Anabaptist perspectives on war and peace today

These are notes from a past Anabaptist Network theology forum seminar with Professor Chris Rowland from the University of Oxford. The draft from which I worked was kindly provided by the Rev Chris Burch. This thinking is being developed on an Anabaptist Network UK online discussion group, intending towards a book on Anabaptist approaches to different ethical questions. The project has been ‘on ice’ for sometime, and is now being revived. If you are interested in this project, drop me an email.  In the meantime, please do not expect this to be a complete or coherent article. And remember that it was written back in 2003.

The opportunity to reflect on how Christians influenced and shaped by Anabaptism might respond afresh to war and peace today is shaped by three ‘event horizons’. The first, and most immediate, is the aftermath of the war on Iraq and the continuing Western-led ‘war on terrorism’. The second is the lengthy and disputatious history of Christian thinking on war and peace, with the predominance of the post-Constantinian tradition being expressed in the ‘just war’ discourse. The third is the minority tradition of non-resistance, non-violence and pacifism expressed in many areas of Christian life, but most distinctively in those strands of Anabaptism and Quakerism culminating in what are know in the US as ‘the historic peace churches’. In our current setting there are also attempts to re-evaluate the Christian legacy in this area: most notably Walter Wink’s attempt to forge a ‘theology of non-violence’ which seeks to re-relate aspects of the ‘two trajectories’ (majority ‘just war’, minority ‘pacifism’) in the light of the practice of Jesus and a Pauline understanding of principalities and powers.


A significant number of those present at our seminar stated that the core challenge remains either to explain how war is compatible with the Gospel of Jesus, or to look at how pacifism/non-violence can be made to ‘work’. The question tended to be framed in ‘utilitarian’ ways that accepted some common territory between ‘church’ and ‘civic political arena’ (our theologies of ‘state’ were less in the foreground). A number of people expressed anxieties about ‘total pacifism’. Yet earlier Anabaptist pacifist traditions in Europe [we need to reflect on the historical derivation of this particular term and its consonance or otherwise with Anabaptist frameworks of thinking] were rooted in principled abstention / separation from wider society and in non-resistance.

The centre of gravity seems to have changed, however (notably in Mennonite thinking) towards a more positive ‘politics of Jesus’ (John Howard Yoder) and towards what many in our seminar referred to as ‘shalom activism’ – combining a vision rooted in the biblical-prophetic world view with a praxis derived from the evolving tradition of non-violent action and protest which has emerged in the modern world.

Serious discipleship is seen these days not so much as shunning the world, but as a calling to work for transformation within it. Jesus is understood as walking in the world at large, not just in our midst.

Chris Rowland pointed out that Pax is often an imperial concept that expresses itself as securitas guaranteed by the armed nation (and, later, state). Shalom, on the other hand, is concerned not with our capacity to control or our (tribal) security, but with a just and harmonious ordering of the world – human beings and creation – in relation to God and God’s purposes. The contrast was most marked in a piece of correspondence he had shared with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, concerning the previous Gulf War – where the root assumptions were entirely located within securitas, and its contemporary counterpart realpolitik.

Theological questions

There was an agreement about the interconnectedness of doctrine and ethics. Is it the quest for practical discipleship that teaches us how to order these? We were suspicious of ‘abstract’ reflection, unaccountable to the actual lives (and the lives of faith) that people lead.

For some, the issue of our disposition in the matter of war and peace was precisely about theo-logic and its relation to the other ‘logics’ and ‘realisms’ at work around us. The central question, according to this kind of thinking is not just ‘what would Jesus do?’ (though the preponderance of the Gospel narratives towards the refusal of violence was widely noted), but who and what are we witnessing to in our actions? Similarly, what is the role and testimony of the Christian community within the world?

