My Conversion to an Evangelical Pacifism

Nota bene: This essay on my “conversion” to pacifism was first posted at my friend Halden’s blog (Inhabitatio Dei) in an excellent series exploring pacifism from different theological traditions.

“The Most Dejected and Reluctant Pacifist in all America”

In his autobiographical memoir, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes himself on the night of his conversion as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (228-29). In a way, I share this with Lewis, in that I was probably the most reluctant convert to pacifism in all America.

I grew up in a stereotypical American evangelical home, in which all of the usual adjectives apply: Republican, conservative, inerrantist, literalistic, dispensational, creationist. But of all the various descriptors of the evangelicalism in which I was raised, pacifist is not one of them. I grew up rather in the kind of church that sang patriotic “hymns” on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July. I watched (with approval) pastors and elders year after year pray over young men going to serve in the military, giving them the Lord’s blessing and asking for their protection (seemingly unaware that they were asking for the death of their “enemies,” though I did not realize this until much later). I did not bother reading the news or following politics, because I simply assumed that as long as there was a Republican majority in Washington, the right decisions would be made for this country. I viewed pacifists the same way I viewed Catholics and Democrats: they were hopelessly flawed humans whose minds were clearly corrupted by sin.

But that’s not all. I was not merely a non-pacifist; I was resolutely anti-pacifist. I argued in a casual high school class debate in favor of the death penalty. I argued against the appeals process, saying that people sentenced to death should be executed immediately without investigation. In response to the counter-argument that innocent people are often executed, I said that such mistakes should be overlooked since the death penalty has the bonus “virtue” of being a form of population control. Even up through my final year at Wheaton College, I remained thoroughly opposed to pacifism. When a friend of mine came across the arguments against pacifism by John Milbank, I latched onto them, even asking him to send me a copy of the text just so I could add it to my anti-pacifist armory. I never actually read the argument; it was enough that I had it in case I ever actually encountered a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. It was like insurance: the more one has, the safer one feels. (Interestingly, another weapon in my armory was the essay by Lewis, “Why I Am Not A Pacifist,” which was more an argument on the basis of name power, because the arguments in the essay are criminally weak.) But the one thing I never bothered to do was examine the actual arguments for and against pacifism. I never engaged in any investigation of the biblical texts or of the theological presuppositions. And thus my views remained relatively static until my final year at Wheaton College, when I started to read theology—i.e., when I consciously began my journey as a theologian.

The disintegration of my views on violence and peace was, for the most part, indirect. I did not read a book by Yoder or Bonhoeffer or Hauerwas that suddenly changed my mind. No single friend or professor challenged me with a cogent argument for nonviolence. The first direct influence came when I watched the film Romero about Archbishop Oscar Romero for my theology class at Wheaton. I did not realize it at the time, but the seeds for my eventual flip-flop on nonviolence and peace were planted then. In the end, the revolution in my own views was part of the larger disintegration of my relationship with American evangelicalism—at least the form in which I was raised. When the walls of the Religious Right “Jericho” came tumbling down—thanks in large part to Mark Noll, among others—my position against pacifism was dealt a fatal blow. All of this occurred within the past four years, and since then my views have only deepened through thorough study of theology and Holy Scripture.

My “conversion” to pacifism means that I must now face the kinds of arguments which I once used against people like myself. One of the most popular arguments raised against the pacifist position involves some version of the following scenario: A man breaks into your home and threatens your wife and children with death, and the only way to stop him is to kill him. The scenario is the most extreme case possible and is meant to coerce the obvious conclusion: kill the man. There are three problems with this argument: (1) first, the scenario is manipulative and circumvents the issues at stake by coercing a certain response; (2) second, the notion that we can discard the position of non-violence on the basis of an extreme case is highly problematic, since our ethical views should never be arrived at via contrived, manipulative situations; and (3) third, Jesus calls us to respond in a way that does not conform to the values of the world. We find in the Gospel of Matthew one of the hardest sayings of Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). It would be hard to find a more direct response to the situation. Certainly, Jesus does not respond in the way American evangelicals—who tend to worship unborn children, the nuclear family unit, individual rights, and protection of life and property—would like him to respond. But the call of Jesus is clear: we must follow him on the via crucis, on the way of peace and justice, the way of enemy-love and costly discipleship.

