On How Small the Christian Peace Movement Is (w/ Gratitude to the Anabaptists)

“It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary. But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small and feeble instruments. And now above all when everything is so utterly complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.… [T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive deadening of conscience.”

— Thomas Merton (from a letter to Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayer, The Hidden Ground of Love).


Last Sunday I preached on Matthew 5:38-48. This section is certainly among the most challenging and important portions of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s also one of the most routinely dismissed and ignored. I’ll post the sermon transcript tomorrow, but I wanted to think about Merton’s great observation today. Why is the Christian peace movement so small? Why are so many Christians willing to engage in a search and destroy mission around issues like homosexuality (upon which Jesus did not comment), or insistent upon adherence to Jesus’s teaching on divorce, and yet so willing to ignore the clear command to “love your enemies,” that is part of the very same chapter of Matthew as the divorce teaching?

For most of us as evangelicals, the faith of our fathers and grandfathers did not include any kind of strict adherence to Jesus’s teaching on violence. Christian non-violence was never mentioned as a possibility in my Southern Baptist upbringing. In fact Matthew 5:38-48 remained indeterminate in all of my discipleship and training until I ran into Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, as well as many of my professors and fellow students at seminary. That Jesus’s teaching on non-violence is so largely ignored or misunderstood in the general culture has to be at least part of the reason Reza Aslan’s Zealot could become a best seller. Anyone steeped in the tradition of Christian non-violence would quickly point out the way Aslan completely ignored huge swaths of Jesus’s life and teaching, especially the way that non-violence is essential to a Christian understanding of the gospel.

The obvious exception to this would be the Anabaptists. I often think that God preserved two important doctrines among the Anabaptist people. The first is the gospel of the kingdom of God (as opposed to a gospel of sin management & how to get into heaven when you die). The second is the doctrine of Christian non-violence. The Anabaptists are now powerfully and prophetically teaching the rest of us these essential doctrines to the wider church.

Stanley Hauerwas often says that Christians are not committed to non-violence because they think it will be an effective strategy to rid the world of war. Christians are committed to non-violence because they cannot imagine any other way to live in light of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I find it ironic, then, that for the most part the opposite is true. Most Christians in our society cannot imagine living non-violently in such a violent world. We have no imagination for what it might mean to respond to our dog eat dog world by turning the other cheek, offering our cloak & tunic, and going the extra mile. I had been following Jesus for at least twenty-five years before anyone challenged my thinking in regard to violence and war and Jesus’s teaching on the matter.

I do not think there is only one obedience. And I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that this is a very complicated issue and a difficult stance to take in light of the realities and vagaries of the modern society, to say nothing of the contemporary geo-political milieu. But I do pray for the imagination to try to live in the world non-violently, while still attempting to use my voice to speak out for those who live on the margins of our world, and my body to display the injustice of those who are committed to violence. I am constantly challenged by Hauerwas and Yoder’s insistence upon the reality that in order for the kingdom to be intelligible to the world, it must be made visible. In order for it to be visible there must be a community committed to living in the way of Jesus, whether or not it seems realistic or practical. If we are to be committed to living in the way of Jesus, Christians must begin to take seriously Christ’s call to an imaginative, non-violent, enemy-loving response to a world that is convinced that violence is inevitable and inescapable.

Merton is surely right to say, “[T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience.” This is why all teaching on non-violence must necessarily be an evocative appeal to an entirely new imagination, for the old imagination is held captive to a culture in which violence is not only inevitable, but even celebrated. A wholesale renewal of the Christian imagination in regard to violence is an essential step in our discipleship if we are ever going to make Christ visible in this world. I find it impossible, after the cross, to believe Christian non-violence is an ancillary teaching of the church. If Christ was God in the flesh, and he didn’t take up arms to inaugurate the kingdom, then the only way we as Christians will ever learn to live a life that is in step with this Messiah and his kingdom is to wrestle with the command to love our enemies.

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  • props, man…I think you nailed it…on behalf of the MennoNerds, you’ve a good thing here…

  • It’s back to serving only some Americans. Because “evangelicals” think the rest are going to hell, and getting a headstart on making their neighbors lives into a hell is the only godly thing to do.

    “…all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public…” ~JFK, 1963

    • Wooops! I meant this for another blog.

      • kso721

        i think it’s actually an appropriate comment. Considering America and actually the entirety of our planet is not dominate by a single faith, it’s important for christians to understand that the tenets of their beliefs are not held by other cultures who share the same biology. it comes down one of the christian beliefs that god’s word is transcendent. christians beleive that the bible is god’s word, yet we find no geographically separated non-christian culture uttering any of the words or preachments of the bible, or of Jesus.

  • Yonah

    My concern is two states of war:

    1) Permanent war.
    2) Total war.

    The current ongoing construction of the American Security State has to do with permanent war…the goal being to make war into a ongoing profitable business.

    The incremental development of a rationalization for total war in the west has also been relentless. By total war, I mean where civilians and their whole community infrastructure are not off limits….i.e. Sherman’s march into the South….Hiroshima/Nagasaki…My Lai…Blackwater…Obama’s drones.

    I am a rhetorically violent Jew. What I mean by that is what I think Jew haters mean by calling us “obnoxious”. It is the matter of being blunt.

    Let’s not make Jesus too pretty. Yes, he came to the right decision about whether to go to war or not. But, it was a hard fought battle for him to get to that decision. As monkeyed with as the NT text is, it still retains the memory that Jesus kept the violence option on the table until he didn’t. The Temple Cleansing happened. And the text retains the memory of Jesus’ angst in making his decision.

    But, argument over biblical history will not be productive here. The Question is what to do now. It seems to me that in order to defeat the growing war machine, any effective opposition is going to have to get very very serious about how to “kill the beast.” And that is: attack its food source: Money. And so I ask: Are Church & Synagogue prone to do that? The answer is currently: No. They are enslaved to the same food. Which gets back to the smallness of the contingent the article alludes to. What should they do? They should go on….beyond the current structures….leave them behind…and start a new structure.

    It is my argument that the Abrahamic tradition was always destined to evolve from the cultic to the entirely political. In America, the Democratic Party has miserably failed. There is no reason for a new party not to be formed that will enflesh the values and agenda of tikkun olam.

  • Sophia Sadek

    The Christian sect that I sympathize with most is that of the Mennonites. They practice an extreme form of pacifism that some might find to be repugnant. They consider themselves to be Anabaptist.

  • k_Lutz

    Three steps to personal peace:

    1. Breathe God
    2. Absolute Forgiveness
    3. Do Tell

    Breathe God
    To Breathe God is to conscientiously partake of life-force every moment. Upon inhalation take mental note of the Giver of life, opening up the senses to all that He is revealing. In exhalation gratitude for this living revelation is demonstrated. Freely received, freely give.

    Absolute Forgiveness – Inspiration
    We do not know what we are doing. Choosing to not be offended by such ignorance is the basis of humility, giving all consequences of thought, word, and action over to the ultimate Creator. Withholding this freedom from others will establish the walls of ones own prison.

    Do Tell – Expiration
    Strengthen your brother, warn your neighbor, inspire your friend. Communicate life-force: heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the outcast, cast out demons. Display forgiveness: feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, liberate the captives.

    Trust God.