Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sorry, Miguel, But Jesus Was a PaciFIST

Miguel De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics and Latino/a Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. He is a brilliant scholar, prolific author, and past president of the Society of Christian Ethics.
Mainly because he was a Ph.D. student at Temple University at the same time as my daughter Karen, he has become a personal acquaintance and Thinking Friend. (Karen’s essay “Feminist Theology” is one chapter in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, a 2004 book edited by Miguel.)
Last month Miguel wrote an opinion article for Baptist News Global (see here) entitled “Jesus, The Man of Violence.” In the first paragraph he writes: “. . . intellectual honesty forces me to recognize that Jesus was no pacifist.”
I’m sorry to say, though, that I found Miguel’s arguments for Jesus’ non-pacifism unpersuasive. I agree with his saying that “Jesus was a troublemaker, instigator or conflict, disrupter of unity.” But is that antithetical to his being a pacifist?
A few weeks ago my pastor spoke briefly about this issue in a sermon. She emphasized, that pacifism does not mean, or necessarily embrace, passivism. She used her former church’s basketball team as an example.
PaciFISTS was the name used by the women’s team of Bethel College Mennonite Church. Here is a picture of her jersey:  

Pacifism does not mean passive resignation to an undesirable status quo. (Somehow, Miguel seems to have overlooked that point.) Pacifists can, and should, stand up and “fight” against opponents—just like Pastor Ruth’s energetic, competitive basketball team, the PaciFISTS, did.
This stance hasn’t always been emphasized in Mennonite churches. But what some call (correctly, I think) Neo-Anabaptism has made an important shift from traditional passive non-resistance to active, non-violent resistance. The latter is the position of paciFISTS.
And that seems to be the stance Jesus took.
Last month the second edition of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context by David P. Gushee and the late Glen H. Stassen was published. (It is now a whopping 550 pages.) They state, “For the first three hundred years of the Christian movement, the church was almost unanimously pacifist” (p. 317).
Why did Christians take that stance for so long, if they didn’t get it from Jesus?
Miguel says “it would be simplistic to argue that [Jesus] was a pacifist.” But isn’t it historically inaccurate to argue that he wasn’t? Or was his position just misunderstood for the first 300 years?
Miguel also says that “pacifism seldom works in the schoolyard.” Well, it didn’t work for Jesus either. And it didn’t work for the many martyrs in the early decades/centuries of Christianity.
But the blood of the pacifist martyrs became the seed of the church. On the other hand, the violent rebels in the Roman Empire in those years (such as Barabbas and his cohorts) were annihilated.
I fully agree with what Miguel says about the need to oppose and to “disrupt structures that support and maintain oppression.” Thus, arguing for pacifism must never support suppressing legitimate cries for justice by the marginalized and/or the oppressed.
For that reason, I agree with what Miguel says about “the need to joder,” although I don’t know enough Spanish to grasp fully what he means by that. I think it is consistent, though, with what I am saying about Jesus being a paciFIST.
Those of us who identify as pacifists need, like Jesus, to be paciFISTs, seeking to do what Miguel says needs to be done: “upsetting the prevailing social order designed to protect the power and privilege of the few.”



  1. The first response to this article was by Thinking Friend Charles Kiker in Texas. Here is what he wrote:

    "Sorry, Leroy. But I must demur in re paciFIST. The picture on the jersey is a picture not of nonviolent resistance, but of violence. A clenched fist is not the way of Jesus. Steadfast, firm, nonviolent opposition to injustice is.

    "Nonviolent peaceful protest was the way of the protest in Dallas a few nights ago. The militarily trained killer of police was the way of the clenched fist.

    "I agree with your position as stated in the article. I am completely turned off by the designation paciFIST and the picture of the clenched fist on the jersey."

  2. A similar reaction to my article was from a Thinking Friend who asked to not be identified. I certainly will honor his wishes and not reveal his name, but his objection is so important I want others of you to hear the important things this friend said:

    "Competition represented by a healthy assertive icon is fine, but a fist -- outside of what I presume is a context -- is typical of the war-like way we think and use language.

    I do not think a 'war on cancer' is a very good phrase. I prefer healing images. I do not think the 'war on drugs' or the 'war on terrorism' have been successful because the war metaphor does not often lead to healing."

