Review: Three Books on Peace


[1] Must Christianity -defined as that theological ethos whose normative basis is the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ - be violent?  This question, the title of the third book to be reviewed below, is answered with a definite "yes" by the first and emphatic "no" by the second. 

[2] To be sure, the first book nowhere mentions Christianity by name, much less engaging it on its own ground.  It simply assumes that "the Christian story," as inseparable from an inherently violent worldview which celebrates domination by force, must, for the sake of "enduring peace," be set aside and replaced by other, non-violent "stories."  "Enduring peace" requires nothing short of the dismantling of "empire" in all its aspects -social, political, and religious.

[3] The second book, on the other hand, gives a ringing "no:" to the extent that Christians have been "violent" is not a function of the gospel but rather of their misconstrual of it.  This author is convinced that an honest reading of the sources - in particular the Sermon on the Mount - will lead to the development of an effective theory and practice of peace.

[4] The third book is a collection of thirteen scholarly essays which explore the question from a variety of angles, all of them sharing a positive conviction about the relevance of the Christian ethos to the quest for world peace.

After Empire: The Art and Ethics of Enduring Peace
By Sharon D. Welch.  Fortress Press, 2004, 237 pp.

[5] In a lecture he did not live to present, my friend and colleague, Louis A. Smith, observed that "when we are dead to God, religion is everywhere," and that postmodernity, if it is anything at all, it is extremely religious. (Louis A. Smith, "God's Law, God's Gospel, and Their Proper Distinction."  Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, January 20, 2005.)  Sharon D. Welch's book, After Empire, is all about religion.

[6] Never mind the fact that After Empire is published by Fortress Press, an arm of a church body, the Evangelical Church in America, whose constitution cites Holy Scripture as its "rule and norm of faith and life," and the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessions as true and authoritative witness to divine revelation.  Unlike other (most?)books of theological ethic, After Empire contains no index of scriptural citations.  Nor do such topics as creation and redemption, sin and grace, law and gospel appear.  The name of Jesus is nowhere to be found, to say nothing of apostles, church fathers or reformers.  While one might not be surprised by such a book from a Unitarian, Campbellite, or Quaker publisher, its Lutheran origin does leave one wondering.

[7] After Empire is very religious, "religion" being defined as entirely an artifact of human culture.  "God," for Welch, is a signifier that fails to signify, a vestige of belief-systems which were, and continue to be, inherently violent and self-justifying.  Welch does not make a frontal assault on historic Christianity as such, but her rejection of the "scandal of particularity" in the Gospel is unmistakable.  In place of "created in the image of God," Welch (quoting Stephen Batcheler, p. 132) sees religion as the "the creation of ourself," a project that is "intersubjective," inherently social.  Religion is "an alchemy of desire," "the power to conjure…to heal and to harm." (p. 24)

[8] Notwithstanding the fact that it is embedded in ancient tradition, religion is, in Welch's view, malleable and can be put to use in the advancement of such desirable ends as peace and justice.  She fervently believes that, through a creative syncretism, it is humanly possible to construct (in the words of the book's subtitle) an "ethos of enduring peace."  Her proposal is summed up in the form of an invitation:  "Let us begin to work together creating the ceremonies and telling the stories [read 'metanarratives'] that will  allow us to participate in the framing of a more just and equitable social order." (p.104)

[9] That the words, "more just" evoke the question, "As compared to what standard?," does not appear to daunt the author who, being a thoroughgoing postmodern, does not abide absolutes of any kind - except the absolute assertion that there are no absolutes.  She goes so far as to eschew the assertion of a deconstructionist anti-ideology and claims not to engage in polemics with "other postmodern thinkers [who] are still implicated in logics of oppression…" (p. 16)  Instead she embraces flux and indeterminacy - and a stance of utter openness:  "There is nothing that inevitably grounds our desire for justice.  Justice, in all its forms, is our work, our creation, our unfinished task." (p 18)  One cannot help saying that if this is the ultimate state of things, Thrasymachus - and Thomas Hobbes - are right:  justice is the interest of the more powerful, and that is just what the post moderns assert.

