[This post was published by the Mennonite World Review on “The World Together Blog.”]
Recent events have reminded me that being a peacemaker involves more than just being “the quiet in the land.” It also involves speaking up.
In summary, here is the three-part story I’m telling in this post:
(1) Conservative Reformed Christians in American are currently having a debate about Christians and the use of deadly force. Some of us Anabaptists spoke up and got a bit of public notice, and now I am praying that this will help more of our Reformed brothers and sisters embrace the way of suffering love more fully.
(2) What is the proper way for “the quiet in the land” to speak up?
(3) How can we do a better job of maintaining our nonresistant heritage right in our own Anabaptist churches?
Perhaps you’ve heard about it: Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (reportedly the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world), has been in the news for his statement to students at a school convocation. With a chuckle and an insinuation that he was carrying a gun in his back pocket at that very moment, Falwell said the following to much applause:
I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in…
Facing media backlash, Falwell later clarified his comments. But the substance of his position remained the same, and he provided a very questionable interpretation for the only biblical reference he provided in his explanation:
It just boggles my mind that anybody would be against what Jesus told His disciples in Luke 22:36: He told them if they had to sell their coat to buy a sword to do it because He knew danger was coming, and He wanted them to defend themselves.
John Piper, author, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, and former pastor at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, Mn., was troubled by Falwell’s words, so he dialogued with Falwell in private and then wrote an article in response:
This article is about the people whom the Bible calls “refugees and exiles” on earth; namely, Christians. It’s about the fact that our weapons are not material, but spiritual (2 Corinthians 10:4). It is an argument that the overwhelming focus and thrust of the New Testament is that Christians are sent into the world — religious and non-religious — “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). And that exhorting the lambs to carry concealed weapons with which to shoot the wolves does not advance the counter-cultural, self-sacrificing, soul-saving cause of Christ.
To be clear, Piper was not arguing for a nonresistant or even pacifist position. He still thinks soldiers and police officers may use guns, and that Christians may serve in those positions. He just doesn’t think Christians who are private citizens should be encouraged to pack guns for self-defense, and he advocates a very different tone than what Falwell used in his initial comments.
Amazingly, among his Reformed peers and many other evangelicals, Piper’s response has apparently been as controversial as Falwell’s original statements. Just now I did a Google search for “Piper” and “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves” (the title of Piper’s article). The first link listed is Piper’s original article. Here’s what I found in the rest of the top ten (Google order in brackets):
- 5 blog posts disagreeing with Piper. (2, 3, 4, 8, 10)
- 3 discussion forums debating Falwell, Piper, and guns. (5, 6, 7)
- 1 blog news post summarizing Piper’s article then tentatively affirming some rebuttals from other bloggers. (9)
Those 5 bloggers who disagree with Piper use language like this (again in Google order):
- “I honestly don’t know much about the ministry or beliefs of John Piper… But going on this particular article he has written, he comes across as an anti-gun liberal to me… Lol, every liberal is a pacifist until the day their loved ones are threatened, then they want blood. John Piper is no different. If the evil he so carelessly tells us to “not worry about” and just “trust God” with ever came to land at his doorstep you can best believe his tune would change. Quickly.”
- “Piper’s position as outlined is about as close as one can come to individual pacifism without saying so. His response unfortunately ignores much of the context of the New Testament passages it cites, and ignores the Old Testament entirely. As such, I not only view it as unbiblical and disagree with it strongly, I think it would be dangerous and unloving for Christians to accept in society.”
- “Piper seems to lack virtually any and all discernment.”
- “I think that Piper has missed the mark on this one, and I encourage wise men to carry a weapon and to do so carefully, Christologically, and only use it when needed…”
- “I realize John Piper’s problem with Jerry Falwell is that Falwell was encouraging other Christians to arm themselves as American citizens. However, Piper does precisely what Falwell did; he’s encouraging Christians in America not to arm themselves. I’m doing what neither man has done. I’m telling you to follow the Spirit and do as He leads.”
The three discussion forums contain a wild mix of perspectives and generally a lot of confusion.
The one blog news post is much calmer, and it is the cause for my post here today. This post was written by the widely-followed Reformed blogger Tim Challies.
