In March 2003, my daughter and son-in-law, Leah and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, traveled to Baghdad as members of a Christian Peacemaker Team. They were in the city for much of the "shock and awe" campaign before they were expelled by the Iraqis. (Their story is told in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's To Baghdad and Beyond, Wipf and Stock, 2004.) When Leah and Jonathan told me and my wife about their commitment to CPT and their call to Baghdad, I realized that I needed a more articulate account of the Christian pacifism that I had been teaching my students for several years.

More recently, we have prayed and held vigils for the CPT members who were taken hostage in Iraq. Many questions have been asked following the death of CPT member Tom Fox and the release of the three other CPTers. Didn't their presence in Iraq make matters worse? How can anyone think that they could contribute to making peace there? Aren't they and other pacifists naïve, idealistic, and deluded?

Such questions—and the complexities that CPT recognizes in its actions—remind us that we need constantly to wrestle with the claims of Jesus and the call to peacemaking as a practice of Christian discipleship.

As we wrestle with this call, we must not reduce peacemaking to a naïve, wimpy practice that draws more on liberal, optimistic views of reality than on the gospel of the Crucified One. There are many wrong ways to argue for and practice peacemaking. These have nothing to do with Christian discipleship. Some of the most vocal opponents and mockers of pacifism misconstrue the practice of peacemaking. But so do some of the representatives of Christian pacifism.

I do not speak for CPT, nor will I address directly many of the questions raised by their presence in Iraq. Rather, as I did when my daughter headed to Baghdad, I will return to the basic task of articulating a biblically grounded Christian pacifism.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, his disciples find a powerful call to the practice of peacemaking by nonviolent means. This "logic of the gospel" calls for a pacifism that seeks always to bear witness to the way of peace taught by Jesus Christ. This way of peace is made possible only by his death and resurrection and through the life of the church that the Spirit empowers for faithful witness.

Gospel pacifism

Gospel pacifism bears witness to the Messiah who was crucified. Jesus Christ could have called upon his Father to rescue him and destroy his enemies, but instead he died at our hands. His death and resurrection exposes the reign of sin for what it is—an alien power and enemy that rules over humankind by lies and deceit. The apostle Paul calls death "the last enemy" (1 Cor. 15). When we think that we can master this enemy to be our tool or even our friend to do our bidding, we have bought its lie. When we take up death as a weapon against others, we are in that very act defeated by our great enemy, death. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that his death (and only his death) has conquered death.

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Gospel pacifism recognizes that when the gospel claims us, our identity as followers of Jesus Christ subordinates and transforms (but does not eradicate) all other sources of our identity—national, racial, linguistic, sexual, and so on. The apostle Paul practiced this. Although he enjoins obedience to the government in Rome (Rom. 13), he did not allow his identity as a Roman citizen to silence his witness to Jesus Christ—even to the point that he was jailed and almost certainly executed by Rome for his disobedience.

We Christians may not do as Americans something that we must not do as Christians. As we listen to and debate arguments about going to war, note how often our Christian identity is subordinated to our American identity. We have been so formed by the collusion of the church with America that we find it difficult to even distinguish between Christian and national identity, and harder to subordinate our national identity to our identity in Christ.

Gospel pacifism believes that God primarily works in the world through the church, not the nation. The church, as the community of disciples, is called to bear witness to the one hope that we have: Jesus Christ. Most of the debates about war, even in the church, are about what the United States should do. This is natural for those who primarily find their identity as Americans. But for Christians, our debate should be about what the church should be doing.

Today, more than ever, we see that the church is the global people of God: transnational, transracial, translinguistic. As strange as it may seem, this gathering of people from every tribe and tongue and nation is the vehicle through which God acts in the world. Our inability to recognize and act upon this is a major tragedy for which we will be judged.

Gospel pacifism argues that the church compromises its mission, corrupts its life, and abandons its witness when it follows the way of death by acting out of national, racial, and cultural identity. If this is the case, God's judgment looms over the church in the West and elsewhere.

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For most people in the world, the United States of America is a Christian nation. When we advertise the Christian faith of our President and others in the government, we reinforce the perception of America as "Christian." So the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be (and in many ways are) wars fought by Christians against Muslims. If there is no other Christian voice or action, then the cause of the gospel among the nations—among Muslims included—could be significantly compromised for years to come.

