In the late 1980s, when I was pastoring a Mennonite congregation on the west coast, I became friends with a Lutheran pastor. Soon after we met, when he realized I was a Mennonite, he asked (with a glint in his eye),
So you must be a pacifist? That triggered numerous friendly but intense debates about the theological and practical possibility of Christian pacifism.
My friend’s automatic association of Mennonites with pacifism is typical. I well know that the history of pacifism among Mennonites is more ambiguous than my friend realized.(1) However, I affirm the designation of the Mennonite church as a
peace church, and I believe one of the most important tasks for Mennonite theologians remains that of understanding the full implications of our pacifist convictions for all aspects of our life and thought.
I write this essay as one small attempt to take on the task of Mennonite peace theology. I will set pacifism in the context of the ferment in the contemporary world which many see as characterizing a time of transition between the modern and postmodern eras.(2) I will do this initially through some autobiographical reflections that illustrate the connection between pacifism and critiques of modernity. I will then summarize a few elements of what I will call
postmodern sensibilities that I believe dovetail with a pacifist perspective on life.
I believe that the postmodern situation in which we find ourselves is potentially friendly to a pacifist way of knowing. Those of us with pacifist commitments should welcome the deconstruction of the modern worldview, and with renewed commitment, we should seek to think and act in all areas of life in light of our peaceable convictions.
It has been a little more than twenty-four years since I first made a pacifist commitment. I am more convinced all the time that this choice (or
acceptance) was truly one of the two or three definitive personal commitments of my life.(3)
Pacifism, for me, meant, first of all, a realization that I could never participate in warfare. In time, my pacifist commitment expanded greatly. I came to understand pacifism to mean a positive affirmation of shalom (peace, in a broad sense, as kindness, respect, justice, restoration of brokenness). Ultimately, I came to understand pacifism as a way of knowing, a way of understanding God and all of reality.
My church involvement (becoming a Mennonite), my vocational path (as a pastor for ten years and now as a college professor), my scholarly interests, the focus of my friendships, my family life as a husband and parent, have all been decisively shaped by my pacifist commitment.
A. Conversion to pacifism. I grew up in a loving, vaguely religious home, the fourth of five children. Both of my parents were proud veterans of World War II. They definitely did not espouse pacifism in any explicit way.
When I was seventeen, I became a Christian and began attending the local Baptist Church. The ideology I received in my church closely identified God and country. As a young man facing the possibilities of being drafted into a wartime military, I struggled over on-going issues of war and peace. As it turned out, the year I turned nineteen was the year the draft ended. However, the issues remained alive for me.
In the spring of 1976, in one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life, I came to the unshakable realization that I could never fight in war. I had no awareness of the Christian peace tradition or Mennonites, I was not aware of anyone I knew being a pacifist. I simply knew in my heart that I could never fight in war, that violence toward other human beings was not to be part of my life.
Twenty-four years ago I defined pacifism simply as my knowledge that it would be wrong for me to fight in war. My definition now is still fairly simple:
Pacifism is the belief that nothing is as important as love, kindness, and peaceableness. One consequence of this belief is a complete rejection of violence under any circumstances. For a pacifist, peaceableness is the central orienting point of life. Nothing else ranks as highly - not the responsibilities of citizenship in a nation-state, not punishing wrong-doers, not using
unavoidable violence in order to defend people or values.
I am a
Christian pacifist. For a Christian pacifist, this central orienting point of peaceableness is understood in terms of the character of God. The understanding of God for Christian pacifists includes the central affirmation that God is a peaceable God, definitively revealed in Jesus Christ.(4)
In my view,
pacifism means, above all, a love of peace (peace defined as the Old Testament uses shalom: wholeness, well-being for all people, healing, harmony, justice). Pacifism is a positive concept. Nothing takes priority over shalom. One consequence of this commitment, certainly, is an unalterable rejection of the use of violence. However, when non-violence is seen to be the core, we are still allowing violence to set the terms. The peace which pacifists love is not simply a lack of violence. It is wholeness, harmony, restoration of relationships, healing of brokenness.
B. Skepticism of the modern worldview. As I look back, I see that my growing in a pacifist way of knowing led to a fairly rapid discarding of various principles of the modern worldview.(5) I will share several of these in order to illustrate how pacifism may (should, I believe) be seen as fundamentally incompatible with key elements of the modern worldview. The second half this paper will then argue that elements of emergent postmodern sensibilities potentially provide space for articulating and living out a thorough-going pacifist approach to life.
