Ask a Pacifist...(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Last week, over 100 questions rolled in for the latest installment of our interview series, “Ask a Pacifist...”  

These were tough questions, but our friend Tripp York responded with wit, wisdom, and grace. 

Tripp teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Virginia Wesleyan University and is the author of The Devil Wears Nada: Satan Exposed!, an entertaining book about whether proving the existence of Satan might, in turn, prove the existence of God. 
Tripp is also committed to Christian nonviolence, and in June releases a book, co-edited with Justin Bronson Barringer, calledA Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence from Cascade Books.  Tripp and Justin have assembled essays from various well-known pastors, scholars, and activists, including Shane Claiborne, Lee C. Camp, Amy Laura Hall, and others, to explain why the nonviolent path of Jesus is a nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship. This is the first volume in The Peaceable Kingdom Series, a multi-volume series that seeks to challenge the pervasive violence assumed necessary to humans, non-human animals, and the larger environment. 

When Tripp isn’t teaching, he can be found blogging for the Other Journal as the Amish Jihadist.  I hope you enjoy Tripp’s responses to your questions as much as I did. 


From tmarsh0307: What is your definition of violence? I believe that most pacifists assume that their readers know what they are talking about when they say that they are non-violent or pacifist. I think in terms of someone who may choose to own a taser as opposed to a hand-gun. Or, if someone intervenes in a violent act without the intent to kill the perpetrator. Is that violating non-violence? (I do not intend this question to be sarcastic, but after reading several pacifists, I am confused as to the various ways the word 'violence' is often used.) 

 Tripp: I too am often confused by the various ways the word "violence" is used! Though, I must admit I am not convinced we can know what violence is without the backdrop of peaceableness.

When people start from some sort of definition of what constitutes violence (and the parameters of language are always shifting with use), then whatever non-violence is, it ends up being defined by either what it is against or what it is not. I think the crux of understanding Christian nonviolence is to first relinquish the notion that it is some sort of theory that develops as a response to something called "violence." Defining what violence is and then saying, "Here is the antithesis to it" privileges violence in such a way that I cannot help but see how it will not remain the master of us all. Christian nonviolence is neither a political theory nor a pragmatic strategy to rid the world of violence; it is simply what many Christians have found to be a faithful response to the path of Jesus. 

So, rather than defining violence (you may find Zizek’s book Violence particularly helpful—or, particularly confusing), I think we first look at the life and teachings of Jesus and ask the question, “How must I live in order to reflect this reality?”

In light of your comment about tasers over handguns, that certainly seems like an improvement to me! I guess I would have to think, not about how much violence I can get away with (or, even, "Is this violent?"); rather, the question is, how does the presence of a taser, or my desire/need to carry one, factor into the eschatological witness I am required to provide for the peaceable kingdom? Can I see Dorothy Day, Francis of Assisi, or Jesus carrying one? I guess I can probably see Peter doing it—you know, the Peter prior to being called Satan—but then I think about how Jesus might respond to Peter firing a taser. The image of which, you have to admit, is kind of funny. Peter tasing some centurion who’s screaming, “Don’t taze me, bro!” 

Do you think we could get someone to sketch that scene? Any artists out there? It gives me an idea for another children’s book.  

From Kim: As someone who finds pacifism compelling in theory, though not necessarily in practice, how do feel about physically defending others?  I read Jesus' words about turning the other cheek over and over, and yet, I can't get around the truth that, if I were to see a child being hurt (including my own children), I would do anything to stop it.  I would never intentionally hurt someone, or take pleasure from it, but I would defend them, if need be.  What would you do in that situation? 

Hi Kim, The “What would you do if?” questions are a common one. It’s for this very reason that Justin Barringer and myself put together the book, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Nonviolence. We address this particular question in several different forms, so you should definitely check it out First of all, as I stated earlier, Christian nonviolence is not a theory. Indeed, if it is not something that can be practiced then I fear that Jesus’ resurrection, along with his life and teachings, are rather meaningless.

