Shane Claiborne’s Infantile Pacifism (Part 1)

on October 26, 2012
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!]

  1. Comment by Chris Tiedeman on October 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    So, you are choosing to chastise an infant?

  2. Comment by RodTRDH on October 26, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    This post makes some serious arguments that pacifists like myself must engage, but to call a person “infantile” is unbecoming, shuts down dialogue and proves more of a pro-war mongering agenda than anything.

  3. Comment by Eric Lytle on October 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    What’s wrong with using the word “infantile” if he IS infantile? That’s called “truth.” It pretty much applies to everything about Shane Claiborne, not just evidenced by his laughable appearance but the shallow theology and biblical interpretation that pervade his books. It’s not surprising that in an increasingly infantile culture, a “superstar” (for the moment) of religion is a child, not a man. Actually, I think a more apropos word for him is “sophomoric” – he is like the kid with a couple semesters of college behind him and he’s ready to offer his deep wisdom on everything – that delightful combination of ignorance and arrogance that liberals have turned into an art form.

    Did I wake up in some sort of alternate universe, where calling someone “infantile” infantile qualifies as pro-war mongering? Or where not being pacifist means being pro-war? Did the inmates take over the asylum while I was napping?

  4. Comment by RodTRDH on October 26, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Yeah let’s resort to personal attacks rather than addressing his arguments. Works all the time for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama!

  5. Comment by DJC on October 27, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Perhaps “infantile” is the not the best word. However, I would like to report that some years ago I had tea with Mr. Claiborne in his house. He has a large picture of Che Guevarra on the living room wall. Why does a radical pacifist have a picture of that man on the wall, a man who represents the very anti-thesis of non-violence, namely the worst kinds of violence known in this world — torturing his enemies & killing innocent people. At that point, I lost all respect for everything Mr. Claiborne stands for & suspect his motives.

  6. Comment by Ben Welliver on October 28, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Thanks for that bit of data, which doesn’t surprise me at all.
    I don’t know if you were alive during the campus unrest of the late 60s and early 70s, but it was lone giant display of hypocrisy – the campus radicals
    1) denounced the violence of the war in Vietnam, but
    2) used violence to intimidate university administrators, and
    3) gave moral support to any violent group in the US, such as the Black Panthers and Weathermen.
    When a person brands himself as “righteous” (which is pretty standard for pacifists, and definitely for Mr Dredlocks), he can manage to overlook hypocrisy like that.
    I think Dredlocks was born a few decades late. He shares the 60s view that all violence is good – except, of course, for anything done by the US military. Lord knows I do not support everything done by the US military in my lifetime, but I refuse to take the pacifist view that ONLY the US can be blamed for violence.

    I feel like I’m watching 1960s re-runs.

  7. Comment by Keith Pavlischek on October 28, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    If this is true, then this helps to explains it:

  8. Comment by Sam Hamilton on October 31, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Wow, is that really true? I have a lot of respect for Claiborne for what he does in Philadelphia (he’s truly walking the walk); he’s an inspiration. But this is inexplicable for someone who believes in peace and non-violence.

  9. Comment by DJC on October 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Yes, it is true. I too had a lot of respect for Mr. Claiborne until I saw that poster in his living room. I no longer trust him because of that. It was quite a shock & I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. There can be no moral common ground between true pacifists & Che. There has to be hypocrisy involved.

  10. Comment by Bob Brown on January 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Shane does not have and has not had a Che poster on his wall, you may have confused it with something else, but I have checked with people who have lived with Shane, and received a response from Shane himself, and that is not a true statement. I just wanted to do what I could to make the Internet factually correct.