The form of Christian pacifism I teach, which motivated my daughter and son-in-law to join CPT in Iraq, calls for the church to resist evil non-violently. Followers of Jesus Christ who are also Americans will act in ways that seek to faithfully represent the gospel apart from the work of this nation-state. We do this not because we deny the existence of evil or the claims of justice, but because we have been claimed by the Good News of another kingdom—the kingdom established when Jesus defeated death on the Cross, which will bring justice for all creation.

Gospel pacifism bears witness to the Messiah who was raised from the dead. Although the Bible teaches that Jesus defeated death by his death, it also looks forward to the return of the risen Christ when death will be destroyed. As we wait for that event, the practice of gospel pacifism requires great patience in suffering, endurance in hope, and the firm conviction that any "peace" that comes in this age is only a foretaste of the peace of God's kingdom. So we live the way of peace today as a witness to Jesus Christ, the only one who can bring true and lasting peace to our warring world.

Questions for Gospel pacifism

There are objections to this type of Christian witness, to which I would like to respond. Do you really think that this position will bring an end to war and violence? No. This pacifism is not the liberal, optimistic, humanistic pacifism. Gospel pacifism admits the deep presence of sin that is expressed through violence. Only Christ's return will bring our warfare and violence to an end. In the meantime, we who long for his return must witness as faithfully as we can to that hope we have in Christ. Without that witness, the world sees no evidence of Christ's kingdom. Rather it sees only the kingdom of sin and death. Without Jesus Christ, the only hope in this world is to be better at dealing out death than anyone else. Our call is not to be effective by the standards of this world but to be faithful witnesses to the reality of redemption in Jesus Christ.

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Do you think that it really makes sense for America to be pacifist? No. "America" names a nation-state that exists partly through violence and the threat of violence. By God's grace, America does many good things, and we should grateful for them. But as soon as Christians focus on this country, then warfare and violence are inevitable. That doesn't mean that the warfare and violence escape God's judgment. Scripture shows that God regularly used the ambitions and violence of earthly empires, but God still judged them for their violence and injustice. Pacifism makes sense for Christians in America only when we allow the gospel to transform our identity, when we see the church as the primary agent of God's work in history.

Doesn't your position result in more people dying than if we go to war? No. As hard and harsh as this next statement may seem, we all die. Gospel pacifism challenges us to think about how we die and whether or not we kill. How we answer those questions reveals what we think the greatest power in the universe is. Do we worship the God of life or the god of death?

Isn't gospel pacifism just a way to abdicate responsibility and isolate yourself from the world that the rest of us live in? No. That may be a natural way of thinking about pacifism, but pacifism is not passive; it should be active peacemaking. It vigorously and nonviolently resists evil. It is engaged in making peace, not dodging war. Followers of Jesus Christ should be in the midst of conflicts bearing witness to and working for God's reconciliation. The most violent places in the world host Christians who are working non-violently toward peace and justice.

Aren't pacifists dependent for their lives on the military powers that they oppose? We could argue about this. But beyond that question, gospel pacifists believe that we are all dependent upon the grace of God. So gospel pacifists ask those who are waging war, "Aren't you dependent for your life on God's grace, which you oppose in your warmaking?" As believers in the God of grace, we must live in such a way that we bear witness to the Good News of God's love for all in Jesus Christ. That love is faithfully embodied in nonviolent resistance to evil.

Jonathan R. Wilson is a U.S citizen who currently teaches at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. His book Why Church Matters: Worship, Ministry, and Mission in Practice will be published this fall by Brazos Press.

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Related Elsewhere:

Jonathan Wilson recently reviewed The Great Giveaway.

Christianity Today's coverage of CPT includes:

What Was CPT Doing in Iraq? | The original vision of a peacemaker force from the man who started it. (March 28, 2006)
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Risking Life for Peace | Caught between rebels, paramilitaries, and crop-dusters, peacemaking Christians put their lives on the line in violent Colombia. (September 7, 2001)
Hebron's Peacemakers Find No Shalom in Olive Branches | Christian Peacemaker Teams, a social-justice group working overseas, is testing the boundaries of nonviolent intervention in its mission to Hebron, one of the Mideast's most troubled cities. (September 16, 1996)

More in pacifism includes:

Ancient Christian Commentary on Current Events: What Is War Good For? | What early church leaders thought of Christians and the military. (Oct. 28, 2003)
Wielding the Sword | Early believers were not as troubled as we are by the use of force. (Feb. 20, 2002)
Rethinking Pacifism | Many peace-church leaders, shaken by attacks, reexamine their beliefs. (Nov. 16, 2001)