    This thinking friend went on to emphasize that "once we start using metaphors of aggression and hostility, it escalates and legitimizes, at least for some people, violence."

  3. I appreciate the thoughtful comments from these two Thinking Friends, both of whom I respect greatly. But I want to make this brief response:

    (1) The second comment mentioned context, and that is important to see both in terms of the article itself as well as of the term "paciFIST" and the accompanying image.

    (2) The context of the article was the recently published piece "Jesus, the man of violence" by an eminent Christian ethicist. He wrote about Jesus making a whip to forcefully drive moneychangers (bankers) out of the Temple, over-turning their tables (John 3:15) and his telling his disciples that if they lack a sword, they are to “sell their cloak and purchase one” (Luke 22:35-36). My talk about fists is in contrast to the type of violence Miguel alluded to. (I assume those who disagree with my article have read, or will read, the piece to which it is responding.)

    (3) The basketball context is important also. As everyone knows, basketball players can't use their fists when playing the game. To do so would be immediately called for a foul and would probably result in being ejected from the game. The fist in the name and on the jersey is symbolic, of course.

    (4) The fist can perhaps be construed as a symbol of violence. That, certainly, was not my intention, nor the intention of my pastor. Rather, it is a symbol of determination, of effort, and in the real world of resistance to social ills and injustices. For that reason, I thought it was fitting as a way to affirm the important point that Miguel was making about standing up for--and "fighting" for-- the marginalized and/or the oppressed without claiming that Jesus was a man of violence. In other words, I was using the idea of paciFIST to rejection violence, not to approve of it.

  4. Just one more quick comment: those who know Pastor Ruth know that she is a thoroughgoing peace-loving, non-violent person. (But she was apparently a very good, aggressive basketball player also.)

  5. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson gave me permission to post his helpful comments received by email:

    "I guess S.G.F. Brandon’s depiction of Jesus as a revolutionary in 'Jesus and the Zealots' will plague us forever. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot probably offer the starkest evidence.

    "You rightly direct us to early Christian refusal even to permit service in the Roman army at least until the time of Tertullian (ca. 200). After that we begin to see some changes in Christian attitudes that prefigured accommodation when Constantine converted.

    "Like you, I lean toward the Peace Churches in thinking that we should find nonviolent ways to solve social problems. But alas this approach isn’t getting the attention or
    application it deserves."

  6. This is an interesting set of comments. Just to clarify, this jersey was created by a co-ed Mennonite church team (akin to intramurals) trying to have some fun and perhaps spark some conversation in the Mennonite context. In today's American context, I think it's good to remember that a raised fist can also be a powerful symbol of solidarity and of resistance to white supremacy.

    Of course this level of thinking probably didn't go into this particular design. The team simply was having some fun and trying to win, non-violently of course.

    1. Pastor Ruth, thanks for taking time to post your helpful comments.

  7. Lydia Barrow-HankinsJuly 13, 2016 at 11:00 PM

    Happy to join the conversation here. First, the distinction between pacifist and passive needs to be made repeatedly, continually, continuously. Get my point. The distinction cannot be made by so very many. "Pacifist" equals "wimp" and "victim." I delight in addressing this issue when I talk about peace issues in the US because it is so very basic in being able to choose a different path. And yes, a different path of resistance and protest, and being able to choose a non-violent way of "fighting." Secondly, I am not sure of the thinking, or the advantage in insisting that Jesus was a man of violence. If that is true, then Jesus and Christian faith have nothing new or fresh, or creative to offer today's world. We have plenty of violence. If Miguel del la Torre wants to negate the "passivity" of Jesus, swinging to the opposite, violent extreme is not helpful, to say the least.

  8. Beth Resler Walters, Charlotte, NCJuly 15, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    The sort of pacifist I would contend Jesus was is based on my understanding, once you are clear on all the cultural norms behind the admonition, of the “turn the other cheek” urging, as taught by theologian/scholar Walter Wink. It is NOT a be-a-woose-for-Jesus verse as usually interpreted (nor are the extra-mile or the courtroom verses with it). When you experience, it with that Jesus-contemporary understanding, it is one of those peaceful, yet insurrectionist urgings that call out the power and equality with others in the hearer. In that way, I see Jesus as an extraordinarily powerful pacifist!!