A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence, edited by Tripp York and Justin Barringer. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.
Once one becomes convinced that commitment to Jesus precludes killing, intentionally maiming, or coercing another person, one inevitably becomes accustomed to a host of predictable but nevertheless important questions. What would you do if someone were attacking a loved one? What about international politics and people like Hitler? What about those Old Testament holy wars? Are you saying we should just stand idly by as innocent people get attacked? And what about the book of Revelation?
The authors of A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence offer refreshingly mature explorations of the diverse possible responses to questions like these. I use the word “responses” intentionally. For although this volume attempts to provide “answers” (sometimes with a certitude that makes me uncomfortable), one of the book’s strengths is that many of its contributors resist neat and tidy answers which tempt us to accept the kind of false closure that smacks of ideological tunnel-vision and denies this fractured world’s complexity.
In this vein, Amy Laura Hall and Kara Slade address the question, “What would you do if someone were attacking a loved one?” Taking their cue from Søren Kierkegaard (and no doubt rooted in their commitments as feminist pastors and scholars) Hall and Slade seek to discern and make plain some presuppositions already resident within the question, and thereby trouble the question itself. Since more often than not this question is posed more specifically as “What would you do if someone were raping your wife or sister?” Hall and Slade rightly bring to light how modern cultural narratives, power dynamics, and political ecology shape the gender, race, and class assumptions that are likely operative in the question.
When asked, this particular question usually assumes three things: 1) an apparently helpless female victim (at least implicitly); 2) a person-of-color perpetrator; and 3) that the “you” in “What would you do if…?” is a male (white and American, no doubt) who believes his God-given role to be protector of women and securer of justice.
Hall and Slade then show how this question gets momentum from and reinforces a cultural narrative that would have women believe that they need a very particular sort of male partner to be well, normal, and safe. With grace and rhetorical power, they argue that women do not inherently need a man who embodies the tough-guy spirit; rather, women are human beings with wise and creative power in their own right, and are summoned to derive their understanding of security and risk from Christ. They argue that these hypothetical situations often disproportionately favor a mythos of heroism and a prevailing logic of masculinity that owes more to the influence of Empire and Entourage than to the gospel. They also suggest that such questions often owe their existence, sadly, to a genealogy of fear embedded in contemporary racism and classism. In the end, like many contributors to this volume, Hall and Slade gesture to a logic alien to the dominant culture—the logic of martyrdom, and in so doing craft a response to the question “What would you do if…?” that offers more of a “theopoetics of witness” than a systematic account of what’s ethically faithful. In this way, they remind us that we have no clear vision of peace. Nothing, that is, other than Jesus—the luminous darkness that leads us into particular places of pain, confusion, and hope to bear witness to death’s defeat.
In keeping with the practice of letting difficult questions remain difficult, one of the book’s most important chapters is Ingrid Lilly’s “What About War and Violence in the Old Testament?” After showing that the Hebrew Bible offers almost no univocal ethical arguments at all, and after pointing out that those who turn to Jesus for moral guidance are understandably repulsed by some aspects of the Old Testament’s, Lilly presents a way of receiving the Hebrew canon as authoritative even while naming and abhorring its most ugly dimensions. She goes on to suggest that this Hebrew Bible—including all of its dangerous and disgusting parts—as indispensible for a mature Christian pacifism. Such a nuanced response is sorely needed in an era when the dominant approach to Scripture is rooted in what I would call a ‘legitimation anxiety’ generated by Enlightenment rationalism, and which therefore assumes that the Bible’s authority must necessarily rest on the Holy Spirit having dictated it to each author.
In an essay that is sure to be relevant to those engaged in community organizing and struggles for justice, Sam Wells explores the intricacies of Jesus’ modus operandi for inaugurating the peace of God. In addressing the question, “Didn’t Jesus say he came not to bring peace, but a sword?”, Wells offers a thick contextual response to this passage (Matt. 10:34–39) for those who perceive it as somewhat paradoxical given the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as offering forgiveness and reconciliation. Relying on current scholarship, Wells shows that the word “sword,” here, refers not so much to an instrument of combat as to the painful wedge of division that results from unveiling truth in a world addicted to death. In other words, the heartbreaking side of Jesus’ coming is that those whose well-being rests on preserving the anti-reign-of-God will often be threatened by the gospel and respond forcefully. In Wells’ view, Jesus must first disturb the peace before he can establish peace, because the world’s peace is false. As John Dear makes clear a few chapters later, this understanding has marked the prophetic ministry of certain contemporary followers of Jesus such as Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, and Dr. King. This is why Wells’ essay is particularly germane to organizers and activists; he makes clear that the work of cruciform love will often necessitate tactics of conflict where disciples cultivate a “generative tension” in the hope that the Spirit of God will bring healing where it is needed most.
