Ben Witherington is one of my favorite United Methodist theologians. And he’s almost always correct on issues of theology. He’s also a passionate pacifist who insists all faithful Christians must disavow all force. He believes not just individuals but also apparently the government should “turn the other cheek.” On this issue he is oddly inconsistent, at odds with the continuous witness of The Church, and certainly at odds with what Methodists dating to John Wesley typically have believed.
In a recent column Witherington helpfully explains how he came to pacifism as a young man during the Vietnam War era. He does not really make lengthy theological arguments for pacifism here but focuses on his personal experience. As with everything he writes, it’s very interesting. But unlike most of what he writes, it’s not persuasive.
Witherington recounts when a “radical” from a local college came to his local United Methodist congregation and “took over” the pulpit one Sunday to “rant and rave” against the Vietnam War, which Witherington found compelling. “I came to the conclusion Jesus would not have agreed with Richard Nixon about the moral nature of the Vietnam War,” he remembers. “Indeed, he would not have agreed with the idea that any of the wars fought by the U.S. in my lifetime were examples of ‘just wars’ or even ‘justifiable wars.'” And he insists: “Jesus, as it turns out was a hard core pacifist and he was serious as a heart attack about that non-resistance, turn the other cheek, take up your cross and be prepared to die at the hands of your enemies stuff.”
At college, Witherington was deeply affected by the 1970 incident on the campus of Kent State when “National Guardsmen had shot our own American college students for protesting the war.” Actually, the Guardsmen fired when being assailed by rocks from an angry student mob, who weren’t very pacifist. But Witherington perceived it as “wake up call to just how much a pacifist could be an endangered species if they protested too loudly or long in public.” He also adds: “Moses was also right when he said ‘no killing.’” But of course, the Ten Commandments that Moses received rejected murder, not killing. The Mosaic Law commanded the death penalty for a wide range of infractions. And Moses led his people to the precipice of the Promised Land, where they would wage brutal war and create a new nation that depended on the force of arms. Some of its warriors would be memorialized in Scripture as God’s faithful if flawed servants. If Christianity is true, Jesus Christ, as the eternally coexistent Second Person of the Godhead, was as present then as He would be after His incarnation centuries later.
Witherington is frustrated about the lack of resistance to armed force in today’s America. He says he’s sometimes tempted to go to Switzerland, without noting that every Swiss man of a certain age, unlike Americans, is required to serve in the nation’s militia and to keep fire arms with ammo in his home. He suggests: “If America really wanted to be a more Christian country it would study war no more, learn how to beat its swords into plowshares, and spend its military billions on the peaceful work of disaster relief in Haiti, Africa, wherever instead figuring out new ways to more easily destroy other human lives.”
It’s not clear how the U.S. Government would dispense these billions to the world’s poor without the power of mass taxation facilitated by force. And disaster relief would become rather hard if not impossible absent the current relative Pax Americana sustained by American arms, a relative global peace that has allowed the greatest increase in global living standards and poverty reduction in the history of humanity.
“Some days I feel like John the Baptizer— a voice crying in a brutal wilderness,” Witherington concludes. “I wonder how many of you out there feel this way, but having gotten the beat down, at least verbally, have been Limbaughed or O’Rileyed into submission once or twice for being a pacifist?”
I’m not too worried for these besieged pacifists, many of whom seem to have tenured positions in America’s colleges and universities. Witherington was shaped by anti-Vietnam War activism. I was shaped in my boyhood by America’s shameful abandonment of its Southeast Asian friends to slavery and genocide. Many more died in the first few years of Communist “peace” than had perished in the previous 20 years of war. My own neighborhood and schools filled with Vietnamese and other refugees who had fled with barely their own lives from “liberation” back home. I’m glad the U.S. Seventh Fleet was at least able to pick them up, even as so many others suffered and died.
Even setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture and continuous church tradition, pacifism fails to persuade most people, Christian or otherwise, because it seems like mostly a hobby for insulated intellectuals uninterested in the moral consequences of what they stridently demand. Would the nearly 2 million Cambodians murdered by their Communist overlords have been wrong to wish for a military rescue? Evidently yes, according to the pacifists.
Last week I visited the outstanding U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Seated on a bus with me was a visiting, aged U.S. Eighth Air Force veteran, himself the last survivor of a 10 man bomber crew that flew 32 missions over Nazi occupied Europe. The museum included an exhibit on liberating the German death camps. Pacifism insists that this U.S. pilot is morally little or no different from the genocidal mass murderers who manned those camps, whose surviving victims were ultimately freed thanks to the pilot and millions of other Allied belligerents. I think such a perspective, making no distinction between forms of “violence,” is un-Christian and ultimately quite obscene.