United in Confession, But in Practice? Engaging Gerald Schlabach on Nonviolence and Church Unity

Gerald Schlabach, “‘Confessional’ Nonviolence and the Unity of the Church: Can Christians Square the Circle,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 34.1 (2014): 125-144.

Response by Myles Werntz, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Myles_werntz [at] pba.edu

Gerald Schlabach’s recent essay “ ‘Confessional’ Nonviolence and the Unity of the Church: Can Christians Square the Circle?” gets to the doctrinal heart of much of the current debate over war among churches, framing the question in terms of the division which war creates. Schlabach significantly highlights the way in which war has been a dividing line between Mennonites and Catholics; while Catholic teaching permits both adherence to a just-war or pacifist ethic, Mennonites cannot conceive of a separation between pacifist and Christian commitments. As far back as the Schleitheim Confession, baptismal regeneration is linked together with a refusal of the sword for Mennonites.

Using the work of the late Glen Stassen, Schlabach views the prohibition against violence in Matthew’s Gospel as working in a triadic formulation which 1) reminds the audience of traditional righteousness, 2) diagnoses the cycle, and 3) offers a transforming initiative. In this way, Schlabach notes, the teaching of Matthew 5:43-48 becomes a call for active peacemaking. Ecumenically, the payoff is that just-war becomes a preparatory teaching which can prepare Christians of all kinds to receive the more radical call of pacifism. Insofar as both just war and pacifism renounce the mantra of “hate your enemy”, just war teaching—if taken to its logical conclusion—comes within a hair’s breath of pacifism in practice.

By casting just war theory into the place of “traditional righteousness”, we are already far beyond casting just war as an unrestrained form of warfare, and moving into a place where just war and pacifism share a singular presumption: the call to peacemaking. Insofar as both pacifists and just warriors stand in discipleship to a single Christ, Schlabach reframes the question of war and the church into a more positive assessment, insofar as the traditional righteousness of just war is not negated as such, but fulfilled by the more radical call of Christian pacifism. If these two positions are related—as righteousness and fulfillment of righteousness—then pacifist congregations are asked to consider just war as Christologically-warranted, or at a minimum, ecclesiologically permissible. Those belonging to pacifist congregations may object, Schlabach says, but to hold up peace church identity (a subsidiary identity to that of “Christian”) is to ultimately risk idolatry. Viewing Jesus’ teaching as a call for peacemaking, a call which brings together both pacifists and just-war Christians, unites the church rather than dividing between just-war and pacifists.

Objections may very well be raised that Schlabach has misconstrued just war as having a basic “presumption against violence” instead of a basic “presumption of justice”, but in practice, I would suggest is correct in his assessment of the common ground which pacifists and just warrior Christians hold. 1 And, while there are a bevy of significant questions which Christians should all be asking about the nature of war (“How do we stand in solidarity with the suffering? How do Christians think about terror?”), I think Schlabach’s question is exactly the right one for Christians to be asking amongst themselves. Furthermore, I also think Schlabach is right to direct our attention beyond nonviolence as a negative position, and to reframe nonviolence in terms of its positive aspects; John Howard Yoder and other Christians pacifists labored long over the last century to alter the public perception of pacifism in this way, with Stassen’s “Just Peacemaking” program the most recent iteration.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, incorporating approaches of both nonviolence and just war is entirely appropriate, as seen in the letter from the Catholic bishops, The Challenge of Peace, hold together these as legitimate Christian possibilities.2 In this work, both possibilities are commended as excluding what Schlabach has rightly named as the “Lamechian vengeance” which promotes unrestrained warfare, such as that most recently put forward by presidential hopeful Ben Carson. This holding of seemingly incommensurate ethical outcomes as mutually valid is, in part, because Catholic ecclesiology rests upon a presumption of unity made possible by the Mystical Body of Christ, that Christ unites the Church in a universal fashion which is not divided by time and space.

Pacifist congregations, by and large, however, envision Christology in a different fashion, that naming Christ’s mystical presence cannot be separate from the ethics enfleshed by Jesus of Nazareth. While I am entirely in agreement that any nomenclature which takes priority over “Christian” is in danger of becoming idolatrous, it seems that the disagreement between Catholics and Mennonites (or more broadly, just war and pacifist Christians), before it is over ecclesiological confession, is over how to construe the Christology which funds ecclesiological confessions. This, I think, is the lingering question which remains behind any project of ecumenical recognition of ethics.

This Christological divide, which funds an ecclesiological divide, in turn pushes us to ask what a unity in peacemaking can consist of, beyond a mutual recognition by just warriors and pacifists as equally Christian. Just-war adherents (as opposed to populist advocates who simply justify war) and pacifists are united, as Schlabach rightly points out in the project of peacemaking. And at many points, pacifism and just war are deeply compatible, particularly in light of the practices laid out in the Just Peacemaking collection edited by Stassen!3 Pacifists and just-warriors can hold in common a desire for reconciliation, development, economic justice, and the flourishing of local populations affected by war; as Stassen argues, the practices of Just Peacemaking are rooted in the person of Jesus. Put differently, pacifists and just warriors will overlap in the ius bellum and post bellum worlds, though—if I am right about their different Christological visions—they will remain separated in bello. When (and if) a war comes which can be declared as just, Christology compels pacifists and just warriors into different modes of action in the midst of war, one which for pacifists will remain unarmed.

What are we to make of this divide which persists in practice, even if unity is achieved by mutual ecclesiological recognition? I think that Schlabach is right to confess that Christians must make sense of “the complex and unfinished unity we share”, insofar as both just warriors and pacifists must acknowledge their common faith. And beyond this, they can acknowledge—before and after the fighting—a common vocation of peacemaking and peacebuilding. But in the thick of the fight, I think that, Christologically, pacifists and just warriors will still remain separate. Rather than acknowledging this in spite of any ecclesiological recognition, acknowledging unity as “complex” will perhaps mean that this separation occurs because of ecclesiological recognition, as members of the same body with different vocations, hands and feet continuing to call each other to account and honesty about what it means to be present before, after, and in the midst of violence.

  1. J. Daryl Charles, “Presumption Against War or Presumption Against Injustice? The Just War Tradition Reconsidered”, Journal of Church and State (2005): 335-369.
  2. The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1984).
  3. Glen Stassen, ed. Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998).
Myles Werntz

About Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness, and the co-editor of four other volumes, including the forthcoming Sport and Violence: History, Theory, Practice, with Craig Hovey and John White. His research interests include war and peace, immigration and the use of conscience in modern discourse, and how these intersect with traditional theological loci such as ecclesiology.

Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness, and the co-editor of four other volumes, including the forthcoming Sport and Violence: History, Theory, Practice, with Craig Hovey and John White. His research interests include war and peace, immigration and the use of conscience in modern discourse, and how these intersect with traditional theological loci such as ecclesiology.

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