[10] In this connection David Bentley Hart is right on target in his characterization of Michael Foucault (whom Welch quotes often): "[T]he course of history comprises merely a concatenation of dominations […] And by power Foucault means a ubiquitous, multiform […] energy of conquest […] Thus […] the 'truth' of any culture or discipline is primarily a style of constraint […] cultural knowledge is not simply the source, but the effect of power."  (The Beauty of the Infinite, Eerdmans, 2004, p. 68)

[11] Hart concludes:  "A theologian might well be tempted to read Foucault as an unwitting phenomenologist of original sin." (Ibid.)  For her part, Welch cannot do this as "sin" seems not to be a part of her working vocabulary.  She appears to be saying that we just have to keep trying to overcome "dualities," "we-you" antinomies, "polarizing divides," and meld into one the best of the world's multiform cultures - especially Native American, Afro Americans, African and Buddhist - while always being on guard against the possibility of the religious sanctioning of violence and imperial domination. (p. 179)

[12] Welch's answer to the human condition seems to be "ecstasy" and "creativity" - more and more of it.  Yet, she observes:

It is disconcerting to acknowledge that our ecstasy in connection, whether political or conceptual, is simply the energy of connection, an energy that may be used in amoral, immoral, or moral ways. (p. 19)
To which this undeconstructed Lutheran replies:  "Of course it's disconcerting.  It's our human condition:  sinful finitude.  We're not gonna get out of it alive except by dying and rising again in Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord.

[14] In the "mean meantime" we fight the same battles over and over again, whether against the Old Adam within or the principalities and powers without.  There is no "enduring peace" this side of the eschaton between and among sinners who, by external threat or self-regarding prudence, are more or less civilized.  Ask any policeman, any politician, any judge, any soldier.

[15] Yet God does not forsake us but is ever-present in his two-fold rule as Creator and Savior to support, comfort, and guide until the Day of Christ's blessed appearing.

Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace
By Glen H. Stassen.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, 288 pp.

[16] Glen Stassen may be described as a chastened enthusiast.  On the one hand he is convinced that the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount are directly applicable to political problems.  On the other hand, he describes himself as "rooted in the Christian realism of my teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr." (p. 14) An admirer of "the Anabaptists and Quakers of the sixteenth century [who] recovered and developed the peace-church tradition" (p. 37), Stassen nevertheless places himself somewhere between pacifism and just war theory, advocating "a theology of the restraint of war - either pacifism or just war theory. (p. 231, author's emphasis) Sharply critical of the pretensions of governments and politicians, he confesses:  "I must admit my own captivity and not merely my government's; I must point to the processes of grace in which we can participate and not merely diagnose error, and I must do it realistically." (p. 249) A man with a mission, Stassen is dedicated to the development of a theory and practice of peacemaking that can make significant changes in the age-old habits of nations, contributing to a political culture of global peace.  Yet he readily admits:  "I have not done my part clearly and effectively enough." (Ibid)

[17] Written in a popular style, Just Peacemaking is intended both to inspire and to guide "church and peacemaker groups to nourish independent Christian ethics, to help us guard against a jingoistic and self-righteous nationalism."(p. 252f) Each chapter concludes with "Questions for thought" intended to spark group discussion.  Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., Stassen exclaims, "I have a dream of thousands of such groups blossoming in churches, leading us toward our own 'turning' toward just peacemaking." (p. 153) I, a slightly older contemporary of Stassen, am reminded of a similar effort launched by the Quakers in the early 1960s called "Turn Toward Peace."

[18] Just Peacemaking begins with a recounting of the euphoria and boundless hope that swept through Germany both East and West following the demolition of the Berlin Wall.  Stassen, who was present in Germany at the time, has been deeply influenced by the generation of Germans who reacted against the passivity of most, and collaboration of many German Christians during the Nazi period.  He characterizes (caricatures?) the Lutheran ethos as saying in effect that "the Sermon on the Mount was for the inner, individual self and its motives, not for societal relationships, politics, or economics." (p.34)  He argues that "[t]he Sermon the Mount, as well as all of Jesus' ministry, seeks not to give people a guilt trip but to deliver them from the vicious cycles that cause our bondage to guilt, hostility, and injustice." (p. 249) He asserts that in post-Nazi, post-Communist Germany, "Faced with the reality of the force of evil in the world and with the need for a realistic politics that could turn the politics of arms buildup around, it became clear that the Sermon on the Mount was politically relevant." (p.36) One will perhaps excuse this incredulous reviewer's adding the words, "clear, that is, to some."

