Five Questions for Myles Werntz on Bodies of Peace

Publication Year: 2014


James McCarty: You begin chapter one with this intriguing paragraph:

“To begin our exploration on the ways in which ecclesiology sets the tone for nonviolent resistance to war, we must first deal with a direct and potentially problematic supposition: that churches do in fact live with war and benefit from societies that make war, regardless of their stance on the matter. This supposition, I will argue, is a theological one, insofar as it claims the church – as Christ’s body in the world – involves acknowledging the church’s unity with the world as a part of creation, for the sake of the world. Prior to discussing how churches witness against war, we must first acknowledge the ways in which the lives of churches in the American context are intertwined with the wars of their country as both material and cultural inheritors of these wars. As I will suggest, coming to terms with this reality is therapeutic for churches who see nonviolence as the church’s vocation, insofar as acknowledging this interaction with the world allws them to recognize the ways in which witness is already possible” (p. 23-24).

I think this is a fascinating way to start a book on Christian nonviolence. Why did you choose to start your book with this claim, and how does framing it as a theological one set up the rest of the argument in your book?

Myles Werntz: As I began to work on this question, what seemed to be prevalent, at least among some versions of Christian nonviolence, was a neglect of the conditions in which nonviolent resistance to war begins: in the midst of a country of which we are inheritors, for better or worse, of the country’s goods. What I wanted to say is this: a Christian response to war must begin by confessing the unity which Christians have with society.

I take this to be relatively uncontroversial theologically, insofar as the earliest apologists acknowledged that to be Christian was to be Christian in the thick of society. Bonhoeffer puts it a little more starkly, saying that Christians are those who are called to follow Christ in the midst of their enemies, but even this stark juxtaposition is only recognizable by first acknowledging the commonality of church and world under God. This unity with the world, I think, is not a liability, but rather the very condition which enables witness—the built-in commonality provides any number of avenues for witness to proceed. Theologically, as Tommy Givens’ recent book has pointed out, to be the people of God means in part to be in solidarity with sinners, and bearing witness not for the sake of Christians to have pure hands, but to bear witness for the sake of their neighbors. By recognizing that those committed to nonviolence have a share in the wars they oppose, Christians hopefully can not only penitently come to terms with these modes of involvement, but see these connections as part of how their witness can proceed.

You go on to argue that the varieties of Christian nonviolence in denominations and/or churches is best understood as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in the global Christian communion and may lead “eventually, to unity among the churches” (p. 266). Can you elaborate on how a topic many see as divisive might actually be unifying?

My claim regarding ecclesiology in this book is two-fold: 1) we cannot conceive of church apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, and 2) churches are unified, and called to work out this unity, as a consequence of their founding in and through the Spirit. All of the figures in this book see nonviolent resistance to war as one peaceability which the church enacts as a consequence of its being the body of Christ; my claim, then, is that if we conceive of nonviolence as one of the ways in which the Spirit has formed various bodies of Christ, we might recognize the Spirit as present in other communions than our own. It is not accidental, I think, that nonviolence has emerged through multiple ecclesial frameworks, I believe, and the call of Christians is for recognition of parallel ecclesial witnesses as the work of the one Spirit.

Because this was a book written in large part to those who already persuaded by nonviolence to some degree, this book is a call for Christians scattered across communions to recognize their unity with one another, not simply as co-activists against war, but as fellow members of the same body of Christ. Realizing this unity will be harder than simply opposing war together, but opposition to war can be a place to begin the broader work of church unity.

This is not to say that churches without this presumption are excluded; churches with a just-war disposition likewise hold that war is (or should) hold that war is not the first response for Christians to violence in the world. Gerald Schlabach’s work is very instructive here: that Christians of both persuasions (just-war and pacifist) stand together in a presumption against violence. It is my hope that the unity envinced by pacifist Christians can extend further to these churches as well.

In the book you provide in depth analyses of the ways that ecclesiology and nonviolence function in the thought of John Howard Yoder, Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, and Robert McAfee Brown. Can you say a bit about why you chose these four figures as opposed to some others?

I wanted to use these four for three reasons. First, they speak to four very different ecclesiological presuppositions who came to similar conclusions regarding participation in war, making for a more rich picture. Second, they were operating as contemporaries, which provided a good comparative situation, instead of cherry-picking from different historical situations. Third, the relationship between ecclesiology and nonviolence which each of them present is different from the others, but in a way which presents a comprehensive picture. Again, part of my reason for writing this book was that nonviolence and ecclesiology largely is thought of in one mode: that presented by Yoder, and following him in certain ways, by Hauerwas. While there is no questioning that their work has put nonviolence front and center for many Christians, I wanted to argue that nonviolence can be a church response for Christians who don’t share the Mennonite (or in Hauerwas’ case, “high church Mennonite”) presuppositions. I had been working with Yoder for a number of years prior to this, as well as with Day, but Stringfellow and Brown were lost gems that were suggested as I talked to people about the project.

You mention, at least twice, Martin Luther King Jr. and Clarence Jordan as two Baptists (like yourself) that you could have added to the conversation in the book. Can you elaborate on how that ecclesiological context might provide a different way to understand the connection between ecclesiology and nonviolence than the four presented in the book?

This is actually a question I’m hoping to work out in the next few years. My initial sense is that the Baptist emphases upon conscience and separation of church and state have some role to play here. Conscience is an issue which you find Yoder, Day, and Stringfellow bumping up against, but it doesn’t play a strong role in any of their ecclesiologies except for Day somewhat. Baptists, I think, have some things to add to the conversation by emphasizing what it might look like to have a church formed in conscience and religious liberty. As to why I didn’t include my own tradition in this book, the answer is more practical than anything else: the work on MLK Jr. and nonviolence is legion, and thus, it didn’t seem that I could add much to that particular context. Jordan is one of those unheralded voices outside certain circles, and I’d still like to recover his work in much the way I did these others, but the book was already close to 300 pages by the time I recovered just four voices!

Why should the general public be interested in this book?

My hope is that this book might offer some insights as to how being a member of the church is a thick participation in the redemptive work of the Spirit, and how nonviolent resistance to war might be conceived as part of that discipleship. Nonviolence is a misunderstood among Christians, I think, as a kind of deontological ethic or naïve response to violence. What I hope comes across is that nonviolence is not naïve about violence, but rather, a response which is borne out of fidelity to Christ and enacted in the midst of war for the sake of Christ.

James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

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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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