Dear Critics of my Sojo July 4th Article: An Open Letter to Mark Tooley and Others

The following is an open letter to Mark Tooley and others who have criticized my Sojourners Article about the 4th of July.  Mark is the president of the “Institute on Religion and Democracy” (where his reflection on my article is posted) and also writes for “The American Spectator.” See either link for the relevant article.

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Dear Mark Tooley,

Let me start out by saying that I do not fully disagree with your concern about my view of America.  My Sojo post comes across as a bit more frustrated at the US than I actually am. Sometimes abridging something leaves out some valuable details, and for this I am sorry (I will strive to become better at this in future posts).  My belief is that everyone has to live somewhere, and I am privileged that I happen to reside in the US. This is a nation that is unlike any in the world, and I have had amazing opportunities having lived here. I say the following in my unabridged version of this article that appears here on my personal blog:

“…I have a great deal of respect for those who are Christians and who ‘support’ military and our troops. Those who serve our country (although I may disagree with it from my standpoint theologically) deserve respect for their sacrifices and I am glad to have some friends who have served or are serving in the armed forces…Let me add that I love fireworks, BBQ’s, and any good excuse to hang out with friends. I do not think that by simply attending a July 4th gathering that you are sinning. In fact, I often make the trek to the beach to watch the fireworks over the Pacific… while not choosing to actually ‘celebrate’ the holiday. I also love that I have had the privilege to grow up in this country. So, I am not “anti-America” by any stretch; I am happy that I live here. What I think is that as Christians we need to recalculate our past and allow the Gospel to be critical of certain things we now celebrate.” (see: Original version from blog here )

Second, I think you are correct to point out that taxation was not the only cause of this war, however this is what we teach in our schools and what the common person thinks of regarding the Revolutionary War. The motto we hear: “no taxation without representation.” But, with that said, I am with Mark Noll who points out in his article that “Just War” criteria were not followed in churches that supported the revolt. There were conspiracy theories that would have mostly been proven false had the colonies not rebelled. He stated:

“To the extent that colonists really thought that Britain intended systematic despotism, their going to war could perhaps be justified in classical Christian terms. Armed action to preempt an enemy’s destructive intentions had long been considered moral. But if the problem in Britain was not primarily a malicious conspiracy but insensitive bungling, war would not have been justified.”

Third, I would not call myself part of the “evangelical left” if you mean by this label, leftist theology.  I am conservative in that I believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, personal salvation, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, the reality of judgment, etc.  Politically, I am not a liberal on all issues, and I am not a conservative on all issues.  I am an Anabaptist/evangelical, which means I value pro-life politics “from the womb to the tomb.”  (against abortion, war, death penalty, social Darwinism, etc.).

Fourth, allow me to make a few comments on your quotes:

“Mennonites, like most in the Anabaptist tradition, are historically pacifist. But their pacifism historically was primarily binding on themselves and not wielded as a sanctimonious and accusatory sword against the vast majority of Christians, and even against the state itself, for not equally bending to pacifism.”

This is true in the sense that Mennonites are pacifists/non-violent (there is a difference there).  But, I by no means have judgment toward those who differ with me and consider them my sisters and brothers in Christ.  Hopefully that comes through in my above quotation.  I do however disagree with you here:

“But absolute pacifism insists that even in the face of a genocidal holocaust, the faithful may only give non-violent witness. In contrast, nearly all of Christianity has always insisted on the state’s divine vocation to wield the sword against evil.”

I want to respond by saying that I myself am not an “absolute pacifist.”  I hold to nonviolence, which is a bit different.  (read here )  Also, I believe that the state does indeed have the right to bear the sword, but this is distinct from anything “Christian.”  If a Christian wants to be in military that is fine and I do not judge her or him, but as I read the New Testament it seems that the state and the community of Jesus followers are two different categories (with some nuances I am sure).  And as far as historical studies go for the issue of violence, may I add that it was not until Constantine and then Augustine that the church EVER believed it was right to take up arms or fight for the state.  The New Testament reminds us of this over and over again.  Peter states for instance:

19 For it is commendable if you bear up under the pain of unjust suffering because you are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2.19-24

Also, I choose to align myself with the earliest church witness on this issue during the post-biblical period.  Here are some examples:

“The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined.  The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator… give it up or be rejected.  A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected.  A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected.  Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he ha despised God.”  — Hippolytus, 218 AD

“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war.  We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools… now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the crucified one… the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”  – Justin, martyred in 165 AD

“I recognize no empire of this present age.”  — Speratus, Acts of the Martyrs

Fifth, a short word about Sojourners.  They have a diversity of perspectives represented in regards to this issue.  I wouldn’t pin my article on Jim Wallis or Sojo in the sense that they also had a rebuttal posted as well.  Sojourners Blog is a place for dialogue, and in any dialogue there is a diversity of opinions.  I am thankful for this organization, although I am certain you would beg to differ. ;-)

Finally, my concern about the Fourth of July is that it is rooted in the “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” etc. I have no problem acknowledging the good that this nation has accomplished, but think that an uncritical engagement between the church and the Fourth is dangerously unbiblical.  Thanks for engaging this topic with me and have a wonderful rest of the week! 