Two responses were suggested: first, we are called to be places of transforming love: and that will often involved operating out of an understanding of the world and its shaping/accountability which differs radically from ‘dominant logic’. Secondly, we are people who – without shirking the responsibilities of interpretation – seek to be formed morally and spiritually by keeping company with Jesus. This includes the way of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. It is out of these resources that we make our stand amidst contemporary realities and challenges.
This in turn raised afresh the question of the responsibility of Christians-in-community and those of nation / state.

Who is being ‘defended’ by whom against what? Are ideas of justice not based on theo-logic ‘defensible’? What of the ‘responsibility’ of Christians towards the state? Are there moments and impulses towards non-responsibility, too? And how has the changing nature (and, some would say, increasing instability / displacement) of ‘the nation state’ in a globalising world changed the way we frame such questions?

What of Bonhoeffer, who remained a Christian pacifist by conviction, but who (in the midst of the monumental evil of Nazism) ‘took sin upon himself’ by knowingly participating in a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer? In a bad world should we attempt ‘sinlessness’, or is it the intention and direction of our actions that matters most? Dorothy Day put the matter another way, suggesting that it is not how little we can achieve in proportion to the scale of the problem that matters most, but the desire to act and the quality of the action (however small). We can’t respond to spiritual power by physical means alone.

And what of ‘just war’ theory. Are its roots in Christian Empire (which Anabaptists would wish to resist) or does it have a broader theological base? Is it in some respects a Christian equivalent of the honoured Jewish lex talionis (law of proportionate retribution) – a step in the right direction, but not enough to fulfil the requirements and promises of Gospel?

The response of the churches

In Britain and Ireland we noted a drift away from unabated ‘just war’ thinking among the historic denominations; an often inchoate sense that war and the Gospel cannot be reconciled (as the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops worldwide stated in 1978). The degree of opposition to the Iraq war among church people was very high. But how much of this is rooted in solid Christian thinking, and how much in basic squeamishness towards the nastiness of war. The time is ripe for reconsideration of core issues. Revisiting and developing Anabaptist responses could make a vital contribution to the wider discussion. Plus those of us who owe some debt to Anabaptism recognised the partiality and confusion of our own thinking in this area.

Violence revisited

Many of the tenets of traditional ‘just war’ thinking (proportionality, legitimation, moral restrain, etc.) presuppose the ‘controllability’ of organised violence in ways that look less and less credible in a world where ‘war’ is being de-territorialized and is no longer the monopoly of states and armies. This we take to be the import of ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom fighting’ (variously defined, and by whom?) and the responses to it. The ‘myth of redemptive violence’ needs much more attention (Wink et al) and ‘scapegoat / mimesis’ theory (Girard). What is the relation between force and violence, and between lethal / non-lethal uses of force? What of the ‘social need’ for violence, catharsis etc.? What of international institutions and the use of international law as means of restraining and regulating violence? All these pose acute issues for Christian discipleship.

Non-violence revisited

There was a strong sense of the need to develop ‘just peace’ thinking, which includes offering / discovering / creating and making visible alternatives to violence; generating common space and language in the face of societal divisions and stereotypes; alternative policy frameworks. But that in turn requires tough questions. Is non-violence parasitic on a wider violent order? (We noted ‘successful’ uses of non-violence in Nazi Germany, South Africa, the struggle for civil rights in the US, Ghandi’s India etc., but recognised that this wider pattern of violence might still have influenced things in ways pacifists would be uncomfortable about.) We talked about the ‘spiral of violence’ (Helder Camara and others), ‘human shields’ (depends upon ‘playing by the rules’), and the way in which pragmatic and inventive non-violent strategies were needed to confront the complexity and ambiguity of the real world. ‘Alternative realisms’ needed to be talked about: this being the particular task of theology (theo-logic).

Before conclusions

Our conversations were very wide-ranging. Overall we are looking for ways of identifying and responding to primary issues in Christian terms; of re-considering Anabaptist values and traditions as ways forward; of expressing the interconnectedness of the issues involved; and of looking for the means of discovering ‘ways in’ for people to engage with ‘hopeful realism’.

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