September 14, 2013

Christian Pacifism, the State, and Neo-Anabaptists vs. Anabaptists

Follow Mark Tooley at @markdtooley

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.

16 Responses to Christian Pacifism, the State, and Neo-Anabaptists vs. Anabaptists

  1. Greg says:

    hi Mark
    These last few years have been an eye opener for me, as I’ve finally after 30 plus years, started to get my finger on the pulse of the state of the church(es) in North America. This article and other material sums up what has been dawning on me lately, namely, that I must be an Anabaptist. I wouldn’t call myself that, or anything other than a follower of Christ though.Saved at 17, now mid 50’s, it wasn’t until I was 45 that it dawned on me that I didn’t have a brand, probably because we don’t attend church. We just hang out daily with a lot of Christians. Often asked what church I went to, early on I understood that was code for ‘where on the theological fan deck are you?’ I had no idea, because I had, and have no cohesive theology. Not only was it less cerebral gymnastics to not have to defend a position on so many social issues, but it allowed me to be friends with all without taking sides. The exception of course is outright sin, in which case I’ve clearly come out on the side of scripture. In the last decade, I dug into church history and found myself described in the chapter on Menno Simmons, and Charles Finney, and Booth, Edwards, Spurgeon, Pink and John G Lake, to name a few.
    I’ve often been told I’m strange, and been exhorted to narrow down my brand so they can peg me as something. But after 40 yrs a believer, I’m more at ease than ever having no definable orthodoxy.
    My point, or maybe my question rather is this:
    Aren’t we perpetuating the divisions in the body by defining them, debating and publishing them and gathering in different buildings than our neighbors whose buildings don’t have the same name over their door as we do?
    I know our worldview (always thought that word was less than satisfactory for folks supposed to be heavenly minded) informs our politics etc and in turn, our politics re-affirms our worldview. But we are not given permission to divide, argue or even discuss our worldviews but rather, aren’t we exhorted to seek unity in the bond of peace, and by inference, relegate divisive worldviews, politics, social conventions, church traditions etc to the back burner?
    I find it ludicrous and impractical that most believers get in line behind their favorite teacher or movement founder and carve out a foxhole, set up a spiritual gun and defend it to death. The death of close, transparent and vulnerable fellowship with other believers that don’t share their foxhole, which is the baseline outcome of following Jesus instead of cleverly devised fables.
    Finally, because I’ve surprisingly found myself in the enlightened theological camp of Anabaptists, though I’ve never fellow shipped with any, I want to say I’m disappointed that such maturity and balance hasn’t translated into more leadership among the churches.
    Can’t someone in this camp simply begin to blow the trumpet and call all believers to abandon their particular theological, and usually petty idols that define and separate us?
    This isn’t the same as creating a “NO NAME’ brand.
    This would be what King David did, when Saul forced him to flee. David refused to brand himself, or be branded as an alternative to the king. He got within a whisker of killing Saul and backed away, and re-affirmed his open dialogue with God by trusting God to remove Saul in His time.
    In short, he refused to fix the church.
    Cant we do that, without labels, leadership and funding?

  2. Donnie says:


    Thanks for the original article and the great followup. When leftist hacks write hit pieces about you, you know you’re doing something right!

  3. Morgan Guyton says:

    When you say that Hauerwas ““popularized the notion that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is not so much atoning for the world’s sins as rejecting all violence,” I consider that an unsubstantiated accusation of heresy.There’s no reason that the cross’s witness of nonviolence diminishes its atoning power. Its nonviolence is rather part of how Jesus provides us with atonement for our sins.

    In this particular piece, you write, “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.” Because you don’t give any substantiation to these claims, it just seems like a clumsy division of Christianity into left/right culture war categories which the reality on the ground doesn’t respect. There are certainly liberal Christians who appropriate Hauerwas for their purposes, but they should not be conflated with Anabaptists or neo-Anabaptists or whomever else you have lumped together under “Hauerwas and his followers.”

    Like I said, I’m not a pacifist myself. I’m a pragmatist in dealing with things like flags in the sanctuary and whatever else, though I think it’s foolish to deny that these things can ever become idolatrous. I just want the quality of your discourse to improve because many of my fellow Methodist pastors love to read your columns. So when you make generalized statements that aren’t backed up by facts, I’m going to call you out.

