Eric A. Seibert. Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.)
Carl Norden was a devout Christian. So when he developed the Norden bombsight, it was with the intent of increasing the accuracy of aerial bombing to the end of decreasing the resulting collateral damage wrought by war. In short, the bombsight was meant to embody Norden’s Christian values lived out on the field of battle.
Unfortunately, while the bombsight promised deadly accuracy under ideal conditions, the theater of war rarely offers ideal conditions. As a result, the bombsight never lived up to its promise … though it was accurate enough on the day it was used to detonate an atomic bomb over Hiroshima.
The sad story of Carl Norden provides a salutary warning for all Christians who seek to live out their cruciform discipleship in service of war and violence. If I had more time, I could give you other examples such as the story of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a follower of Jesus whose hatred of executions led him to propose an ill-fated means of making them more humane.
But what, exactly, is the lesson? Do these examples simply offer a caution to Christians inclined to pragmatically adapt their convictions to realpolitik? Or is the real lesson that Christ calls us to lay down our weapons and set aside our violent inclinations even as we take up our cross?
In his new book Disarming the Church, biblical scholar Eric Seibert defends the second view: to follow the Prince of Peace, he insists, requires a radical and categorical rejection of violence.
Disarming the Church is divided into four parts. Seibert begins in Part 1 (chapters 1-4) by summarizing the church’s problematic relationship to violence. Next, Part 2 (chapters 5-9) is devoted to presenting a case for non-violence based on the witness of the New Testament, and the life and teachings of Jesus in particular.
While Part 2 is the heart of the book, Seibert also recognizes the critical importance of narrating new ways to live peaceably. And so, he dedicates the final two parts of the book to exploring new ways of thinking with a range of practical alternatives to violence (Part 3; chapters 10-12) and a new vision for living non-violently every day (Part 4; chapters 13-17).
If you’re going to argue that violence is incompatible with Christian discipleship, you should be clear as to what, exactly, violence is. Seibert recognizes this point and so he offers the following definition:
“Violence is physical, emotional, or psychological harm done to a person by an individual(s), institution, or structure that results in serious injury, oppression, or death.” (10)
Unfortunately, this definition is inadequate on two counts. To begin with, it is too restrictive insofar as it limits violence to injurious actions visited upon persons, a stipulation which would exclude human beings who are not (or not yet) persons (e.g. fetuses).
Admittedly, that problem can be fixed easily by replacing “person” with “human being”. More problematically, the definition intentionally excludes injurious actions against non-human animals or natural systems and structures. To be sure, there is a logic at work: Seibert’s definition of violence in terms of harm inflicted upon human persons reflects his focus in the book. But while Seibert has every right to limit the scope of his interest, the proper way to do this is by stipulating that you will limit your discussion to intrahuman violence, not by defining violence as intrahuman violence.
This brings me to the second problem: Seibert’s definition is also too rigorous. The point is illustrated with his unqualified condemnation of spanking:
“Regardless of how ‘lovingly’ it is done, or how controlled the parent may be while doing it, spanking is a form of violence.” (238)
While I agree with Seibert that spanking is violent, in most instances it is not sufficiently intense to inflict the serious injury, oppression, or death required by Seibert’s definition of violence. As a result, by Seibert’s own definition, most instances of spanking are not, in fact, violent. This shows us that Seibert’s definition of violence is too restrictive since it fails to recognize relatively mild examples of violent behavior.
After all that, you might be wondering how I would define violence. For the purposes of this review, I’m content to borrow Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement on obscenity: we know it when we see it. But whatever our definition, we should recognize that violence comes in degrees of intensity ranging from mild (e.g. spanking) to severe (e.g. killing) and it can be inflicted not only on human persons (or beings) but also on other living creatures and living systems.
Violence is Bad
Part 1 is dedicated to identifying the church’s relationship with violence and the problematic nature of violence. Seibert avoids recounting a long history of crusades, pogroms, witch burnings, battles, and the like, opting to focus instead on the current state of the church. For example, he notes how the church in the United States is statistically more likely to support war and torture than the general population (18, 19). He also recounts examples of the church’s heightened rhetoric against various out-groups such as Muslims, atheists, and gay people.
Ultimately, the church’s acceptance of violence is rooted in what Jim Forest refers to as “the Gospel according to John Wayne” (34) according to which one deals with violence by way of more violence. In short, the church has bought into the myth of redemptive violence.
And it is a myth, or so Seibert argues in chapter 4, “The Truth about Violence: It’s All Bad.” In this chapter, Seibert amasses evidence that violence begets more violence, it escalates dangerous situations, it adversely affects innocent parties, and it has wholly negative psychological and emotional impacts on those who participate in it such as the “moral injury” of soldiers (54). The essence of the chapter is found in the sobering conclusion of one soldier:
“The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war …. My government told me that … I came back from war and told them the truth–’Violence is not evil, except in war .. violence is evil–period.'” (Cited in 59)
The Prince of Peace
In part 2, Seibert makes a case for peace based on the New Testament (though he also briefly references OT sources for peace (61-3)). The heart of his case is the life and teaching of the Prince of Peace as surveyed in chapter 5. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught his followers to be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9), to love our enemies (5:38-48), and to follow the Golden Rule (7:12).
While some people seem to view the pacifistic response as milquetoast discipleship, Seibert helpfully explains how actions like turning the other cheek, in fact, constitute a bold assertion of personal dignity and resistance to unjust oppression (66-67). In other words, the rejection of violence does not mean one is left to acquiesce in the face of oppression. Rather, it challenges us to pursue a courageous confrontation of evil and a prophetic anticipation of a better world.
Jesus modeled the peaceable kingdom in his own ministry. Throughout his life, he rejected violence and preached forgiveness (see, for example, Luke 9:51-56; 22:47-53; John 7:53-8:11), culminating, of course, in his atoning death on the cross. And we are called to take up our crosses in emulation of him (Luke 9:23).
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Source: Christian Post