Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age

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Mark Douglas
  • New: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     2019.
     278 pages.
     $99.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108476485.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age, Mark Douglas has written an interesting book that addresses important issues. Most of the book focuses on Christian pacifism and its history, offering a highly critical analysis of how Christian pacifists have presented their tradition. Douglas suggests that the climate crisis provides a challenging context for reconsidering Christian pacifism.

Douglas summarizes “the conventional narrative” of the history of Christian pacifism. Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, and early Christians until Constantine were universally pacifist. This all changed with the first Christian emperor, who aligned the church with imperial power and signaled the end of pacifism as a core Christian conviction. A just war ethic, especially as articulated by Augustine, replaced pacifism and “constitutes not only a change but a fall away from fidelity to a Jesus-centered ethics” (3).

In much of the book that follows, Douglas uses this summary as a foil for a sharp critique of the narrative of Christian pacifism by recent pacifists. He portrays the Christian pacifist narrative as being centered on that problematic construal of early Christianity—what he calls, disparagingly, the “myth of return” (7-10) where pacifists seek to recover the supposed purity of the early Christians. He actually only picks up, briefly near the end of the book, the theme of our current environmental crisis; thus, the book’s title is misleading.

Douglas sees the “conventional narrative” being strongly shaped by a series of writers he labels “the great historians of Christian pacifism” (56)—namely, C. J. Cadoux, Guy F. Hershberger, Roland Bainton, and Jean-Michel Hornus. These historians, Douglas argues, misunderstood the dynamics around war refusal in early Christianity, the nature of the influence of Constantine, the stance of the church toward war and peace in the period between the 4th and 16th centuries, and how best to apply Jesus’s message about love to the present world.

Douglas continues his examination of Christian pacifism by considering the thought and actions of three influential 20th-century figures: John Howard Yoder, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day. He focuses on these three because they helpfully addressed many of what Douglas sees as problems with “the conventional narrative” of the Christian pacifist tradition. Yet, he argues that their “complex theological visions of pacifism and their significant arguments in its defense nevertheless manifest new expressions of the very problems they attempt to escape” (160).

Therefore, Douglas presents Christian pacifism as problematic. He seems to recommend a mostly pragmatic approach, not seeking “to get pacifism right” but rather to “use [the various] pacifisms better” (180), and draws on their insights without being preoccupied with purity or perfection.

The third and final section of the book, “Re-Narrating the History of the Church and Nonviolence,” develops Douglas’s theological agenda. Pacifism actually turns out to be fairly marginal to this agenda. Douglas uses pacifism as a foil to advance a theological agenda that sees pacifism as at best a helpful, though profoundly limited, subtheme.

His critique of pacifism, ultimately, leaves a lot to be desired. He never provides a clear and concise definition of “pacifism.” That vagueness makes it difficult to track his critique as the book moves along. His use of the notion of the Christian pacifist tradition’s “myth of return” exaggerates the role that that “myth” plays in the tradition. Certainly, Christian pacifists have referred to Jesus and the early church as key inspirations for their convictions. I would argue, however, that pacifism has arisen mainly as a response to particular contexts where warfare was making demands on Christians not so much as a coherent, consistent appeal to some authoritative original pacifism.

Part of the reason for Douglas’s emphasis on the “myth of return” is his reliance on “the great historians of Christian pacifism” (56) for his construal of that tradition. However, these were neither “great historians” nor especially influential among Christian pacifists. C. J. Cadoux was a relatively obscure British theologian whose book The Early Christian Attitude Toward War (Headley Bros. Publishers) was published in 1919 and was virtually unknown in the United States. Guy Hershberger was a Mennonite college professor and by training a historian of the United States. His 1944 book, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (The Herald Press), was important for Mennonites but was virtually unknown beyond Mennonite circles. Jean-Michel Hornus was a pastor in the French Reformed Church with a doctorate in theology. His book, It is not Lawful for Me to Fight (The Herald Press), was first published in French in 1960 and was not published in English until 1980. Those who know of this book esteem it, but it was never widely circulated. Finally, Roland Bainton was a professor of history at Yale Divinity School and his book, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (        Abingdon Press), also published in 1960), has been well known and influential. However, it is very much a popular-level survey, not a deeply researched scholarly study.

Douglas’s critique of these four books does seem mostly accurate. However, that they are mostly obscure, popular level, and by now old writings actually undermines his case that they reflect the centrality of the (problematic) focus on early Christians as central for defining Christian pacifism.

Douglas’s failure to offer a clear definition of pacifism links with his tendency throughout the book to treat pacifism mainly as a set of vague ideas. He does not have much to say about actual manifestations of Christian pacifism in history. Ultimately, this is more a book of abstract theologizing focusing on Christian doctrines (note especially chapter 7, “Time and Tradition in a Theological Framework”) than either a critical engagement with an embodied tradition of thought and action or an attempt to draw from the Christian pacifist tradition actual guidance for engaging our current environmental crises.

In conclusion, because it does discuss important issues, I can recommend that readers interested in those issues give Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age a look. But overall it is a pretty disappointing effort.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University.

Date of Review: 
August 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Douglas is Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of Confessing Christ in the Twenty-First Century (2005) and Believing Aloud: Reflections on Being Religious in the Public Square (2010).

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