An Anabaptist scholar weighs-in on nonviolence and the Metaxas punch

Eric Metaxas

If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by the “Metaxas punch,” get up to speed here and here and here.

Jared Burkholder, a history professor at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana and advocate of nonviolence, weighed-in at his blog Hermeneutic Circle. Here is a taste:

The notion that pacifists are simpletons who fail to take seriously the morally complicated realities of the world is a well-worn critique and those who take this rhetorical path betray at least some ignorance of the peace tradition and its thinkers. In my reading of those within nonviolent circles, I would say these thinkers and theologians are anything but simpletons. In fact, those in the peace tradition do not hold their convictions in spite of moral complexity, but rather because of them – and because situations often spiral toward precisely the sort of moral quandary into which Metaxas has stepped.

Much of the larger debate over looters, violent agitators, and vigilante justice has devolved into partisan opinions about when violence is justified and when it is not. Zmirack, in fact, seems to be arguing in one post that its not worth extending the lives of criminals, thugs, and other morally undesirable people because their lives matter less than those he considers innocent, such as vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse.

All of this is, in fact, a microcosm of the larger debate over Christian participation in war. The pacifist critique of Just War Theory is that it is human nature to believe that one’s causes are always just and therefore Just War Theory will never really serve as a check on violence. So we can at least say that it is not surprising that Metaxas’ own bad behavior has turned into a discussion about justifications for violence and it is equally unsurprising that Metaxas and company would dismiss pacifism and then claim that his violent action was righteous and just. I say this not because Metaxas is somehow unique in this, but because it is human nature. This is precisely the point, nonviolent theologians would say. Whether to garner support for war, incite revolutions, or angrily throw a punch at an obnoxious protester, moral justifications for violence will usually reflect merely the interests and definitions of justice of those who find they want or need to commit such acts.

Read the entire piece here.

What is the Difference Between Liberty University and Messiah College?

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The covered bridge on the campus of Messiah College

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community class at Messiah College we discussed different kinds of Christian colleges. We thought about the things a Christian college requires all faculty to affirm, the issues a Christian college “privileges” (but does not necessarily require faculty to agree with), and the issues on which a Christian college does not take an official position.  (Most of our discussion built on the work of Messiah College provost Randy Basinger).

Faculty at Messiah College must be Christians.  All faculty must affirm the Apostles Creed.  We thus have Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox faculty.  Other Christian colleges require faculty to affirm more than just the Apostles Creed.  For example, faculty at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan must affirm the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. Wheaton College and Gordon College do not hire Catholics.

Messiah College privileges social and religious positions that line-up with the school’s historic Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist roots.  For example, as a college with Anabaptist roots, Messiah privileges pacifism. As a school with Anabaptist and Wesleyan roots, the college privileges the ordination of women.  But a faculty member does not have to be a pacifist or believe in the ordination of women to teach at the college.  We have faculty who are advocates of a “just war” position and we have faculty from denominations (traditional Catholics and Orthodox, conservative Presbyterians, and complementarian evangelical churches) that do not ordain women.

And there are all kinds of issues on which Messiah College does not have a position.  For example, the college does not take a position on political candidates or parties.

All of this makes for a vibrant and diverse Christian intellectual community.

During our conversation in class, a few students brought up Liberty University.  What does Liberty require of faculty?  What positions and issues does Liberty privilege? What are the issues on which the university does not take a position?

For example, last month we highlighted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership of VEXIT, a movement started by Virginia counties and localities who want to leave the Commonwealth and join the state of West Virginia. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, is not happy with proposed legislation to restrict gun rights in Virginia.

VEXIT is getting a boost from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, a think tank created to “equip courageous champions to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, to advance his kingdom and American freedom”:

The Falkirk Center is connected to Liberty University.  In a January 20, 2020 piece at the Liberty Champion, student journalist Hattie Troutman writes: “The idea for the center was presented by [co-founder Charlie Kirk] when he pitched the idea to Falwell last year. [Executive Director Ryan] Helfenbein said Falwell received the idea well, knowing that if Liberty was to be in a partnership with the center, it must be rooted in the Gospel and represent Liberty University’s missional values.”