The first principle to fall was that of nationalism. The growth of nationalism in Europe, certainly inherited in the United States, corresponds with the emergence of the modern worldview following the disintegration of medieval Christendom. Nationalism, of course, was an integral part of Reformation-era Christianity - and, as I mentioned, was part of the Christianity I was taught after my conversion.(6)
My pacifist commitment preceded my rejection of nationalism, but that rejection soon followed. I first became a pacifist, and then in light of that commitment I came to see the Vietnam War and other United States interventions in third world settings as morally corrupt. A pacifist view of life directly undercut my (modernistic) nationalism.
A second principle of the modern worldview that my pacifism soon undercut was the quest for absolute certainty. For me, as a fundamentalist Christian, this quest for certainty centered on an affirmation of the perfect errorlessness (inerrancy) of the Bible.(7) I accepted the assumption that without an inerrant Bible we could be certain of nothing in the realm of faith, and that without certainty, our faith was but a wisp of vapor.
So, when the so-called battle for the Bible emerged among evangelical Christians in the late 1970s, I placed myself firmly in the camp of the inerrantists. However, while reading the widely circulated pro-inerrancy screed by Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, my pacifist convictions led me to a major shift in thinking. The harshness of Lindsell’s invective shocked me - and made me ask some serious questions about his position. Would one on the side of God’s truth (a God I now knew to be unalterably peaceable) need to resort to such verbal violence? This question evaporated the blinders I had been wearing, and before I even finished Lindsell’s book I saw many of his arguments as specious or worse.
The falling of this house of cards, ultimately built from modernity’s anxiety about certainty (can we know anything if we can’t know it for sure) was liberating for me. I did not need an inerrant Bible to know God as peaceable, to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace, to know my brothers and sisters as partners in peacemaking. The knowledge of love, of relationship, is not knowledge based on modernistic absolutes.
A third principle of the modern worldview that my pacifism soon undercut for me was the belief in scientific progress as the epitome of human aspiration. This faith in science ran aground in face of nuclearism.(8) My pacifist commitment, which had freed me from nationalism, now helped me to realize that our society’s acceptance of the
inevitable need for devoting incredible resources continually to expanding and improving our nuclear arsenal was, pure and simple, idolatry.
My pacifism caused me to reject idealizing scientific progress, and to see that nuclearism was only one expression of many of the modern worldview’s idolatry of humankind’s domination over and exploitation of nature.
The fourth change in my perspective resulting from my pacifist commitment came with regard to how I understood ethics. Modernity has tended to think of ethics primarily in terms of principles, of objective analyses of right and wrong, of abstract normative standards.(9) My acceptance of this understanding of ethics faltered in the late 1970s due to my early encounters with the issue of homosexuality.
In, say, 1978, I had no doubts about the truthfulness of the principle that homosexuality was wrong, that it was counter to the clear standards of Christian faith, especially as found in the Bible. However, my pacifism led to a major crisis of faith for me when I was confronted with the personal dynamics of this issue. The key turning point for me came when my hometown, Eugene, Oregon, experienced an intense, highly controversial political campaign in which voters ultimately repealed the city council’s anti-discrimination law, which had explicitly forbidden discrimination based on homosexuality. I was shocked and thrown into a crisis of conscience by the way my fellow evangelical Christians displayed such hostility toward gays and lesbians.
My crisis of conscience, among other things, focused on the tension, even contradiction, between my peaceable heart and my ethics-as-principles mind. Ultimately, in confusion, I simply did not vote on the ballot measure. However, out of my need for coherence within myself I soon came to realize that any approach to ethics that placed principles above people, that would justify the type of hostility and verbal violence I had been seeing in the name of ethical principles, was inherently incompatible with my deepest pacifist convictions.
I came to see that, indeed, Christian ethics are based on normative standards. But these standards are relational, not abstract. That is, as Jesus taught,
the law is for human beings, not human beings for the law. The normative standards for Christians are those practices which foster peace and heal broken relationships.
So, within four years of my conversion to pacifism, I had undergone a major shift in my worldview. I came to reject at least four aspects of the modern worldview - nationalism, the quest for certainty, idealizing scientific progress, and ethics as principles - all as a direct consequence of my pacifist commitment and my emerging pacifist way of knowing.
