Leo Tolstoy, pacifism, violence, William Cavanaugh

A Couple of Theological Turns that can Lead to Pacifism

This is for Halden’s Pacifism Series.

I do not want to repeat what others have said in the series, so I do not plan to make an argument for my pacifism, rather, I want to mention a couple of the deciding factors the led to my shift and will also provide a critical reader more concepts to investigate. My pacifism grew out of two movements in my life – one that seems as clear as lightening and the other born out of a slower theological growth.

First, my social location. I was born into conservative Protestantism (which was sometimes evangelical, sometimes fundamentalist and even at times Pentecostal…ish), the Republican party and a family that was more than just a little pro military. One grandfather came back from Korea with sniper pins (or something to that effect), and more in the other family were in World War 2 with stories of sacrifice and danger. To bring the situation more up to date, I have been in discussions where family has said coercive, militaristic force is mandatory for keeping the peace, even on one’s own citizens; that anything goes to maintain the status quo and the perception of safety. None of this I suspect is new to anyone in America, or anywhere for that matter, but it seems socially locating one’s self is necessary for this autobiographical statement. Lastly, I suppose I am a “free church” pacifist which some might find weird in light of what I will soon say.

The first shift I can see clearly in my mind. It was a sunny day in Portland, Oregon at my undergrad school and just past noon. I was sitting on the beat up, orange couch, alone in the shade of my room and reading a small book I had somehow came across – The Wisdom of Tolstoy. There is a specific instance in the book that Tolstoy chronicles a Rabbi stating, something to the effect of, “There is a lot in your New Testament about nonviolence, but you don’t listen.” It was this statement in combination with Tolstoy’s message on the Sermon on the Mount that struck my mind dumb for the next half hour. It was here I realized that taking the text seriously very well might mean non-violence and non-violence is possible. Sure friends of mine were reading Hauerwas and Yoder, but that did not have the effect on me that other people felt, well, not by then it hadn’t. For me, it was Tolstoy. Call him the gateway drug to pacifism.

However, I do not think Tolstoy would have had the effect he did without a simultaneous rising of communal ecclesiology in my theology. I suppose it wasn’t a full on community ecclesiology then, more like an inchoate communality, but I had just written a paper on individualism and community in the church, arguing for the dumping of a mechanistic, individualistic anthropology in favor of the communal, organic body of Christ. As time has progressed and my ecclesiology found root within Christological/Eschatological Kingdom theology, so my pacifism strengthened. By identifying far more within the body of Christ – an extension of the kingdom here but not yet here – than any nation-state, my politics have taken a different turn in thought (which is partly why I hope to do a PhD in the subject of political theology – a response by myself to evils in the world is mandatory, but how ought the church engage?). Also, William Cavanaugh has been very helpful here; through re-examining history, his writings helped me, who was blind to the intrinsic coercive nature of the nation-state, to see where peace and coercion really lay.

It seems as one’s ecclesiology strengthens, particularly when it focuses on relationships, pacifism becomes the option. Doing violence to another human being just doesn’t exist, for it is the church who takes in the hurting and criticizes the powerful. The economy of God functions radically different and that is our first allegiance. America is cool and all, but despite what it might think, it isn’t God or the church.


2 thoughts on “A Couple of Theological Turns that can Lead to Pacifism

  1. Danny says:

    I’ve been thinking about joining the National Guard recently, and somehow that lead me to reading a lot about pacifism, which is a very very difficult concept that really shook my world view, I’m still not sure if it’s right or not but its certainly hard to deal with. I get the whole thing about tying one’s loyalties to God rather than country. But what about violence for God? Does it exist. It did in the Old Testament, but does it in the New? I don’t see myself as a literal-ist but I do want to be a truth-ist, and it seems both the pacifist and non-pacifist viewpoints have parts where they say “well, what Jesus was really saying here, despite all appearances, is…”

    One thing I am sure of in my mind… whatever philosophy is the right one, withdrawal from the world and nonaction is not part of it. We must interact with others, others including all others, and if they suffer we must reach out to them.

    I haven’t read Tolstoy, I think I’ll take a look.

  2. d. w. horstkoetter says:


    What I don’t want to do is to use theology as a bat and beat you over the head, neither do I want to act like pacifism is tension free – it isn’t. But I want to be up front and honest, so here are my thoughts.

