Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part I: The American Problematic

Last week I wrote a post in which I argued that there can be no coherent account of Christian martyrdom from a perspective of justifiable violence; put positively, only Christian pacifism can offer a coherent account of willingly dying by others' hands ("murder to no good end"). This week I posted ACU English Professor Bill Carroll's response, critiquing numerous aspects of what I wrote, of Lee Camp's position, and of what he has seen in the work of John Howard Yoder, particularly from the perspective of belonging to the American context and the apparent implication of simply (or rather, simplistically) allowing oppression to go on undistressed by our own privileged lethargy. The key historical example would be Hitler; the present and ongoing case, Darfur.

Instead of a one-off response to Dr. Carroll, or an interminably long reply addressing each particular criticism, I thought I would instead respond through a series of posts, taking the necessary time precisely and articulately to state my own position, and the general position with which I identify and espouse and long for other Christians to take as their own. All modern Christan pacifist roads lead back to Yoder, and so we will use him as our guide, especially his collection of essays entitled The Original Revolution. His patient and deliberate ecumenical articulation of Jesus' call to all disciples to repent and to become part of a new people, devoid of all violence, lies, and oppression, involving necessarily the renunciation of the sword as a legitimate tool even for the work of justice, is in all respects the singular and seminal explication of the peace entailed in following the crucified Messiah of Israel. Hopefully we will find in his work a voice that aids rather than intensifies our disagreements.

Initially I would like to address the question of being an American, and the problematic it raises for any discussion of peace and violence. Dr. Carroll is right: anytime a white middle-class academic claims not to participate in some aspect of "regular" life, beware! Without a doubt the most fearful sort of puritan is a tenured one. So I want (briefly!) to address my own personal coming to Christian pacifism, and hopefully that sharing and that honesty will set the stage for similar and helpful dialogue as we move forward.

For seven weeks in the summer of 2006 I was part of a nine-person missions internship in Jinja, Uganda. (You can read more about my time there here.) I had just completed my sophomore year at Abilene Christian University, majoring in Biblical Text. The question of America, war, and Christian faith had not failed to come up in my time so far in college, or in high school before. In high school I had a couple years of devoted anti-Americanism, and was fiercely opposed to the Iraq war when it began in March 2003. However, beginning in my last year of high school, and leading into my first year or two at ACU, I slowly grew (by reading, i.e., by intellectual conviction) more and more politically conservative, to the point that I could not only justify World War II to an impassioned pacifist friend, I could probably justify the Bush Administration's preemptive policy. Not that I necessarily agreed -- but I could see the argument.

In Uganda, multiple factors conspired together to initiate my conversion (and conversion is the exact word for it) from "just war" to pacifism: the context; reading Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship; and the apprenticeship of Spencer Bogle, one of the missionaries there and my former youth minister. Especially powerful was a week we spent in Rwanda, in which we spent time at the genocide memorial and at a Kigali church preserved as it was on the initial day of the massacre. We actually flew out of Kampala, headed for Heathrow, the day after the plot in London was thwarted to overtake 10 flights over the Atlantic and crash them into the sea. It was a unique and startling moment to watch President Bush's press conference on our last night in Uganda; the language, the assumptions, the anger, the hubris, the body language -- all of it, seen with eyes made new by the previous two months.

I needn't detail the endless, infinitesimal details that led from Point A to Point B. Suffice it to say, I had never encountered the case Camp presented in Mere Discipleship. I learned the meaning of "eschatology." I read of the "already/not yet," of the "principalities and powers," of the strangely unbiblical presumptions of Christians in powerful nations or of awful events in supposedly "evangelized" nations like Rwanda. In short, I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news that the old age is ending and the new has begun, that the kingdom of God has come near, that all are called to repent and follow the one crucified and risen and now reigning as Lord.

And I heard this call as I came to know and love, and share life with, my Basoga brothers and sisters in Christ. These men and women of unsentimental, unromantic poverty, largely powerless, were mostly (according to the world) confined to a small portion of land in a little village in a relatively insignificant country on a hungry and disease-stricken continent. Yet the gospel proclaims: Here is God's people. The gathering together of three dozen, or 100, or a mere handful of these men and women and their children is the ekklesia, the church of the Lord Jesus. And each Musoga is a Spirit-empowered disciple of Jesus, a member of the coming age in which there will be only truth, only love, only peace.

Seeing this in the flesh, and not merely in ink on a page, helped me not to sit back and merely "be convicted" in all of my undeniable privilege and affluence. Returning to America, things could never be the same for my life again. The twin implications of Christian discipleship would forever be intertwined: life with and service to the poor, and renunciation of violence.

