Christian Pacifism in History (1958, 1971)

Geoffrey Nuttall’s book on Christan Pacifism in History presents five essays arguing the Christian pacifist position: fear of idolatry, the law of Christ, the ministry of suffering, the dignity of humans, and the means of redemption.

The first concerns the fear of idolatry, which Nuttall traces back to Christianity’s Jewish roots. In the Deuteronomic history, there was no greater sin than idolatry, and this history of rejecting idolatry played a part in the early Christian community’s rejection of military service because it required “every soldier . . . to take a military oath in rites ‘over which the heathen gods presided'” and “‘a confession of the Emperor’s deity'” (9, quoting Cadoux). Fundamentally, then, according to Nuttall, “a devout Christian had an unconquerable objection. It was idolatry” (10).

Even near the time of Constantine, Christians remained “aloof” (8). Just prior to the Edict of Milan, in 298, a soon-to-be martyred centurion confessed that he was quitting the military because it required sacrifices to the emperor his conscience would not allow him to make (12).

Summing up the early Christian pacifists, Nuttall observers,

[I]t would be difficult to deny that the Church is called out of the world: called out, it is true, that, back in the world, it may be the means of the world’s redemption but still called out first, to become, and in a sense perpetually remain, different from the world, different from what the world, in its un-Christian state, can ever be (13).

Writing just after the Second World War, Nuttall continues,

Worship of the Emperor, Führer or State, which is idolatry, has been seen to be by no means dead in centuries other than our own; and in our own it was perilously easy for the requirements of the State to become an idol during wartime. . . . But as pacifists we have a peculiar duty to be sensitive to, and to warn others of, the particular idolatry to which the nature of the State makes it inclined, even when there is no open nationalism, jingoism, or totalitarianism” (13–14).

In the second essay, “The Law of Christ,” Nuttall looks at three heretical groups from the Middle Ages: the Waldenses of France and Northern Italy, the Lollards of England, and the Bohemian or Moravian Brethren of Bohemia.

Noting the many complexities with life in the Middle Ages, Nuttall quotes James Bryce, who said of the Middle Ages, “At no time in the world’s history has theory, professing all the while to control practice, been so utterly divorced from it. Ferocious and sensual, that age worshiped humility and asceticism: there has never been a purer ideal of love, nor a greater profligacy of life” (16). This could be seen in everyone from Kings to Bishops.

Representing the three groups mentioned above, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Peter Chelčický, respectively, arrived at the pacifist position because they were close to Scripture (something that at the time only clergy was allowed to be close to, alas). According to Nuttall, “The outstanding characteristic of these medieval pacifists . . . is their return to the Bible; within the Bible to the New Testament; and within the New Testament to the Sermon on the Mount.” From the Sermon on the Mount, these men took seriously the call to love one’s enemies. “As we look back to an age when it was forbidden and highly dangerous to possess a copy of the Bible,” Nuttall observes, “we cannot help but admire the heretics who insisted on its authority and who pointed men to the purity of the Gospels over against the compromises and corruptions of [their] contemporary Christianity” (27).

The third essay considers the ministry of suffering, of which the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century—particularly Conrad Grebel and his Swiss Brethern along with Menno Simons—were familiar. After Grebel and his friends were cast out of Zurich for practicing adult-believer baptism, Nuttall cites a source who says that “the further history of the Anabaptist movement became chiefly a record of martyrdom” (39). As a spiritual descendant of these martyrs, I am most grateful for their witness.

Nevertheless, this group’s witness after returning to Zurich and experiencing persecution is immense. A letter written by Grebel reads in part, “The Gospel and those who accept it are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves. . . . Truly believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter.” Here the theme of suffering emerges. Grebel continues, “And if thou must suffer for [putting down the sword], know well that it cannot be otherwise. Christ must yet more suffer in His members. But He will strengthen and keep them steadfast to the end” (41).

Grebel’s emphasis, as Nuttall notes, “is upon suffering, the necessity for suffering, in the Christian ethic” (41).

Menno Simons continues this theme, saying that the “Anabaptist vision” is the complete rejection of war. And indeed a Christian-informed pacifism is one of the hallmarks of the Mennonite movement.

