When it comes to issues of nonviolence and pacifism, every Christian has an opinion. It is not just about whether to join the military. Even the decision to call the police when you feel that your family is in danger is a reflection of what one thinks about nonviolence. It is important to wrestle with these questions, especially as there is a long tradition of pacifism within Christianity. Before I continue the review, I must disclose the fact that I am a military chaplain serving in a Canadian Forces reserve unit.
Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer have provided a helpful resource by editing this collection of essays dealing with a variety of questions about Christian nonviolence. By titling this book A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, the editors do not mean to disparage the worth of Christianity. Christianity is worth dying for, it is just not worth killing for.
The editors have gathered a number of talented authors to respond to many of the common questions about Christian nonviolence. As soon as one confesses to being a pacifist, they immediately are challenged by questions of “what about...?” and the authors in this collection address those questions.
The questions dealt with in this book include: passivity of pacifism, protection of innocents, protection of loved ones, defending against Hitler, attitudes toward police protection, feelings toward soldiers who died for freedom, applying the sermon on the mount to nations, violence in the Old Testament, Romans 13, Jesus bringing a sword, Jesus’ response to the centurion, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and warrior imagery in Revelation. This is a good collection of important questions that deserve answers.
There is much that is good in this book. The book is fairly comprehensive in terms of the range of topics addressed. The authors are very honest about their own views and respectful towards those who are different. For example, Robert Brimlow, in responding to questions about Hitler, does not pretend that passive resistance would have defeated Hitler but admits that pacifism would have led to defeat and likely death. Also, Justin Bronson Barringer, in dealing with those who gave their lives for political freedom, treats veterans very respectfully and acknowledges their courage. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the potential to give others a glimpse into the world of the Christian pacifist. While this book is unlikely to convert non-pacifists, it is useful in terms of removing some of the mystery of what pacifists believe. If this book helps to diminish some of the conflict between pacifists and non-pacifists, it will have done much good.
As a military chaplain, I obviously was going into this book with the belief that Christianity and military service are compatible. However, I had some problems with A Faith Not Worth Fighting For aside from not wanting to lose my job. One of the problems is with a lack of clarity with regard to the purpose for the book. While in some chapters the book is treated as an apologetic for pacifism, presumably to make Christian nonviolence more agreeable, this is not always clear. Robert Brimlow writes: “I am assuming that if you have read this far in this fine book—that is, you are neither a student slogging through an assignment nor my wife being her dutiful self—you are most likely in accord with the views that have been presented thus far.” (p. 44) Even when the authors are not so explicit, they often write with the assumption that the readers are agreeing with their presuppositions. Instead of arguing for pacifism, this book seems to be assuming pacifism is true and from that position addresses criticisms.
While some authors did a good job of wrestling with the issues, others provided less satisying treatments. Amy Laura Hall and Kara Slade wrote the chapter “What Would You Do if Someone Were Attacking a Loved One?” This is an aspect of pacifism that is close to people’s hearts. While we have a choice (at least in many countries) whether or not to join the army or the police, we do not have a choice as to whether our families are attacked. How would a pacifist respond? As Gerald Schlabach’s chapter explains. many pacifists would have a problem calling the police to intervene. Would a pacifist just watch or would they calmly explain to the attacker that they disagree with their actions based on moral grounds? I kept waiting for a clear answer to this question but it never seemed to appear. The authors suggest the question is really about what we would do if a non-white person attacked a loved one and that it is therefore racial in nature. I see no reason to see the question as implying racial discrimination. In a similar way, the authors deal with a husband’s response to his wife’s immenent rape as objectifying the wife and thus being sexist in nature. Again, I do not see the question as requiring such judgments. The authors also argue that the command to love our neighbours does not distinguish between attacker and victim, both deserve our love without any preferential treatment. While I do believe that we are called to love all people, including those who attack our loved ones, the Bible does distinguish between how we treat violent criminals and how we treat their victims.
Another chapter that stood out was Ingrid Lilly’s “What about War and Violence in the Old Testament?” There is a strong military theme that is found throughout the Old Testament. Unless one is to become a Marcionite and reject the Old Testament, Christians must wrestle with these passages. Lilly correctly points out that these passages have been abused by the church in the past. Some Crusaders saw their violent and brutal actions upon civillians as being justified by the Old Testament. We must reject those interpretations and repent as a church of the crimes of the past. However, the Old Testament is clear that Israel was involved in military activity, actions that were not only allowed by God but were commanded. Lilly rejects the plain sense of the passages and instead argues that: “Slaying the Canaanites is no triumph of religion, but an example of religion’s darkest capacities for evil. I am personally moved to repentance for the religious heritage in the biblical text.” (p. 136) While most Christians are uncomfortable with the war against the Canaanites, it is difficult to deny that God commanded it while taking biblical revelation seriously. Even if one argued against these passages, there are many other Old Testment passages thar describe military action as something commanded by God, including guidelines on how to wage a war. In addition, God in the Old Testament is often described in military terms. When God is called the LORD of hosts, it is not his responsibility for dinner parties but his identity as the Commander of the heavenly armies that is being described. There seems to be only two options for Christian pacifists: 1) deny the Old Testament as divine revelation or 2) argue that God had a major change of heart between the Testaments, transforming from a military leader (who even provides military tactics) to a pacifist at the appearance of Jesus.
I began reading A Faith Not Worth Fighting For as someone who saw Christianity and military service as being compatible. At the same time, I read this book as someone willing to learn. Having read the book, I see pacifism as a viable option for some Christians, but by no means something that is demanded by the Bible. This book is not likely to convert non-pacifists. However, this book is valuable for those interested in learning about Christian nonviolence and for those pacifists who are interested in responses to certain criticisms. A Faith Not Worth Fighting For is definitely a good text for courses on Christian views of war and peace.
Stephen J. Bedard