In Christ,

Kurt 

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  • echthrophiliac

    hey man,

    i meant to reply to your comment from the sojo postings, but things are hectic. didnt know about the tooley thing (which is funny since he criticized me for the truth commission in march, but totally ignored my response to your blog…). had i, i probably would have said something. that guy cracks me up. keep up the good fight bro,

    - logan

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Logan! Thanks for the visit and I am grateful for your response that you wrote. Had several clarifying points! You probably noticed that my response to you there and the first part of this post have some similarities :-)… Although, I do not count you as one of my critics!

  • http://dalebest.com Dale Best

    Great response, Kurt!

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Thanks Dale!!!! You da Man!

  • Daniel

    I find the whole debate as to how terrible the British rule really was for the colonists to be rather mute in the end… No matter what one might conclude, it’s hard to see how it could be argued that the British King was as much of an idolatrous, pagan dictator as Caeser was, and I don’t remember ever reading about the British doing anything as inhumane as crucifying criminals or political dissidents…

    So if Jesus did not advocate violence against the Romans in Israel, then any supposed “Christian” defense of the American revolution falls flat on it’s face…

    The fact that Tooley tries to prop up his position with a slew of hypothetical “what if” scenarios about how evil might have triumphed throughout history had people not gone to war, is such a stretch, and completely ignores the clear, concise teaching and example of Jesus Himself.

    It never ceases to amaze how people can call all sorts of things “Christian” while leaving Christ Himself completely out of the conversation…

    Nice article.

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Daniel! Thanks so much for your great response! I love your passion for the true kingdom!!!!

  • Brad

    Great response Kurt,

    I have to say that I believe there is a larger issue to be had with not only the 4th of July, but any nation’s national holiday that glorifies a battle that took place resulting in oppression or loss of life. (I believe you may be addressing in your original post). As the citizens of a nation we are subconsciously trained to lift up the birth of our nation (whether American, Canadian, British, Mexican, etc.) as heroic and something to celebrate regardless of how it came about and whether it would be deemed biblical or not. Obviously, there is inherent pride that comes with being a citizen of a particular nation and it is natural to want to celebrate the birth of that nation; however the point that I believe you are making is not to simply celebrate a holiday, without thought, but as Christians to actually stop and reflect on the historical happenings and to make a decision as to whether this holiday would be one that Christ would deem admirable and acceptable to celebrate, in other words a “Just War.”

    Any Christian that does not examine the holiday and investigate its biblical nature is putting the Kingdom of their nation ahead of the Kingdom of God which they are called to serve first. If we examine a holiday and determine that it is biblical, then I say, “let there be much rejoicing,” however if we determine that a certain holiday would be considered “unbiblical” in nature, then as Christians we should not be celebrating.

    The point of tension with the discussion that your post initiated, I believe, is more about “Is the 4th of July Biblical?” Obviously, there is debate to had there. However, if we are to call ourselves “Christians” (little Christ’s or followers of Christ) then I believe it is our job to be Christ-like in every way possible. With that thought in mind I made a couple of observations:

    First, as you already mentioned, Christ went willingly to the cross, never raising a finger to defend himself or to retaliate against his accusers, even though he was without sin and did not deserve the persecution and oppression that he received. (1 Peter 2.19-24) Is that not an example of how to respond when facing persecution?

    Second, Peter is the person that Christ charged with the responsibility to start The Church. Who better to know Christ’s heart than Peter? And should we not accepted 1 Peter 2.19-24 as the authority on violence?

    Finally, Christians, especially American Christians, need to examine their priorities and determine which Kingdom they are serving. If it is the Kingdom of God then they need to put the commands of the Kingdom of God above any other Kingdom or country in every aspect of life, not just when it comes to celebrating holidays. I believe that the Western church has grown so comfortable that we too easily align with the kingdoms of this earth rather than boldly standing for the Kingdom of God. Sometimes standing for the Kingdom of God means admitting that your nation has not always acted with a Christ-like heart.

    Kurt, I admire your courage to stand for what you believe the Kingdom of God would stand for today, and not following the beat of the American drum without investigating where it is and is not biblical to do so. Thanks for your hard work brother!

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Brad… You made some excellent observations here! This is not simply about the US of A… but any nation that wields the sword and uses God as an excuse. It is great to have you as a brother, friend, and conversation partner. Thanks!

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Thoughtfully responded, Kurt. Another point that I have heard, and which also merits mention, is that, while we can talk about the evils that we have chosen to stop through violence, we rarely look at the violence that preceded, and may have caused, those evils. For only one example, it is widely regarded as true that without the punishing reparations required of Germany by the rest of Europe following WW1, the conditions that led to Hitler’s rise might not have happened at all. So while the just war proponents (with reason) look at the need to stop Hitler through even violent means, they fail to acknowledge the violent soil in which Hitler sprung up.