II. Postmodern Sensibilities
My graduate studies, first at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in peace studies and then at the Graduate Theological Union in ethics, were basically a process of furthering my movement toward a pacifist way of knowing. My direct encounter with two brilliant thinkers and teachers, John Howard Yoder at AMBS and Robert Bellah at the GTU, was crucial. However, probably even more significant was simply my own efforts to think consistently as a pacifist and push the implications of that core commitment as far as I could in my studies.
When I first heard the term
postmodern applied to philosophy and theology in the mid-1980s I found it attractive, as I had come to understand myself as having rejected many aspects of the modern worldview (as sketched above). The postmodern sensibility seemed to me to contain several elements which supported, or at least made space for, a genuinely pacifist way of knowing.
I remained committed to the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My pacifist convictions had led me to conclude that in many ways the modern worldview was incompatible with Jesus’ way. In the postmodern critique, I saw hope for making room for a reappropriation of Jesus’ message of peace.
I never found the extreme skepticism of some postmodern thinkers attractive — nor saw it as an inherent threat to my pacifism. Postmodern sensibilities seemed to me to be a tool, a basis for critique making possible the appropriation of non-modern notions of truth as relational and peaceable.
Richard Tarnas argues that postmodernity sees all traditions and assumptions as temporary, as steps along the way - but never as final destinations or unchanging absolutes. (10) This questioning of authority includes religious dogma (a questioning certainly characteristic of the modern worldview as well), but also a questioning of other sources of authority including modern science, which Tarnas believes replaced Christianity as the supreme world-defining authority for the modern worldview and modern philosophy.
I agree with Daniel Liechty in ascribing my attraction to this postmodern suspicion of authority to my pacifism. In sketching a process similar to my own, Liechty writes of how his grappling with the issue of theological authority followed from his desire
to work out a consistently pacifist theology. He sought a theology which placed living peaceably with the entire world at the center of
the theological frame of reference itself, and not simply one among other options reserved for the section on ethics.(11)
The postmodern situation potentially provides a clearing away of coercive structures of authority and an unprecedented opportunity for a pacifist way of knowing to find expression. I want to discuss four ways in which postmodern sensibilities make a pacifist way of knowing more possible.
A. Crumpling of the House of Authority. Edward Farley, in Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method, presents a devastating critique of what he calls the
house of authority as the basis for theology. Farley does not explicitly focus on physical violence in his discussion, but we can easily see the implications for pacifism. The top-down authority Farley critiques is inherently coercive, and for many generations the association between the enforcement of theological
truth and physical coercion was close indeed.
house of authority is the traditional Christian approach to truth, based on what Farley calls
the logic of triumph, which follows from the
royal metaphor used of God - that God is like a great king with unlimited coercive power whose will is inexorably done.(12) And, of course, human kings often wielded the sword as agents of the will of the King on High.
Logically, if God is all-powerful in this way, God’s communication of
His will to human beings must be infallible, even irresistible and unquestionable. The
house of authority was set up by church leaders to assure that this would indeed be the case.
There were basically three steps necessary to assure continued certainty about God’s communication. First, teaching directly from God was written down, the absolutely accurate and trustworthy Holy Scripture. Second, Christian leaders developed authoritative doctrines to provide absolutely accurate and trustworthy interpretations of Scripture - the Creeds. Third, arose a definitive institution as the guardian and interpreter of Scripture and the Creeds - the Church. The
house of authority - Scripture, Creeds, Church.(13)
Theology practiced within the
house of authority followed what Farley calls
the way of authority and was essentially a matter of citing revealed, absolute Truth - already given once and for all. This theology brooked no opposition since it claimed divine warrant - hence Augustine’s support for the harsh persecution of heretics.(14) We see here the obvious and utter incompatibility between pacifism and the
house of authority.
As a consequence of dwelling in the
house of authority (and Farley argues that Protestantism’s rejection of the Catholic hierarchy did not fundamentally change its dwelling place), the church has been willing to do and be many terrible and violent things in its own name and for its own defense. Once a historical human institution is given divine status, whatever means necessary to protect that institution become justifiable.(15)
The way of authority could not endure, however. Its death blow came with the rise of historical consciousness. Historical consciousness could not accept the
house of authority, because this
house was based on profoundly ahistorical (even anti-historical) assumptions.
