The following are my favorite books on Christian pacifism. As always, I don’t (and couldn’t) agree with everything in them but I have found them supremely helpful. Labels are a bit overrated, but I do consider myself a Christian pacifist, which means that I believe discipleship to Jesus means renouncing killing and violence and seeking to overcome conflict (even in the form of attack) using peaceful means. Two clarifications are needed: (1) Pacifism is not the same as being passive. That the two words are so similar is an accident of the English language. Pacifism is about “pacifying” situations of conflict without resorting to violence. (2) There is a huge difference between Christian pacifism and what we might call “liberal” pacifism. The latter argues on the basis of effectiveness: We refuse to kill because that will work better to resolve conflicts than killing. Many also claim that liberal pacifism is based on a naive optimism regarding human nature. Whether this or the opposite is true, I can’t say (because I don’t know and I’m sure it depends on the person). But Christian pacifism is rooted in the good news of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the call to follow him as Lord in life or in death in anticipation of the resurrection to come. Obviously most Christians — many of whom are more faithful than me! — don’t hold to this position, but all of us would agree that we cannot ignore Jesus’ commands to love our enemies and “turn the other cheek,” even if those directives need to be interpreted for specific situations. Anyhow, in this post I’m not trying to convince anyone to agree with me, but merely pointing to some resources that will help one think through the many complex related issues and questions.
1.. The Moral Vision of the New Testament (ch 14) by Richard B. Hays. It feels a little silly putting a single chapter at the top of the list, but this chapter is worth it. Considering that this is one of the very best books on the topic of New Testament ethics, it isn’t a shock that the chapter on violence is also among the best. Taking Matthew 5.38-48 as his central text, Hays offers a sustained exegesis of this passage in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, explores the rest of the New Testament’s witness on violence, how this witness has been interpreted (read: evaded) throughout Christian history, and how this squares with the Old Testament. He also runs it through a grid of other factors that influence our contemporary readings of ancient biblical texts. The upshot is an excellent introduction to the topic in only about 30 pages. I would suggest starting here, or perhaps with book no. 2 below.
2. Christ and Violence by Ronald Sider. This is a clear, compelling, and most importantly, brief argument for Christians adopting a commitment to gospel-based pacifism or nonviolence. Three strengths I remember: (1) He draws what is to my mind a necessary link between a “penal substitution” understanding of the atonement and a commitment to nonviolent suffering love. We are called to reflect to others the same love God demonstrated toward us in Christ’s death on the cross in our place, which is obviously a love willing to accept a wrongful and unjust death to save the life of the one who truly deserves to die. (2) He takes Jesus seriously in historical context as the leader of a messianic movement that shaped itself in relation to other Jewish groups in his day, all of which had to answer the question of what to do and how far to go in dealing with the Rome problem. (3) He goes on to talk about what a commitment to nonviolence might make for the church’s social witness as a whole.
3. Discipleship (or The Cost of Discipleship) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It may be ironic to include a book by someone who is famous for his (sometimes passive, sometimes active) role in numerous plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, but this is one of the most incisive calls to radical discipleship based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that has ever been written, and it includes material on Jesus‘ injunction not to take up arms but rather to “turn the other cheek.” Also of immense value is Bonhoeffer’s analysis of early Christianity, in particular how monasticism actually fed the church’s mentality that real and costly discipleship wasn’t the same thing as being a Christian. Anyhow, regardless of your convictions about pacifism you’ll be challenged and stretched by this book. At some point we should probably all be required to read the first hundred pages at least. A very enjoyable and informative biography was just written on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.
4. The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd. I go back and forth on how helpful I think this book is, at least in relation to this specific issue. On the one hand, I think it raises tons of important issues for us Christians living in America right now. Many will disagree and even get angry with Boyd for some of the things he says, but Christians of all stripes must work past this initial surprise and/or anger to really hear the substance of what he’s saying. The only problem is that since this is a popular level book, it can only go so far and at times makes broad generalizations that might not necessarily hold up to scrutiny. At the core of Boyd’s argument is that Jesus used “power under” instead of “power over” in his attempt to change the world. This is a helpful schema, but it has always struck me as too vague to do a whole lot of good. Anyhow, I don’t intend to seem negative about this one — I really think it is quite valuable and helpful. Boyd is probably the only full-time pastor on this list, and the readability of this book is evidence of that. And uber-helpful is the way Boyd frames the issue in terms of the unique kingdom of God in contrast to all kingdoms of the world (even good ones). In other words, it’s not about dissing America, but rather upholding the stunning one-of-a-kind beauty of God’s kingdom that transcends all others. All in all, a great introduction to some of the issues. (Along similar lines, see Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Religion and Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By.)
5. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. I’ve written about this book elsewhere, and it may have done more than any other book in the last century to open many of our eyes to Christ-centered rejection of violence. But the book really has a broader goal than this. Really Yoder aims to do two things: (1) Challenge the assumption that it is impossible to root our “social ethic” in Jesus. He realizes that while all Christians in theory aim to surrender all of our personal lives to Jesus as our living Lord, most of us find Jesus not very relevant to issues beyond the personal or private sphere. Yoder does his best to show that this is just an excuse to avoid what would be a difficult path to walk, and one that fails to pay close attention to Jesus’ actual life and the way the Gospels portray it. (2) Show that the “social ethic” on display throughout the New Testament is one centered on the cross of Jesus as a model (not an example) of suffering love (and/or suffering as a result of our “social nonconformity” with the world at large). He argues that it is only in this sense that we are called to “be like Jesus.” This was my own personal “book of the year” in 2007. (I know, I’m a nerd.) (Another interesting tidbit: I’ve always found it fun that Yoder writes one of the most influential books on Christian pacifism and yet he never quotes Matthew 5.38-48.) Along similar lines, see Yoder’s Original Revolution.
6. Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp. I loved it when I first read it, and I love it even more going through it a second (with Beth) and third (with my d-group) time. This one’s not really about nonviolence or pacifism directly, but instead it’s about how different our understanding of the church and discipleship is today than it was in the first few centuries of the church, and how and why these changes have taken place. If you’ve heard of “Christendom” and wondered what the heck all the fuss is about, start here. And if you’re not interested in reading a book about pacifism specifically, but welcome an overall challenge to radical discipleship, start here. It has some absolutely fantastic stories, both exemplary and tragic. It’s easily one of the best book on Christian discipleship I’ve ever read (and not just me). Along similar lines, see Michael Gorman’s Cruciformity and Alan Kreider’s The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (which I began blogging through a while back).
7. Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon. I kind of had to include this one, for two reasons. First, I’m pretty sure it was the first book I read that actually brought up the issue of nonviolence/pacifism. I’d been thinking about it some at the time, mostly because I was starting to understand and think about “nationalism” as a sin, and also because I was studying the Gospels in more depth than ever before. And second, although a third of the time I have no idea what the heck he’s talking about or what he’s saying, Hauerwas has been too influential on me not to include him in this list. But apart from me, the thing that makes this book helpful is that we learn to ask what kind of a church is demanded by a commitment to nonviolence. Or more broadly, how can the church continue to actually be the church in the midst of a world that is so skilled at re-creating us in its own image. (Oh, and it’s a lot about how the world has changed in the past fifty years and how we must adapt to this new world. But that would take us too far off topic.) Also check out Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom.
8. The Powers That Be by Walter Wink. I almost didn’t include this for a couple of reasons, mainly because more than any other author on this list I disagree with much of what Wink writes and/or assumes. Even if I say this I know there’s a danger that people will either ignore it or not believe me, but all I can do is say it and go on. Including Wink is worth it because he highlights two points that must be grasped to have a biblically grounded approach to nonviolence. One is the meaning of “turn the other cheek” and the other examples in Matthew 5. For better or worse, it was Wink who taught me to pay close attention to the details, and in doing so to see that Jesus isn’t advocating mere passivity (see here). Jesus isn’t talking about being passive or a doormat, he’s talking about creative and nonviolent action that ultimately aims to overcome evil with good and turn enemies into friends — a true alternative to “fight or flight.” The second point Wink highlights is that the New Testament does have language for the way evil takes root not only in our hearts and individual actions but also in our networks and systems: powers, principalities, authorities, rulers, dominions, etc. It is against these “principalities and powers” that we wage war (Eph 6.10) by refusing to fight back on their own terms (2 Cor 10.3-5) and thereby continue our bondage to Satan by giving in to the fear of death (see Rom 12.12-21; Heb 2.14-15). There are some real problems with what Wink denies (namely, any spiritual realities above and beyond human structures), but we can learn a great deal from him nonetheless. Along similar lines, see Wink’s Engaging the Powers, Hendrikus Berkhof’s Christ and the Powers, and G. B. Caird’s Powers and Principalities.