[19] For all his meticulous attention to exegesis, both of the teachings of Jesus and of Paul, Stassen's reading of the New Testament amounts to a flat moralism which declares these teachings to be "transformative" in and of themselves.  One need only grasp - or be grasped by -- these parenetic exhortations in order to break the deadlock of clashing power and interest.  This applies equally to the interpersonal and international spheres.  Stassen's prescription, in addition to New Testament perenesis, contains a significant admixture of game theory, communication theory, transactional analysis ("I'm o.k., you're o.k."), and plain common sense, all of which can be quite useful, but none of which is redemptive or "transformative."

[20] It needs to be pointed out that Paul's description of the "new life in Christ" is predicated on the Christian's having died and been raised by baptism into Christ. (Romans 6:1-11)  Lacking such death to sin and resurrection to eternal life, Paul's exhortations remain the law that works wrath and self-righteousness.

[21] On the other hand, the exhortations of Jesus and Paul do have, along with the moral insights of the Torah, Wisdom, and the natural law, a civilizing function in the non-redemptive sphere of God's secularity.  For instance, Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:20 to feed and clothe one's enemy, verbatim from Proverbs 25:21f, and Jesus' exhortation not to seek vengeance (compare Proverbs 20:22 and 24:29), while not redemptive in themselves, are good advice, accessible to any human being, and contributory to inter-personal harmony and civil peace.  They do not kill the Old Adam in us, but they can restrain our murderous impulse, saving us from the "vicious cycle" (Stassen's term) of violence in this fallen world.  It is into this context that the Christian is tossed again daily to serve the neighbor in love.

[22] Stassen celebrates the involvement of Christians - and his own involvement in particular - in the successful elimination of intermediate range missiles in Europe.  He sees the experience as evidence that Christians can "make a difference" in matters political.  One can only agree, they can and do make a difference, both for good and for ill.  One prays constantly that they may, by God's grace, be the salt, the leaven, and the light of which Jesus spoke.  What they dare not do is claim credit for themselves or think that their efforts are anything more than mere blips in history.

[23] It is to be noted that the Christian activism that Stassen celebrates in the 1981-82 Freeze campaign became the occasion of one of the most bitterly divisive convention debates in the short history of the Lutheran Church in America.  The sad episode recounted by Christa Klein (Politics and Policy, Fortress, 1989, pp. 161-169), is what happens when otherwise conscientious Christians of one political persuasion engage in political action not to secure change in national policy but in order to foist their opinion on their church body.  The LCA never recovered from the experience which poisoned the wells of discourse for years to come.  It was misdirected Christian activism at its very worst. 

[24] Just Peacemaking contains a chapter on the 1991 war in Iraq which, though overtaken by events, continues to have a certain value as grist for discussions which, please God, may be civil and constructive.

[25] Richard John Neuhaus (FIRST THINGS, May 2005) recently identified Glen Stassen as a "key player" in an initiative by the group, Res Publica, to develop a "consensus statement" on abortion. It is thought by some that the outcome of this project will provide the abortion plank for Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign.

Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology
Kenneth R. Chase and Alvin Jacobs, eds. Brazos Press, 2003.  256 p.p.

[26] The title of this volume of essays is, to say the least, provocative if not downright loaded.  It gets one thinking about such questions as:  What is Christianity?  What is violence?  How is violence distinguished from legitimate force?  From power?  What has Christianity to do with any of these?  And so on ad infinitum.

[27] While each author has been left free to answer the question, "Must Christianity Be Violent?" in his or her own way, there does seem to be a minimal consensus as to what Christianity is:  a theological ethos and religious culture grounded normatively in the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.  Whatever a particular author's perspective, be it historical, theological/confessional, or practical, all the authors are agreed that Christianity has to do with the salvation of a sinful world in which violence is rampant.  All are agreed that, as sinners, Christians are inescapably involved in violence if not actively then at least passively by virtue of their solidarity with fallen humanity.  All the authors are agreed that Christians are bound to give some sort of accounting for that involvement.

[28] This book is based on a conference at Wheaton College in March of 2000.  It should therefore be no surprise that, in the words of co-editor Kenneth R. Chase, "[t]he leading theological emphasis of the volume is evangelical." (p.13)  Chase does not detail what the term, "evangelical," means, apparently assuming that American readers will understand it in its American Free church sense.  Chase notes that, be they pacifist or non-pacifist, all the theological essayists share "a commitment to Christian uniqueness and absoluteness." (p.16) The volume is dedicated to the proposition that Christianity has its own special contribution to make to the public weal, both national and global, as signified by the expression, "Christian peace." (pp. 9, 207 ff)

[29] The book's first section, "Histories," contains five essays of exceptionally high quality which portray the mixed record of Christians during various historical periods:  The First Crusade, the Spanish conquests, the American anti-slavery struggle, and (two essays) the Nazi Holocaust.  Carefully documented and even-handed, each essay sets forth the part Christians and the church have played, both positive and negative, amid the ironies and ambiguities that comprise what we call "history," neither demonizing nor romanticizing.