Nuttall concludes by asking the extent to which we should expect suffering in our own day. “The principle of willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake goes very deep in our Christian faith, yet we most of the time show very little awareness that it exists. Does . . . taking away our opportunity to accept suffering for Christ’s sake weaken our principles or at least deprive us of a means of witness and ministry and persuasion?” He answers his own question, saying, “I think it may do” (46).

The fourth essay focuses on the dignity of humans, and he uses as his case study here the Quakers, who base their pacifism on the notion of “that of God in every man.” Simply put, Quakers arrived at the pacifist position because they believe that God indwells every person and so to harm another person is to harm God. Thus, quoting Edward Grubb, Nuttall says that “the fervent belief that the Light was given in measure to all men raised all personality to a new dignity. Not Christians only, but Jews, Turks, Indians, savages, had something of God in them and something that could appreciate and would respond to truth and justice and goodwill” (62). Indeed, Nuttall includes an extract from William Penn’s treaty with the Native Americans, which is amazing for its charity (62–63).

Nuttall concludes by saying,

Modern pacifism often suffers from being what looks like a “thing,” a kink, a bee in the bonnet, unrelated to the rest of our living and thinking, even to our Christian living and thinking. Perhaps the greatest challenge Quakerism makes to us is to hold fast so firmly to the great Christian centralities that pacifism issues from them naturally, no longer as something odd and unattached, but as a matter of course; and therewith so to love all men, both as God’s workmanship and as brothers for whom Christ died, that intentionally to harm them whether by war or by any other means, is simply unthinkable (65).

And so, the fifth and final essay in this book focuses on contemporary Christian pacifism, which Nuttall says operates as a means of redemption. Contemporary Christian pacifism, like that of the previous essays builds upon the historical legacy of Christian pacifism that predates it. That is, just as the Anabaptists built upon the pacifists that went before them, so too we build upon all the Christian pacifists who predate us.

Nuttall begins by presenting eight reasons he believes the pacifist position is gaining ground among Christians. They are, briefly (69–72),

  1. Revival of close study of the Bible
  2. Advance in the study of the historical Jesus
  3. Wider availability of religious study in universities
  4. Renewal among the Society of Friends (Quakers)
  5. Growing ecumenical spirit among churches
  6. Growing missionary movement among churches
  7. Realization, in light of the World Wars, of the cost of war
  8. Establishment of the Fellowship of Reconciliation

Some of these are more relevant today than others. (I have no idea whether the Fellowship of Reconciliation still exists, for example.) But Nuttall’s list glimpses the myriad reasons for the wider acceptance of the pacifist position in the twentieth century. “Pacifism is no longer related to single, if important, emphases in the Bible and in theology, but to themes which are central and persistent; and above all to the theme of redemption” (72). Quoting Carl Heath, Nuttall writes, “Old Christendom’s dire needs at present are very numerous, but above all she needs redemption. And redemption is not at all the same thing as reconstruction. . . . The syllable empt implies a cost. Ex-empt is to forgo the cost; redemption is to pay the cost over again. There is a suffering and costingness in all that redeems” (73).

In the end, “our pacifism” is anchored “to God’s redeeming love in Christ as shown supremely in the Cross.” Thus, “the pacifist way” is “an expression of the means of redemption” (74). Nuttall adds that “Christian Pacifism is a form of witness to the outgoing, seeking, serving, giving, forgiving, winning, rescuing, saving, redeeming love of God; and an opening of ourselves to this, that we may be used of God as His channels, instruments, means” (75). Therefore, pacifism “helps us to keep our priorities right. We are reminded that, if we are Christian Pacifists, we are pacifists because we are Christians. It is surely small use to talk of reconciliation if, in fact, we are bitter or scornful towards other disciples of Jesus who in our judgment are mistaken at this point” (76).

Nuttall concludes his excellent presentation of Christian pacifism with this thought:

Somehow we must learn to let the healing power of God work through us for the redemption of power as men, and as nations, know power. “And Jesus called them to him and saith unto them: Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones tyrannize over them. But so shall it not be among you. But whosoever will be great among you shall wait upon you; and whosoever of you will be the first shall be everyone’s slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be waited on but to do the waiting; and to give his life, to redeem many.” Somewhere there lies the redemption of power to which our pacifism must be dedicated if it is to be His: to be Christian Pacifism.

May we so serve.

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