I subscribe to Challies’ emails and find the majority of them very edifying, both informative and convicting. However, when this one landed in my inbox, I was troubled. But I also saw an opportunity as I read these words near the end of Challies’ post:
I have put little thought into the ownership and use of guns and found this discussion quite helpful in forming my thoughts. To tip my cards just a little, I find myself appreciating Piper’s efforts, especially related to demeanor and heart-attitude, but leaning more toward the points made by Wedgeworth and Thune [who both presented rebuttals to Piper].
Here is one of the most influential conservative Reformed voices, I thought, and he is just now forming his understandings regarding Christians and the use of deadly force. Perhaps we can help shape his thinking?
So I posted this on Facebook:
Suggestion: If you are a nonresistant Christian, please write a respectful “letter to the editor” to Tim Challies regarding his coverage of John Piper’s article about Christians and arms. This seems to be an opportune moment to invite our Reformed brothers and sisters to more fully embrace the way of suffering love.
I suggest you include two things in your letter:
(1) A brief response to something in Challies’ post (perhaps challenging one of the rebuttals against Piper’s article) or an affirmation of something you liked in Piper’s article.
(2) A suggestion that Challies read and review Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. (http://amzn.to/1YN9aAP
) If he receives a minor flood of letters recommending this book, perhaps we can convince him to read it. Imagine if he would actually start promoting it!
Then I pasted the letter that I had just written to Challies. After reading my post, several of my friends joined me, sending their own letters.
Yesterday morning I discovered that Challies had indeed published the letter that I sent—posted it on his blog and sent it to his thousands of email subscribers. I was delighted! Here is the letter, as Challies published it:
Thank you for giving John Piper’s article on Christians and arms respectful press. I found his words a refreshing breath of Christ-centered love. In response to your summary of responses, I have two thoughts:
(1) While Piper’s article is not perfect, I am disappointed that he has been charged with being “biblicistic and dependent upon a specific understanding of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old” (Wedgeworth’s words). How can it be wrong to see the new covenant as our lens for interpreting and applying the old, as Piper is trying to do? As an Anabaptist, I come from a long theological heritage of doing just this, and our people have suffered for centuries for refusing to bear the sword. I don’t think it is true that Piper “assumes that we need a direct biblical teaching on a matter in order to know whether it is morally permissible or not” (Wedgeworth’s explanation for his “biblicistic” charge). Rather, Piper is drawing biblical theological deductions from the pattern of God’s unfolding revelation, which climaxes in Christ’s defenseless self-sacrifice and his call for us to follow in his steps. This is no mere simplistic “biblicism.”
(2) Since you have expressed interest in this question of Christians and the use of force, I strongly encourage (exhort, implore, urge, beg!) you to read and review Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. A complex topic like this cannot be properly addressed in a handful of short articles. Sprinkle deals with the biblical evidence from both testaments in detail, historical evidence from the early church, and the toughest practical questions from today. He says he is from your own Christian neighborhood: “The Christian subculture in which I was raised and still worship is nondenominational conservative Reformed. I’ve been influenced over the years by John Piper, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and many others who swim in that pond” (from Chapter 1). So you will identify with his way of handling Scripture. And he’s thought about this for a long time, making what he calls a “reluctant journey toward nonviolence.” Piper needs to read this book (I think he’s stranded somewhat inconsistently halfway on the journey). And I think you would find it very helpful as well. Tolle lege!
—Dwight G, Leon, IA
[PS: I did change the Amazon affiliate link from Challies’ to mine. I trust that’s acceptable! 🙂 ]
A letter from one of my friends, Conrad Hertzler, was also published:
I appreciate the overall respectful tone with which you responded to John Piper’s piece “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves”. However, I am disappointed in the narrowness of the arguments used by cited authors in support of Christians using deadly force against attackers. It seems to be basically assumed by people holding your position that the only recourse left to a man whose wife and/or family is being attacked is to stand idly and helplessly by if he does not have a gun handy. As well, the situations which are created by proponents of deadly force are extremely hypothetical and no attempt is made to sort through all the nuances of such hypothetical situations. For a very well stated stance on the non-violent position, I would strongly encourage you to read Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. Mr. Sprinkle has arrived at his position “reluctantly” and as such has though through it well. Blessings.