[30] Joseph Lynch portrays the First Crusade with ample quotations from the writings of eye-witnesses.  He reminds us that the church of the ninth through the eleventh centuries served as a surrogate civil authority at a time when "crude, brutal, and illiterate" warlords preyed upon the general populace.  Amid such anarchy, the church became a (perhaps the only) agent in combating a culture of violence through such institutions as the Peace of God and the Truce of God.

[31] Luis N. Rivera-Pagan reminds that the Spanish Conquista in the New World began just as the Reconquista of Iberia was concluding.  These two expressions of idolatrous national glory and the violent distortion of the Great Commission of our Lord together, historians agree, brought about the eventual downfall of a once-flourishing society, economy, and culture.  Rivera-Pagan describes the pre-Reconquista thus:

Christian Hispanic, Muslim Andalus and Jewish Sapharad for a time at least were able to forge a community of multicultural conviviencia.  It was fragile and vulnerable but it was a historical reality.  The [Catholic Monarchs] put an end to it.  The Cross crushed the Crescent and expelled the Star of David. (p. 42)

[32] In depicting the unspeakable carnage and plunder of the Conquistadores, Rivera-Pagan does not neglect to describe the heroic protest of such religiosi  as the Dominican Bartolome de las Casas, author of La Historia de las Indias and a proto-theologian of liberation in the true sense.  His ringing words against injustice resound today:  "Bread is life to the destitute, and to deprive them of it is murder." (p.49)

[33] Dan McKanan's essay, "Is God Violent?  Theological Options in the Anti-Slavery Movement" is a riveting, carefully-documented account of the point-counterpoint interplay of theological themes as illustrated in the writings of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln:  Providence versus free will, tender persuasion versus violent struggle.  The question of theodicy, "Where is God?," runs throughout these, as does the question of Christian duty:  whether to endure injustice and suffering as God's will or, to resist, and if to resist, to do so non-violently or violently.  These questions burned in the consciousness of the entire nation throughout the Civil War. The moral agony is captured by the words of the Christian pacifist David Low Dodge:  "[W]ar is a judgment of God's providence" and it is "a sin of the highest magnitude." (p. 53) One is reminded of Luther's assertion that God uses sin to punish sin.

[34] The great divide within American Christianity - Protestant Christianity, as Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism had not as yet significantly entered the public arena - was between old-line Calvinism and Arminian revivalism.  The former emphasizing divine transcendence and providential ordering of the world, the latter, human free will, conversion, and righteous action in both the private (as in temperance) and the public (as in abolitionism) spheres.  It is not difficult to see how, in the struggle to end slavery, Arminian piety predominated.

[35] Yet, among Arminians there was a profound ambivalence between reliance on the sweet reason and non-resistance of Jesus and the embrace of apocalyptic violence for the sake of justice, the first personified by Stowe's character, little Eva, the second by such figures as the fiery preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, who assisted in running guns - "Beecher Bibles" they were called - to freesoilers in "Bleeding Kansas."  (See Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, p. 429.)  These two themes lie side by side in the final stanza of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic:"

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on

The sweetness of Jesus is trumped by the bloody struggle for freedom in which the soldier's death becomes a kind of atoning sacrifice.

[36] Lincoln's political theology was of another kind altogether, embodying humility before the inscrutable workings of Providence while actively performing his office.  Tentative regarding the divine purpose but confident in divine governance, Lincoln pledged:  "I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty and of this, his almost chosen people." (p. 66) The struggle was a scourge to be endured, not an apocalyptic, holy war that would usher in the Kingdom of God.  Luther would have approved of this unchurched son of Baptist parents:  Lincoln sensed that God performs his mysterious will through masks "that often seemed to contradict it."

[37] There is much else in this book worth pondering although more than can be dealt with here.  For me, the essay on the anti-slavery struggle could well stand alone just because its themes still play their point-counterpoint in American political culture even in this age that is labeled "secularist" and "post-modern."

[38] The several essays in the "Histories" section are, in my view, examples of historiography at its very best: even-handed, sympathetic to the human condition, marking ambiguities and ironies and, above all, eschewing the temptation to demonize and romanticize.  While not hiding their values under a bushel, the authors do not grind an ideological axe or push a political program.

