The Gospel of Peace in a Violent World is a collection of essays centered around the defense of Christian pacifism. The essays are broadly arranged around five parts- biblical reflections, learning from others, war and violence, race, gender, and disability, and finally immigration and environment.
Reviewing a large, important collection like this forces a reviewer to skim across or even past many fascinating topics. We must select from among numerous excellent essays and highlight just a few for our readers. And that is the unenviable task to which I now turn. Suffice to say, this collection as a whole is well worth readers’ time.
Part one turns to biblical reflections on pacifism. I was somewhat surprised to see the very first essay by Eric A. Seibert come out and say bluntly that Christians should push back on the notion of God as warrior and indeed reject that portrayal. In response to the question of what to do with passages which simply state God is warrior, Seibert writes, “some Christian pacificstts will find it difficult to state publicly their rejection of the image of God as warrior…” for reasons such as personal cost or simply personal pre-commitment to seeing how the Bible is read. However, Seibert responds, “these assumptions about God’s very active role in determining the content of the Bible do not match the evidence at hand. It appears that ancient Israelites were free to write about God in ways that made sense in their particular historical and cultural context…” (19). This full on confrontation with biblical texts often used to undercut pacifism is a significant difference from even the next essay by T.C. Ham, who instead argues broadly that the Bible’s broad teaching on shalom is the focus. The difference between these two approaches–direct acknowledgement of difficult passages and reading of them as reflections of the culture from which they sprang vs. attempted integration–starts the book with a clear message: Christian pacifism is broader than one may think.
Part two introduces the concept in one essay of a “Pentagon for Peace” in which Randy S. Woodley argues for resources being committed to peaceful undertakings rather than the warfare/mutual destruction that seems to be the national priority today (79ff). Other essays show MLK Jr.’s passionate peace-giving activism, other historical examples of nonviolence, integration of nonviolence into human rights advocacy and more. Part three reflects upon war and violence in a number of essays. Perhaps the most shocking essay here (at least for one not as well versed in pacifism) is Ted Grimsrud’s “Christian Pacifism and the ‘Good War'” in which he notes that World War II is often taken for granted as a paradigm case of just war theory, but that upon examination, much of the justice behind the war can find cracks in the façade. This essay alone was worth reading the book for, and while I’m not totally convinced by it, I found it incredibly deep and challenging. Those who scoff at pacifism and use paradigm cases like this to argue against it should contend with such a well-reasoned argument. Other essays in this section push back on certain kinds of Christian peacemaking through violence and contend that Christianity can be a light in the darkness in the midst of violence.
Part four turns to questions of nonviolence in race, gender, and disability, bringing forward numerous surprising topics and insights to these important topics that go beyond what this reviewer would have typically associated with pacifism. These essays show the breadth of the question of violence and peace in Christian theology and how one’s theology of those questions certainly has an impact beyond the simple question of whether war is just. Part five continues that theme, applying it to questions about immigration and the environment.
My overall impression coming away from the book is that the case for pacifism is much stronger than I’d thought. I still believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethic of peace and violence is likely the best approach, however. In that ethic, Christians may engage in violent resistance while also acknowledging the guilt which they are taking in while doing so. As Bonhoeffer wrote- “Everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty.” Interestingly, Bonhoeffer is cited multiple times in this collection, largely as a voice for pacifism or at least a way to lean towards it. I would agree, as Bonhoeffer has plenty written that could lean that direction. A holistic reading of Bonhoeffer doesn’t portray him as a committed pacifist, however, and I maintain that position myself–peace is preferred, but resistance is allowed, while acknowledging the guilt and sinfulness that involves.
The Gospel of Peace in a Violent World provides one of the most robust defenses of pacifism I’ve read. It’s highly recommended.
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