The modern and postmodern embrace of historical consciousness, thankfully in Farley’s view, has fatally damaged the
house of authority. As a result, Christians now have the potential to approach their faith in terms of actual life and not a rigid grid of authoritarian dogma.(16)
Farley points out that the early church essentially functioned without a
house of authority for its first two hundred years.(17) From a pacifist framework, it is not coincidental that that period of time was also the only time in Christian history that most Christians were pacifist.
The fall of the house of authority provides new possibilities for an approach to faith oriented first of all around faithful living. Thus, the uncertainties of the postmodern situation are not a threat to a pacifist Christian faith but rather provide hopeful and exciting possibilities.
B. Failure of Rationalism. In philosophy, post-modernism refers in part to the collapse of coercive rationalism - no more reliance upon arguments which, as Robert Nozick describes, are adequately defended only if they
so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion he dies.(18)
Coercive rationalism basically was the new
house of authority erected by modern philosophy in the seventeenth century (led by pioneers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes) to replace the Christian
house of authority. This new
way of authority also contained within it great potential for violence. It was based on a desire for control and domination - and coercion of any element (human or natural) which resists that control.
Albert Borgmann, in Crossing the Postmodern Divide, portrays the
modern project as the coalescing of the insights of modern philosophy, seen particularly in Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and John Locke. One of the major fruits of modernity has been the control of the natural world, fueled by the dominance of modern science.
The modern domination of nature was a violent campaign of conquest. Borgmann links the fifteenth and sixteenth century voyages of discovery, the expansion of trade routes, the extensive harnessing of wind and water power, and the development of sophisticated record-keeping methods and large-scale financial institutions.(19)
The campaign to subdue nature eventually led to a need for integrating all the thousands of different efforts human beings were making to control and dominate.
Baconian aggressiveness began to acquire the complement of Cartesian order, Borgmann argues.
At length Cartesianism asserted itself through sciences and industry.(20)
The main tool for this integration has been the modern corporation. Corporations have grown large and powerful enough to mobilize and integrate the resources necessary to conquer what had been a wild and gigantic North American continent.(21) The corporation, the quintessential expression of modern rationalism - impersonal, everything quantified, operated by the dictates of the market - has led to what Borgmann calls
Hypermodernism is characterized by brilliance, disposability, glamour, superficiality - in a word, unreality. As such, the consequences inevitably are alienation and isolation. The rationalism of modern philosophy and the hyper-rationalism of contemporary global corporations are by definition coercive and alienating.(23) Their efforts at control and dominance, though, invariably fail. The unity and uniformity they proclaim are invariably illusions.
As philosopher Richard Rorty has made clear, modernism’s fantasy of certainty and control was always based on an illusion. Rorty has shown how, for many of the major modern projects, whatever was advanced as cogent and fundamental was invariably based on the agreement of a community of speakers. This agreement was a consequence of human conversation, always debatable and never based on an absolute foundation.(24)
Rorty’s notion of philosophy, even rationality, as a process of conversation rather than a quest for absolute certainty before which everyone must bow is clearly much more compatible with a pacifist way of knowing.(25) The absolutes of rationalism are always coercive.(26)
G. K. Chesterton once wrote,
Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily [people] of violence. We speak of (27)
touching a [person’s] heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.
With the acceptance of other styles of discourse, conversation rather than coercive rationalism, the possibility increases of a genuinely pacifist way of knowing.
C. Openness to a Plurality of Voices. In the postmodern situation, with the breakdown of the various houses of authority, with the overthrow of Reason as the only key to truth, we see an acceptance, even affirmation of a plurality of theological and philosophical voices. Many perspectives are now allowed to share in the conversation, in contrast with times past.
Gordon Kaufman sees this plurality of voices as an asset in the task of making for peace. In times past, Kaufman argues, denial of plurality has had the direct consequence of severe inter-human violence - as we think that our truth is the only truth and those who disagree may justifiably be coercively stopped. To overcome such violence,
we must learn to understand, appreciate, and respect the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of those who live and think very differently from ourselves.(28)
The acceptance of the plurality of human understandings and perspectives is important, though, not simply as a necessity for overcoming inter-human conflicts. Such acceptance is also important as a means for each of us to grow closer to God and God’s world. Kaufman believes that the central message of Jesus is that we learn to know God by living openly and generously toward all varieties of people.(29)
The postmodern acceptance of a plurality of voices in the conversation concerning life’s big issues is important for a pacifist way of knowing certainly as a key part of growing in respect for and peaceable coexistence with others and as an expression of harmony with God. However, it also has the practical benefit that in our day pacifist voices, for the first time since before the era of Constantine, are receiving a respectful hearing.(30)
Pacifism rests on trust that God does not require coercion to be known. A pacifist way of knowing rejects extreme relativism. It is confident of the existence of truth — but understands this truth to be accessible only through a process of respectful conversation and listening to many voices.(31)
D. Hope for Encountering
Eloquent Reality.. Many people have characterized the twentieth-century as a century of deep alienation and brokenness, at least partly resulting from the logical consequences of the impersonality of modern philosophy and modern science.
