Monday, November 20, 2006

Must Christians be pacifists? I

A new series by Andrew Errington
I: The Shalomite position
In a number of recent posts (1, 2, 3) on Ben Myers’ superb Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius has argued clearly and forcefully that Christians ought to be pacifists, or what he has recently called Shalomites. The reasoning for this position should be read in Kim’s original stimulating posts; but briefly, his argument runs along the following lines.

Christian ethics flow from our understanding of who God is; and we know who God is above all through the cross. There we see God not ruling with a rod of iron, but humbling himself unto death. Therefore, nonviolence is essential to Christian discipleship, because, “it is the very heart of our understanding of God.” (Stanley Hauerwas, quoted in Why I am a Shalomite). As Kim himself puts it: “You see I am a Shalomite – and I believe that at least all Christians and, in principle, all people should be Shalomites… because of something I know about Jesus’ (William Willimon) and because of something Jesus knows about God: namely, that God is a God of Shalom, that (to adapt what St John says about God and light and darkness) God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all.” (Why I am a Shalomite).

Thus, “[T]he Christian pacifist argument turns on the nature of the triune God; and the normative criterion of the nature of the triune God is the Christ event… If there is violence in this God – in this Jesus – the case for pacifism falls.” (Propositions on peace and war: a postscript).

God cannot be other than who he is in Jesus Christ. Since there is no violence in Jesus, there is no violence in God. Old Testament references to a violent deity must therefore be viewed in a new light, and cannot be made to prop up an ethic which lacks the essential ingredient: a Christological basis. In the light of the nonviolence of God in Jesus, Christians are compelled to be nonviolent themselves.

But is it true to say that there is no violence in God? Does the pacifist position innevitably end up with a Jesus who dies but is not then exalted? This is where we are headed.
Andrew is an old uni friend of mine. He will continue this series over the coming days in between whatever else I manage to post while preparing for my final exam. As mentioned earlier, I remain fascinatedly undecided on these issues. Ten points for the city in which this statue can be found. Series: I; II; III.


andrewE said...

Thanks Byron for the opportunity to put this up. I hope it doesn't slow down your blog traffic too much.


jeltzz said...

As a christian who is avowedly pacifist, but also enjoys beating up consensual adults as a sport-recreation activity (we call it self defence):

I am finding Fabricius' position a little untenable.
1. It seems to wrench the Old Testament texts somewhat. Any contention for NT pacificism, I would argue, takes the OT dynamic of YHWH as the Divine Warrior, in whom Israel's military hopes lie.
2. It complicates eschatology. In what sense can a non-violent God execute judgment-as-condemnation? And, more pointedly for the martyrs, how does a non-violent God render justice for all that has occured? Unless we slip into some form of universalism?

Anonymous said...

perhaps there is a need to define what we mean be 'violence', 'violent' etc at the outset here...

byron said...

Seumas - I too had been wondering about the OT. Simply trumping old with new feels like a shortcut.

As for eschatology, the only way I can think of a non-violent condemnation is through the concept of 'handing over', in which God withdraws from the unrepentent the protection he usually extends against their own self-destructive activities. Thus, the judgement of the wicked involves granting them their choice of self-inflicted dissipation. But even this suggestion links into Drew's question.

Drew: I agree. Michael Jensen started quite a conversation when he attempted it a little while back (though much of the heat was about the specific issue being discussed: smacking (and a summary here)).

Anonymous said...

I have several problems with Christian pacifism:

1) Is not Yahweh "The Lord mighty in battle"? Pacifism implies a Marcionite distinction between the the God of Israel and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2) The separation between Church and State in the New Testament suggests that the State may do what the Church may not - use force. We must not use violence to propagate or defend the gospel because Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. But the State does not carry the sword in vain (Rom 13). The State is entitled to use force to defend its citizens and punish lawlessness.

3) Granted the apoclolyptical language, Jesus is hardly portrayed as an eschatological peacenik in Revelation 19. He leads the armies of heaven into battle and strikes the nations with the sword of his word.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Exiled, Kim & Others have answered all of those questions before. My own brief expositions on nonviolence and Revelation can be found here:, here:, and here: . I have also written on Jeremiah as a war resister and on messianic nonviolence in Isaiah, the book Jesus quotes the most often according to the Gospels. As to the Divine Warrior theme in the OT, this has been answered numerous times, but especially by Millard Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior.

Jonathan said...

