When new people come to our Mennonite church in North Carolina, whether from other traditions or from no church background, I imagine they are stirred by our views on peace and violence. The strangest part of our religious life is not that we believe that dead people come back to life, or that we try to live like a peasant we believe was God — it is our disposition toward military service.
Could the United States ever do something so heinous that it would become morally necessary for a foreign military to drop bombs on my house? This is the question that was running through my mind on November 11, 2018, when Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, Calif. —a congregation of around 250 souls who were kind enough to invite me to be their pastor five years ago — voted overwhelmingly to embrace pacifism by declaring itself to be a peace church.
The two major streams of Christian engagement on war are pacifism and just war theory, which comes out of Catholic social teaching. The pacifist response to Syria strikes is clearly opposed. As for the just war analysis, it takes a little explaining, but reaches the same conclusion.
THIS SPRING, the Vatican hosted a historic convocation focused on what Pope Francis called “the active witness of nonviolence as a ‘weapon’ to achieve peace.”
Eighty participants from around the world told striking, at times heroic, stories of nonviolent peacemaking at the Rome gathering, convened by the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi International and the Vatican’s justice and peace office.
Many of them arrived directly from situations where they are mediating between violent factions using pragmatic nonviolence fueled by Christian faith—as in Uganda, Iraq, Colombia, and Mexico. Others are engaged in nonviolent peacebuilding in regions recovering from traumatic violence—as in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and the Philippines. Some are active in unarmed civilian accompaniment, shielding people under threat of violence—as in Palestine, Syria, and South Sudan. Theologians, ethicists, and international policy negotiators contributed broader context to the situational experiences.
The conversation focused on four key questions: 1) What can we learn from experiences of nonviolence as a spiritual commitment of faith and a practical strategy in violent situations across cultural contexts? 2) How do recent experiences of active nonviolence help illuminate Jesus’ way of nonviolence and engaging conflict? 3) What are the theological developments on just peace and how do they build on the scriptures and the trajectory of Catholic social thought? 4) What are key elements of an ethical framework for engaging acute conflict and addressing the “responsibility to protect” rooted in the theology and practices of nonviolent conflict transformation, nonviolent intervention, and just peace?
The convocation concluded with an astonishing document, presented to Pope Francis, titled “An appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of gospel nonviolence.” Recommendations included a request for a papal encyclical calling Christians to return to their fundamental vocation of nonviolent peacemaking. That means rejecting just war theory as the “settled teaching” of the church and replacing it with Jesus’ life and teaching as the foremost guide.
And it's an Old Testament law.
Bob Lonsberry of WHAM 1180 AM radio asked the Republican front-runner, "Is there a favorite Bible verse or Bible story that has informed your thinking or your character through life?"
For his final State of the Union address, President Obama delivered a characteristically eloquent and passionate speech. He issued a heartfelt call for unity and cooperation in a country whose political climate is just a few notches short of civil war. He asked us to consider how we might move forward as one nation, affirming our highest ideals rather than the hateful rhetoric of would-be despots.
Obama’s final State of the Union was in many ways a masterpiece of American political theater. He reminded us of the best of our tradition, calling us to live up to our history of welcoming the outsider and being a land of opportunity for all people. Despite the fact that this canonical history is to a great degree aspirational rather than actual, I was at many points uplifted to hear the president invite us to live into the more beautiful aspects of the American Dream.
DAYS AFTER 9/11, a just war philosopher and I were interviewed on Christian radio. I’m a pacifist who served on peace teams in Nicaragua and Iraq. My co-interviewee called for waging war on “terrorists” because we must kill our enemies while loving them. My plea to listen to Jesus and victims of war was scorned.
Two compelling recent challenges to Christian justifications for war are Robert Emmet Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War and Stan Goff’s Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church.
Meagher, a humanities scholar, incorporates listening to veterans of war into his work. Goff writes as someone who was a soldier before being transformed by Jesus.
Three issues in both books—just war, masculine sexual violence, and moral injury—resonate with my peace team encounters with war. Through very different approaches, Meagher and Goff offer the best reflection on these concerns that I’ve seen; both rightly implicate the church.