I also think your desire to want to intervene is a good thing—again, Christian practitioners of nonviolence are all about intervention. It's also part of what advocates of the Just War tradition argue fulfills the obligation to love one’s neighbor. On this point, just-warriors and pacifists agree. But, I don’t know that we are going to work by the ethic of “any means necessary” or “I would do anything to stop it” (again, this is another point in which just-warriors and pacifists will agree). I remember one of my professors once saying something to the effect that until we are prepared to not kill someone else’s family in order to save our own family, then we have yet to understand the cruciform and counter-intuitive path demanded by Jesus. 

Two things I continue to take from this comment: First, I imagine that the source of much of our violence is rooted in what we love, not what we hate. Second, never romanticize the implications of Christian nonviolence. Just like proponents of Just War or even Christian Realism, it may require that someone die for your convictions (as any convictions worth having may demand--pacifism, just war, and even basic recourse to self-defense are alike in this regard). The early church would often go to the stake with their families, but they wouldn’t kill for them. So, again, intervention of some sort strikes me as a no-brainer, but the manner by which we intervene must be faithful to the way of the cross, not the way of the sword. 

In regard to hypothetical situations, there is absolutely no better book on this subject than John Howard Yoder’s What Would You Do? It is an incredibly accessible book that takes seriously these kinds of questions. I highly recommend it. I was tempted to just copy and paste from it, but I knew some hardcore Yoderians out there would call me out on it. Weirdos.

From Rachel: I've noticed what you might call a trend toward nonviolence among my young post-evangelical friends. But sometimes I get the idea that, particularly with the younger folks, it's become something of a fad - like, they've read one Shane Claiborne book, changed their Facebook profile to "Christ follower," made a few protest signs, and called themselves pacifists, without really wrestling with some of the challenging implications of this position. My question is: What resources and experiences would you recommend that those interested in nonviolence pursue in order to really deepen their commitment to it?  

If it is a trend, then I say let’s embrace it. The alternative has been trendy long enough! You very well may be correct. I think your question is an interesting one. Though, I doubt that the "blank check" most Christians write for the never-ending wars of their nation-states are “wrestling” with the challenging implications of their "position" either. Plus, I don’t know that one needs to fully understand what one is doing when they call themselves a pacifist. I sure as hell don’t know. 

But let’s think about that same notion in terms of a number of the church’s sacraments. Let’s think about the intelligibility of, for example, baptism: Does anyone ever fully understand the implications of baptism? Of course not. But we do it anyway. What about marriage? People make promises about what they are going to be doing fifty years from now. Talk about unintelligible. It’s absurd! And what about the Eucharist? Do we ever fully understand what we are doing when we partake of the flesh and blood of Christ? Two thousand years worth of theological texts on the subject seems to suggest that we don’t, but we partake of it anyway. And in the partaking of the Eucharist we do come to understand its implications in a manner that would otherwise not be possible if we just said, “Well, I’m not going to do it until I have totally wrestled with all of its implications.” I think that’s certainly how it works for Christian nonviolence as well. You don’t ever fully understand it, but one way to come to grips with it is to start practicing it. It’s the same thing with Christianity as a whole. You don’t first fully understand Christianity and then become a Christian. You become a Christian and then realize that it’s far more convoluted than you could have ever imagined. It gives you a whole new set of problems you never knew were possible. Thanks, Jesus! 

So, my advice would be to read from our rich tradition of sources on Christian nonviolence, and there are plenty. You will quickly realize that if a two thousand-year-old tradition of nonviolence is faddish, then we are certainly a trendy bunch. So, yeah, utilize the vast resources of the early church. The first three hundred years of Christianity is full of material. Those kids had not yet been sucker-punched by words such as "responsibility" and "realism." You can also check out the 16th century writings of the Anabaptists, or read all the John Howard Yoder your little aspiring peacemaking hearts can handle. You could also join a Christian Peacemaker Team. I imagine that would be helpful. It may enable you to read scripture in, perhaps, a more faithful manner. I think that’s one major problem with trying to make sense of Jesus in the North American church. We are all way too rich, too well protected, and much too secure to probably understand that guy. I guess the best thing you can do to cover that hermeneutical gap is to try to find a church that has an overriding concern for "the least of these." Granted, it may not have a gymnasium or a coffee cocktail hour, but it may have Jesus.  