    I do not see myself as a “literalist” in probably the sense you are saying it. Personally I think most people are literalists, they’re just literalists about different things, even the liberals will acknowledge that. I want to first and foremost take the genre of the text seriously.

    As for violence for God, that is a difficult subject, even those who are for just war. In fact I think it is equally troubling, if not more so, for just war theorists. The war that God commanded for the Jews to conduct when entering the promise land amounts to entire eradication – genocide and then some. Everyone, virtually everything, was to die. So, if one is a just war theorist, what does one do with that?

    Another Old Testament conception of violence is violence linked with other types of justice, as opposed to just cleansing the land after the exodus. Many of the prophets foretell the destruction of Israel/Judea/Jerusalem at the hands of invading armies because of Israel’s transgressions – God using other nations for justice. However, in the following breath or soon after, at least some of the prophets, who equate this destruction with God, also say that these invading armies will get their due for the destruction (or justice that God uses them for) that they cause. God will also visit justice on them in return for killing his/her people. In the OT, much less in the NT, it isn’t so cut and dried as this guy ( http://jdgreear.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/03/romans_13_and_p.html ) makes it out to be. So you need to first ask, what does justice look like?

    There is another take on violence called Christian Realism, advocated by Reinhold Niebuhr. He says that the ethic of Jesus is the ideal, but unattainable for us and therefore while we should probably seek it, we will never attain it. He has a thorough going anthropology that takes seriously the fallenness of humanity and the need for action. However, it could also be said that he has not much else in terms of theology. He only claimed to be an ethicist, but he also made way for the entrance into WW2 (but then right when the USA did enter, he didn’t like it – he was a very complex man). Anyways, thats an entirely different view. I don’t want to set it up as a straw-person argument so I won’t continue on with my criticism, instead I mention Christian Realism if you’re curious as to other views on violence. Just War is touted as the end all view, and it most definitely is not. We just like to think that our wars are just, that our wars are innocent, that our wars are righteous.

    You might also be interested in the comments here: https://flyingfarther.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/my-concern-with-huckabee/ . Complicity is something you should probably also question when it comes to violence.

    I sympathize with your exasperation and frustration, if I am correct in what I do see from your questions. Both sides seem to have a point, or at least argue over the same text, but come to radically different conclusions, so who is right? I suspect you “just want to know which one is right!” In someways I wish there was an easy answer, but once you give the difficult questions more time to stir within you, your faith grows. This frustration can be growing pains instead of merely disillusion, so embrace the question and live in the tension, otherwise you’ll lose sight of the other-side of Christianity and the complexity of relationship. Christianity and faith is a complex thing, and going years without an “answer” isn’t a problem if one is growing in the process. So continue to struggle with the question. I know for me, while I would consider myself a pacifist, it doesn’t mean I have ceased revisiting the question.

    You’re right that withdrawal from the world is not what we are called to. However, do not misinterpret the church engaging on its own terms as withdrawal. Pacifism is not passive; pacifism is a nonviolent response with passion and love. Stanley Hauerwas, a pacifist theologian/ethicist, was accused of sectarianism by his mentor. I do not think he is actually sectarian; however, I do think that he can be oriented in a more direct engagement towards the plurality of issues, rather than just violence. This is my reason for writing the beginning of a political theology ( https://flyingfarther.wordpress.com/towards-a-political-theology/ ). In this I’m constructing a political theology – a theology for social engagement. It may be a bit academic, but in the footnotes/endnotes, I address the implications that my argumentative shift makes: The church can be the church and still function within the world, it just has to address more issues than just violence by the state. Remember, saying that the world is wrong on something is engagement if one does not leave the discussion table.

    As for other books you may be interested in for reading on pacifism, I’d suggest Stanley Hauerwas and William Willamon’s Resident Aliens if you’re for reading more popular works. If you want to dive into the deep end that others may think of as more “scholarly” (or boring/complex language) in history and theology, then check out these couple of books: The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero Translated by James R. Brockman, S.J.; Romero: A Life by James R. Brockman ( https://flyingfarther.wordpress.com/category/romero/ ); and these two lists which has stuff by William Cavanaugh and others will help broaden your question ( https://flyingfarther.wordpress.com/2007/09/07/more-books-for-the-curious-and-brave-lay-person-from-the-theologically-inclined/https://flyingfarther.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/a-book-list-for-lay-people-from-the-more-theologically-inclined/ ).

    Let me know if you need more clarification, and keep struggling with the quesitons – even if it looks like we don’t, we actually do.

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