—Conrad H, Mozambique, Africa
All told, three of the five letters Challies published on this topic were in support of non-violence!
Now, listen closely to Challies’ reply to Conrad:
The narrowness of the articles I quoted was a reflection of the narrowness of the responses. I did not find any articles from people who agreed with Piper and extended his argument.
Read that last sentence again:
I did not find any articles from people who agreed with Piper and extended his argument.
Challies is a voracious reader, both of books and blogs. (He shares about eight recommended links nearly daily on his own blog.) Yet he did not find any articles from people who agreed with Piper!
Where are the voices in support of Christian non-violence?
To be sure, there are such voices, and they are available online. (See below.) But if Challies was not hearing voices supporting even Piper’s very incomplete embrace of non-violence, you can be sure that there are many other American Christians who have never heard a solid biblical defense of this teaching.
I believe we Anabaptists, given our unique history, are specially equipped and entrusted to carry the message of Christian non-violence, of suffering love. We have a responsibility and opportunity not only to live this message (the “quiet in the land”), but also to share it with fellow Christians.
How do we do this? My online friend Miriam Iwashige, who also wrote a letter to Challies (you can read her reflections here), acknowledged this challenge:
It’s often difficult (perhaps especially for Anabaptists?) to get exactly the right balance of truth-telling and respectful dialog.
Anabaptists have varied in their approach to public debate and influence. Many of the first Anabaptists did not hesitate to speak up:
The first generation of Anabaptists dared to challenge the policies of contemporary rulers. Menno Simons did not hesitate to argue against capital punishment and to call persons in authority to obey the will of God for their office. With his forthright, almost defiant, exhortations to magistrates, Menno stands as a prototype of prophetic witness to the state
But prolonged persecution in the 1500s and 1600s left the Anabaptists a different people:
After this period of persecution, Mennonites kept to themselves and sought to be the “quiet in the land.” They wanted to practice their religious beliefs and social customs with as little interference as possible, but were not very active in the communities around them.
This affected the Anabaptist approach to church planting and cultural identity:
Within the mainstream of Swiss, German, and Dutch Anabaptism, the impulse to “go forth … and establish a church” by forming new congregations in every village and town was subverted when intense persecution and other factors transformed large segments of the Anabaptist community into “the quiet in the land.” It was in the lengthening experience as relatively isolated quiet people in the country that a distinct ethnic, subcultural identity became an increasingly pervasive element in their self-consciousness as church.
It affected evangelism and other forms of social engagement:
The period of Mennonite exclusiveness had arrived. Although severe persecution ceased, irritating discriminations by the authorities continued, and the typical Mennonite became the “Quiet in the Land,” emphasizing the virtues of simplicity, honesty, and adherence to the faith of the fathers, but without imagination or judgment as to opportunities or responsibilities of the higher faith in Christ. The 16th-century Anabaptists had been “in the world but not of the world”; the 18th-century Mennonite was neither “in the world” nor “of the world.” This explained the continuing lack of evangelistic zeal for a long period after persecution and discrimination had passed.
Anabaptist social influence became mostly limited to prayer—with most of that, perhaps ironically, also silent:
Although Mennonites became known as the “quiet in the land” when they sought ways to avoid the sword of the state, their prayers continued to be an expression of their concern to remain faithful to God as they continued to be accountable to one another in covenant community. In their search for a faithful life-style, Mennonites rejected elaborate liturgy and dogmatic theology in favor of practices that were more simple and quiet. Initially Mennonites (Dutch) prayed silently during worship… In time they prayed silently twice during each service, a practice some maintained until the end of the 18th century. At home also their prayers were in silence before and after meals[ 5. Smucker, Marcus G. “Prayer.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Jan 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Prayer&oldid=102612]
What should we do with this heritage of silence? This is a complex question, and we are not likely to all agree on the answers. For my part, I am not sure I am ready to fully imitate Menno Simons’ aggressive approach, although I have done a few things like signing some government petitions. Nor have I felt called to participate in all modern forms of Mennonite sociopolitical activism.