Interesting. I am disturbed by some of Fabricius' position. What the OT tells us about God cannot simply be dismissed. It must be viewed through the NT, but while the new covenant replaces the old covenant, God himself does not change.

Having said this, God has revealed his (non-violent) submissive modus operandi in the death of Jesus, and it in is this submission that Jesus is made perfect and because of it that he is exalted. What is more, this is the example laid out for the church, whether God also acts in violent ways that could be called violent or not.

I also wonder whether the word "Shalomite", like "catholic", "charismatic", etc., is in danger of being used too exclusively. Surely whatever we think of various versions of "violence", our trust is in the Prince of Peace, who will ultimately make all things whole.

Anonymous said...

I am definitely looking forward to this series and hope to see it argued cogently. Though I am a Shalomite, to Borrow Kim's term, I remain open to a good conversation about it.

Still, I think it is important for this discussion that those of you who have not yet, go and read the posts and the comments over at Faith and Theology and the one's Michael here has listed as well as my own piece at:

Because there is little point in going over old ground again and again. Now, if having read those conversations, you wish to critique them or explain why you find them unconvincing I say, Amen. But it won't be productive to respond to arguments that have already been addressed elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question in point: Is justice violent?

byron said...

Drew - thanks for continuing to sharpen the issue. For me, I'm still yet to see a convincing and coherent treament of the relationship between force and violence, and between physical and nonphysical violence.

Miner and Michael - thanks for more links to numerous arguments worth having a look at. I hope as the series continues you will continue to point us to relevant links.

Exiled preacher - re (2), what happens when the emperor finds himself converted? This is at the heart of this discussion. And in response to (3) (for those without time to chase links), the images in revelation may be intended to subvert the very violence they portray - see Andrew's second post coming out later this afternoon.

Jonathan - I'd wondered this too. It's very difficult to say "I'm not a Shalomite", since even those who believe there may be a limited and carefully defined role for political authority to use coercive force to limit evil still hope and pray for God's Shalom, indeed often believe that in an imperfect way that such force may contribute to at least minimise factors that destroy peace. So I wonder whether we mightn't distinguish between shalomites and Shalomites (just as it often useful to distinguish between catholics and Catholics, orthodox and Orthodox, evangelical and Evangelical).

Christopher said...

Violence definately needs to be qualified.
Since there is no violence in Jesus, there is no violence in God

I think Jesus was violent. The act of clearing the temple was a violent and aggresive act.

And killing 2,000 pigs was a little odd too.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

The demonstration at the temple was not violent. Read the Synoptic accounts alone and you'll see no whip mentioned. Jesus does some property damage (minor-turning over tables), releases birds and animals. No people harmed. Aggressive civil disobedience.

Even in the Johannine account, the whip is a "whip of cords." It's not a Roman flail (such as later used on His back) or even a Texas or Argentinian bullwhip. It's a noisemaker and Jesus uses it, according to John, on both the sheep and the cattle, driving them out--the vendors follow their profits out the door. Animal cruelty? These animals were about to be sacrificed, so a little sting and noise to get them moving is hardly violent!

Jesus is aggressive, but aggression is not violence. No one is violated, no one killed or maimed. And an oppressive system is challenged and symbolically overthrown.

The pigs are a bit more problematic, but technically it is the possessing demons who kill them, not Jesus. To call Jesus nonviolent is not to claim that he shares modern attitudes--what first century Jew will lose sleep over pigs? Unclean spirits in unclean animals--seems more appropriate than in the (former) demoniac. Jesus is amazed that the townspeople (who probably own the pigs) were more concerned for their lost livestock than for the mind of their neighbor--and all that is IF this story is historical. Pigs don't run in herds and, as Ched Myers points out, this is probably a symbolic reference to the presence of Roman legions--a possession of a different sort that Jesus challenged.

As for defining violence and nonviolence, see the chapter, "Defining Violence and Nonviolence" by Glen H. Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed. J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). That chapter is also available as a pamphlet resource from Every Church a Peace Church where Glen and I are both on the Speakers Bureau and involved in other ways.

Christopher said...

The demonstration at the temple was not violent.

If MLK demonstrated in such away he would have been called a rioter and shot on the spot.

No one is violated, no one killed or maimed. And an oppressive system is challenged and symbolically overthrown

If I were a money changer or someone in the temple I would feel violated and threatend. I doubt that they would have thought of the symbolism, but more that their money, tables, and animals are now scattered.

Michael Canaris said...

Interesting starter, Erro.