In the end, where does this leave me in terms of a tradition? I would like to call myself a Reformed pacifist—a mix between Karl Barth and André Trocmé. But I did not grow up in the Reformed tradition, and I am only Reformed in terms of my theological commitments and not in terms of my ecclesial commitments. I have leanings toward an Anabaptist ecclesiology, but I am uncomfortable with the lower christology and even lower sacramentology that goes along with this movement. I like elements of the Catholic social movements and the liberation theology born in Latin America (e.g., Oscar Romero), but I am neither Catholic nor Latino.

Where does this leave me? I suppose, when all is said and done, that I am an ad hoc pacifist. Karl Barth says of himself that he is a “chastened non-pacifist,” but then later in his Church Dogmatics he calls his position a “practical pacifism.” If Barth himself resides in the gray zone between these two positions, I myself would like to be a practical pacifist. I share Barth’s own discomfort with pacifism as a system, just as I am uncomfortable with universalism as a system. Both of them replace a person with a principle. I would rather place Jesus at the center of my faith and let him determine how I ought to think and to live. Instead of universalism, I confess that Jesus Christ is the Salvator Mundi, the savior of the world. Instead of pacifism, I confess that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and that he has called his people to take up their crosses and follow him in the way of the cross. Practically, this makes me a pacifist. Personally, I think this makes me a Christian.


Natalie said…
Hmmm, I never knew theology classes at Wheaton also watched the Romero film. I thought it was confined to those of us in the Spanish department! Good to know, anyway.

I also never knew you had to be Latino to ascribe to liberation theology... :)

Thanks for sharing your journey!
John P. said…
DW -

I feel as though you and I traveled on similar trajectories (except for the fact that my association with the reformed tradition is more a result of my Presbyterian wife).

Romero was an influential film for me as well, but it was really the film The Mission that represented a watershed moment in my thinking about faith, politics and nonviolence. Watching it in a college course, something about the similar fate that befell both the priests who chose to fight and those who did not gave me pause...

particularly haunting for me were the famous lines:

Hontar: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.
Altamirano: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world...thus have I made it.

My lazy ambivalence towards politics in general and violence specifically was directly challenged by thoughts and conversations with my advisor that were provoked by that film.

Thanks for posting the essay...I could identify with much of your experience.
D.W. Congdon said…

I realize you weren't being serious, but your point about not being Latino to subscribe to liberation theology raises an interesting point - viz. to what extent one can simply adopt a tradition that is not one's own. Obviously, I can adopt liberation theology and Reformed theology on an intellectual level. But it's much different to adopt something a tradition such that it becomes one's own. Because I am a white, middle class suburbanite, I could never enter truly adopt the framework that gave birth to liberation theology. It's not just a matter of adopting the same ideas and thought processes; it's about adopting the same life and ways of seeing the world. Instead of saying that I'm not Latino, it's perhaps more accurate to say that I am not oppressed — and that's the reason I cannot really adopt the liberation movement as my own tradition.
D.W. Congdon said…

I should have mentioned The Mission as well. I watched it the first time when I was too young to understand how profound it was. But I watched it again when a professor at Wheaton showed it to our class at the end of my first year. This time it had a major influence, and my professor clearly wanted to bring out the social and political lessons from this movie. But Romero still had the bigger influence. I'm waiting for it to come to DVD; it's been scheduled for some time now.
dw said…
It was really a better understanding of The Waste Land and Four Quartets that changed your life, and you know it!

dan said…

Not surprisingly, I find your response to Natalie, on the topic of liberation theology, to be rather interesting.

Granted, my own history is not as "suburbanite" nor as "middle class" as your own, but for the first half of my life I was a "white, middle class suburbanite." Was it my minor experience of "homelessness" that opened me up to allowing liberation theology to lead me away from the middle class and away from the suburbs? Maybe. Was it my minor experience of "oppression" that caused me to resonate with, and seek to journey more intimately with, those who had experienced oppression in ways that I, literally, could not imagine? Maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps the difference between us is that I read Latin American Liberation theology and decided to distance myself from some of the things things and places of my past, whereas you seem to have read liberation theology and ended up embracing your distance from that theology -- and from oppression (although I would be inclined to suggest that you are experiencing oppression, but oppression as seduction, not oppression as torture).

Of course, if you find this objectionable (and I'm not sure that you will), you can feel free to disagree with me, and point out how I have misunderstood you.