  11. Pingback by Shane Claiborne’s Infantile Pacifism (Part II) « Juicy Ecumenism on October 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    […] my first Shane Claiborne blog post, it seemed necessary to round out my critique of the Simple Way leader’s its incredibly […]

  12. Pingback by Why Would a Neo-Anabaptist Want to Reward Terrorists? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog on October 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    […] (and did) do rather than a policy that should be advocated by a Christian peace activist. But as Keith Pavlischek explains, the neo-Anabaptism of Claiborne and his supporters doesn’t have much in common with […]

  13. Comment by Bob Brown on October 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Are you saying that Anabaptists reject Luther, Calvin, Augustin, Aquinas’s thoughts on how Christians are to understand violence? I don’t understand how this is a new statement. I don’t understand how this differentiates “Neo-Anabaptists” from the original Anabaptists. Did you hear about the Radical Reformation? The Radical Reformation happened after Calvin and Luther had gotten into bed with the principalities and the powers that were just years ago aligned with the Catholic Church that they were rebelling against. So they were upset with the Catholic doctrines, but all too happy to take the worldly power that they could have if they would only use the words of Jesus to prop up the current Government.

    They allowed baptism to remain a state (government) activity and never made the leap that Paul calls us to – by accepting the call of Christ we become members of a new Kingdom, not one of this world. This acceptance of worldly power by Luther and Calvin is exactly why we see the Lutheran Church in bed with Hitler later. You cannot accept the power of the sword, without also accepting its corruption.

    Let me make something clear – Calvin’s people used the sword against the original Anabaptists. Citing Calvin in an argument against Anabaptists is like citing Nazis when arguing against Jews. Of course Calvin hated the Anabaptists. They pointed out their failure to turn away from the things of this world, and turn toward our Lord, Savior and Example – Jesus.

    It is clear to me that you are arguing against Anabaptism.(period) You are not just making an argument against “Neo-Anabaptism” as you call it, but against Anabaptism as a whole. So why are you setting up Shane as a straw man – why don’t you take on Menno Simons or Michael Sattler.

  14. Comment by Azael Mendez (@azael_mendez) on October 31, 2012 at 2:25 am

    This blog isn’t biblical. You’re just pushing a specific brand of theology. i wish more theologians and Christians had the courage Claiborne does to call out hypocrites in the Evangelical church who call on Christ to bring peace to their lives but can’t seem to bring peace into the world by their actions.

  15. Comment by Jarrod Saul McKenna on October 31, 2012 at 4:51 am

    G’day Brother,
    My name is Jarrod, Shane Fenwick asked if I’d reply to your blog, so I thought I’d grab some time before my next meeting… here goes,

    Shane Claiborne is a mate, and he wouldn’t self describe as a “neo-anabaptist”.
    It’d be fair to put myself and people like Mark van Steenwyk (in the US) into that category. It would be more accurate to describe our brother Shane as embodying an evangelical expression of the Catholic Worker tradition. I’m not sure if it is fair or fruitful to use a term for someone they wouldn’t use of themselves.

    You also seem to position anabaptism as a monolithic reality. As someone who seems to have an interest in history and is seeking to speak the truth in love do you think this is fair? While it is true that there are expressions of anabaptism which express something comparable to Luther’s 2 kingdom ethic, it is unfair to the tradition to give the impression that’s a universal reality. Even if Shane was a ‘neo-anabaptist’ he wouldn’t be breaking with parts of the tradition.

    As someone who quotes reformers like Calvin, surely you would agree that the best of Protestantism its its ability to hold tradition up to the light of Scripture and recast doctrine of tradition in the light of what we know to be true of Scripture, just like the reformers did. If this is so, isn’t the question how do we all best witness to Christ when it comes to these questions? Must not Anabaptism, Calvinism and Lutheranism not be judged by the reformers measure [Holy Scripture] too?

    I think engaging with a thinker like Glen Stassen you’d find much more helpful than your personal problem with Claiborne’s style of communication, which is born out of a culture of speaking to youth groups. Can I recommend Stassen’s book “Just Peacemaking Theory” that is written with Just War theorists. I think you’d find it helpful given your mission statement.

    Surely if Aquinas has the humility to learn from the greats outside of the Christian tradition like Ibn Rushd and Maimonides, we can ask the God for the humility to learn from each other.

    I also think you would find helpful theologians like Oliver O’Donovan, John Milbank or even the work of Lesslie Newbigin all of whom aren’t on the same page as the position you are trying to engage with [neo-anabaptism] but you might find helpful.