[39] This brings one to the essay by James C. Juhnke, "How Should We Then Teach American History," which, in my reading, does push a program, namely "nonviolent peacemaking."  Juhnke is altogether forthright:  "[W]e do not accept the autonomy of the secular disciplines, but attempt to apply Christian values to our scholarship and teaching." (p. 107) He declares:  "Nationalist patriotism still owns the public square" where both "triumphalists" and "radical critics" affirm "the myth of redemptive violence." (p. 108) In the margin I wrote, "Oh?"

[40] However odious crass nationalism and redemptive violence are, I do not see them, in this age of therapeutic political correctness, dominating either the "public square" or the public schools.  What I fear is that Juhnke, having set up an over simplistic diagnosis, is proposing an equally over simplistic remedy:  the substitution of one ideology for another.  As a friend of mine likes to say, "The thesis lives on in the antithesis."

[41] Lest I be misunderstood, let me quickly add that I do not subscribe to the notion of a purely objective historiography based upon "pure facts."  I do not wish to revive the fallacious "fact-value's split."  Humility before the fact is indeed a virtue to be practiced by the historian, but one must also practice humility before the "fact" that no fact stands separate from its interpretation.  It is this realization that renders historiography the intriguing enterprise that it is, a project that goes on and on, endlessly reconsidering and correcting itself.

[42] If all Juhnke were saying is that certain themes that have been lacking in the teaching of history need to be restored, I would concur at once.  However, he is calling for something far more comprehensive:  the construction of a "master narrative" the controlling motif of which is not only "Christian," but a particular kind of sectarian; ideological Christian pacifism.   Such a proposal, I submit, confuses history and catechesis.  Each has its legitimate role, but honesty requires them to be kept separate.  But then I reveal my Lutheran bias:  salvation history and world history, though related, are not identical.  As for the construction of "master narratives," that is a game at which any number can play.

[43] Limitations of both space and time now necessitate my drawing this review to a close.  There is much else on which I might comment, notably the essays by Richard Mouw, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank, as well as the theological "tennis match" between the latter two.  However, to do that adequately would require another full-length article. 

[44] I will limit myself to a few closing comments on a matter of fundamental concern, taking as my point of departure the essay by Mark A. Noll which concludes the "Histories" section:  "Have Christians Done More Harm than Good?"

[45] I submit that one of our besetting temptations as Christians is the temptation to triumphalism, to what Luther would call a "theology of glory."  Further, as one whose early Christian nurture was in a Free church evangelical (Max Weber would call it a sectarian) environment, I submit that triumphalism is a particularly besetting sin for evangelicals.  It was in a Methodist, not a Lutheran, Sunday school that I learned to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers," and it was as a college student that I became acquainted with the Student Volunteer Movement and its motto, "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation."  Today I see such triumphalism in the Church Growth ideology in which one grows a church as one might grow a business.  Finally, I see it in a social activism which is dedicated to the transformation of this world according to a Biblical blueprint.

[46] The title of Mark Noll's essay, "Have Christians Done More Harm Than Good?," points to the downside of evangelical Christian triumphalism:  an abiding anxiety over whether we've "gotten it right" or "given of our selves enough."  It's the kind of anxiety that too often leads to defensiveness on the one hand and self-flagellation on the other.  In the face of the world's criticism we at times frantically recite all the good that Christians have done only to realize utter futility of such an effort.  In our shame, we welcome the world's taunts as might sinners the cleansing fires of Purgatory.

[47] What Noll does is demonstrate the futility of triumphalism.  Not only is it impossible to "keep score," such score-keeping is beside the point.  Noll says it well:  the Christian gospel proclaims

That Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, entered into the human story that he had authored in order to save sinners. [..H]umans are redeemed by God's grace rather than by the achievement of their own perfection. […S]alvation offered by God to sinners through Jesus Christ is a gift that we do not deserve; it is not a reward that we can earn.  This means that Christianity is a religion of redeemed sinners […] the cross […] calls unbelievers to heed God's act of mercy on their behalf and reminds believers of their constant need to repent of their sin. (.p. 92)

[49] Such is the gracious Word that liberates us from sin and guilt, the Word to which we return ever and again throughout our earthly pilgrimage, forgiving, freeing, and empowering us to serve the neighbor in this fallen world which God providently governs through "masks" of wrath and grace until the Day of Christ's return in glory.




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