Now, of course this still is not necessarily "hard," particularly with regard to nonviolence. Unless I came home and gave away my possessions and now live as an enemy-loving homeless man, I can hardly claim the unassailable integrity of what I profess. On the other hand, I take the apparent ease with which my given context allows me to "say" I am a pacifist not as an excuse or a loophole or a happy accident, but precisely as a challenge. I do not live in a world devoid of violence, nor are my neighbors' lives or beliefs untouched by it. I live in a country that has and is the most powerful, most formidable, most active, and most widespread military force in the history of the planet. Most of the men and women with whom I worship take it for granted (or believe with conviction) that this is a positive, and/or beneficent, and/or providential state of affairs. They also believe, as I once did, that to support and even to participate in this reality is a virtue befitting disciples of Jesus. To me, this is the ideal place to be a voice for the peace of Christ. No, I am not confronted by violence, systemic or persecutorial or random, on a regular basis. So no, for better or worse, I do not regularly have to "stand up" in peaceful resistance to the threat of violence, to me or to my family.

But I am where I am, and I live where and what I have been given to live. For a time my wife and I felt called to missions in a dangerous part of the world, and here in the American city my wife's vocation takes her into the heart of the most violent and ugly places in the world. We may yet be called by God into regular danger; we may yet be asked to submit to the horrors of this fallen world. As it is, so far as I can conceive or obey, we must be faithful where we are; and the only faithfulness I know is the faithfulness of the broken body of Christ, given for you and for me, and the peace we have received from God in it.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Brad,

    Your post is eloquent, and I enjoyed reading it. More importantly, it is clearly composed by a heart led by the Spirit. The apology for your position has me worried that it could be construed that I am attacking Yoder's, Camp's or your positions, which makes me want to nuance my critique. My knowledge of Yoderian Christian pacifism actually comes more from friends and acquaintances from Quaker and Mennonite traditions than from Yoder's writings, and I respect their beliefs immensely. In my opinion, their tradition brings much less unwanted baggage than my own American Restoration Southern Protestant heritage (the church historians here can guide me to a better descriptor, I am sure).

    Camp and I share a tradition, one that helped shape us, and one that sometimes causes us to cringe. I respected him immensely while we were in college (I believe he was a senior when I was a first-year student--but on a small campus, everyone knows everyone), and his first book knocked the remaining emotional ties to nationalism out of me (something my wife thought was long overdue). I so much want to agree with his brand of pacifism, but my context makes it difficult. I have had nearly four decades of listening to men (and women as well) use God's Word to tell women to submit to abusive husbands while no one is willing to step into the messiness of the situation to protect them from the final blow. Catching the hand delivering the blow is itself an act of violence--it requires a bullying application of strength. I want to be Christ and have my words cause men to lay down their stones, but, and I do not claim this is right, I will try to catch that hand. In fact, I have done so, and I only bring it up to say that I know it is an act of violence that itself leaves a mark when you choose to use it. But even if only for a moment, it also shelters the weak.

    Which brings me to your own iteration of pacifism. I owe you an apology if I stated or implied your views were simplistic or naive--that type of move is a rhetorical strategy employed to hide a failure of argument--and at any rate, I don't believe your views are either. The main rejoinder that I wanted to add is that becoming Christ in this world is a complicated process. My wife dislikes all of our Christian songs and sayings that rely on militaristic and combative metaphor or imagery (In my cheekier moods, I ask her if she would like to remove the passages about the full armor of God, etc), but I understand her and your fears about these. At the same time, I wonder what it means to be harmless as doves while wise as serpents. We live in a complicated world. History shows us that time and again, violence begets violence, and yet it has demonstrated that a failure to take action to stem violence begets violence. And if I hear one more person in our context quote Tertullian to account for why we let the powerful slaughter the poor, I think I will scream. That is the gospel translated by Machiavelli. All of that is to say--Brad, I understand and agree with your arguments, but life gets in the way of listening to my head sometimes. I have faith that ultimately the battle is won, but I am not sure in every circumstance how that plays out in a world that is not yet the kingdom in its fullness.


  3. Bill,

    Thanks for the swift comment! First, no need for apologies -- I'm taking this opportunity to attempt to do a lot more than reply to your criticisms, so please don't hear some of my claims or points as in any way counteracting what I perceive to be what you said. I haven't heard one ounce less than utter respect, conviction, and kindness from you. But I do think your critique was valid, helpful, and names particular pitfalls for those of us convinced of pacifism and hoping to convince others of it.

    Thank you, though, once again for your continued dialogue and heartfelt comments. Some of what you mentioned (abuse, justice, women, oppression, simplistic accounts, etc.) are exactly what I hope to address in the next week or two, so I am sure we will continue to have much to talk about!

  4. I loved it.
    I loved it.

    P.S. I've been writing in my blog too dude. Check it out.