So there you have it.  The Falkirk Center is an extension of the mission of Liberty University.  The Falkirk Center promotes VEXIT.  It thus appears that Liberty University privileges VEXIT.

A quick read of the Falkirk Center Twitter feed suggests that the university also privileges gun rights, BREXIT, Donald Trump, free markets, and a pro-life position on abortion. If Messiah College is rooted in the historic Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, Liberty University is rooted in the (very short) history of the Christian Right.

At Messiah College, we also have “centers” that support beliefs that the college privileges:

  • We have a center for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan studies that promotes issues related to peace, reconciliation, heart-felt conversion, and personal and social holiness.”
  • We have a Center for Public Humanities with a mission to promote the study of the humanities and “partner with our broader community in meaningful inquiry, conversation, and action.”
  • We have a center devoted to the work and legacy of former U.S. Commissioner of Education and Messiah graduate Ernest L. Boyer.  The Boyer Center “advances educational renewal for the common good.”
  • We have a center called The Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.  This center has a mission to “foster justice, empower the poor, promote peace and care for the earth through applications of our academic and professional disciplines.”

Because Messiah College is a Christian college informed by the history and theology of the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan movements, the college supports centers that reflect the things the college privileges.  Liberty University also has a center that supports the things Liberty University privileges.

Not all Christian colleges are the same.  High school students and their parents should be aware of this.

The Created and Called for Community course continues next week with some additional exploration of Messiah College’s Christian identity.  Follow along here.

Quote of the Day

Another jewel from my current research on Presbyterians and the American Revolution:

To take any man’s money, without his consent, is unjust and contrary to reason and the law of God, and the Gospel of Christ; it is contrary to Magna Charta, or the Great Charter and Constitution of England; and to complain, and even to resist such a lawless power, is just, and reasonable, and no rebellion.

-Francis Alison, James Sproat, George Duffield, Robert Davidson, “An Address to the Ministers and Presbyterian Congregations in North Carolina.” July 10, 1775.

Was the American Revolution a Just War?

Should Christians have participated in the American Revolution or fought in the American Revolutionary War?  Anthony Gill takes up this question with three Christian scholars of the American Revolution at his latest Research on Religion podcast.

Gregg Frazer, professor at The Master’s College and author of the recently released The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution argues that “the Bible unequivocally teaches participation in any revolution is wrong.”  I find Frazer’s view the most interesting.

First, he argues that Christians should not have tried to overthrow Hitler unless Hitler required them to do something that violated the teachings of the Bible.  In other words, if Hitler commanded a Christian to kill a Jew, the Christian should passively disobey (without rebelling) because murder violates the teachings of the Bible.  If God wanted to overthrow Hitler, he would have done it without Christians (such as Bonhoeffer).  The key for Frazer is God’s sovereignty.  If God wanted the United States to separate from England in 1776, he would have made it happen without a rebellion.  (Much in the same way that Canada or Australia gained their independence from England). Rebellion is sin, but sometimes God uses sin to advance his purposes.  The American Revolution was a sinful act, but it was part of God’s plan because it happened.

Second, Frazer teaches at an evangelical college that is quite conservative in theology.  Faculty at the Master’s College uphold the inerrancy of the Bible and a dispensational view of the end times, including a belief in a “pre-tribulational” rapture.  The founder of the Master’s College and its current president is John MacArthur, a very popular conservative evangelical preacher.  I find this so interesting because MacArthur has many followers who would probably be surprised that one of his professors believes that the American Revolution was a sinful event.  In fact, MacArthur himself has said that the patriots violated the New Testament when they founded America.

Jonathan Den Hartog of Northwestern College treats the question historically.  He tries to answer the question from the perspective of a colonist and does not dabble in his own personal convictions. (Good job, Jonathan!) He defends the view that the Revolution was justified or at least tries to explain why a colonist would take this view.

Like, Frazer, Mark Hall also begins by treating the question theologically and then analyzes it in terms of the history of political and Reformed religious thought.