First, just war has a sordid rather than sanctifying history. Meagher’s survey of ancient literature, scripture, and Christian history reveals its legacy as antithetical to Jesus’ teaching: “Since the time of Constantine ... just war doctrine has served to license and legitimize state and ecclesiastical violence and to draw a convenient, if imaginary, line between killing and murder.”
I wonder if Pope Francis knows that he’s being used to justify bombing Syria.
After an all-day debate on Dec. 2, the House of Commons authorized the British government to begin bombing ISIS in Syria. Hours later, RAF Tornadoes attacked an oil field in eastern Syria.
During the debate, Caroline Spelman, the member of parliament who represents the Church of England in the Commons, noted that, “The Archbishop of Canterbury made it clear that, in his view, force might be necessary to keep the refugees safe.”
Then, citing Pope Francis, she said, “‘Where aggression is unjust, aggression is licit against the aggressor.’ These are views which I share, which is why I will support the motion.”
Yoder became a superstar at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., where he taught for 24 years, respected and admired by fellow church members and Christians who were not Mennonite. Yet, at the same time, he was preying on women, many of them his students. A report has revealed a range of sexual offenses, starting in the mid-1970s, as well as the church’s efforts to keep them quiet.
A couple of folks I really respect – Kate Gould of Friends Committee on National Legislation (aka, the Quaker Lobby), and Jim Wallis of Sojourners – were recently on the O’Reilly Factor. For those of you who don’t watch cable news, this is a television program where Bill O’Reilly basically screams at people and incites hatred of anything non-white, non-rich, and non-Republican. I normally don’t watch the show. But when I heard that Kate and Jim were going to be talking, I tuned in.
I knew almost immediately this wasn’t going to be good. It’s Bill’s program, so he gets to frame the question. Here’s what he asks: Do Christian pacifists have a solution for stopping ISIS?
It’s the wrong question.
What good would it do for three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber dinghy to paddle into the path of a Pakistani steamship? For a tiny fishing boat with unarmed, praying Americans aboard to sail toward an American battleship threatening Nicaragua? For an 80-year-old lady in a wheelchair to stop in front of advancing Filipino tanks? Or for nonviolent protesters to defy the communist rulers of the Soviet Empire?
Soviet communism collapsed. The tanks stopped and a nonviolent revolution succeeded. The American battleship left and the threat of invasion faded. And the U.S. shipment of arms to Pakistan stopped.
Those are just a few of the many dramatic successes of nonviolent confrontation in the last several decades. Everyone, of course, knows how Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution eventually defeated the British Empire and – as the powerful film Selma now reminds us – Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful civil rights crusade changed American history. There have been scores upon scores of instances of nonviolent victories over dictatorship and oppression in the last 50-plus years. In fact, Dr. Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of nonviolence today, has said that the later 20th century saw a remarkable expansion of the substitution of nonviolent struggle for violence. More recent scholarship has not only confirmed Sharp’s comment; it has also shown that nonviolent revolutions against injustice and dictatorship are actually more successful than violent campaigns.
Miles of yellow wheat bend; their leaves / rustle away and wait for the sun and wind.
—From “A Farewell, Age Ten”
We wondered what our walk should mean, / taking that un-march quietly; / the sun stared at our signs—"Thou shalt not kill.”
—From “Peace Walk”
WILLIAM STAFFORD was a poet of the land and a conscience that fanned out over the land. Born in Hutchinson, Kan., 100 years ago—on Jan. 17, 1914—it was perhaps his early intimacy with space and sky that opened him to the mystery of human frailty.
At age 6, he saw two black students at his school being taunted by whites. He stood with them.
Another mystery: He who personifies the term national poet is largely unknown in his nation. Four new books (in his 79 years, Stafford published more than 50 books) published to coincide with his centennial might help redress this situation. Ask Me (Graywolf Press), from which the above excerpts are taken, brings to readers 100 “essential” Stafford poems dealing with his pacifism, his family, Native Americans, and the landscapes of his native Kansas and his adopted Oregon, where many centenary events are scheduled to take place.
Week after bloody week, the chart of killings lengthens. And in Afghanistan, while war rages, a million children are estimated to suffer from acute malnourishment as the country faces a worsening hunger crisis.
