Bodies of Peace

Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, and Witness

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Myles Werntz
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , December
     2014.
     272 pages.
     $44.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781451480429.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Myles Werntz’s Bodies of Peace begins with a reflection on the complex relationship between war and Christian ecclesiology, proceeding from a theological rejection of violence, yet being clear that there is no freedom from complicity with war or from benefitting from war for churches that reject violence (1-2). Instead of defending a peace stance as such, Werntz’s priority is to demonstrate that the relationship between nonviolence and ecclesiology is important because the two are always intertwined. Rejecting a view of Christian nonviolence that would reduce it to an ahistorical ideology, Werntz reminds the reader that Christian nonviolence is a kind of discipleship that is formed by ecclesial assumptions (6). Werntz then sets the stage for his study of four theologians who in some way rejected violence and war, specifically during the Vietnam era: Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (chapter 2); Catholic theologian and activist Dorothy Day (chapter 3); the unclassifiable William Stringfellow (chapter 4), and the ecumenist-activist Robert McAfee Brown (chapter 5).

Before attending to his sources, Werntz introduces Bodies of Peace by outlining his methodological approach and understanding of ecclesiology, writing that “for the figures of this book, the practice of nonviolent resistance to war works both in concert with the practices of the church, being formed and shaped by churchly life, and in tension with them” (9, Werntz’s italics). With the place of nonviolence established as both a continuity with the church and a criticism of it, Werntz points out that the four theologians he sources are interested in “the place of the church in a shared world; insofar as these figures understood the church to provide a vision of social life counter to the agonistic practices of war” (10).

In chapter 2, Werntz examines Yoder’s peace church stance, which identifies nonviolence with the church by presenting a vision of the Mennonite church as a dialogical sphere of debate and exchange (drawn from Yoder’s dissertation on the disputations of the early Anabaptists) (74). In chapter 3, Werntz unpacks Day’s peace stance and its foundation on the Mystical Body, which “assumes all human existence and directs all humanity toward its full communion: the visible body of Christ, the Catholic Church” (107). Because the Mystical Body (the visible church) is characterized by nonviolence, for Day, the Church forms nonviolence because all things tend toward their ecclesial telos in the unified Mystical Body (109).

In Chapter 4, Werntz describes Stringfellow’s rejection of violence as a rejection of death, and the death-dealing “powers and principalities” of the world. For Stringfellow, the powers and principalities of the world overvalue human life (resulting in idolatry), and undervalue human life (resulting in ideology) (162-163). Stringfellow calls the church to better see how “resistance to war can easily be a mirror to the pathology which it seeks to resist,” also understanding the church to be the bearer of a counter-narrative against the violence of the world (202). In chapter 5, Werntz discusses Brown, for whom nonviolence in the church must assist the pursuit of nonviolence in the world, whether that world is one of public policy or other forms of resistance that are not themselves Christian (207). Unlike other ecclesial pacifists, Brown does not suggest that the church is the embodied alternative to war, but instead he suggests that the church must “embed itself ecumenically within a broader coalition of witnesses against war” (208).

In the conclusion of Bodies of Peace Werntz suggests that “once we recognize that the Spirit has worked through a communion different from our own, the common work of God in Christ creates a new possibility for an ecumenical witness against war that does not minimize differences among communions but creates the potential for an ecumenical nonviolence that might lead to other ecumenical discussions—an eventually to unity among the churches” (266). This raises the question: What would this vision would look like if it were broadened? I understand that Bodies of Peace is a book of a specific genre—it is a dissertation written at a theological school on four theologians who wrote during the Vietnam era—but I found myself wanting much more reflection on the nature of violence and the relationship between church and world. For example, in the context of the book, nonviolence is specifically concerned with the rejection of war. However, attention to other structural and social violences could enrich the work that Werntz is doing. A more full-bodied critique of violence that accounts for the symbolic, ontological, or epistemological ways in which the violence of war is backed might allow the church to see how it is not just complicit in war because it pays taxes and benefits from war-like institutions, but that the church is complicit in war and other violences because its ways of thinking and knowing are violent.

For the relationship between ecclesiology and nonviolence to have contemporary relevance, consideration should be given to the ways in which the church is not the bearer of nonviolent witness to the world. Could the direction of witness from church (the bearer of nonviolence) to world (those in need of nonviolence) be reversed? It strikes me that the vision of nonviolence in Bodies of Peace is unidirectional, most often moving from the church to the world, from Christianity to the secular public, or to other religious traditions or the state. The question on my mind while reading Bodies of Peace was: could the Christian church understand that the so-called ‘world’ outside its bounds might have a nonviolent witness itself?

I appreciated the thoughtful and engaging way that Werntz’s book shows a deep connection between ecclesiology and nonviolence. My reservations are the result of broader discursive questions about how Christian theology performs self-critique. In this spirit, the kind of nonviolence that Werntz describes involves both continuity with the church and critique of it, and I hope for its further actualization within contemporary debates inside and outside of Christian theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maxwell Kennel is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of biblical studies and theology at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is the co-editor of Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy, and The Wire (2013).

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