However, disagreements aside, I think we should be able to all affirm one form of active engagement—urging fellow Christians to follow more closely in Christ’s steps. We can’t expect unregenerate government officials to govern according to all the principles of Christ’s kingdom, but we can expect fellow believers to want to follow Christ more fully.
This is why I wanted to write that letter to Challies, and why I was glad when several of my friends joined me in the effort. Please join me now in praying (silently or otherwise!) that Challies and many of his readers will read the Preston Sprinkle book that Conrad and I recommended to him. If Challies is convinced by Sprinkle’s exposition of Scripture, the ripples could impact many.
Far too many of us, rather than speaking up effectively for the way of peace, are gradually drifting away from our own nonresistant heritage. One piece of evidence: I have been surprised and troubled to see how many Anabaptists (or ex-Anabaptists) post statements in support of the military come Veterans Day (or Memorial Day in Canada). In my mind, if I thank a soldier for fighting so I can enjoy a free country, then I have no business claiming conscientious objector status when the military comes looking for recruits.
Yes, I know:
- No Bible verse explicitly says “Christians must not serve in the military” or “Christians must not use force to defend their families.”
- Genuine Christians come to a range of conclusions on this subject.
- And I have some questions I’m still wrestling with, such as this: If I believe it is wrong for me to use deadly force, is it ever right for me to call 911 when I or my loved ones are threatened, thus inviting another to do the deed that I cannot do for myself?
But, even while acknowledging some ambiguity regarding specific life situations or specific Bible texts, it is certainly possible to come to a coherent, convincing biblical understanding of Christian non-violence.
The days are past (if they were ever here) when we Anabaptists can take a casual approach to passing our nonresistant heritage on to our children. Many of our youth are now listening to a wide range of non-Anabaptist voices. Much good is coming from that; I would be very unhappy if we restricted our input to only Anabaptist sources. However, when rigorous non-Anabaptist teaching is paired with rather casual Anabaptist teaching in the home church, then doctrines such as nonresistance are likely to erode. This is especially true when so many of us are listening to the very same Reformed voices that Challies hears and promotes—the ones who have offered so little in support of Piper’s rebuttal to Falwell.
I believe most of us grow up assuming rather unquestioningly that nonresistance is right; I know I did. I also heard some good teaching to support it. However, some of our teaching is not as rigorous as I think it needs to be. One example: A while back (within the past 3-4 years, as I recall) the Christian Light Publications Sunday School curriculum included a series of lessons on nonresistance. This series helpfully covered a range of texts that support nonresistance, but no biblical texts used to challenge nonresistance were included in any lesson text. I wish the series had included one or two lessons wrestling directly with these “problem texts”—texts such as Romans 13:1-5, Acts 10 (Cornelius the centurion), or Luke 3:14 (John the Baptist failing to call soldiers to lay down their arms).
If this is our usual approach to teaching nonresistance, then we will lose it as soon as we hear more convincing teaching from other sources.
So where do we look for solid teaching on Christian non-violence? I will end this post by again affirming the work of a Reformed author who wrestles with this subject better than anyone else I have read in my admittedly limited reading.
If you want a book that wrestles meaningfully with essentially all the relevant biblical data, both pro and con, then read Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence.
The best thing about this book is its engagement with Scripture. But it is also helpful in at least two other ways: for its survey of what the early church believed about Christians and violence, and for its honest engagement with the most difficult practical scenarios you might face in real life.
This book would work well for small group discussion. Why not read it together with a Sunday School class, or with a mid-week Bible study group? If you want to build conviction for nonresistance in your church, I can’t think of a better resource.
If you want more book suggestions on this topic, let me know. I have more good ones in mind.
And if you want to begin with some free reading, see these two articles by Sprinkle:
What are your thoughts? How well are conservative Anabaptists doing at passing on our heritage of non-violence and suffering love to the next generation? How can we best share this heritage with Christians beyond our Anabaptist world? Share your insights in the comments below.
PS: In an ironic turn of events, my writing of this post was temporarily interrupted when I finally gave in to my daughter’s demands that I teach her how to play Risk. I don’t know if you approve of that or not, but I did somehow manage to retain my nonresistant convictions despite many hours playing Risk as a youth.