The Manly Christian Pacifist
Do Christians really need another book on how we should think about violence and war? After all, this is well-trod ground.
To a considerable extent, Preston Sprinkle, professor of biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, California, has justified his own contribution. In Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (David C. Cook), Sprinkle offers a strikingly powerful, Christ-centered case for nonviolence as a way of life.
Yet Sprinkle hardly fits the usual stereotypes. One tongue-in-cheek headline for the book might be, "Manly Conservative Reformed Republican Commends Christian Nonviolence." The author is conservative, Reformed, and Republican, likes violent movies, owns guns and enjoys using them, and can bench-press 250 pounds. Sprinkle has written a book defending the doctrine of hell, claims the influence of figures like John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur, and in many other ways shows himself to be very conservative.
Everything about Sprinkle's method correlates with his self-described identity. His approach revolves around frequently articulated commitments to the inspiration, authority, and infallibility of Scripture. And he appears unwilling to avail himself of historical-critical analysis, though it might help his case.
In fact, one senses that Sprinkle is a bit surprised by what he has discovered. He confesses that he only began seriously studying these issues after being required to teach ethics. But his reading of Scripture ended up tugging him, however reluctantly, in the direction of embracing nonviolence.
Making the Case
Fight contains four chapters on the issue of violence in the Old Testament, then four chapters on Jesus and the New Testament, followed by four concluding chapters and an appendix that deal with issues such as the witness of the early church, responses to common objections to Christian nonviolence, and just-war theory.
Sprinkle makes four claims to deal with the considerable violence commanded or recorded in the Old Testament. First, that God, in deference to Israel's prevailing customs, permitted violence but never established it as an "ideal"; second, that God's coming to earth in Christ intensified the moral demands upon his people; third, that ancient Israel's rules and ethos of war were considerably more humane than those of their neighbors; and fourth, that the Prophets' cries for peace point Israel back to God's Edenic intentions while anticipating the coming ministry of Jesus.
Sprinkle suggests that the Old Testament's most gruesome "holy war" passages may be taken as hyperbolic. In this telling, "kill everything that breathes" was "a stock phrase" that never really meant total slaughter. I doubt that such readings will satisfy criticisms raised by atheists like Richard Dawkins or assuage the consciences of Christian college students.
The New Testament discussion is far more satisfying. Sprinkle situates Jesus' message of the kingdom of God against the violent background of the times, including the Jewish revolts of the recent past and the Roman occupation of the brutal present. With ample biblical citations, he shows that nonviolence is a key difference between Jesus' kind of kingship and the worldly alternative.
Sprinkle takes the Sermon on the Mount seriously. The reader comes away unable to escape the urgency of living, even right now, in the radical kingdom way that Jesus teaches and practices. The Cross receives considerable attention, not just as the means of atonement for sin but as the model for how Christ conquers—through suffering love, not violence. Sprinkle rightly highlights how such "cruciform suffering" is urged upon Christian disciples throughout the New Testament. And he emphasizes that claims of national loyalty are legitimate only when they accord with the demands of our one true king, Jesus.
He concludes (rightly, in my view) that early church leaders universally advocated nonviolence, and not just because serving in the Roman military would implicate them in idolatry. He notes that even after Constantine's conversion, some church leaders still commended the nonviolent way, even as leaders like Augustine were taking the church down the path toward just-war theory. (In an appendix, Sprinkle casts quite appropriate doubts on various dimensions of the just-war tradition.)
Fight offers fairly predictable answers to questions like, "What if an attacker wants to kill my family?" and, "What about Hitler?" In response, he examines the "rhythm" of the New Testament's message of cruciform love, covers nonlethal responses to violence, and weighs the obligation not to kill against competing moral imperatives.
A Developing Fissure?
Sprinkle sends plenty of cultural signals to vouch for his affinity with conservative evangelicals. But he does not hesitate to rebuke his tribe for what he deems an unbiblical attachment to American nationalism and militarism. By writing this book, he is making enemies in his subculture, and an author's courage to follow the truth where it leads must be appreciated.
That does not mean I am fully satisfied with Sprinkle's treatment of the problems Christians face in coordinating their allegiance to Christ with responsibilities to families, neighbors, and nations. Fight is on firmer ground with biblical exegesis than with classic or contemporary debates about Christians' civic and neighborly obligations in a fallen world.
Perhaps a fissure may be growing deep within conservative Christian America, between those still working from the Christian Right's "God and country" playbook and those whose robust commitment to Christ and Scripture dictates a posture of countercultural nonviolence. This was, after all, the earliest Christian response to the person and proclamation of Jesus Christ.
David Gushee is professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the author of The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future (Eerdmans).