Government and Christians (5): pacifism and non-participation

On the “Post-restorationist Perspectives” blog, a thoughtful “pacifist” piece appeared recently. The blogger referred to the “less evil democratic political system,” and I smiled sheepishly, knowing that some Christian readers are unable to separate the non-twin notions of Americanistic democracy and God’s will. George Benson, a former president of my undergraduate university, for years emphasized “American Studies” lecturers and hobnobbed with the nation’s politically high-and-mighty, and his bent seems to have been quite common among those with less clout, as well. For some, “making America safe for democracy” has been tantamount to being Christian ambassadors. This mindset is alive and well today in churches. On many Christian college campuses, it is common to be snubbed or even taken as a fool if one espouses anything other than the Republican party’s ideals. A lack of activity in the affairs of human government is frequently taken as backslidden Christianity, if Christianity at all.

Here’s a specific utterance from the aforementioned blog, written by another writer-dreamer, and captivating to yours truly, also at times an idealist: “What a breath of fresh air a church who focused more on kingdom politics than on the tirelessly fallen politics of the nation would be!”

I find myself in general agreement with the non-participatory ideals espoused by David Lipscomb and his spiritual successors (one of whom, a couple of generations later, was my grandfather). Lipscomb’s position, as reviewed by Christian academic political scientist Mark Elrod in a 1996 paper, was once quite popular in the south, but the non-participatory view was eclipsed in the Church of Christ (and, presumably, in other Christian groups) in the wake of the World Wars. I had suspected that this paper would turn out to be one that offered an interesting, substantive counterpoint to typically “conservative” Christian rhetoric, since I know Elrod is a thoughtful, Christian, active Democrat. Rather, the paper was a more academic presentation of statistics and an analysis of the progression of thought on the Christian and government. Elrod presented, for instance, statistics and lists of a) conscientious objectors, b) those who registered for alternative service instead of combat or other military positions, and c) the few who were actually imprisoned, in a bygone era, for refusing military service outright.

The well-supported, general thesis of Elrod’s work is that “pacifism” died out within Churches of Christ, and that this death was primarily the result of specific world scenaria. I’ll follow his presentation by raising the question of an airborne stench of wishy-washy capitulation — when theologies and philosophies change because of current events. The Cold War also appears to have contributed materially to an about-face by a couple of influential writers/thinkers in the 1950s and 60s: once having supported the conscientious objector, “pacifist” position, the likes of J.D. Bales later advocated for the opposite, including encouraging Christian involvement in the military, in the face of Communism. (Aside: “pacifism” is not necessarily what meets the eye. I, for instance, don’t consider myself to be a pacifist in terms of what governments may do. What this Christian may do is a different question. My conscience would not allow me a military role in any war.)

The “just war” theory runs roughly (yes, that’s a double entendre!) like this: Christian may only fight for his country if the cause of the war is deemed just. Fighting Nazis, then, was acceptable, but for many, military actions in Korea and Vietnam were not. I find the just war theory objectionable at its core – its core being the goals of human governments. If my foremost allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, and if God does in fact say “no bearing arms,” then no military or political objectives can make bearing arms acceptable. I trust that even the many who don’t believe as I do on these topics would accept the logic (if, and if, then …) in the previous sentence. Those who reversed their positions based on fearful perceptions of Commies and Nazis — no matter how justified those perceptions — seem to me to have based their reversals on emotions, not on scripture or Jesus.

I’ll be quick to point out that the capitulation syndrome is not unique to one side of these war and government issues. I suspect that the common, current-day objection to the wars against Muslim countries (which objection I share) is rather specious. In other words, I think a lot of post-Baby-Boomer Christians hate the idea of war, not because of scripture and the theology of Jesus, but because they find fault with the Bushes’ wartime excesses and rhetoric.

Of course, the idea that a Christian may not fight for his country in a war is not necessarily linked to the idea that a Christian should not participate actively in the running of a human government. In our time, we find many more who hold to the former while rejecting the latter. Through the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, a sizable segment of serious-minded Christendom did hold, though, to some measure of the non-participatory view.

David Lipscomb believed that Christians should not vote or hold office, a position shared by many, though probably not a majority, of Southern Disciples. An overwhelming majority did agree, however, with Lipscomb’s conclusion that political and social reform should not be combined with religion: “Bringing this work into the church dwarfs and destroys the spirituality and activity of the Church,” affirmed Lipscomb. (David Edwin Harrell, Jr., “The Stone Campbell Movement,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 115-116).


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