--Does the pacifist position innevitably end up with a Jesus who dies but is not then exalted?---

From a few hour's flicking through various indices, it seems that the predominant Atonement Theory amongst contemporary Christian Pacifists is that of Ransom/Christus Victor (which I see as largely interchangeable), closely followed by the Moral Influence view.

Anonymous said...


If an emperor (or modern-day President or Prime Minister) were to be converted, he would make sure that force was only used justly to uphold the rule of law. The conversion of an emperor would not mean that the Church/State distinction is abolished.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Christopher, as a matter of fact, Dr. King and many other nonviolent activists HAVE BEEN accused of inciting to riot. Some were shot on the spot.

I have no doubt that the money changers felt violated. But their subjective feelings are not the issue. Jesus' actions, though aggressive, even coercive, do not violate the humanity of anyone involved. Some economic harm is done--precisely to those profiting from the den of robbers.

It's amazing. This is called "violence," but the slaughter of innocents in war is called "collateral damage." Sophistry.

byron said...

Michael, I take your point about Jesus 'violence' and the disparity between this action and those sometimes justified with euphemisms. However, it is worth remembering that, as far as I'm aware, those speaking of a imperfect and tragic place for the ongoing use of authorised force to restrain evil are not attempting to justify every action actually carried out by civil authorities. I don't think you'll find Andrew is necessarily an apologist for any recent wars presently being carried out (I could be wrong - Andrew?).
And I'd love to read your definition of violence and nonviolence. However, I couldn't find it on the ecapc website, could you post a link?

Exiled preacher - I was not attempting to imply anything about the 'separation of church and state' (although where does the NT speak of this?), merely pointing out that when Christians become the agents of the 'state' (NB another idea not found in the NT), the question arises as to what to do with that authority.

byron said...

I hope it doesn't slow down your blog traffic too much.
I don't think so - today has been my highest traffic day so far.

Anonymous said...


Under the Old Testament, there was no distinction between "Church" and "State". Priests acted as judges in civil cases and one of the king's tasks was to maintain the worship of Yahweh. Apostasy and false prophecy were crimes against the theocracy as were theft and murder.

The situation is different under the NT. The Church must not use force to promote the gospel or to punish recalcitrant members. Our weapons are prayer, preaching and practical Christian love. The highest sanction that the Church possesses is to excommunicate to bring an erring member repentance.

But the State, or the civil government does have the right to use force to suppress evildoing and defend its citizens - Romans 13, 1 Pet 2:13ff. There is a clear division of powers under the New Testament that was not apparent under the Old.

It is on this basis that I spoke of the Church/State distinction. This dictinction is not blurred when an individual believer acts as a Magistrate, Policeman, or Soldier. When believers weild the power of the State, the must not try to impose Christianity upon the people by force. But they may use force to uphold justice and to protect the innocent from harm.

Guy Davies

Christopher said...

I have no doubt that the money changers felt violated. But their subjective feelings are not the issue. Jesus' actions, though aggressive, even coercive, do not violate the humanity of anyone involved.

I don't seen how you have reconciled the first sentence with the third. How do they not contradict each other? Surely the victims expereince comes to abre on the issue or does it solely come down to the intentions of the actor?

It's amazing. This is called "violence," but the slaughter of innocents in war is called "collateral damage." Sophistry.

Are you suggesting this is my position? I don't see the relevance of this comment. I am not the one redefining traditional notions of what violence is. I would call both acts of violence.

byron said...

Guy - I appreciate the traditional understanding of the roles of church and those with political authority. I was merely questioning the way that those insights are applied into a fixed interpretive grid using the concept 'state' (= nation-station, a modern invention in the form we know it) and language of 'separation'. 'Distinction' I'm happier with, because 'separation' can lead to the assumption that the government ought to effectively establish secular atheism.

And I think it is worth pointing out that upholding justice is problematic if that is entirely divorced from the justice of God revealed in the gospel. Western notions of justice owe much to the Christianity.

Anonymous said...


I agree with the substance of your last comments. I believe that Church & State should be distinct. But I also write to my Member of Parliament and Government Ministers to try and bring a Christian perspective upon the laws of the land. I don't think that Christians should opt out of involvement in politics, the police or the armed services.

Guy Davies

peter j said...

I think I have this one. Is the statue in Central Park in New York (USA). If I'm not much mistaken, it is of King Jagiello of Poland, a polish hero from the 15th century.

byron said...

Pete - bingo! And with all that extra info, I'm going to give you fifteen - you'll be top in no time at this rate. Well done.