    I don’t know who said it, but it’s not original with me…it’s unfair to blame nonviolence for not having a good response to situations that nonviolence might have prevented (and certainly did not cause) in the first place.

  • http://groansfromwithin.com jasonekk

    Excellent response kurt!

  • http://nicenejosh.wordpress.com Nicene Josh

    Very excellent. I especially like the reply by Daniel, about Rome and Jesus. Great comparison!

  • http://www.uncollsion.wordpress.com Drew Downs

    Right on!

    I’m especially glad you tackled the historic faith comment.

    I am wondering if he feels the need to subdivide and criticize with such extreme viciousness for some reason. Does he really feel that threatened by what you wrote that he had to hyperbolize?

    Lastly, I can’t stand the use Founding Fathers’ religious traditions as if that makes them 21st Century Fundamentalists. The fact that many of them were Christian is an interesting point for him to bring up. He leaves out, of course, that they were mainliners: and therefore more likely to be in line with those “Social Justice Christians” that Glenn Beck keeps warning the crazies about than fundis and single-issue voters.

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt

      Drew… thanks for kind thoughts!

  • http://www.theird.org Mark Tooley

    Kurt, thank you for your response to my response to your article! I understand your views somewhat better now.

    All nations have violence in their history. And all governments are maintained by force on some level.

    A truly traditional Anabaptist stance would urge abstinence from all affairs of state in every country. But some modern voices for this stance seem to identify the USA as uniquely pernicious. And some contradictorily want MORE government to provide for human needs, despite the coercive nature of all state actions.

    Maybe you can help provide clarity on some of these issues!

    …Mark Tooley

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt

      Mark,

      Thanks for your response. I do not see these two things in contradiction to each other. The bottom line question for an Anabaptist is: “What will alleviate the most suffering?” Sometimes this means we prophetically must call out against the state for its lack of action (which is why I support social programs, etc.); and sometimes this means that we prophetically call out against the state for its unjust over-action (which is why I am against war in all its forms, of which the USA has been the most aggressive in modern history).

      Blessings,

      Kurt

  • John Keown

    Dear Kurt

    You may be interested in my paper:

    ‘America’s War for Independence: Just or Unjust?’ (2009) 6(2) Journal of Catholic Social Thought 277-304.

    It argues that the colonial rebellion satisfied, at most, only 2 of the 7 traditional criteria for a ‘just war’ and was, therefore, clearly unjust.

    Mark Tooley has kindly commented on my paper in the American Spectator, but I am not persuaded by his criticisms.

    with best wishes

    John Keown
    Kennedy Institute of Ethics
    Georgetown University

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt

      John, Thanks for coming to the blog and I will certainly look up this article! I look forward to borrowing some of your ideas for the article I will write again next july 4th.

      Blessings to you and thanks for helping a generation revolt against nationalism and embrace the Scriptures.

      Kurt

  • http://www.theird.org mark

    Kurt,

    The USA is the “most aggressive” war maker in modern history?? Does “modern” include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?

    …Mark

  • charlie king

    Kurt, interesting thread and article, I appreciate it all. I tracked here via Mark Tooley and IRD, so we should be grateful that we all get a hearing, even when we don’t agree. My credentials in this discussion is that I have served both Christ and Caesar (in that order) for over 30 years as a soldier. Although I was educated in Quaker schools, I parted ways with pacificsm and eventually ended up serving in the Army’s Special Forces. Long story in that, but suffice it to say, I take issue with the tone that comes across in some of your commentators that service under arms is incompatible with service to Christ. That is, to say the least, selling several thousand years’ worth of witnesses short – from David to Augustine to Jerry Boykin . . . I will say this though – the dicussion of the just use of force is one that everyone should have, particulary those under arms. The bottom line for myself is that I have found war (not indiscriminate violence mind you) to be a purposeful moral phenomenon, which may or may not be carried out for just reasons and may or may not be conducted justly. It is the presence of Christians in the service which will most directly effect these outcomes, however imperfectly – not the pacificsts (or if you will the non-vioelent believers). The danger you propose by a neat amputation of the problem of war from the body of Christ is that you cast those of us who see our calling in military out of the Pale – and any defense I may make of just use of force becomes heretical nonsense to those who believe that the only Christian path is one of non violence. And so in the end my attempts to square my actions with the work of Christ becomes the moral equivelant of the actions of any bloodthirsty pirate with a machete. And this I know is not so from personal and difficult experience, and you should know simply by common sense. I gladly defend your interpretation of scripture as calling you to non violence, and I do not discount the power of non violence. But do not conclude from your own calling that those of us who serve under arms are not also called and also serving. Your theology needs to account for that I believe.
    Cheers and blessing – Charlie

  • Ty

    Kurt,

    Great job on the original article and your followup here! When I read the title I actually thought it was going to be about idol worship & nationalist pride. You & your blog readers may enjoy a recent series entitled “Inglorious Pastors” which can be found at http://www.themeetinghouse.ca (sorry can’t provide the actual link as I’m writing this on my phone)

    all the best,
    Ty

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt

      Thanks for your kind words Ty! Blessings bro!


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