I address this question in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I should also note (as Den Hartog does) that it is not really a historical question.  Frazer does not respond to the question as a historian, but as a theologian or Biblical scholar.  Hall examines the question historically, theologically, and politically. This podcast reveals the different ways that scholars from different disciplines tackle the past.

Here is a snippet of my “take” on this question in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation:

Christians today who want to argue that the Revolutionary War was “just” must offer concrete evidence to suggest that this war was indeed a “last resort.”  They must also make a compelling case that the colonists’ grievances against the Crown merited military resistance.  Here are a few questions that one might ask in this regard: Do high taxes justify a military rebellion against the government, even if such a rebellion is conducted in direct violation of passages such as Romans 13 that command Christians to pay their taxes?  Was the English government as “tyrannical” as the colonists claimed?  And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict?  After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world.  Did the revolutionaries have a moral case to make for their own freedom when many had denied freedom to the slaves in their midst?  (Perhaps, as Mark Noll has argued, it was only the enslaved African Americans who could legitimately “justify taking up arms to defend themselves.”).

Hauerwaus vs Neuhaus on the Justness of the Gulf War

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Raymond Haberski Jr. has a very insightful and informative post on the debate that occurred in the 1990s between Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Neuhaus over the justness of the Gulf War.  According to Haberski, and I think he is right, the moral debate centered around two competing views of Christian ethics.  For Hauerwas, “the application of Christian doctrine starts and largely ends with those who profess devotion to the church, not those who are needed by the nation to help make sense of secular actions with religious language.” For Neuhaus, America was a nation under God and “as a result, ethics grounded in and thoroughly compatible with Christian faith is accessible also to non-Christians.  It is, in other words, a public ethic.”

Also, much of this debate centered around the intellectual legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Fascinating stuff.

Here is a taste of Haberski’s piece:

By the early 1990s, Neuhaus had developed an intellectual trinity of sorts between himself, his church, and his nation. This trinity had started on the left and had drifted rightward politically over time toward what might be called an anti-anti-Americanism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Neuhaus had presented a clear alternative to Jim Wallis in the late 1970s and by the 1990s, it seemed that Hauerwas had become the next sparing partner. Wallis had offered a fairly consistent reading of America’s sins stemming from the nation’s behavior in Vietnam through to its consumerist ethos of the 1980s. Hauerwas, though, pushed Neuhaus to articulate a different kind of understanding of the relationship between a theologian and the nation. Whereas it was relatively easy for Neuhaus to dismiss Wallis because Wallis stood opposed to almost everything Neuhaus was, Hauerwas considered himself a conservative theologian like Neuhaus. And for this reason Hauerwas tested Neuhaus’s public theology from the inside. That was why Neuhaus took particular exception to Hauerwas’s argument that a Christian ethics is first and foremost for Christians and not necessarily accessible to all Americans unless those Americans follow Christ. In response to this challenge, Neuhaus spoke about a notion fundamental to American civil religion–that America was a nation under God. As such, this view “assures a certain correspondence, albeit disordered by sin, between His will and human reason and the laws of nature. As a result, ethics grounded in and thoroughly compatible with Christian faith is ‘accessible’ also to non-Christians. It is, in other words, a public ethic.”

Andrew Sullivan’s Tweet of the Day

Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan comments on a tweet from someone named Iowahawkblog:

Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.

But Sullivan also puts this tweet into the larger context of Obama’s Nobel Prize speech:

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

Some Good Conversation on the Justness of the American Revolution

My recent Patheos column asked the question:  Was the American Revolutionary War a “Just War?” It has been sparking some good conversation around the web and Facebook.  I am glad to see people, in their own virtual communities, grappling with the ideas I presented.  See the discussions at:

American Creation

No Longer Normal

Andrew Vogel’s Facebook wall

And, of course, in the comments section of the column itself.

Am I missing anything?

I wish I had time to jump into all of these conversations.  Nevertheless, I am honored that they are happening.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Was the American Revolutionary Was a "Just War"?

Here is my Patheos column for this week.

