Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sprinkle's Book "Fight" and CHRISTIAN Pacifism

This is the fifth post on Sprinkle's book, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.

An alternative title which would have been just as fitting is Fight: A Case for Nonviolent Christians.  For Sprinkle's pacifism condemns violence for Christians, but he leaves open the possibility that certain acts of violence may be permissible for non-Christians.  Here are a few quotations to make good on that last claim:

"So far, I've argued that killing is wrong and therefore killing the attacker is wrong.  In other words, killing is a moral absolute: Christians should never do it" (p. 222).
"The big question, of course, is whether a Christian can use violence as a police officer.  No, I don't think he or she can" (p. 248).
 Now, some interpreters say that Jesus's Sermon doesn't apply to governments, only to individuals.  There is certainly some truth to this.  After all, Jesus doesn't preach His Sermon to the Roman Empire or the American government.  However, the Sermon does apply to all citizens of God's kingdom, and it should saturate all areas of life. It would make no sense to say that the Sermon on the Mount is fine for individual Christians--even better for the church--but that it doesn't apply to Christians in the government" (p. 140).
"Romans 13 does not speak of Rome's warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens.  Paul's phrase "bear the sword" (v. 4) refers to police action within a government's jurisdiction, not warfare outside its territory (p. 167)...Paul says that God's wrath and vengeance are carried out through Rome, and he has just commanded the church not to carry out such wrath and vengeance.  Vengeance is God's business, not ours.  We don't need to avenge evil, because God will.  And one way that God will is through governing authorities" (p. 170).
"In Genesis 9:5, God seems to allow the death penalty for murder" (p. 42).
"While God allowed Israel to participate in some wars, He never allowed His people to revel in the carnage the way their neighbors did" (p. 68).

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Sprinkle has a settled view with respect to the morality of non-Christians killing (or committing acts of violence more generally).  He is pretty coy about this issue, and this is one of the places where I wish he would've been clearer and would've said whether he thinks some non-Christian violence is permissible, impermissible, or that he's agnostic about the matter.  At any rate, what is pretty clear is that he thinks that Christians are called to forego all violence even if, perhaps, non-Christians are not.

Why, though, should we think that such an important moral demand is not universal?  Child sacrifice, stealing what one doesn't need to survive, adultery, murder, and so forth are all universally impermissible--no one should commit such acts.  Why think that violence isn't permissible for Christians but might be permissible for non-Christians?

One reason would be that there is clear evidence in Scripture that (a) Christians are to forego violence but (b) some non-Christians are not.  Regarding the latter, there seem to be a few good examples: God permitting (and perhaps commanding) the ancient Hebrew people to invoke capital punishment and wage war.  Further, Romans 13 is hard to make sense of if God does not permit governments to sometimes use "the sword" in promoting justice.

But what about the former?  Are there good examples in Scripture that rule out Christians committing acts of violence?  In the previous post on "Fight," I addressed what I take to be the best pacifist passage, the Sermon on the Mount, and expressed my skepticism that it supports any sweeping kind of pacifism.  I will now go further and express my skepticism that the message applies only to Christians.

Sprinkle focuses on Matthew 5.  He says that Matthew 5 "isn't directed at secular governments, but it is binding on followers of Jesus no matter their vocation" (p. 141).  And Matthew 5:1 does strike this reader as indicating that Jesus is addressing a Christian audience. But, of course, Jesus addressing a message to Christians does not thereby entail that the lessons are only to apply to Christians, in the same way that God addressing the 10 Commandments to ancient Hebrews does not entail that the laws are only to apply to ancient Hebrews.

In addition, wasn't Jesus, in addressing his disciples, addressing Jews (Jews who were Christians)?  When he says "You have heard that it was said...," he's appealing to their knowledge of the Law (which he didn't come to abolish but to fulfill).  It would be odd indeed if the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount apply only to Christians and not Jews.

But we have more than Matthew's Gospel upon which to base our view. Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount characterizes the Sermon as being addressed to a wider audience than just Jesus's disciples.  Here is Luke's account:

17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon,18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured,19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

Luke's version suggests that, although Jesus looked at his disciples, the message is also conveyed to a much wider audience that had come to be healed and listen to him (even from port cities like Tyre and Sidon suggesting that some might not have been Jews).  In addition, Luke seamlessly moves from an account of the Sermon on the Mount to relating to the reader about the faith of a Roman Centurion in the next chapter.

So if the Sermon on the Mount contains a pacifist message, I suggest that it's a message for all and not just for Christians.  But even if it were only addressed to Christians, since (from the Christian point of view, certain Calvinist/late-medieval views aside) all are called to be Christians, the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are an ethics for everyone.

But we know from the Old Testament and Romans 13 (and common sense) that some acts of violence and killing are indeed permissible.  True, Jesus calls us not to retaliate or seek vengeance and to love even our enemies, but some uses of "the sword" are permissible as well as just.

Can Christians, then, serve in a police force or in the military?  I see no good reason to rule that out.  From a pragmatic standpoint, arguments such as Sprinkle's overlook the real leavening effect that Christians can have serving in such positions--positions which sometimes require violence and lethal force.  Having myself served in the military, I can attest to that leavening effect being present (though in my experience there were few Christians serving).  God has ordained governments and given them authority to use "the sword," and those governments might be better served by being staffed with people who do not seek vengeance or retribution, who love even their enemies, and who use violent means only as a last resort to stem the tide of a greater evil.


  1. The effect of stripping all the Christians out of the military and law enforcement, which it seems would be the preferred outcome for Sprinkle, would be tremendously negative over the long haul on those institutions and the nations and communities they serve.

  2. I agree, Mark. As much flak as the U.S. military gets (some of it rightly so), the degree of restraint seems to me (admittedly no expert) incomparable in the history of warfare. It should be noted, though, that Sprinkle appears to think Christians can serve in noncombatant roles.