The March 15-17, 2000, academic conference at Wheaton College (Illinois), from which this book resulted, was shaped by the working title "Christianity and Violence: Beyond Complicity." The use of "complicity" signaled that this was not just any set of papers on faith and violence. Sponsored by Wheaton's Center for Applied Christian Ethics, the organizers were motivated apologetically in response to the late 20th century secular accusers who have argued that Christian thought and practice lead almost inevitably to violence, conquest, and war. Wheaton is to be commended for this initiative, bringing together a varied group of distinguished scholars to offer their perspectives on these weighty issues.
This reviewer had the good fortune of attending the conference, which was energized by lively student participation as well as significant interchange among the presenters. Recalling the stimulating interaction of those days at Wheaton, I have been eager for the appearance of the book as a basis for continuing the conversations that began some four years ago. I am not disappointed; the thirteen contributed chapters display the wide range of topics introduced, including historical case studies from the Crusades to the Jewish Holocaust, exposition and critique of Christian thought and practice, lively arguments for and against the practice of nonviolence. Mennonite and "quasi-Mennonite" views are well represented by contributors James Juhnke, Stanley Hauerwas, and Glen Stassen.
My intention in this review is to underscore some questions that need further attention from Mennonite and other Christian pacifist thinkers. I suggest that the reader, after getting oriented by way of editor Ken Chase's helpful "Introduction," might well turn to Alan Jacobs' "Afterword." Both these chapters were written long after the conference itself and provide essential context for the rest of the book. Jacobs sets forth a valuable outline of various modalities relating religion and violence, drawing on judiciously selected comments from post 9/11 pundits. He also notes the problems in defining and judging violence and offers useful clarifications that might have enabled some of the contributors to the book to employ a common vocabulary.
The historical section begins with Joseph Lynch on "The First Crusade," drawing from a firsthand narrative to illuminate the "soldier of Christ" mentality and motivation. He presents an intriguing hypothesis regarding historical phases of biblical hermeneutics: early church fathers employed an allegorical method to minimize the bloodiness of Old Testament conquests. But by the 11th century, a move toward more literal reading of such as Joshua offered justification for the Crusades.
Luis N. Rivera-Pagan explores the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Americas, contrasting Hernan Cortes with Bartoleme de las Casas to illustrate the competing ideologies of violent messianism and prophetic indignation in an extensively-documented essay. The chapter by Dan McKanan, provocatively titled "Is God Violent?," summarizes four theological options in the U.S. antislavery movement: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. McKanan concludes that Lincoln's assassination endorsed his "providential theology of divine violence" and thus destroyed the possibility of a genuinely nonviolent American theology.
Two chapters, by David P. Gushee and Victoria Barnett, deal with aspects of the Jewish Holocaust. Barnett surveys a range of Christian responses, from cooperation to resistance, while Gushee examines the motivations of Christian rescuers. Both these writers recognize that the label of Christian faith has been stretched to embrace contradictory behaviors, from self-sacrifice to involvement in Nazi racism and brutality.
Taken together, these historical studies leave a grim aftertaste. The sheer accumulation of instances of Christian involvement in evil leads most writers, as well as readers, to a posture of humility and confession.
Mark Noll closes this section by shifting from the essentially descriptive work up to this point, to more normative considerations. Posing the question "Have Christians Done More Harm than Good?," his sweeping assessment of violence in Christian history acknowledges wholesale complicity in crusades, wars, racism, and slavery. Nevertheless he concludes that on balance, Christians have acted less harmfully than others, and that the world would be worse off without the witness of Christianity. Certainly some readers will want to ask what kinds of qualitative and quantitative criteria can be employed to make any such judgment.
In chapter 7, Jim Juhnke exposes the "myth of redemptive violence" that has dominated the conventional teaching of U.S. history and proposes strategies that utilize counterfactual arguments to set forth constructive nonviolent alternatives. He calls attention to neglected aspects of the American story: unsung Native Americans who resisted nonviolently, the anti-militarism of the founders, the important role of voluntary associations in reform movements. Editor Ken Chase contributes a newly-written chapter (not presented at the March 2000 conference) outlining his proposals for a "Christian rhetoric of peaceful discourse" in response to the cultural critics who argue that Christian truth claims inevitably lead to violence. He argues that the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice and the ultimate justice of God's judgment are necessary theological principles for controlling such discourse.
