Theologian Billy Abraham Rips Christian Non-violence, Calls it “Morally Corrupt”

William J. (Billy) Abraham has a new book out called Shaking Hands With the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology. It was recently featured in the American Spectator, and I’m fascinated by this article & book.  I recommend you read it. I once saw Billy Abraham and Stephen Long (Marquette), go at each other on a panel discussion at the Wesley Theological Society annual meeting. It was pretty entertaining.

I confess that I do not have the kind of mind that can pick Billy Abraham apart theologically or philosophically. I’m sure he could talk circles around me. But every time I hear Abraham speak all I can hear is Reinhold Niebuhr with an Irish accent (he was born in Northern Ireland). Niebuhr’s realism is the kind of rationale that agrees that Jesus teaches non-violence, but then says it’s not a realistic option because it would put the most vulnerable in danger without strong people to defend them (with force if necessary). It’s the most common way to get around Jesus’s teaching on the matter.

Realism works well as a Christian philosophical school as long as you are absolutely sure which side is your side – which requires identification with a national interest above the kingdom of God – and that you can define the opposition as being absolutely morally corrupt and self-deceived, while simultaneously excusing all of the ways in which you are corrupt and self-deceived. That’s basically what Abraham tries to do in this book. (Aside: I think Hauerwas offers an effective counter argument. Pacifism is too passive. He recommends militant non-violence, whereby the strong still fight for the weak. They just do it non-violently.)

I think Abraham’s logic breaks down for the same reason Niebuhr’s does. Abraham’s critique is that the elements of Jesus’s teaching that advocate non-violence are meant to guide interpersonal relationships and not nations. In other words, give your heart to Jesus but your ass belongs to the State. I think that there are actually some good arguments against Christian pacifism, but Billy Abraham isn’t making one of them here. I don’t get anything from him I don’t get from feminist critiques of non-violence.

Ultimately Abraham fails to answer the one essential question. How does it end? Will the violence of the state against terrorism stop terrorist violence, or simply create more violence? To put a finer point on it. How does the kingdom come? Does it come through the sword or through love and self-sacrifice. It seems to me that the cross teaches us the answer. Abraham doesn’t seem to want to recognize it. Here’s a quick excerpt from the book against Christian non-violence:

Christian pacifists have taken isolated elements in the teaching of Jesus, say, in the Beatitudes, that are meant to apply between persons, and extended them to apply between state and state, or between states and their citizens. They fail to see that the anger of God in judgment is the anger of love not hate. They sin the sin of refusing the God-given vocation to exercise the office of arrest and judgment. They cannot see that love in public relations “takes the form of mutual respect, of law, justice, liberty, and even help—especially to the weak.” As a consequence of these mistakes Christian pacifists are bereft of positive illumination when it comes to the right ordering of our political life together. In reality they either opt out of political life altogether, or they fall back upon the platitudes of pragmatic pacifism, or they buy into negative stereotypes of the state and nation that correlate conveniently with their ideological commitments.

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  • Gerard

    That seems like a very tricky line to walk. How many times have we thought we were doing the right thing through violence condoned by the nation state only to look back 10 years later and realize we were part of power play that was more corrupt than the “evil” we were using violence against?

    I’d rather be called morally corrupt for using non-violence.

  • Does he address the problem of living in a country that oppresses Christians? You can’t fight for the state if they are against Christians. Or what if the war your country fights is not helping the weak, but oppressing the weak?

    Also, as a non-violent Christian, I don’t understand how to separate interpersonal relationships calling for peace and my country calling for death. Would I not be called to kill one person after another, thus ending any possible relationships?

    The way of Christ is the way of sacrifice. Power is found in the cross, not the sword.

  • mike h

    Yeah, ask Ghandi or Dr. King about that weak pacifism stuff.
    Also, you quoted, “They sin the sin of refusing the God-given vocation to exercise the office of arrest and judgment. They cannot see that love in public relations ‘takes the form of mutual respect, of law, justice, liberty, and even help—especially to the weak.'”
    Trouble is, it’s usually the weak that the State’s god-given vocation steps on.

  • Actually, you totally misread Niebuhr if you think that his realism is rooted in absolute surety of your own righteousness and your opponent’s corruption. This is in fact the opposite of what’s at the core of Neibuhr’s teaching. His point is that, because we can never be sure of our own righteousness, and because even the most corrupt worldview has traces of goodness in it, we need to organize our public morality around penultimate goods, such as justice. But justice requires coercion, and coercion is, from Neibuhr’s perspective, always violent, since it involves forcing someone to do something that they do not genuinely wish to do.

  • I have an evolving opinion on pacifism, but what helped to open me up to the idea was that really, this whole idea that a Christian embrace of pacifism posed a danger to the weak is misguided. It starts with the idea that my job as a Christian is to bend public policy to conform with Christian teaching. But really, I’m called to be salt and light. No one sits down to a meal of salt or sets a room on fire to read by. So, the fact that a plate of salt is unappatizing or a room on fire is dangerous is quite irrelevant to what I as a believer am called to do. I am called to embrace Christ’ teachings – no matter how unrealistic or how much trouble they get me in – and to invite others to do the same. And if we do this, our presence will end up flavoring and providing light to the wider culture in such a way that it does change it. I’m not responsible for working out whether embracing pacifism as a national policy is a good idea. I’m responsible for working out how I myself will embrace pacifism. At this moment, worrying about whether pacifism is workable as a national policy is a bit like worrying about whether you should wear boxers or briefs on your first trip to aother planet. It’s so far outside the realm of what is attainable as to be a moot point anyways.