Grace and peace.
D.W. Congdon said…

I do think you've misunderstood me. I have done my best to distance myself from the bourgeois, individualist framework in which I was raised. But I also don't think my identity is quite as malleable as you may think it is. I don't like the fact that I am more a part of the oppressors than the oppressed, but I also do not think the social nexus in which we live allows me to just voluntary choose a new social identity. I seek to follow Christ the best that I can through the power of the Spirit. That means seeking to witness to the gospel through a rejection of violence, a rejection of materialism, and the pursuit of peace, enemy-love, and justice for the oppressed. But I witness to these as a part of middle class America. That's not a factor I can change, and I think we need to be realistic about that.

For example, I reject capitalism as a system of economic slavery. It is truly an evil framework. But it would be naive of me to think that I can somehow just leave the capitalist system for something more in line with the gospel. I think it is far more appropriate to discern how Christ is calling me to carry my cross within this system, within this broken and sinful world.

Let me be clear: I am not baptizing or blessing these systems, but I also do not think it is realistic or even appropriate to think that we should remove ourselves from these systems in order to follow Christ -- as if one cannot follow Christ in the midst of such systems of oppression.
D.W. Congdon said…
For the record, I disagree with a lot of liberation theology, because much of it reads the gospel as a call to sociopolitical revolution and entirely misses Christ's mission of reconciliation (which alone is truly liberating). So it's not like I read it and chose complacency and comfort instead. I think you've read a lot more into what I said than is really warranted.
D.W. Congdon said…

T. S. Eliot made me a theologian. That I cannot deny. Whether or not he made me a pacifist is different, but certainly related. I still read the Four Quartets regularly as a source of rich spiritual wisdom. The others I read for this same purpose include Dante, R.S. Thomas, Denise Levertov, Czeslaw Milosz, and Scott Cairns.
Alex said…

It's especially interesting for me to read your post and the comments now because I am in the midst of reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion & Embrace and the book explores a lot of what is being said here. I enjoy your blog.

dan said…

I whole-heartedly accept your assertion that I have misunderstood you. I am in no position (whatsoever) to judge your lifestyle as I have no contact (whatsoever) with you in your daily life. My apologies.

However, let me continue to question, not you, but your argument. It seems to me that there is a great deal of Niebuhr lingering around here, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Of course, the term "liberation theology" encompasses many different theologians and many different positions -- even in Latin America. Your critical note is not undeserved, although I think that, by and large, liberation theology actually does a fine job of emphasising the unique, and truly liberating "mission of reconciliation" that Christ had (and has); so, despite the frequent caricatures, I don't think that this is the main problem with liberation theology (i.e. rather than highlighting, say, "political liberation" and neglecting "forgiveness and reconciliation with God," liberation theologians are usually emphatic that we need a both/and, not an either/or). Of course, there are other problems that are more generalised in liberation theology, problems that have been noted by critics like Hauerwas and Dan Bell, Jr., but that is to be expected with an school of (Christian) thought.

That said, let me question you a bit more on some of what you have said.

First of all, I'm actually sort of confused by this statement:

I witness to these as a part of middle class America. That's not a factor I can change, and I think we need to be realistic about that.

I'm really at a loss as to why this is not a factor that can be changed. Ah, Christian realism, it often baffles me. It seems that many others (I won't include myself here) continue to do not only the unrealistic but, by this standard, the impossible!

I mean, I take your point about being aware of one's background and where one is situated, but isn't the Christian life about the pursuit of a trajectory? Isn't the Christian life a pilgrimage? A movement into greater degrees of intimacy with God and with our neighbours? Granted, we all begin somewhere, and we all carry elements of our past with us, but who is to say where we might end up? If capitalism is, as you say, "truly an evil framework" then why do you feel that it is your calling to "carry [your] cross within this system"? Since when did carrying crosses involved crucifying others (which is what this evil system does)? I wanted to say, "Since Niebuhr!" but he is only one of the more recent theologians who taught us that carrying a cross involved crucifying others -- a lesson, alas, that many of us were far too eager to learn.

Unfortunately, such a line of thinking strikes me as just a little too... convenient. Not that I am suggesting that this is why you have argued this way, but it surely is a convenient argument for those who accrue material benefits from this "truly evil framework."

