A congregation member from back in Maynooth was talking to me on the phone this evening and they asked me to write a ten point list about Christians and non-violence. So here goes.
- Fundamentally, you can’t understand the call to non-violence without reflecting on Jesus standing before Pilate. Jesus’ victory comes about through his torture and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, their brutal representative Pilate and the nails driven through his flesh, into the cross by soldiers. Doing serious, prayerful, business with the fact that God responds to military might without militarism fuels the sneaking suspicion that Christians are called to another path.
- Of course, that sneaking suspicion appears to have been a full-on assumption in the early church. Tertullian is representative when he says, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” The early church, not absolutely but in the largest part, took non-violence to be the norm.
- That shifted fairly rapidly when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. He was actually waging war when he had his purported vision that converted him. How bizarre is it that Rome would (more than fifty years after Constantine) adopt Christianity as its official religion? They raise Jesus as their Lord, having previously raised Jesus on to their execution device? But this is how Empire works. An imperial army devastates the opponent and then amalgamates the opponent into itself. Is it fanciful to suppose that Christians need to wrestle with what it means that we have been emeshed into the very systems that killed our Christ?
- And when we think about Rome, we think about Empire and our thoughts turn to how the Bible is always deeply troubled by militaristic regimes. From Egypt to Babylon, from Alexander to Caesar, the stance of the Bible seems to be that the people of God are not meant to play the ideological games of world domination. When Israel asks YHWH for a King so that they can be like the other nations, what warning does he send them through the prophet Samuel? “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.” Is it fanciful to think that Christians are called to be suspicious when power is used to accumulate military force?
- Perhaps you think you’ve spotted a weakness in my argument. I have gladly quoted from the Old Testament. And as Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” and it goes on. How can Christians be called to pacifism if God is not afraid of violence? Well let me answer that by saying that if God calls me to take up a sword, I will take up a sword. Until then, I will leave the outcome of history in his hands, since it is probably safer there than in mine.
- And this is why I don’t say I am a pacifist. That sounds too, well, passive. Instead, I am convinced we are called to the most difficult but also most significant action in the world: prayer. As Karl Barth says, prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. If European Christians had prayed more in the aftermath of World War I, instead of trying to find ways to perfect politics, maybe we wouldn’t have gone so far down the hellish rabbit hole of fascism.
- My great theological hero, Stanley Hauerwas, who convinced me of non-violence, has a slogan. He says it is not our responsibility “to make history come out right”. What he means by this is that faith in God involves trusting that the victory of Christ is real. Nothing humans can do will either damage or hinder God’s plans. We are called to have the faith of the psalmist and the prophets and even of Job, in the face of turbulence, even war. God is in charge. We don’t have to be panicked into actions unworthy of his ambassadors.
- Ambassadors represent the people who sent them. Christ’s ambassadors are sent by someone who dies for the sake of others. For the Christian, there are fates worse than death. This seems to be an inevitable conclusion of Jesus’ claim that the greatest love one can show is that you lay down your life for others. In other words, the chief problem with war is not that you might die, but that you might kill.
- I hope it is becoming clear that the chief motivation for non-violence is not that somehow by being opposed to war we might reduce its occurrence (but how nice would that be?). Rather, in a world of war, Christians have no other option than to be non-violent. Since war is never a battle between goodies and baddies, the people in the right and those in the wrong, no matter how many Hollywood movies try to convince us otherwise. War is the continuation of politics by other means. War is the outcome of the military-industrial complex. War shows up as sharp end of politics and economy, of technology and propaganda, of surveillance, control and power. War is never a simple thing. By the time that Christians have prayerfully and gently deliberated and discerned what is going on, the blitz will have been krieged and the troops will be in play. In other words, war moves faster than the church, when the church is taking itself seriously. We couldn’t catch up even if we wanted.
- But then on another angle, war is always a simple thing. It involves the randomisation of the internal organs of human beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made by their creator, who bear the image of their God, who are sustained by their redeemer. War is not the plan God has for his people. When war breaks out, is the consequence of sin. Better to repent than try to undo the sin with more sin. As Bonhoeffer said, if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. Get off the war train. We don’t need it. We need God. And in Revelation, people walk into God’s city on foot to praise the Prince of Peace. Since that is our future, let us let it shape our present too.
Your Correspondent, If he was a spice, he’d be flour