Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Is the problem with pacifists "pacifists who are cowards?" That's what a UMC pastor in Franklin, Tenn. suggests. The most I ever risked through nonviolent direct action was about five hours in jail and a $50 fine (UMC pastors don't get fired for such activity; they have to get involved with the ladies in the congregation, or the church bank account, for that to happen).

Still, I think this pastor, a former artillery officer struggling to be faithful to the nonviolent Jesus, is being too hard on himself, and others. Everyone tends toward cowardice when they feel they are alone--that's why the Army puts at least four guys in a trench instead of one guy in a foxhole. What pacifists need is each other, in communion and mutual support. My colleague, Rev. Mary Lawrence, about 60 years old, is now part of a Christian Peacemaker team in Hebron, praying with her life on the line every day. But she's not alone. We need each other. Anyone out there listening?

Monday, October 07, 2002

Greetings, gentle reader! I am a United Methodist pastor, serving the Church Hill UMC, thirty miles south of Boston. I am working on a dissertation in practical theology at Boston University. My thesis is that in a postChristendom age, the radical believers church ecclesiology of absolute nonviolence deserves the respectful hearing it has never received to date. You can send comments to me for posting here:

Sunday, October 06, 2002


How is it that religious Americans can be so divided on such a vital issue as war? Think about it: We all read sacred texts that speak of a compassionate God (Christian, Jewish, or Islamic), or of a compassionate universe (Buddhist, Hindu). We read similar commandments to do unto our neighbor, as we would want our neighbor to do to us. And yet, when it comes to the ultimate ethical question of engaging in the mass homicide that is modern warfare, we are utterly divided. How can this be?

I can speak only for my own Christian tradition when I suggest that the answer has its roots 1700 years ago, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that henceforth his Empire was to be the Holy Roman Empire, and that his armies would march under the sign of the Holy Cross. The Christian God was called upon to defend civilization from the invasion of barbarian hordes, and ever since it has been accepted by almost all Christians that participating in a “just war” to defend one’s country can be a vocation blessed by God.

So it is with the current debate on a possible invasion of Iraq. Christians who support an invasion maintain that we have not only a right, but also a duty to protect innocent people from a future Iraqi attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Other Christians oppose the invasion because it would violate international law, and it would destablilize the region politically. In short, the arguments on both sides seem to assume that the teachings of Jesus have nothing directly to say on the matter. The arguments are not about whether war is wrong, but only about whether this particular war is wrong. Why can Christian Americans be so divided on this issue? It is because for 1700 years almost all of us have accepted a way of following Jesus that includes, under some circumstances, going to war.

I said that “almost” all Christians accept the concept of a just war, and “almost” no Christian argues that all war is wrong. Because they are so few, the believers in a gospel of absolute nonviolence are often misunderstood. A good example of this is the word “pacifist,” which means “peacemaker” but sounds “passive.” Active nonviolence is anything but passive, as those who remember the Civil Rights movement can attest.

The best-known “pacifists” in this country are members of the historic peace churches: Quaker, Brethren, and Mennonite. Less well known are the many individuals within the larger churches who have also decided that when Jesus said, “love your enemies,” he wasn’t making an exception for the enemies of my emperor, king, or president. There have always been Christians who have made their countrymen very upset by saying ‘no’ to all war.

My concern is that the arguments for the nonviolent gospel have never been demonstrated to be wrong, but have only been dismissed as impractical. What if, on closer inspection, the arguments of the peace churches were found to be true? Would that mean then that the teachings of Jesus are ‘impractical?’ Would that mean that Jesus is the Word of God when it comes to my personal habits and family values, but that when something bigger is at stake, God’s Word no longer holds true? Or would we then say that we are to worship Jesus, and ask blessings from Jesus, but not to follow him, because Jesus is ‘naïve’ when it comes to real world politics? We can’t answer these questions because we have avoided them. We have ignored the arguments for Christian nonviolence because we fear the consequences if they turn out to be valid.

I am not saying here that the historic peace churches are right on this issue. I am saying that their arguments deserve a fair hearing. If it turns out that Jesus does, after all, bless Christian warfare, we can proceed with our present manner of debating these issues in good conscience. If, on the other hand, we discover that the minority has been closer to the truth all these years, then the majority will have the opportunity to imagine a new kind of church, a new way of discipleship, and a new kind of world that will emerge when new truth is discovered, and acted upon in faith and certain hope.