Suggesting that the American Revolution was unjust seems almost sacrilegious. There have been periods in American history when promoting such a view could lead to charges of treason. But in the 1770s, cases for war against England failed to conform to classic Christian arguments used to support what we commonly refer to today as a “just war.” In fact, just war arguments, often associated with historic church leaders such as Augustine and Aquinas, were rarely if ever employed by Revolutionary-era Protestant ministers and were certainly not employed by the founding fathers.

The just war tradition affirms that government is ordained by God to preserve peace and maintain justice. War is to be avoided whenever possible, but at times the desire for peace might make war necessary. War is thus justified only as a last resort. It must be declared by a legitimate government and have an attainable goal, namely the restoration of peace. It must protect the lives of noncombatants.

Read the rest here.

Christians and the Military

In browsing different sites today, I ran across a letter from a female reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.  This reader has a masters degree in moral theology from the University of Notre Dame and has decided to become a Marine Officer.  Sullivan asks: “What if the Military Were Filled with Notre Dame Grads?”

Here are a couple of snippets of this interesting letter:

I think Just War Theory is a plausible theological way to deal with the annihilation of large swaths of humanity at the hands of others, and I cannot even vaguely justify our foray into Iraq in terms of it.  Afghanistan initially may have filled some criteria, but it certainly doesn’t any longer and hasn’t for some time.   Admittedly, I had to do some ethical contortions to justify my choice to try to enter the military.  Some were pathetic: as a woman I would never technically have a combat MOS and as such would always have some moral separation from actual killing.  Others were more honestly reasoned, but none of them were in complete harmony with Catholic doctrine—how could they be?  Ultimately, I decided that I could take responsibility both for disobeying an order I found to be immoral or for making a decision that violated the very core of my conscience. 

And…

The appeal of the military for many Catholics is obvious: we like rigor and pageantry.  We also take seriously the call to put our faith into action.  In light of our current wars, I now more than ever question the legitimacy of acting out one’s faith in military service—though I cannot bring myself to pacifism—but I think that it’s a decision best left to each individual and his or her conscience.  Mainly, I decided to join the Marines because I thought it afforded me the opportunity to make a positive impact in the world in  ways that pursing the life of an academic ethicist wouldn’t.  Ultimately, even though my job now is very different than the one I would’ve had had I managed to make it through OCS, undoubtedly I’m still in the same predicament I would have been in: hoping but unsure if what I’m doing is making the world a better place.

Stanley Hauerwas is in Your Face!

We don’t do much theology here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” I consider myself a very amateur theologian at best, but I do read it occasionally and it sometimes informs my work.

The other day I was taken by this short interview with Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. In 2001, Time Magazine named Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian.”

This interview on the American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is vintage Hauerwas. Here is a snippet, but I encourage you to read the entire thing:

Q: How would you assess the church’s response to the Iraq war?

A: Awful. Christians—and it started with Sept. 11, as soon as we said we are at war—Christians said “that’s us.” We never asked the hard questions about the war on terror, and that is, I think, why Iraq happened. It has everything to do with the inability to distinguish between the Christian “we” and the American “we.”

Q: So does the church need a service of repentance?

A: The church has lost its ability to be a disciplined community because we’re now, religiously, in a buyer’s market. Christianity has to bill itself as very good for your self-realization, and that’s killing us because we’re not very good for your self-realization. We’re good for your salvation, which is not the same thing. Hopefully God is making sure that we’re not going to survive in the position we’re currently in.

Q: If Obama were to call you for advice on Afghanistan, what would you say?

A: I’d say you have to tell the American some really hard truths, namely that the war on terror was a mistake and we’ve got to start, as Americans, learning to live in a world that we don’t control. That’s not going to make you very popular.

Q: So you’d be politically toxic to the president of the United States?

A: Yeah, I would be. Just like (former Obama pastor) Jeremiah Wright. I hope I’m absolutely as toxic as Jeremiah Wright.

Q: Why?

A: Because I think what I’m saying is what Christians should be saying.

Q: The hard truths?

A: Absolutely.

I am in no position to argue with Stanley Hauerwas. He is smarter than me, he is a theologian, and, well, he is Stanley Hauerwas. Yet there is a part of me that admires his prophetic style.