So, how does one follow Christ within such a system? Surely learning to embody an alternative to that system is at least one of our options. After all, isn't a large part of Christianity a reversal of the catchphrase for the U.S. Army? Aren't we those who are engaged in the process of being all we cannot be? (I am appropriating this idea from Brian Massumi's commentary on Deleuze and Guattari.)

Anyway, I hope that you will indulge my quest for understanding. I trust that I have not taken us too far afield from the topic of pacifism -- indeed, I would assert that to be a pacifist while simultaneously refusing to engage in a process of removal from the "truly evil system" in which we live, is actually something of a contradiction. How can one be a pacifist and contribute to the systemic crucifixion of others?

Finally, let me be clear that I write as one who has a great deal of respect for you. I mean no "disrespect" (to use a phrase that means a great deal in my environment) by asking these questions.

Grace and peace.
I have not found low christologies among Anabaptists. But I loved this post, as I said on Halden's blog.
D.W. Congdon said…

I think you and I are in agreement. I have no sympathy for Niebuhr whatsoever, and I should have been more clear about my use of the word "realistic." I am no supporter of the status quo, as if Jesus simply blesses the current state of the world and thus the "realistic" thing to do is just live within the system without challenging it. That is most definitely not my position.

What I mean, quite simply, is that while I do think the Christian life is a pilgrimage, it is still a pilgrimage within the system. We are never going to find Eden here on earth. Wherever we go, we are going to be living and working within a corrupt system. It just so happens that I live and work within a Western, American capitalist system. I believe that this is a structure of sin that the cross of Christ has definitely destroyed. And here and now the Spirit works to shape disciples of Christ to be an embodiment of a new way of existence. Yet this side of the final consummation of all things, we as the ekklesia will never attain to the New Jerusalem. In other words, the pilgrimage will not reach its end in "this world," so to speak.

All I'm saying is that the ecclesial community does its work within a broken and sinful world-system. I am not complacently accepting this system as "just the way things are." I believe the church can and must challenge this system by the empowering presence of the Spirit. But even as we challenge the system, we are still members of it. So when I say "realistic," I mean that we cannot think that we ourselves will someone escape into some brave new world. That world was constituted in Christ, we await its consummation with groans of anticipation (Rom. 8), and here and now we labor in the Spirit, bearing fruit for the kingdom.

So, with you, I do want to see the end of this system, and I believe we as the church must work toward its annihilation (which was accomplished in Christ). But I am uncomfortable with the kind of dualism I hear in your statements which makes it seem like you are either for the system or against it. This is the same black-and-white rhetoric that people use to buttress the system. I want to get past the oversimplifications. It is not all black and white.

I may work toward the system's removal, but I am still a cog in the machine (even against my own will). I still buy groceries at the local supermarket (but I try to curb this as much as possible). I still buy clothes that were made in foreign countries without labor laws. I still drive a car that uses gasoline. I go to a school that participates in the larger secular academy. I buy books that provide huge profits to major corporations. So and so forth. To deny that I am part of the system would be utterly naive. And as much as I seek to be a witness against the system, I am still caught within it. That is what I mean by "realistic." I am not advocating for a static acceptance of this framework of oppression, but I also do not want to fall into a kind of dualism (pro-system, anti-system) because the world is much too complex for that.

I hope this helps explain myself more clearly. I want you to know that we are allies in our fight against these systems of oppression. I completely affirm the notion that the church must be about the impossible ("with God all things are possible"). But I also want to engage in this ministry of reconciliation with a sober eye.

Finally, I believe that the cross alone is truly "realistic." What we see -- the systems of oppression, the structures of evil in our world today -- are, as Barth rightly called them, Nothingness. They have no positive content, and they are doomed to destruction. Only the cross and resurrection are truly real, and the church lives out of this reality, this "new creation." If I am going to stand anywhere, it is there. The rest of what I said is liable to change, but on this point I say with Luther, "here I stand."
D.W. Congdon said…

See my response on Halden's blog. Feel free to respond here, if you'd like.
A word about traditions: Christianity assumes conversions; new births. So, we are not born into any Christian tradition even if lucky enough to be raised in a Christian family and exposed to a healthy Christian tradition. We don't choose traditions like consumers at a market, but maybe we discover which tradition is our home.
In a post-modern, ecumenical, age, all traditions are influenced by others. So, even if one tradition is clearly our home (a Barth-influenced strand of the Reformed tradition for you, perhaps?), there will also be other influences. I don't think one needs to adopt every aspect of any of the liberation theologies (Latin American or otherwise) to acknowledge an influence, etc.

