It was a trip to Columbus, OH that sealed my fate as a pacifist. I live in Columbus now, but at the time I was living, working, and going to school in Nashville, TN. I was working for a church in Nashville and had been invited to join a couple other former Buckeye residents to their yearly trek to the Ohio State – Michigan football game. I’ll spare you the details (Buckeyes lost, John Cooper fired . . . really, really cold), but the connection to pacifism had to do with the car ride back to Nashville from Columbus. Two friends from church invited me, and one of the friend’s brothers also came and provided our transportation.
Our foray into politics began while we were overnighting Friday at a friend’s house and the topic of the recent election came up. Somehow, (I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but if it was anything like most political conversations I’ve taken part in with Christians, the beginning presupposition of everyone present being a registered Republican probably played a role), the other men found out that I had voted for Al Gore. This (absurd, in their eyes) reality, opened us up to a weekend of political conversation and debate.
Even at that time, I had my suspicions about the benefit of a Christian being involved in the political process (even the less evil democratic political system), but had continued to meddle in the quasi-liberal-slanted perspective of my upbringing. Attending a private Christian school in the South immediately placed me in a smaller minority than the ethnic minorities at the not-long-ago-segregated campus of my alma mater.
It takes approximately six hours to drive from Columbus to Nashville, and that Saturday, after the game was over, our six-hour commute was solely focused on politics. The conservation moved from light joking about the parties, to the serious concern they had over my vote . . . and as I came to find out, my soul. The most tense moment came when the driver challenged anyone to, “Name one good thing Bill Clinton did for this country!” As a college student, that was pretty easy to do because the former President had help sign into legislation a huge college education assistance program that I had benefited from. “He had gotten me a few extra thousand dollars to attend college.” Sounded like something good to me. Turns out, my traveling companion did not see this as in any way “good.” His response began sternly, and grew louder to the point of a yelling crescendo, “It’s my money and I worked my ass off for it, and why should I be paying for your college tuition?” The car sat in silence for quite awhile. Finally, as the tension began to lift a bit, I tried to make the point that I really had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t card-carrying for anyone. My point was simply to force my companions into considering the biblical texts that didn’t easily jive with their political views. “What about Acts 2 and 4 where the Christians met together and sold all they had and shared all they had?” I asked. “And how does the Old Testament practice of jubilee connect with your Right wing political stances?” These were questions they had never been asked before – really, they had never been asked these questions!
I relay this story not to characterize everyone with one broad-sweeping stroke. Certainly, politics are complicated and generalizations are seldom helpful. This experience, however, opened my eyes to the negative side of politics and the divisive and explosive discussions that often result. These events occurred nearly a decade ago, and the United States has grown even more divided along political lines. What a breath of fresh air a church who focused more on kingdom politics than on the tirelessly fallen politics of the nation would be! Never has the world needed the prophetic voice of the church to live out a nonpartisan politic who concerns herself with matters of justice, mercy, and righteousness.
In recent years, pacifism has grown in attention paid by Christian theologians. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw brought some more academic concepts from people like John Howard Yoder and Jacques Ellul to a more popular-level, lay Christian audience through their book: Jesus for President. Other scholars and pastors like Gregory Boyd, Lesslie Newbigin, and a host of others, are receiving wide readership and extensive exposure. As the West continues to broaden its perspective through the advances of technology and mass media, global concerns are becoming prevalent, and for many Christian traditions, their theological structure is incapable of productive dialogue in this setting.
In my years in seminary at Lipscomb University, it came as a huge surprise that this private Christian school with an overwhelming pro-Republican undertone, actually bears the name of one of America’s most important Civil War-era Christian pacifists (and I don’t think this is overstated): David Lipscomb. In fact, it turned out, Churches of Christ have a ripe tradition of pacifism. Lipscomb’s 1913 work, Civil Government, represents what might be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated documents produced in America on the topic of pacifism. [The full version of Lipscomb’s work is available online here.]
Scholars in Churches of Christ continue to maintain this longstanding tradition – most notably through the work of Lee Camp (Lee has written the very popular Mere Discipleship, and hosts the Tokens program at Lipscomb) and Michael Casey (“the topic about which he was most passionate and which forms the largest corpus of his published materials was that of pacifism in Churches of Christ . . .” from preface of And the Word Became Flesh, essays written in his honor published this year.) Lipscomb University also has faculty member Richard Goode who teaches in the history department who has been especially formative in my experience, even in my limited interaction with him. In short, the pacifist tradition in Churches of Christ is alive in well . . . at least in the academy.
The challenge before us as ministers within the tradition is to bridge the gap between the isolated tower of academia and the every-day life of the church. In my early years of ministry I see no message as desperately needed in the face of mounting political divisions as this one. At the same time I have experienced the loudest and most acute backlash from conversations in this vein. Nationalism has become the most uniting characteristic of our churches: progressive and conservative churches are equally as likely to sing patriotic hymns in their service and display the American flag prominently in their building.
Certainly, pacifism stands as one of the more hopeful fruits of our tradition. It is also, however, one of the most challenging in teaching and discussing. It is widely said the two topics to avoid in public conversations are politics and religion. What this topic does is jump head first into them both. When it comes to our political allegiances, Churches of Christ are as guilty as any other Christian group of losing our way. It is important for us to rekindle the thoughts and ideas of our pacifist forefathers . . . and be reminded that these are not novel ideas – as the accusation sometimes is made. Not only is there a great history of pacifism within the broader Christian church, closer to home, Churches of Christ share in this rich tradition. We must learn to not be afraid of talking about politics, but we must reframe the conversation. We must overcome the unnecessary obstacles that we have placed in front of those who differ politically and open our minds to a new political reality, a politics of the kingdom of God.
This is not a call for being anti-political (a charge I have been accused of). Quite the contrary, this is a call for a renewed orientation, for allowing God to set our political agendas instead of our governments, and for realizing that our politic is our life, not our vote. We must allow our political agendas to be caught up in the vision of God, not the latest candidate to ascend to power. May Christ grant us some sanity when it comes to charged political matters. May he grant us the confidence and vision of the prophets to speak the Word of God. Those of us in Churches of Christ stand in a great tradition to be able to do so, may we be bold in taking up that calling.