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Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a co-founder of the Simple Way, based in Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Children Youth)

By Keith Pavlischek

I would like to add a few observations to add to Matthew Tuininga’s fine report on Shane Claiborne’s speech at Emory University.

The first thing to note about Shane Claiborne’s neo-Anabaptism is what distinguishes it from classical Christian pacifism. Recall, as I noted here, that the Schleitheim Confession acknowledged that while Christians should never assume political or judicial office and should remain aloof from “the world,” these “sectarian pacifists” nevertheless also insisted that the sword was ordained “outside the perfection of Christ”:

We are agreed as follows concerning the sword: The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same (sword) is (now) ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates.

Claiborne like most modern neo-Anabaptists, on the other hand, insists that the sword is ordained nowhere and never at all. Not only does he insist that Christians repudiate the “violence” of the sword, but that the civil authority do so as well, even in the face of evil, oppression and wickedness. The only moral option for civil authority, according to Claiborne, is some form of “nonviolence.”

Contemporary neo-Anabaptists dissent not only from Augustinian, Thomist, Lutheran, and Calvinist political theology, but from classic Christian pacifism as well.  It is high time for  traditional evangelical Christian pacifists to call Clairborne and other neo-Anabaptists out on this point, or explain why they repudiate the sectarian pacifism of their theological ancestors.

Second, we need to state in the clearest possible terms the fundamental theological and ethical divide between the Shane Claiborne’s of the world and those of us who are Augustinian, Thomist, Lutheran and Calvinist Christians. That classic Christian position was nicely summarized by John Calvin. While acknowledging the prohibition against murder in the Ten Commandments, Calvin observes “that murderers may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts into the hands of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers….”  After citing several Biblical examples, Calvin argues that since the “true righteousness” of the civil magistrate is “to pursue the guilty and the impious with drawn sword,” then if magistrates should rather “sheathe their sword and keep their hands clean of blood, while abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre, they will become guilty of the greatest impiety….” And, adds Calvin, it is exactly for this same reason, kings and their people must take up arms to wage lawful wars, “for if power has been given them to preserve the tranquility of their dominion…can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one who disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility.” (Institutes IV, 20, 10-11)

Notice what Calvin, speaking for the broader Christian tradition, is saying here. He is not merely saying that the civil authorities have permission from the Lord to draw the sword. He is saying that they are obliged to draw the sword if necessary to protect the innocent from slaughter and grave injustice. Not only that, he is also saying that the failure of the civil magistrate to draw the sword and use it, when the wicked go about killing and slaughter, is to be guilty of the greatest impiety.  This is a point to keep in mind when people like Clairborne insist that the only Christian response to mass murder by terrorists, must be “nonviolent.”

The civil authority has been, after all, as even the early Anabaptists acknowledged, ordained by God to use to sword. Both classical Christian pacifists and Christian non-pacifists understood what Claiborne does not, that if civil authorities fail to use to sword to protect the innocent they are being disobedient in their ordained calling. They are, in Calvin’s terms, being “impious.” The failure to draw the sword and use it, when it will prevent grave evil is unjust.

[Update: Read Part 2 here. Please continue to share your thoughts below!]