David C. CRAMER and MYLES WERNTZ. A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. Pp. 178. $18.58 (U.S.)
The release of A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence in the summer of 2022 seemed a happy coincidence as we looked for a text to guide our adult learning community’s deep dive into nonresistance and peacemaking and especially as practiced by Brethren in Christ Christians over time. The eight-chapter structure of Cramer’s and Werntz’s book appeared to make it ideally suited to a sixteen-week semester. (Our class is known for lingering over material, seldom wrapping up a lesson in a single class session.) And like the authors, our purpose for selecting the topic of Christian nonviolence was precipitated by acts of violence.
For our learning community, it was Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine; for Cramer and Werntz, the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the fall two years later of “one of the most prominent and prolific Christian pacifists of the twentieth century, John Howard Yoder” (viii). In the wake of the dual traumas, the authors experienced a collapse in their innocence regarding Christian nonviolence. It was out of this shared existential crisis that A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence emerged, the product of years of research that in the end both broadened and deepened the authors’ commitments to nonviolence.
As Cramer and Werntz explain in the preface to their book, both were frustrated by the simplistic “pigeon-holing” that invariably followed when one or the other self-identified as a Christian pacifist or advocate of Christian nonviolence. Eventually the two joined forces in trumpeting the message that “Christian nonviolence has never been monolithic but has always included merging and diverging streams; it is therefore best understood as a dynamic and contested tradition rather than a unified and settled position” (2).
In that broadening, the authors found the purpose and focus of this volume: “to introduce Christian nonviolence to those interested in learning about its nuances and varieties” (3). That was our adult learning community. We identified our class among the “those” for whom Cramer and Werntz wrote their book and so we ordered a copy of their field guide with considerable anticipation.
What we got in the book was a thoroughly researched and carefully parsed discussion of the various “lenses” or “streams” that the authors identify as illuminating the living narrative of Christian nonviolence. These streams also serve as the organizing structure for the book as evident in the chapter titles: Nonviolence of Christian Discipleship (the most common and often seen as what we mean by Christian nonviolence); Nonviolence as a Christian Virtue; Nonviolence of Christian Mysticism; Apocalyptic Nonviolence; Realist Nonviolence; Nonviolence as Political Practice; Liberational Nonviolence; and Christian Antiviolence.
In developing the eight streams, the authors acknowledge the common (Niebuhrian) distinction between inward-focused, communal, absolutist pacifism and outward-focused, activist, political pacifism. The initial four chapters of the book are associated with the former while the remaining four chapters with the latter, but this common distinction in no way drives the argument of this book. In fact, the variety represented in the eight chapters successfully avoids any sense of reducing Christian nonviolence into one-dimensional Niebuhrian archetypes.
Each chapter, in turn, provides a well-researched summary of a particular nonviolent stream, combining a discussion of various scholars, the scholarly literature, and in some cases, the movements representative of the particular stream. The discussion of each stream is rich and illuminating, and as the book progresses, the level of complexity and nuance in Christian nonviolence becomes even more evident as the authors explore the nuance and complexity of each individual stream.
The development of these multiple lenses or streams for understanding Christian nonviolence is certainly the strength of the book. The authors succeed in making perfectly clear that there is not one monolithic “raging river of Christian nonviolence” (147). Any reader of the book will gain a clearer, if not a completely new, sense of how the rich and varied streams “provide a broad palette of arguments and insights about violence in the world and what it means for Christians to confront that violence and to live faithfully amid it” (6).
That said and depending upon the context in which this book is used, its strength can also be its weakness as we discovered when using it as a resource in our adult learning community. Our goal for the class was to understand the variety of Christian approaches to Christian nonviolence and then to situate the Brethren in Christ “peace position” among the approaches. In the end, we found that the number and complexity of the options in A Field Guide, whentaken as a whole, to be overwhelming for readers and/or learners new to this topic. For the average layperson, the sophistication of the scholarship can be daunting. All this to say, Cramer’s and Werntz’s book will be most useful for readers and/or teachers who are already conversant with the scholarly debate and the major players and positions.
The book did, however, serve as a useful supporting resource for the teachers. In particular, using Chapter One (Nonviolence of Christian Discipleship) in contrast to Chapter Six (Realist Nonviolence) helped in teasing out two streams that have been implicitly—if not at times explicitly—present in Brethren in Christ thought and life. In this way, the thesis of the book spoke to our particular Brethren in Christ context.
What the book doesn’t do, despite what some readers will likely want, is provide a one-stream-fits all response to violence. Rather, the eight streams as identified by the authors serve to illuminate the challenges of pursuing peace within the messiness of real-life situations. Cramer and Werntz encourage proponents of the various streams to hold to their positions with humility, recognizing that other Christians of goodwill also desire to demonstrate “the peace of God in their practice and witness and to creatively and patiently live in witness to the Prince of Peace” (151).
This is a worthy charge to all the people of God, but most especially we Brethren in Christ who claim the Gospel of peace as a core value. For our learning community, the A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence was a useful resource in our quest to understand, reaffirm and live out the denomination’s historic teaching about nonresistance and peacemaking in our time—even as war continues to rage in Ukraine.