9. What Would You Do? by John Howard Yoder. Any conversation about refusing to take life under any circumstance will soon bring forth questions about what a pacifist would do in all sorts of situations. What would you do if someone was holding a gun to your head? Or to your wife or daughter’s head? Or if you absolutely knew that the only way to stop mass killing was for you (and only you) to kill the killer? What Would You Do? is a serious and sustained exploration of and answer to these questions. For such a small book, it packs some punch. In the first half Yoder analyzes the question and its possible answers bit by bit; I remember in particular that he examines the question against some fundamental Christian beliefs, such as the possibility of miracle and the powerful presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. And the second half contains numerous stories of nonviolence in action, as well as some representative answers to the “what would you do?” question by other pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy and Dale Brown. Whether you agree or disagree, you’ll benefit from both sections of this little book.
10. What About Hitler? by Robert Brimlow. Aside from its challenging and at times difficult prose, this book is borderline awesome. (And my “book of the year” in 2009. Once again, I’m a nerd.) Similar to the last book, this one aims to tackle one of the crucial questions for anyone who says killing is never acceptable: What about when facing radical evil such as we see in Hitler? I love that Brimlow doesn’t downplay the question or try to evade the consequences of refusing to kill him. In fact, one of this book’s greatest strength’s is its honesty; if you’re going to call yourself a pacifist, this book will teach you what you have to learn to live with. It will be intriguing to some to know that he interacts in particular with the critiques leveled against pacifism by by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Orwell (author of 1984 and Animal Farm). One last note: the chapter where he actually answers the question of what we should do in the face of Hitler-esque radical evil is only one paragraph long (and the answer itself is two words). Brilliant.
11. The War of the Lamb by John Howard Yoder. Not the easiest book on the list to read, especially for someone unfamiliar with both the issues as well as Yoder himself (and the brothers Niebuhr, in particular Reinhold), but if anyone were actually going to read through this list, you’d be more than prepared by the time you got to this point. Most of us don’t realize it, but the common response to pacifism — “That’s nice for you over there in the corner, but it is naive and unrealistic; it renders you irrelevant to the ways the world actually works and the hard decisions that have to be made by the people trying to fight (social) evils.” — owes a great deal to a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr, and a significant portion of Yoder’s writing career was spent defending pacifism against this caricature. Written after Yoder’s death (but planned out well before it), this is his clearest attempt to show that the charge of “sectarian withdrawal” is a misunderstanding of gospel nonviolence. He explores many topics, including “just war” (one of the two best explications I’ve ever come across), the science of conflict resolution, and others. What stuck out the most to me was him talking about the “cosmological conversion” experienced by Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. By this he means that they came to realize at some point that nonviolence is the only way to live in harmony with the way God actually created the world to work, and thus in the long run it is the only method for resolving conflict that actually “works.” (Also check out Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State.)
12. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. King is probably the most famous Christian pacifist, although his legacy has been hijacked by the powers that be and therefore diluted to a significant degree. And if his political witness has been diluted, his rootedness in Christ (he was, after all, first and foremost a preacher) has been basically muted. Anyhow, this collection of his sermons is a great introduction and, for the purposes of this survey, a great example of someone attempting to witness to the wider world of the peaceable way of Jesus. No one is perfect in either life or thought, and King is certainly no exception, but King is still very worthy of our attention and respect. For another look at a Christian pacifist who helped start and lead a movement, see Craig Watts’ Disciple of Peace, which is about Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of my own “tribe” called the Restoration Movement).
Peace and Love to you in Christ!