Around this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can and should remember the dream Dr. King announced before the Lincoln Memorial, the dream he did so much to accomplish, remembering his call (as the King Center asks) for nonviolent solutions to desperate concerns of discrimination and inequality within the U.S. But we shouldn't let ourselves forget the full extent of Dr. King's vision, the urgent tasks he urgently set us to fulfill on his behalf, so many of them left unfinished nearly 46 years after he was taken from us.
Even as the world’s powers grasped for a last-minute resolution to the crisis in Syria, it remained an open question whether any amount of diplomacy could prevent the conflict from claiming at least one more victim: the classic Christian teaching known as the “just war” tradition.
The central problem is not that the just war doctrine is being dismissed or condemned, but that it is loved too much. Indeed, both sides in the debate over punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons are citing just war theory, but are reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.
ONE SUNDAY EVENING during high school, friends from my Mennonite church and I drove around Lancaster County, Pa., stealing mattresses. Bored by too many evenings of roller skating and Truth or Dare, we, like teenagers everywhere, landed on thievery as the solution to adolescent ennui. Having found out which of our friends were away from home, we showed up at their houses, told their parents about our prank, and swore them to secrecy. Then we clomped up narrow staircases to their sons’ and daughters’ bedrooms and wrestled mattresses back downstairs and onto the bed of a pickup truck. Just before our getaways, we left notes on our friends’ dressers, signed with what we thought was a most clever alias: “The Mennonite Mafia.”
We had no idea that 25 years later, Amish Mafia would be a blockbuster reality show, its first episode attracting 10 times more viewers than there are Amish people. Had you told us then that a bunch of Amish and Mennonite kids growing up a few miles away would someday parlay boredom-induced shenanigans into a hit cable TV series, I don’t know whether we would have been flattered or jealous. Kate Stoltzfus? Rebecca Byler? Lebanon Levi? People with names like these—our “plain-dressing” Amish neighbors and the more conservative Mennonite kids we went to school with—were the butt of our jokes, not the cynosures of popular culture.
Only a few decades after we and our families exited the conspicuous conservatism of plain Anabaptism, mass culture is flocking toward it. From Amish-themed reality TV shows to Christian romance novels with Amish characters and settings, the media have finally landed the lucrative Amish account, although the furniture industry and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” got there first. Americans’ enthrallment with the Amish—and schadenfreude about their sometimes wayward youth—has rarely been more intense.
Last year, 506 murders happened in the city of Chicago — the majority of them in black communities. Similar rates of violence swept through places like Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., New Orleans, and the list could go on and on. I have in my life begun to declare myself a pacifist. I have made this change because I think, as a black man, the only recourse for me is to try and stop violence that happens in so many black communities. Turning the other cheek, responding with a gentle answer, forgiving a misunderstanding: these are the paths to recovery in my neighborhood.
The “if someone hits you, hit them back” mentality is destroying black men at an alarming rate. Dads, teach your boys to talk it over, look the other way, or keep walking when things begin to escalate.
Whenever I talk with people about Jesus and nonviolence, a curious thing happens. Someone will inevitably raise his hand (and it’s always his hand), call me a wuss, and then accuse me of making Jesus-Christ-Our-Lord-And-Savior into my own wussy image.
First, the accusation that I’m a wuss is totally true. No one can surpass my wussiness. I run from confrontation, and if I ever get into a fight my money is on the other guy.
Now, to the second accusation that a nonviolent Jesus is a projection of my own wussy imagination: That is false and, in fact, the reverse is true – a violent Jesus is a god made in our own image. As a self-professed wuss, I would love a bad-ass-machine-gun-toting Jesus who violently defends me against my enemies. I want the Jesus depicted in Saturday Night Live’s sketch DJesus Ucrossed. (A sketch satirizing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.) As David Henson brilliantly states in his post “DJesus Uncrossed: Tarantino, Driscoll and the Violent Remaking of Jesus in America,” the sketch “pulls back the curtain and shows us just how twisted our Jesus really is: We want a Savior like the one SNL offers. We want the Son of God to kick some ass and take some names. Specifically, our enemies’ names.”
In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.