However, as Richard Tarnas argues,(32) the notion of the universe that science constructed is a human interpretation. The picture of the universe that science and modern philosophy constructed is a result of methodological assumptions. It is a view which resulted from the limits placed on analysis and understanding by the beginning assumptions. So, to a large extent, we can say that the problem of meaninglessness and a soulless universe is a problem within the human mind - not a problem with the universe as it truly is.
The Cartesian-Kantian philosophical paradigm which governed the modern worldview was constructed as an understanding based on what their assumptions allowed. The scientific worldview by definition excluded from its consideration other aspects of understanding, other ways of perceiving reality.
Ironically, Tarnas continues, it was precisely as modern philosophy felt it was breaking free from human subjectivity, free from human projections of human characteristics onto the world, free to be objective and to understand reality as it actually is, that the world in fact most decisively became a human construct.
Modern philosophy denied inherent intelligence and purpose and meaning to the other-than-human world — claiming these only for the human mind. The other-than-human world was labeled
machine. This is, in Tarnas’s view, the ultimate act of attributing human characteristics to the non-human world. What we have is
a man-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature. . . it is the modern mind’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world.(33)
The postmodern sensibility recognizes that this modernistic interpretation of the universe is only one particular perspective. Other perspectives are possible - ones which are less controlling and deductive. Albert Borgmann proposes a framework for what he calls
postmodern realism,(34) an approach to life which provides alternatives to coercive modernism.
Postmodern realism respects what Borgmann refers to as
eloquent reality. Eloquent reality is that in this life, this world, which is genuinely beautiful, healing, soulful, invigorating. Reality understood thus is not totally orderly, objective, controllable, or quantifiable. Borgmann writes of communal celebrations, wilderness, crafts, friendship. We may speak of life rooted in places rather than ideas.
Essentially, a pacifist way of knowing calls upon human beings to find their
angle of repose in this actual world of eloquent reality. Violence is a result of a stance toward reality of resistance, seeking control, fear, and anxiety.
Martin Buber argued that the world in which we live is where we will encounter our peaceable God.
I know nothing of a (35)
world and of
worldly life that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whatever goes out in truth to the world, goes forth to God. Only he that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if he commits himself he cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled; in all its terror, [daring] to embrace it with our spirit’s arms - and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.
In his career-crowning opus, In Face of Mystery, Gordon Kaufman profoundly and painstakingly articulates a pacifist way of knowing in relation to the big issues of God and the world.
Seeking for peace on earth - what Kaufman calls a
humane order characterized by love, justice, creativity, mutual respect - goes with the grain of the universe. Reality is not soulless, arbitrary, meaningless.
The world in which we live is a humane-seeking order. We can give ourselves whole-heartedly to responsible life and work within it.(36)
Ultimately, a pacifist way of knowing is intimately connected with a worldview which understands God to be peaceable, the universe to be peaceable, and the human task to be to live in tune with this fundamental peaceableness - following the way of the paradigmatic human being, Jesus Christ.
From the book of Genesis on, the Bible tells of a God who made what is in love — and continues to seek, nonviolently, to foster such creative love in a world that all too often suffers from fearfulness and alienation. The Christian era has at least since the time of Constantine often rather consistently distorted this fundamental biblical message. The disintegration of Christendom and now the disintegration of modernity provide Christian pacifists with unprecedented possibilities.
The postmodern era promises to provide new opportunities for the articulation of this way of understanding. In the postmodern era, violence-enhancing aspects of the pre-modern and the modern are being exposed - the house of authority, coercive rationalism, universalizing particular perspectives. With the ensuing disillusionment concerning modernism, people with pacifist convictions have the opportunity to be heard - and the responsibility to think and communicate clearly so that what is heard might actually help people to align themselves with the underlying peaceableness of God and God’s universe.