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By Keith Pavlischek

Following my first Shane Claiborne blog post, it seemed necessary to round out my critique of the Simple Way leader’s incredibly simplistic Biblicism. I’m almost inclined to call it a left-wing fundamentalism, but that would be an insult to fundamentalists everywhere. Matt Tuininga reports the following:

When asked whether he thought violence was ever justified Claiborne turned to the story of Jesus and Peter when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Peter picked up the sword. I believe Peter had a genuine desire to protect Jesus. And he had the best case for redemptive violence that there ever was in the world. He was trying to protect God’s only Son, the Messiah.” But Jesus rebuked Peter and showed grace to the man who had come to arrest him. And the early Christians interpreted this story to mean that “when Jesus disarmed Peter he disarmed every one of us… For Christ we can die, but we cannot kill.” 

But this doesn’t answer the question. The issue is not whether we should “kill for Christ” (that’s a straw man), or promote something called “redemptive violence” (another straw man–as if any responsible Christian proponent of just war believes in “redemptive violence”), but whether the civil authority can permissibly use lethal force to protect the innocent, promote the good, and punish the evil doer. The question is not whether individual Christians should be longsuffering and should turn the other cheek. The question is whether civil authority is obliged to turn to turn the cheek of innocent citizens toward their oppressor, rather than using their authority, including the threat and use of force, to defend them from assault, oppression and other forms of grave injustice.

Claiborne’s simplistic text-proofing proves too much. As Tuininga reports, when it comes to the issue of using force, the bottom line for Claiborne amounts to this: “Does it look like Jesus? Does it look like the cross?” Claiborne’s appeal to the example of Jesus’ crucifixion is typical among contemporary neo-Anabaptists. And important. And theologically incoherent.

What makes it theologically incoherent? Contemporary neo-Anabaptists invariably propose an alternative to the use of “violence” by the state namely, “nonviolent direct action.” Being a “pacifist,” we are told ad nauseum, is not to be “passive,” in the face of evil. Christian pacifists should  be, we are endlessly told, be like Ghandi or Martin Luther King and pursue strategies of “active nonviolent resistance” in the face of evil and oppression. This is always and everywhere proposed, even for legitimate political authority, as the alternative to “violence” and as an alternative to Christian just war theory.

One problem is that it is risible to suppose that these “nonviolent” strategies will be effective in the face of great evil. But more fundamentally, the problem is that you can’t generate an ethic of active nonviolent resistance by through an appeal to the “cross.” Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross was example self-sacrificing passive non-resistanceto evil and injustice not active resistance, nonviolent or otherwise. Moreover, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, but he didn’t go on to instruct Peter and his disciples to organize Christian Peacemaking Teams to prevent his unjust crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, to organize boycotts, or to go limp in front of an oppressive Roman police force, or to stage sit-ins and teach-ins or whatever.  Jesus didn’t counsel his disciples in some sort of proto-Ghandian style nonviolent active civil disobedience and resistance, probably because Jesus was not proto-Ghandian.

To be sure, as the old hymn has it, he could have called 10,000 angels with drawn swords to prevent his own unjust crucifixion. But Jesus didn’t do it. Claiborne and the neo-Anabaptists tell us that is all we need to know about the use of force. Follow Jesus’ example, they tell us.

But then Jesus could have called on 10,000 angels to organize a program of nonviolent direct action to prevent his unjust crucifixion as well. I don’t suspect that Claiborne and other neo-Anabaptist/ new monastic gurus would find this to be a particularly compelling argument against various strategies of active nonviolence resistance or against Christian Peacemaking Teams. Nor should they. But neither should Christian non-pacifists find all that convincing Claiborne’s suggestion that Christ’s self-sacrificing, passive non-resistant suffering on the cross is the be all and end all model for civil authorities who have been ordained by God with the task of promoting the good and opposing evil.