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Catholic thinker George Weigel, as always, writes incisively of Just War teaching, as it relates to Syria, in National Review. He points out that the teaching is not a calculator that mechanically deduces when force is justified but a tradition that offers counsel still requiring prudence and judgment.
Recently I again challenged the neo-Anabaptist movement’s claims that Christianity rejects ALL violence at ALL times. I cited activist Shane Claiborne, a disciple of Duke Divinity’s Stanley Hauerwas, himself the main apostle of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, whose 1972 book THE POLITICS OF JESUS is the movement’s foundational text.
The Yoder-Hauerwas craft has a zealous clergy and academic following whose enthusiasm is admirable if misplaced. My critique provoked several heated reactions, especially from a widely disseminated United Methodist clergy blogger, who surmised my “bullying” the Yoder-Hauerwas clan had defamed all pacifists, whom I had supposedly denounced for “heresy.”
“Heresy” was nowhere mentioned in my piece, nor did I critique all Christian pacifists, whose traditions predate the neo-Anabaptists by many centuries. No major Christian tradition disputes that some persons and communities are called to non-violence, and none seeks to draft into military service the Amish or convents of nuns. Those nuns and Amish of course live under civil protection of armed police and military, whose authority they don’t typically dispute, and whose help in crisis they don’t decline to seek.
The main pacifist Christian tradition is the Anabaptist, whose communities of Mennonites and Brethren never doubted, per St. Paul in Romans 13, that God ordained the civil state to wield the sword against evil doers. Their originating Schleitheim Confession of 1527 declared:
The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills the wicked and guards and protects the good. In the law the sword is established over the wicked for punishment and for death and the secular rulers are established to wield the same.
These Anabaptists obligingly accepted the armed civil authority but declined themselves to participate in the offices of the state, while not typically besmirching the majority of Christians who are not separatist.
In vivid contrast to these traditional Anabaptists, the Yoder-following neo-Anabapists radically reinterpret Christ’s crucifixion as complete rejection of all violence by all Christians, personally and societally, including the state’s police and military powers. Although this new revelation, not quite 50 years old, contradicts the historic witness of the universal church, the Yoder-Hauerwas craft insists all teaching but their own is false, compromised by “Constantinianism.” It deeply relies on the myth of church purity prior to Emperor Constantine’s reputed merger of church and state.
Also unlike traditional Anabaptists, the Yoder-Hauerwas craft is rooted in 20th century neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who identified Christ alone, and not the Bible, as God’s reliable Word, and implied universal salvation. He also rejected natural law. Although he opposed Hitler from Switzerland, his later stance toward the Soviet Bloc was more accommodating, and he inclined towards pacifism. And although not Barth’s own view, his compromised interpretation of scriptural authority allows many in the craft to espouse sexual liberalism, including Hauerwas, who commends same sex unions in his memoir. Evangelism is not typically a strong emphasis. Instead neo-Anabaptists focus on community building.
Although Hauerwas and most followers reject abortion, which is violent, they often oppose anti-abortion legislation, which relies on the state. Oddly, in their politics, many in the craft incongruently advocate the state’s aggressive regulation or control of health care, anti-poverty programs, and the environment. Simultaneously they denounce the state’s police and military vocation, which the scriptures, unlike the other expanded state powers that some neo-Anabaptists espouse, specifically ordain. The craft does not acknowledge that all state power, including the welfare and regulatory programs they support, is premised on force, starting with coercive taxation.
Neo-Anabaptists, in their fierce rejection of empire and force, focus their ire almost exclusively on the United States. Militant dictatorships, even totalitarian, and even though more closely resembling the warlike state they oppose, do not merit much if any attention except as unfavorable comparisons for the United States. Hence, the Iraq War resembles the Third Reich, as Shane Claiborne wrote in his 2004 book, JESUS FOR PRESIDENT.
The craft’s historical view of America, falling somewhere between Howard Zinn and Pravda circa 1965, sees only slavery, crimes against Indians, and segregation, instead of the unparalleled creation of liberty and prosperity for the previously impoverished and oppressed. Mention of these blessings typically arouses charges of idol worship.
Neo-Anabaptists insist they are very different from liberal Protestants. But they are similar in disregarding universal church teaching for privatized interpretation. Their semantic gymnastics in reinterpreting Romans 13’s clear citation of God’s consecration of the state to “wield the sword” are especially astounding. Like liberal Protestants, their dependence on academic, esoteric reinterpretations of Christian faith through privileged 20th century texts often invests them with moral superiority over unenlightened lay people who don’t read Yoder and Hauerwas. Removing the U.S. flag from the sanctuary is one typical flashpoint.
Although disdainful of conventional liberal Protestants, whose Social Gospel is a legacy of empire, neo-Ababaptists reserve more contempt for traditional conservative evangelicals, who are “fundamentalists” worshiping at the altar of America. But in their tenaciously narrow grip on a few key texts that guide their movement, the craft is sometimes more fundamentalist than the “fundamentalists.”
About 98 percent of Christianity does not subscribe to the neo-Ababaptist narrative, so it is a small but influential sect, mostly limited to white Protestant clergy and academics in North America. They are sincere, earnest, intelligent and dedicated, perhaps like the sturdy Donatists in ancient times who represented the “true” church.
By implication, almost all of organized Christianity is heretical for not admitting Yoder’s near canonical authority. The neo-Anabaptist rejection of apostolic teaching about God’s purpose for the state has horrifying implications. Genocides should not be forcibly resisted. Aggressions must prevail. Children and the elderly cannot be physically defended from predators. The armed police rescuing the raped woman is no better than the rapist. Acquiescence to such evil in theory is deemed Christian faithfulness. But scripture and The Church say otherwise.
Neo-Anabaptists decry admitting the practical implications of their teachings, which they denounce as “consequentialism.” But as George Weigel asked in the earlier linked article, if the ends don’t justify the means, what exactly does? “Means detached from ends are not serious, although they may be lethal,” he notes. The Lord of all is concerned about not just abstract theory but actual consequences for all His people.
In fairness, many seminarians have flocked to the neo-Anabaptist banner because the traditional Mainline Protestant universe has spiritually and institutionally collapsed. They’re also disenchanted with the last generation of conservative evangelical thought and activism. They’re desperate for a robust theological core that creates a faithful public witness for the church.
But these well meaning students, professors and clergy need to continue their search, hopefully shifting deeper into The Great Tradition of The Church. They can do much better than a schizophrenic public theology that captivates a few but cannot lead or bear extensive fruit.