    • Frankie says:

      Thanks Mark for the well written article. As one who actually attended both a Mennonite College and Seminary, I was taught about much of this and brought much to bear to the discussion. Some didn’t know what to do with this young man who was training to serve as a military chaplain and had served during the Viet-Nam era and had good theological grounding in Lutheranism as well as other faith traditions. What I enjoy is the very alive conversation on this subject and how neo-Anna-baptists in the Seminary (profs) would seek to engage us beyond what was historically taught by it’s leaders and early theologians. I think they mean well but do often seek a new meaning of what it is to be faithful and in doing so changing the gospel message from a personal or even group salvation to a social salvation that emphasizes total pacifism as far as their own community is concerned but have not been willing to make the leap to include those of us who have had to and will put on the uniform of a soldier. police officer, etc. For them it applies only to their own community and I challenged them to think beyond that … to think in terms of their absolutes being right to stand up for not only for themselves but the rest of us. If war and violence is really wrong, it must be wrong for not only you and yours, but for all of us to be credible. Also, one has to be willing to take a stand which many of them feared would lead to jail and land/wealth confiscation. I replied, “Did your forefathers in the faith do less? Also how do you think they are going to jail you all if you stand up and say no to war on behalf of everyone? There is no way they could. As for your land and wealth, I guess you will have to ask yourself how deeply you genuinely believe what you say you do.” We also spoke of community service and how that is not enough because all that does is allow one of us non pacifists to go in their stead … again the point being if it’s wrong for you and yours … it also must be wrong for those non Anabaptist sons and daughters who will be asked to go in your stead. Many came to me after the colloquium and said I had hit them in their Achilles heal and gave them much to ponder. I guess I tell you all this simply to say I appreciate what you are trying to bring forward to the continued discussion. Thanks again. Rev. Dr. Frankie L. Perdue – Disabled United Methodist Clergy

  4. Frankie Perdue says:

    I’m not a pure pacifist … although I have several advanced degrees from Mennonite education. During my time among them, I found them genuine and engaging people but who had yet to think outside their own “community box” theological on the topic. At a colloquium I challenged them to consider applying their theology to the rest of us who have had to go to war and or protect them and others as police officers, national guardsmen, etc. I challenged them to project their theology further and come to the conclusion that war and violence isn’t just not applicable to them and their own group, but to the sons and daughters of those who are not part of their tradition. In other words, “If war is wrong … it’s not just wrong to send annabaptists youth to fight … but it’s wrong to send anyone’s children on their behalf. I guess I caused quite a stir and we looked at the ramifications of what they stand to lose if they took such a stance (at least what they feared they might). I helped them to see they couldn’t jail them all nor would their forefathers have hesitated at the threats of land/wealth losses. If they were going to be pacifists, then be pacifists (including those who aren’t within their communties of faith and tradition and thereby valuing their lives as much as they valued their own and their children s’ lives.

    I guess I tell you all this because I think you are on to something and I thank you for exposing and exploring it here. Rev. Dr. Frankie L. Perdue – Disabled United Methodist Clergy of the Virginia Annual Conference.

  5. Frankie Perdue says:

    As a follow up, I need to tell you I was raised Lutheran as a boy and had many other denominational influences when attending. I was also training myself to be a chaplain in the military after serving 3 years during the Vietnam era and later as a reservist for 4 more. I enjoyed my time at their schools very much and was challenged as well as challenging to those there.

  6. Ray Bannister says:

    I went through a (very) brief phase when I was a huge fan of John Howard Yoder, but thankfully it didn’t last long. I think pacifism is the theological equivalent of acne, you outgrow it, and if you don’t outgrow, something is terribly wrong with you.

  7. Frankie Perdue says:

    Sorry for the double entry and the redundancy.

  8. John E says:

    Mark Tooley wrote: “Neo-Anabaptists decry admitting the practical implications of their teachings, which they denounce as “consequentialism.””

    I had some frustrating conversations with one gentleman with “neo-Anabaptist” beliefs on that very issue. He simply ruled discussion of consequences out of bounds. But that seems self-serving to me … there are always consequences to what we advocate, aren’t there?

