Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism

I hope I don’t sound too much like our president when I insist that we had a great turnout Sunday morning for the start of my new class at Salem Covenant Church, on “The Church and the Wars of the 20th Century.” To set the table, I proposed some big questions that will run through our narrative, none bigger than this doozy:

How, if at all, should Christians participate in warfare?

While I’m a just war advocate myself, I was grateful to find everyone willing to go along with me and linger for several minutes on the “if at all” phrase. Regardless of their own position, they could easily come up with several reasons why Christians should hesitate to take part in war: the commandment not to murder; Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus’ own example of nonresistance during his passion; our calling as peacemakers.

Conscientious objectors covering an old privy in Florida during WWII
Conscientious objectors working on an anti-hookworm project in Florida during WWII – Mennonite Church USA Archives

Of course, most of them could just as easily come up with reasons why Christians might legitimately, if rarely, engage in violence. But there have always been Christians unpersuaded by such counter-arguments, and we’ll tell their stories as we continue the course with Christian responses to the two world wars. The cases of the historic peace churches — e.g., Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers — are pretty well known even to their just war-ring coreligionists. But on Sunday I hinted at the existence of “unexpected sites of Christian pacifism.”

That’s been the subject of an on-again, off-again series of Anxious Bench posts by Asbury University historian David Swartz. Perhaps most notably, he has pointed out that a wide variety of pacifisms show up in the 19th and early 20th century history of Holiness and Pentecostal Christianity. For example, in 1844 the Wesleyan Methodist Church taught that “[The gospel] is in every way opposed to the practice of War in all its forms; and those customs which tend to foster and perpetuate the war spirit [are] inconsistent with the benevolent designs of the Christian Religion.”

This past November I borrowed the series for a day to reflect on the Seventh-day Adventist response to war embodied in the Mel Gibson-directed movie Hacksaw Ridge. Its protagonist, an Adventist from Virginia named Desmond Doss (played by Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield), insists that he is not a conscientious objector, but a “conscientious cooperator.” While he does not believe that America’s cause in World War II is wrong and he wants to serve in the military, he cannot so much as carry a weapon. Instead, he acts as a medic, as did many Adventists during that conflict. (Anticipating the war, the church had set up a medic training program in 1934.)

That notion of “conscientious cooperation” went back to the birth of the Adventist denomination, during the Civil War. While they could not discard the law against murder, most Adventists believed the defeat of slavery to be a righteous cause and sought alternative forms of service (including working with freedmen in Union-held areas of the Confederacy). That idea solidified in response to the First World War, when”Adventists were willing, even eager, to accept other roles defined for them by the government in its effort to mobilize the entire citizenry in support of the total war effort” (that from Douglas Morgan’s history of Adventism and the American Republic).

"Stop War" (1968 sign on the Bethel campus)
A graffito on the Bethel campus in 1968 – Bethel at War

With David on sabbatical in Thailand and taking a break from blogging, I continued the series this morning with a post on an even less expected site of Christian pacifism: the Swedish-American Baptists who founded the Baptist General Conference (now Converge Worldwide) and Bethel University. For the post I revisited a couple of episodes from the Bethel at War digital history project: the story of a Nebraska Baptist named Curtis Johnson, who spent WWII serving with nearly 12,000 fellow conscientious objectors in the Mennonite- and Brethren-dominated Civilian Public Service; and Fletcher’s well-researched account of Bethel students who appealed to the denomination’s interwar flirtations with pacifism in support of their objections to fighting in Vietnam. What’s most striking about each story is that pacifism is justified according to explicitly Baptist principles, especially the individual’s freedom to interpret the Bible as sole authority for belief. Here, for example, is the meat of Curtis Johnson’s argument, as laid out in a December 1943 letter to the dean of Bethel College:

As I understand it, the Baptists have no creed save the Bible, or particularly as the New Testament portrays Christ’s plan for the life of an individual. You know, Mr. Johnson, Christ did set a tremendously difficult course for his followers to take. Suppose He were here now, walking along with you and me, suggesting to us a course of action in days such as these. Truthfully, can you conceive of Him giving His o.k. to your taking the life of some man, perhaps a German or a Japanese, some man that He died to save? Can you conceive of Him along side you in an airplane, dropping tons of explosive on helpless women and children, even tho your intention is to hit only munitions plants? Would He man the trigger on them occasionally for you, and show you how to do it more accurately? Did you ever try to imagine Commando Jesus Christ, private, first class, armed with every sort of knife, or club, or revolver, violently bringing the Kingdom of God here to men, and forcibly making them believe in Him as the all-powerful by physical process and military might?

…Perhaps I have a different version of the Bible than you have, but somehow, I don’t find anything like that picture of Christ in, for instance, the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of Matthew.


2 thoughts on “Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism

  1. Truthfully, can you conceive of Him giving His o.k. to your taking the life of some man, perhaps a German or a Japanese

    The tough part of the equation is that the soldier himself is protecting the lives of innocents. WWJD gets very complicated here–it’s one thing for Jesus to surrender His own life, or the apostles to do the same. But there is no Biblical warrant [I believe] to stand by and watch women and children slaughtered. The probative image here is not Jesus meek and mild, but Auschwitz or the Rape of Nanking.

    1. I agree, Tom. (Like I said in the post, I’m a just war advocate myself.) I’m just struck that Baptists taking Baptist commitments seriously found their way to this position.

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