by Mark Tooley
Ben Witherington is one of the most brilliant theologians in America today. He is a strong friend of orthodoxy admired by his fellow United Methodists and by many evangelicals across traditions. He is also a pacifist and teaches that Christians should not serve in the military or police, as noted in this 2010 exchange: http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2010/12/recently-heard-on-facebook-a-conversation-between-lawson-stone-and-ben-witherington-on-the-bible.html.
In response to the recent Colorado theater shootings, Witherington has strongly demanded tighter gun control laws, as he has in the past after other similar horrors: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/07/21/the-aurora-debacle/.
There may or may not be good arguments for more gun control in America. But can a pacifist make them?
Pacifism is increasingly popular among many evangelical elites, especially in academia. A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in government, as Mennonites and their brethren in past times typically did. They refused to serve in the military, or in any form of government. They usually did not dispute that government was God ordained. Nor did they criticize others’ involvement in it. They largely lived as separatists, accepting the government without trying to influences its policies.
Modern day neo-Anabaptists are less consistent. They adamantly reject, for themselves and for everybody else, all “violence” and force, disputing the civil authorities’ vocation especially for military action. Often they are vaguer about domestic police. And they very frequently are outspoken in trying to influence government policies, usually in trying to expand state power. Typically they favor more environmental regulation, government control over health care, more consumer protections, and a more expansive welfare state. Of course they almost always favor gun control, which superficially at least aligns with pacifist purposes.
Except that it doesn’t. Gun control is about greater control, by the government. It requires armed agents of the state, exerting their own force, to disarm others either directly or by implied threat.
All government is premised on force. Every government everywhere, at all times, if it has any power, will dispatch armed individuals to apprehend any persons who violate its laws and, ultimately, detain them in places surrounded by armed individuals empowered by lethal force.
Neo-Anabaptists of today are often strident critics of “Caesar” and of “Constantinianism.” But they often advocate a state larger, more coercive and more powerful than any Roman emperor ever imagined. Far more than Constantine, they would deploy the state to enforce their version of faithful obedience to God.
Ben Witherington has declared that Christians cannot serve in the police. So presumably he believes the nation’s gun control laws, along with all its laws, should be enforced only by non-Christians. Are there enough Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist people in America to create the massive police and regulatory state to enforce what he and other Christian pacifists envision? In a nation where 75-80 percent often profess some Christian affiliation, it might be hard to put all the onus for law enforcement on the non-Christians. It certainly wouldn’t be fair!
Christian pacifism, as commonly conceived today, is mostly a hobby for professors and their students. It has no practical application for believers striving to be faithful in the real world. Thoughtful arguments for more gun control might be possible. But they cannot really come from consistent pacifists.