  9. Dan says:

    It has been many years, but when I first read Yoder I was struck by his insight that the state had constructed an alternative sacrificial system, justifying and glorifying war as some sort of redemptive violence. For Christians, as I recall him saying, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was and is sufficient and our culture’s glorification of war as having any redemptive value is idolatrous. I largely agree with Mr. Tooley’s points, and have never really felt that AB theology can survive contact with the real world, but that part of Yoder’s teaching has been impossible to shake.

  10. David Morris says:

    Dear Mark, I think you should take this post down. I have seen you write appreciative pieces on Hauerwas (e.g. in Touchstone), but this seems to be missing that tone. Not only that, I think you have badly misinterpreted Yoder, who’s pacifism only makes sense if you think Jesus is the Son of God. The Politics of Jesus wants us to see that Jesus can teach us ethics, in contrast to much of the prevailing thought of the time, and that Jesus consistently rejected violence in His choices.
    Furthermore, I think you are mistaken in your use of the Schleitheim Confession. This confession also condemns the Popish and Repopish, urging separation from their ways, calling them abominations. This is very much besmirching Christians who are not separatist.
    Peace be with you.

  11. Nathanael Snow (@jurisnaturalist) says:

    I’ve been following the neo-anabaptist folks for about 10 years now, since I snuck into one of Hauerwas’ classes at Duke.
    I then began studying economics ay George Mason University. The peculiar ethic the neo-Anabaptists describe as consistent with Scripture and the life of Christ I think is appropriate for the believer. But I can defend this position both from an ethical-moral perspective and from a consequentialist perspective. You see, collective action problems are well documented and explained by the field of Public Choice Economics. Politics, often described romantically, is first and foremost about power. It is the power-over methods and motivation of the state that neo-Anabaptists are primarily concerned with. They *assert* that the state cannot be redeemed. Public Choice Economics *proves* it. Of course, economics makes claim to being a science, wherein nothing is ever proven, so to speak, but rather alternative hypothesis are either rejected, or remain subject to further testing. So, as far as the science of Public Choice Economics has gotten, we have not seen a state that successfully maintains constraints on power, resists the urge to abuse power, nor one that willingly abdicates powers it holds no legitimate claim to.
    Other theological traditions with different soteriologies or approaches to theology or anthropoly or other doctrines can readily accept the veracity of the claims of Public Choice Economics without having to buy into the Hauerwasian Mafia’s peculiar approach. But I can’t think of any that do. All too often, we fall back on foundational points in our traditions that forfeit public works over to the state, generally for reasons of efficiency, or from concerns for security. But the hope of efficiency is a nirvana fallacy, and preoccupation with security erodes liberty.
    Instead, I find that Claiborne’s general approach, while often supported by some as far afield as Wallis and Co., remains independent of those affiliations, and presents a faithful testimony of reform by the only means found to be effective, and fully in imitation of Jesus’ symmetric concern for those suffering injustice, and for those instigating the injustice. Personal sacrificial altruism is the only approach consistent both with the ethic and the evidence.

  12. Jedidiah Slaboda says:

    Would love some footnotes after your summaries of Barth on Scripture and pacifism and Hauerwas and “his followers” (sounds pretty nebulous) on homosexuality. I would accuse you of terrible misrepresentation but that wouldn’t be fair without checking your sources first.

  13. Enrique Salazar says:

    This post, following the one on Shane Clairborne, has persuaded me that Mark Tooley cannot be trusted to generously or even accurately represent those with whom he disagrees. The piece is without nuance, without citation, and without charity. There’s a point to be made here, but one has to find it under a pile of gratuitous swipes that dishonor the writer as well as his subject. I’ve had enough.

    • JT Thomas says:

      If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Certainly liberals make blanket assertions without citation. Why can’t Mark do so? I am sure he could provide citations, for those who are too lazy to do their own reading and discovery.

  14. Rainer Moeller says:

    Dear Mr. Tooley,

    I’m a neo-Anabaptist myself, strongly influenced by Yoder. But I agree with you about a certain hollow leftist neo-anabaptism which cannot be taken seriously.
    Leftists are too much inclined to impose their ideas on others, too unscrupulous in using what kinds of power they have.
    The consequent way to live an Anabaptist life is to live really separate from the world, in an Amish or Hutterite way. If we can’t do that, we have at least to live as near to this ideal as possible.

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