DAVID C. CRAMER and MYLES WERNTZ. A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2022. Pp. 178. $18.58 (U.S.)
In 2001, I began attending a Brethren in Christ church (now Be In Christ in Canada), having spent my entire life to that point in a denomination that relinquished its peace position shortly after World War 2. Although forebears on both sides of my family for hundreds of years had known no other church than pacifist, I was raised as a mainstream evangelical. Not much of our Anabaptist heritage remained; consequently, upon arriving in the Brethren in Chris I had significant learning to do.
As it happened, an uncle and aunt had returned to their Anabaptist roots, and were outstanding tutors in all things pacifist. Among the materials they loaned me was the transcript of a Sunday School lesson my grandfather, J. Harold Sherk, had given in the 1960s on “Scriptural Non-Resistance.” As I read, Grandpa’s arguments from the Bible seemed sound; little by little I was being convinced that the way of Jesus was the way of peace. But I was stopped in my tracks (and then much hastened on my journey!) when I read this: “One of the great advocates of the doctrine of Christian love and peace used to say, ‘There is no Christian way to kill a man.’” (My uncle attributed this to Orie Miller, “Mr. MCC,” a close co-worker of Grandpa’s.)
“There is no Christian way to kill a man.” I couldn’t argue with that; I couldn’t imagine any method of killing that Jesus would recommend. Over the following two decades I’ve engaged more with the logic that undergirds Christian nonviolence, and the many ways the peace of God has blessed the world. There are a dozen books on my shelves that have been instructive and encouraging in this matter not only for me, but for those with whom I study. For example, a few years ago two separate small groups went through Eric Seibert’s wide-ranging and accessible Disarming the Church, and each time I learned more about the art and science of nonviolence.
To that small collection of books, I now gratefully add A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace by David Cramer and Myles Werntz. This short book (151 pages, plus a twenty-one-page bibliography) surveys eight streams of Christian nonviolence, introducing readers to various facets of the peace position and their major figures. We learn about Nonviolence of Christian Discipleship, Nonviolence as Christian Virtue, Nonviolence of Christian Mysticism, Apocalyptic Nonviolence, Realist Nonviolence, Nonviolence as Political Practice, Liberationist Nonviolence, and Christian Antiviolence.
These many expressions of the nonviolent gospel astonished me; how delightful it was to learn that the principles of grace and shalom could be lived out in such varied ways. The peace position is rich in depth and breadth—not surprising, I suppose, since truth tends to be that way.
As I read the book, Proverbs 15:22 came to mind: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Many advisers, many points of view. In our pursuit of peace, these diverse understandings of the peace position, varieties of nonviolent expression, and manifold methods to reduce harm and increase healing, are all necessary. The Prince of Peace needs emissaries with many insights, skills, and tools.
One immense hurdle that these scholars had to overcome was the legacy of John Howard Yoder, “one of the most prominent and prolific Christian pacifists of the twentieth century” and an inspiration to both of them. In fact, both men wrote doctoral dissertations “in which Yoder featured prominently” and subsequently published other work that promoted Yoder’s ideas. Some years ago, Yoder’s long history of sexual violence toward women came to light publicly, and “caused us to scrutinize the foundations of our commitments to Christian nonviolence. If one of the leading twentieth-century voices for Christian nonviolence was himself violent in such heinous ways, is Christian nonviolence itself a sham?” (viii-ix).
This book is an important product of that scrutiny and their subsequent discovery: “we came to see Christian nonviolence not as a unified, coherent position but as a dynamic, multivalent tradition” (ix). Cramer and Werntz invite us to join them in discovery of this diversity and wisdom, which in turn allows us to understand our individual positions better. (The authors deftly handle the matter of Yoder’s importance in the field while decrying his personal violence. At one point, they tell of a group of women scholars and “peacemaking practitioners” who met to “liberate the politics of Jesus from The Politics of Jesus” , and I would say that in their book Cramer and Werntz evidence similar intention and effect.)
This Field Guide simply and clearly introduces the reader to various expressions of nonviolence; it is not an apologetic for nonviolence, nor is it a deep theological dive. “Rather, our goal is to invite both pacifists and non-pacifists—and all those in between—to encounter a dynamic, living and breathing tradition within the broader tradition of Christianity” (3-4). They succeed, to our great benefit.
People do not lose their unique perspective, gifts, or (healthy) interests when they are reconciled with God and commit to following the Prince of Peace. Each person continues to experience life and impact the world in their particular way. A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence exemplifies this beautifully, and brings hope: “What is ultimately needed to face new challenges will not be a single, unified form of Christian nonviolence but a proliferation of new forms, each drawing wisdom from the past while looking ahead to ever-evolving challenges” (151).
Read this book to educate yourself; read this book to enrich your ministry; read this book to celebrate the many ways God is working through us; read this book with a small group of keen learners to encourage each other in the way of peace. Highly recommended!