant that they must always be the ones on the defensive. Rather, they succeed in turning the tables in the conversation and asking those who would take any other stance to defend their position in light of historic Christian confessions about Jesus. It achieves its goal, then, of being of interest both to scholars and laypersons as a defense of Christological pacifism.
It should be noted that the various authors do not agree on everything even if they do share a basic orientation. For example, there is a between-the-lines argument between several of the authors about the stance toward policing that a Christological pacifist should take. Some equate policing with war and others see a real, and theologically and morally significant, difference between the two. Interestingly, one place of seeming mutual agreement among the authors is an appreciation for the moral seriousness and praiseworthy sacrificial ethic of many who do engage in military violence from a just war or love-of-neighbor perspective. They wholeheartedly reject any crusader or “realism” stance, but recognize the moral seriousness of certain forms of violence even while arguing it is not an example of faithful Christian discipleship.
My most pressing concern, after the aforementioned issue of the Christian response to injustice, is a reliance in some of the essays on the “Constantinian trope.” This trope has been common at least since Yoder. In sum, it goes like this: For the first three centuries of the Christian movement the vast majority of Christians rejected the use of violence and the most widespread understanding of faithful discipleship was a pacifistic one. Post-Constantine, and the rise of Christianity to respectability and eventually political power, Christians created various excuses to ignore the clear teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. There was a sort of “fall” somewhere in the fourth century that has plagued Christianity ever since. To overcome this horrible mistake we must get back to the teachings of Jesus, i.e. become thoroughly Christological, and understand that those earliest Christians understood the message of Jesus more clearly than the majority of those who came post-Constantine. While there is clearly some rhetorical power to this story, and there is truth in it, it masks the ways in which many of those who have defended just war theory have done so from seriously reasoned theological reflections on justice and love. While it may be helpful in converting people to Christian pacifism, its usefulness among scholars has worn out. I wish the authors would have avoided it.
In the end, the book serves as a defense of a specific type of Christian pacifism. It is a defense of the form of pacifism that has been most famously been defended by Stanley Hauerwas, with a great debt to John Howard Yoder, and is both a response to those who are not Christian pacifists and those whose Christian pacifism is not “Christological enough” for the editors’ and authors’ liking. I read the book as one who probably falls into the latter category and, while not agreeing with every stance taken in the book, found it a stimulating read that challenged me intellectually and spiritually. For these reasons, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in such questions. Also, I believe that several of the essays would do quite well as assigned readings in undergraduate courses in Christian ethics.
*My one caveat is that one not necessarily read the book straight through. The order of the questions seem disjointed to me, and I would recommend reading them in the order of most pressing concern to the reader (which, of course, its form allows). The editors made the decision to include the “practical” questions first and the the “biblical/theological” questions in the second half of the book. This decision seems confused to me, as I would think someone seeking answers to their questions about Christian pacifism might start the other way around, but the nature of the book does not require one begin with chapter one.