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Review of Must Christianity Be Violent? by Kenneth R. Chase and Alvin Jacobs


[1] Must Christianity be Violent?  "Of course not!" is the obvious answer of any faithful Christian.  However, that is the title of this book, a compendium of lectures sponsored in March 2000 by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics of Wheaton College (Illinois).  The impetus of these lectures was to engage the concern often leveled against Christianity, that "Christianity's tragic legacy has been a reversal of values through which an ethic purportedly driven by love and service has been used as an opportunity for control and subjugation."  These lectures are divided and presented according to three non-exclusive categories of Histories, Practices, and Theologies.  Therein lies the greatest weakness of such a compendium, namely its disjuncture.  Within such a venue, there is precious little opportunity for historians to challenge and/or fine-tune theologies, or for theologians to do likewise for recommended practices.  Thus the reader is given twelve snapshots that are related only in their desire to engage the question.  Indeed each snapshot provides a unique perspective and raises helpful concerns, but one should not expect any dogmatic ethical developments.

[2] If this review was to convince anyone to purchase this volume, it should do so on the basis of the papers presented by Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank and their subsequent dialog.  Both presentations are brilliant in their own way.  Hauerwas is very engaging, even light-hearted as his demeanor reflects his theology that peacemakers must call "attention to peaceable activities such as raising lemurs, sustaining universities, having children, and, of course, playing baseball."  He argues that all violence is wrong, even punishment, laying the claim that we are not punished for our sin, but rather that sin is our punishment.  The proper domain of Christianity, forgiveness and restitutionary practice, is firmly grounded in the reality that these cannot be expected of the state which "can only be committed to the formal goals of dominion."

[3] Milbank's paper is, simply put, dense.  The reader is encouraged to wade through the opening pages with the promise that, like reading Shakespeare, the fog will begin to lift to reveal a shining gem.  Milbank's theology meets our culture dead-on:  he explores the relationship of violence and spectatorship, whether from the perspective of television, theatre, or computers (sports could easily have been named), concluding that "looking at violence is actually more violent than participating in violence."  Further implicated are science (eugenics) and art (Dali and Italian futurism), the "terroristic policing of 'terrorism' such as is now being put into place," and calling the "majority of 'scientists' indistinguishable allies in iniquity."  Against the narcissistic tendencies of our culture, Milbank denies any pacifist claim: "pacifism is profoundly linked with individualism" and "with an overvaluation of freedom."  "We can be good only collectively…we cannot exercise pure peaceableness alone."  He admits that Christianity, subordinating the law in order to allow for the possible occurrence of good, takes the terrible risk of a totally unleashed violence.  So, yes, Christianity has led to violence because it aims so high.

[4] Richard J. Mouw's paper explores the various interpretations of the Atonement in defense of those who would claim that the violence of the cross has underpinned the violence of Christianity through the ages.  He makes the helpful point that the Atonement was not about the violence but about the suffering.  Furthermore, Christ's suffering was not limited to the cross but to His entire life.

[5] The five historical papers are quite mixed in terms of their quality.  Joseph H. Lynch, in attempting to demonstrate that the Old Testament was "deallegorized" for the purpose of the First Crusade, uses the foil of one particular anonymous knight's journal.  He then proceeds to make general assumptions, or, one might guess, justify his hypotheses on the basis of the particular.  Dan McKanan explores theological options in the anti-slavery movement through the writings and lives of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln.  I was initially bothered by a paucity of documentation.  However the item which was most troublesome was McKanan's complete misread of Lincoln.  He states that Lincoln was "fiercely opposed to slavery" and "had a lifelong aversion to slavery."  This is simply incorrect - it just so happens that this reviewer is a student of the Civil War.  But one need not rely on my memory.  Mark Noll, in a subsequent well-written chapter, notes that Lincoln's first and primary purpose was not abolition of slavery but rather preserving the Union.  Together these concerns call into question the scholarship of this paper.  David P. Gushee endeavors to articulate the substantial Christian basis for acting as a rescuer during WWII.  Much of his information is based on interviews with people who acted as rescuers.  These interviews revealed that very few people acted for religious reasons.  So Gushee asks, "Is there any way to resolve this riddle of a faith that motivates some to life-risking behavior but motivates others to busily murder the same people their brothers and sisters are trying to save?"  His conclusion, a post-modern one, is quite unsatisfactory - "Christianity" will be contextualized and thus look different to different people; therefore those who are teachers are accountable for what is taught.  Gushee might have done better to explore the "hidden" vs. "revealed" church, the simul of sinner and justified, or simply the good works done unawares by a sanctified Christian.

[6] Luis N. Rivera-Pagan was an excellent read!  He convincingly demonstrates the societal paradox of messianic providentialism and prophetic indignation personified respectively by Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Casas.  Rivera-Pagan answers the accusation of the lead question by conclusively showing the persistence of the ethical rejoinder throughout the centuries.  Mark A. Noll takes the question head-on, not so much from a historical perspective, but nevertheless utilizes history to make his point.  His is a great summary chapter for the historical papers.  Noll ably rises to the defense of Christianity but does not rest on apologetic laurels.  He applies what he terms an "indirect apology":  "evil done in the name of Christ was not 'a basic weakness in the religion itself' but 'a betrayal of the genius of that religion.'"  The ambiguity of "good brought about by honoring the name of Christ has very often coexisted organically…with evil carried out in the name of Christ."  "This historical reality of Christianity undergirding supernal goodness even as it countenances great evil is exactly what someone should expect who attends carefully to the nature of Christianity itself."

[7] The four papers on Practices were most difficult, due, in the most part, to foundational theological disagreements.  Victoria Barnett leads off with an excellent paper entitled "Beyond Complicity:  The Challenges for Christianity after the Holocaust."  She raises the question which Milbank himself will later raise:  Has Christianity been led astray by doctrine or by its alliance with state authority?  In the end, Barnett encourages Christians to make the link between their theology and their lives.  James C. Juhnke advocates for teaching American history from a perspective of "Constructive Nonviolence."  He makes an interesting and probably accurate observation that "the extremes of triumphant nationalism and radical cultural criticism both rely on the myth of redemptive violence."  He also admits that he welcomes the postmodern deconstruction of master narratives, "especially as it has tended to undermine the myth of redemptive violence."  He is naïve if he does not think that such a subscription will undermine Christianity itself.  Juhnke is correct that we ought to honor nonviolent alternatives and the opponents of total war.  What about honoring the Fifth Commandment?  Kenneth R. Chase wants to encourage discourse and humility as an alternative to violence.  What faithful Christian wouldn't?!  He correctly argues that violence is the result of covetousness and desire.  But this violence is to be overcome by fear of judgment, an anticipation of God's ultimate judgment?  A Christian should participate in peacemaking because of "the confidence of reward"???  Is Chase serious?  Finally, Glen Stassen lays claim to "Just Peacemaking Theory."  He rolls out several concrete steps with regard to terrorism and other worldly situations, most of which are overly simplistic.  When he makes such statements as "Terrorists usually come from nations that lack democracy," his version of Christianity, ironically, has become nationalized. 

[8] Must Christianity be Violent? is a book worth reading if barely only half the chapters.  In fact, that might be the beauty of this book, when, with most books, it would be impossible to skip a chapter.  But those six chapters are well worth reading.  They will provide great impetus for personal rumination or extensive substance for group discussions.  The repartee between Hauerwas and Milbank at the conclusion is a bonus of great fun!


© June 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 6