Embodying the Anabaptist commitments of returning to the text and re-invigorating “the original revolution,” Andy Alexis-Baker wrests Matthew 8:5–13 from a popular interpretive tradition held captive to imperial collusion. In his chapter entitled, “What about the Centurion? A Roman Soldier’s Faith and Christian Pacifism” Alexis-Baker challenges a long line of theologians who have justified Christian participation in war and military service by following Augustine’s argument that Jesus approved of the centurion’s occupation because he did not tell the man to leave it. In addition to demonstrating the absurdity of an argument that depends utterly on Jesus’ silence, Alexis-Baker also reads the Matthean version of the story closely, showing that the centurion’s faith is demonstrated not by his words (which are often mistakenly highlighted as rightly perceiving the nature of Jesus’ authority and power), but by his willingness to invert the order of power that constituted his position as centurion. To put it another way, in the centurion’s world, the inferior soldier or subordinate slave exists exclusively for the centurion’s service, so much so that these “underlings” were dispensable and disposable if sick or old. But in Matthew’s passage the centurion rejects such calculations of human worth by seeking the welfare of this one who was “below” him. The centurion therefore exhibits faith(fullness) by rupturing the very chain of command he verbally espouses!
While the four chapters I’ve mentioned represent some of the book’s strong points, there are other significant aspects to this volume. Indeed, one of the interesting things about these essays is that some of the most important questions addressed are not even those featured in the table of contents. The book is designed around “commonly asked questions about Christian nonviolence.” But I think this book’s greatest strength is that it shows, often subtly, that such questions can only be addressed by first asking other significant questions. What is the nature of Scripture and the tradition that gave rise to it, and how should it function in the faith community? As Tripp York asks, “How did a once predominantly nonviolent movement like Christianity ever become so thoroughly entrenched in a warrior mythos?” Additionally, exactly why did Jesus get killed? And in what ways did Jesus expect his disciples to imitate him? This cluster of questions moves from inquiries that are primarily theological and historical in nature to the kind that are dangerously practical. Thus A Faith Not Worth Fighting For not only shows that Christian nonviolence need not be the simplistic, naïve position that many critics think it is, but this book also introduces the reader to questions that can enable followers of Christ to creatively bear living witness to the Lamb who was slain.
While the book addresses quite a few questions, I think there are three things that would have made this book stronger than it is. The first would have been an engagement with penal atonement theories since Christians have often used such theories to underwrite violence and retributive justice. The second would have been a careful study of questions concerning violence and coercion within the context of living and working with a homeless population. Those who have homeless friends, have been homeless themselves, or who work in a shelter of some kind, certainly know what I mean when I mention the seemingly infinite diversity of encounters that can and do happen between people living in and working with communities of profound poverty. Finally, I would like to have seen in this book a sensitive engagement with questions that inevitably arise from those who’ve suffered the trauma of sexual abuse. Something on what forgiveness looks like in these situations could, if done well, prove helpful to many.
Additionally, (and perhaps this would’ve been far beyond the book’s scope) since the collection was dedicated, in part, to Phillip Berrigan, a chapter engaging the question of nonviolent property destruction would have been helpful. I am told this issue was a hot-button question in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with some thinking that the Plowshares folks went too far. While questions over the (non)violence of burning draft files or hammering missiles is no longer really debated, many people are asking about carrying the logic of “rendering instruments of war unusable” into other layers of concern. The critiques have deepened and some are pointing out that even what we drive to work should be considered “instruments of war.”
After the valuable contribution of A Faith Not Worth Fighting For I eagerly look forward to volumes 2 and 3 of the Peaceable Kingdom Series, which promise to address the issue of making peace with animals and peace with creation, respectively. And this, of course, is essential, since “civilization”—the entire edifice of alienation erected by the principalities and powers, and by us—has taught us to accept as normal the perpetual violence against creation that is inflicted by what we’ve built. Indeed, too many of us are saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.