Under the very appropriate title "Jesus and Just Peacemaking Theory," Glen Stassen creatively links his work on the transforming initiatives in the Sermon on the Mount to the ten practices of the Just Peacemaking project. Stassen moves deftly and directly from current New Testament scholarship on the historical Jesus to contemporary issues of nuclear weapons, Palestine/Israel, economic justice, and more, without pausing to consider how Reinhold Niebuhr might be groaning in despair!
Turning now to the "Theologies" heading, Richard Mouw's approach to "Violence and the Atonement" is essentially a restatement of the Anselmian penal-satisfaction theory and its Calvinist expression in the Heidelberg Catechism. Mouw acknowledges challenges to that tradition from feminist theology (with its accusation of "divine child abuse") and his acquaintance with John H. Yoder and Rene Girard, but the classic need for punishment to atone for sin remains as a controlling concept.
The final three chapters focus largely on issues of pacifist theology as expressed in dialogue between Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, the highly-acclaimed proponent of radical orthodoxy. The forty-plus pages here provide a unique case study, illustrating for those of us engaged in the issues of Mennonite peace theology both the possibilities and the pitfalls that trouble our efforts to communicate in the milieu of contemporary theology. Let me explain by taking up these chapters out of order.
John Milbank's "Violence: Double Passivity" presents a phenomenology of contemporary violence. Assuming that most of us in the developed world encounter violence only through passively viewing television or reading history, he sets forth a sophisticated and rather dense analysis of the moral problem of spectatorship. This brings Milbank to the point of suggesting that watching violence may be worse than committing it. Further, he criticizes "pacifism" (which he seems to equate with passivity) for being counterintuitive, as in the instance of refusing to protect one's loved ones.
There is much more in Milbank's essay, demonstrating his command of an immense body of literature. But his easy dismissal of a legalistic box labeled "pacifism" and his apparent correspondence of watching television with killing on the battlefield suggests too much dependence on an Augustinian moral psychology. Such analysis appears almost entirely subjective, attending only to the actor's intentions and motivations, while ignoring the objective behavior-- what violence does to the victim!
Hauerwas devotes the first half of his essay to an admiring exposition of John Yoder's "pacifism of the Messianic Community." He argues powerfully that Yoder's unwavering commitment to nonviolence (with which Hauerwas identifies) makes no sense apart from its distinctive Christological grounding: Jesus Christ is Lord.
Hauerwas' intention, however, is much more than a tribute to Yoder. As his subtitle indicates, "Explaining Christian Nonviolence: Notes for a Conversation with John Milbank," all the Yoder material is aimed at demonstrating why Yoder is right and Milbank is wrong on nonviolence. Thus the second half of the chapter is headed "Why Milbank Should Declare He Is a Pacifist," an argument supported with a dozen footnotes to Milbank's voluminous work.
The pity of it all is that, due to travel complications, Milbank never heard Hauerwas' challenge delivered at Wheaton. (Milbank's chapter as prepared for publication has only an offhand mention of Hauerwas.) The concluding chapter of the book, an edited verbatim of the two men discussing all kinds of questions regarding peace, violence, justice, and coercion, suggests that Milbank does not really grasp the crux of Hauerwas/Yoderian biblical realism. At the end of the day, the provocative Hauerwas question posed by moderator Jacobs is left hanging: Is Milbank "doing ontology when he should be thinking about following Jesus" (219)?
In sum, this collection is a rich resource, but leaves this reviewer wishing for more time and more conversation. Once again we recognize that there are lots of gaps in our efforts to express Christian pacifism. My point is not the fact that most Christians, or even most theologians, are not ready to embrace our views, but that they often fail to understand just what we are claiming, or how we ground it theologically.
J. R. Burkholder
Professor Emeritus, Religion and Peace Studies