    You might also be interested in Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh’s new book as it deals at length with your questions about Romans 13.

    If you are right brother, and we neo-anabaptists are wrong, let that truth be seen in the strength of your argument and expressed in a way that glorifies Christ. We can trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

    Grace and peace,

    Perth, Australia.


    The correct English spelling of the name of the man Indian’s still refer to as “the Mahatma” is G-a-n-d-h-i.

  16. Comment by Sam Hamilton on October 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    From what I know of Claiborne’s worldview, he’d probably respond to this by saying that the U.S. government is neither an unbiased third-party administrator of justice, nor solely an aggrieved victim, but the precipitator of the conflict of which the attacks of 9/11 were a part. So the U.S. making reparations to the families of the terrorists would have been the right thing to do.

    But regardless, I’d be interested in hearing what Claiborne, or his mates such as Jarrod McKenna, have to say about your argument that their version of pacifism precludes government authorities using violence, or at least the threat of violence, to keep the peace and administer justice. I’m all for reducing the size of the U.S. military and “bringing the troops home,” but I don’t want to get rid of my local police force. They seem to have missed this main criticism and are swatting at word choices.

  17. Pingback by Is Christian Charity Merely Ambulatory? « Juicy Ecumenism on November 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    […] would think that we could reach a consensus on that much, but we live in an age of neo-Anabaptist gurus, who urge upon us the notion that the Cross, as they say, is the model for all Christian social and […]

  18. Pingback by Happy Birthday, Augustine of Hippo! « The Pietist Schoolman on November 13, 2012 at 10:29 am

    […] over allegiance to our Lord (which Augustine also argues, as I’ve written before), but if Keith Pavlischek’s summary of Claiborne’s pacifism is at all accurate, then Claiborne seems to depart not only from Augustine’s position, but […]

  19. Comment by Cody on December 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    WHat is wrong with all of you, do you not see that you are all fighting against each other? What’s worse, non-believers (like the ceasars of the ancient world persecuting christians for not bowing down to them in worship) or christians puting each other to death, even with words? What does Christ in all four of the gospels teach on war and justice? Do not use sectarian beliefs to fight your “holy wars” amongts each other, on the other hand use the text God gave us properly: decerning what is right and what is not and teach, not judge, each other to this right and proper belief of the gospels message.

  20. Comment by Missy on April 29, 2014 at 9:14 am

    According to this article, Shane does, indeed, have Che art on the wall, or did at one time:

  21. Comment by Ron Murphy on November 7, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    As police have to protect the citizens of their city, so too, must the military protect their nations from evil war-mongering and barbarian enemies and their threats to destroy the nation and its citizen. St. Paul and other Apostles verify this.

  22. Comment by Dan M on February 21, 2017 at 11:45 am

    As a former soldier, I find Jesus’ inventory of weapons in Luke 22:38 interesting in light of my experience and the context of the story. Jesus knew an armed crowd was coming for him (v52), and that his disciples would also need to get cleanly away. Thirteen unarmed men could have been a quick massacre, considering the mob was armed with swords and clubs (v52). Also there was the consideration that the Chief Priest knew that the Jews had lost their right of Capital Punishment under Pilate and that he might not rule their way…which would then make Jesus untouchable. A mob action in the middle of the night couldn’t possibly be laid at Caiaphas’s feet, and he could say his servant was there to prevent it but the mob got out of hand. The disciples responses in verses 48-50 stopped the mob in its tracks, especially when the Chief Priest’s servant was attacked and nearly killed by a disciple. These hardy fisherman let it be known that nobody was going to take Jesus anywhere without paying a dear cost in blood. When things were then calmed, Jesus turned himself over to the authorities (v53). So Jesus clearly, to my mind, understood that violence must be met with resolution, strength, and yes, weapons. Given that many of the inscriptions found in early churches speak to serving Roman soldiers as patrons, it would appear state pacifism was a later addition to basic Christian ideology.

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