My Life Long Journey As A Non-Violent Christian
This blog post is in response to Kurt Willems’s post from a few days ago, asking “For those who hold to some version of “nonviolence:” What caused you to embrace this conviction?”; See Also Christian Salafia’s “Embracing Pacifism: How Learned To Hate The Bomb.
Unlike Kurt and Christian, I do not have a grand conversion story when it comes to being a pacifist. Growing up, there were several key teachers trying to influence me one way (the American pro-nationalistic way of war) and the way of Jesus (pacifism and universal neighborly love). Every night before we went to bed as little tykes, between the ages of 3 through 5, my mother used to read us from an Old King James Bible that had the Septuagint in it (yes, uhmmmmmm hmmmm). We learned about the Old and New Testament, and the Red Letters were the words from Jesus, and what he taught. Christ’s teachings we learned were supreme, and were to rule in our hearts. We were to take his words seriously and obey them. Competing for my soul was this cartoon show called, G.I. Joe: American Hero. I don’t think that anyone was as big of a fan of this program than I was growing up. My parents believed that most cartoons were safe, and with no real moral consequences that could contradict my religious beliefs. Boy were they wrong! Just as The Smurfs were a evil satanic ploy to teach kids about how to be Socialist and anti-Jewish, G.I.Joe and He-Man Masters of the Universe were some of my earliest teachers of what it mean a man. G.I.Joe, they were so heroic, and masculine and so not racist against Eastern Europeans, I mean sorry, C.O.B.R.A.
The social formation via media is what piqued my curiosity in public school around when I was in second grade, during the time of Operation Desert Storm. These were the days of George H W Bush interrupting my viewing of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and “Swamp Thing.” I was bussed from my middle-class suburb to a nice traditional school, where there were strict dress codes, strict behavior rules, and no separation between honors and normal students. After encountering racism in first grade and being race conscious from that time forward, I sensed there was an exclusion of people of color, even in what we read in Social Studies, my favorite subject. By the time I was in third grade, I addressed this exclusion by personally reading as many stories and books about Native Americans and African Americans as possible. This practice of reading up on the history of violence and exclusion in the U.S. helped me to resist the colonizing public education and entertainment I was ingesting. I cannot even say that the churches and Sunday Schools I was raised in enriched me in my pacifism. Sunday School consisted of lauding the praises of Hebrew Bible heroes like King David and then the sermons (at black Southern Baptist churches) would of course expand this teaching on David to uncritical recognition of the Pastor (I refuse to call anyone back then reverend, only Jesus should be revered).
Years later, I am in high school, arguing with literally a white supremacist skinhead (he really was, because he wanted to be like one of his parents)about gun violence and war each day. He was determined that our debates would end up in fist-to-cuffs. Back then, I remained caught up and interested in contemporary Christian music because of a life-changing experience at an FCA camp where all of the counselors were singing the praises of this new man of God: George W. Bush. I kept quiet, I didn’t know any better since I was a Democrat at that time. A year later when Bush “won,” my mother told me worriedly that Bush was a warmonger. I was confused. But didn’t Bush say he would practice a “humble foreign policy” unlike Bill Clinton? It didn’t take long for George W. Bush to declare war on Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Before 9/11 happened, I had always been a quiet, passive advocate for non-violence. After 9/11, I started to become vocal about it, that the difference between true Christianity, and Bush’s Christianity was one that took Jesus’ teachings seriously.
My second favorite band at that time, DC Talk had a song, “The Red Letters,” about the red letters, the words of Jesus, where we find life, and truth and goodness. This is far from the truth. As I began reading the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New, I saw the Good News of peaceableness, and a non-violent ethic everywhere. Reading Augustine of Hippo and Abraham Kuyper in college made me a Calvinist, but I could not be swayed from my life-long pacifism. I was filled with excitement when I read about the earliest Christians like Tertullian who were both FROM AFRICA and PACIFIST. Those two facts meant so much to me. Church history and Tertullian’s witness inspired me to join my college’s Peace Action as a founding member as well as the Fair Trade Group.
The nationalistic fever that took a hold of college students in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom was the first time I saw (and was dreadfully frightened by) the link between nationalism (false patriotism) and uncritical thinking and war-mongering. It was not until seminary that I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King Jr.,and being introduced to Stanley Hauerwas, and then John Howard Yoder. It was in Yoder’s work that I had found myself not just politically being anti-war, but seeing my advocacy of nonviolence as a necessity. There is truth, there is hope, there is love in all of the letters of the Bible, but not because of these sacred scrolls themselves, but because the One whom they testify to, Christ Jesus. Now, some may say that they are “New Testament Christians” and therefore are pacifists, but I feel this position is far too neglecting valuable parts of the Hebrew Bible. If the building of the Temple is one of the most significant parts of the Hebrews’ stories, would not the king who built it and why he was chosen also be just as important? I think so, and the fact that Solomon never went to war as the reason why YHWH chose him to build the Temple should be part of what informs believers’ commitment to nonviolence.
Being a pacifist, now I value media and edutainment that promotes nonviolent politics; I am informed by Jesus’ teachings and there is really no competition. The politics Of Jesus has a monopoly on how I see the world. When I read books or watch television programming that contradicts Jesus’ nonviolent ethic, like the prophets of the Old Testament, I must join them in nonviolently denouncing these mediums. Writing, tweeting, blogging, preaching, speaking up for the oppressed (that other part of Proverbs 31 we don’t talk about) is the way of the Savior, who came preaching peace (Ephesians 2:17).
For those of you all that are pacifists/confessors of non-violence, what was the turning point for you? For those that like to throw shade on pacifism/nonviolence, what are your hang-ups?
- C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: War Is A Better Teacher Than Jesus (politicaljesus.com)
- On Alexandrian Christianity: A Few Principles (politicaljesus.com)