All of us are ad-hoc and cobbled together to some extent. But the "non-denominational" American evangelical is more ad hoc than otherwise and risks having U.S. culture dictate terms more than it should. Ecclesial homelessness is risky.
Yoder was a committed Chalcedonian. His Christology differed very little from Barth except for giving far more credence to the life and teachings of Jesus. However, Yoder frequently used language that would communicate that his conclusions would fit a large range of theological positions.

The only Mennonite theologian of whom I am aware who is not committed to Nicea and Chalcedon is Gordon Kaufman--and the disagreements between the two were legendary.
Natalie said…
It seems like I introduced a red apologies! Good discussion, though.
D.W. Congdon said…

I think the issue with Yoder is that he tends, at times, to blur the distinction between Christ's work and our work. I noticed this in The Politics of Jesus. But you're right, he's a committed Chalcedonian — although so was Schleiermacher, for that matter. I think Yoder is closer to Schleiermacher than Barth, if that's helpful. It's not low, but not really high. George Hunsinger calls it a "middle" christology, which I think is probably closer to the mark.

Also, you're quite right about the ad hoc nature of all traditions today. I certainly subscribe to a Barthian Reformed theology, but I couldn't call this a tradition -- a theological tradition, sure, but not an ecclesial one.

You're also right about the dangers of American non-denominationalism. Without a tradition, modern culture ends up dictating the shape of one's life.

I wouldn't call myself "homeless," because I think I do have a home in a broader, ecumenical evangelicalism. It's certainly not as rooted as Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but it's a tradition nonetheless. I'm not entirely happy with it, but it wouldn't be any better just picking a denomination. That's just as ad hoc as anything else, and I feel a calling to American evangelicalism. I would rather be faithful to the communities in which God has placed me, rather than simply "jump ship" and choose a new tradition (which really wouldn't be who I am).
David, you may be the first person ever to suggest that Yoder was closer to Schleiermacher than Barth. His method and approach are Barthian and he never even MENTIONS Schleiermacher in all his writings! Barth's influence is very notable all through Yoder's writings--as is the influence of the "Biblical theology movement" of Markus and Christoph Barth, Oscar Cullmann, and others.

It's not that Yoder never interacts with theological liberals. He had a sustained critique of Reinhold Niebuhr and a different, but equally powerful one of H.Richard Niebuhr. Yoder interacted with the Boston Personalism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and had running public disagreements with such well known liberals as Philip Wogaman, James Gustafson, and Sallie McFague. But in all Yoder's writings, I see nothing showing any beginning from experience, any location of Christ's divinity as "God-consciousness" or any reference at all to Schleiermacher.
The only place I can think of where you could get such a mistaken (it is not often I use a blunt term like "mistake" with as brilliant a theologian as you, David) view of The Politics of Jesus is in the opening chapter where Yoder is criticizing all the many ways that Jesus is dismissed from political significance, including orthodox ways. But he doesn't say that orthodoxy is wrong, only that it's dismissal of Jesus as normative for ethics is wrong!

I have great respect for your teacher, George Hunsinger. I would bow almost always to his interpretation of Barth--but, with all due respect, I probably know Yoder's thought better than he does. I can think of only a handful of Yoder scholars who know his thought better than myself (Mark Theissen Nation, Glen H. Stassen, Craig Carter--with one or two reservations--, Marva Dawn, Willard Swartley, the late James Wm. McClendon,Jr., his widow, Nancey Murphy--with a bobble or two, Duane K. Friesen, and Gayle Gerber Koontz).

Also, Yoder is not the only Mennonite (much less only Anabaptist) theologian. If you read the "Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective," I doubt your could find much fault with the Christology.
D.W. Congdon said…

I am more than happy to concede that my knowledge (and Hunsinger's knowledge, for that matter) of Yoder is grossly lacking. I have no reason to reject or question your insistence that Yoder is closer to Barth than Schleiermacher. But I should say that I think Schleiermacher is both orthodox and Chalcedonian, so I don't think my comment was nearly as much of a criticism as you may think it is.

Also, I have read the Mennonite Confession and I think very highly of it. You'll notice I used a selection of it in my first post in the PET series.