From Kerry: I often think of Bonhoeffer when I think of pacifism ... he talked about sometimes having to choose between one bad thing (Hitler) and another bad thing (killing Hitler). As a practicing pacifist, how do you respond to gigantic evil (Hitler, genocide, etc.)? This is always where I hit a wall: I can totally accept that there's no such thing as a "Christian war"; I favor conscientious objection. But how do we just stand by when terrible violence unfolds? 

I have come to the painful realization that I’m probably not good for anything more than recommending books . . . and I’m okay with that bit of self-deprecating knowledge. With that being said, you should check out Robert Brimlow’s book What About Hitler? James McClendon’s Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas' Performing the Faith, and, from what I hear, Mark Nation’s forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. You may find their responses far more interesting than mine (I certainly do).

First of all, if Jesus’s death and resurrection did not save us from having to choose between “one bad thing” and “another bad thing” then I’m afraid it didn’t do much at all. If after the cross and resurrection the only option I now have is to do a "little less evil," then Christianity is fraudulent. Get out while you can. To answer your question, “How do we just stand by when terrible violence unfolds?”—the simple answer is, you don’t. By no means do we just stand by. Why would a pacifist want to do that?

Get in the middle of things. Raise holy hell, but don’t fall prey to, say, John Milbank’s concern that pacifism entails voyeurism. You call it out. You speak truth to the orders that perpetuate violence (and the notion that the only appropriate response to violence is violence). You quote the prophets who proclaim the coming of the messiah. Remind the world that the prophets also make clear that injustice will not be ignored. Proclaim the subversive message of Jesus. Put a creative spoke in the wheel. Get arrested, put your body in the middle of things, hold your “gentile leaders who lord their power over others” accountable, but don’t just stand by.

More importantly, whatever you do, don’t assume that there are only two options: voyeurism or physical violence. I fear that the powers-that-be make sure we can only envision a world in which those are the only two options we have, and to that notion, I say we have been duped. Or, as Malcolm X put it:  “You've been had. You've been took. You've been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok. This is what they do." Yeah. This is what they do. 

From Christy: I identified as a pacifist for 15 years, but no longer do - although I do (mostly) strive for non-violence in my own life.  Here's a question that I always found difficult to answer for myself:  Do you ever worry, as a well-educated American, that you're just out-sourcing the violence?  I don't own a gun, but the cops do.  Even when I was a pacifist, I lived in a very high-crime neighborhood, and called the cops on numerous occasions so that officers with guns could go after the criminals with guns and lock them up in our tremendously violent prison system where guards with guns would keep them there.  I've worked with a lot of kids in neighborhoods where violence was a daily reality - being tough and making people think you might hurt them, even if you actually didn't, was, for many of them, a vital survival technique.  I took a self-defense class a couple of years ago - and having been on the receiving end of physical violence on a number of occasions, I found it incredibly healing and empowering. At the same time, I've seen the incredibly devastating effects of violence, so it's not like I think violence solves anything. Do you wrestle with these sorts of questions as a pacifist and have you been able to resolve them to your satisfaction? How much violence have you been exposed to in your life? How do you think that has affected your thinking on this? 

Hi Christy, I love how you phrased that—"out-sourcing the violence."

Yes, I do worry about such out-sourcing. I’m not sure how to entirely eradicate my complicity with a violent world. I fancy myself something of an anarchist, but I know at the end of the day I’m a capitalist. It’s the default mode. I have very little chance to be anything other than a unsatiated consumer whose very economic structure is predicated on the seven deadly sins.

So, no . . . I have not been able to resolve this to my satisfaction. I can’t imagine I will ever be purely satisfied, though I do hope I am eventually capable of living in such a way that I become far less reliant upon the systematic tools of violence that make our current way of life possible. I’ve found that gardening helps. In terms of my own personal experience, I have, for the most part, been fairly sheltered from violence. Although, we recently had to repair the hood of our car because someone put a bullet through it. They must have really hated my last book

From Elizabeth:  What is the biggest challenge of being a pacifist in your daily life? I think I would find myself stumbling over the little frustrations that raise my ire. Do you extend your pacifism to not grumbling at the driver who just cut you off in traffic or smacking your computer when it's on the blink?  I believe firmly that peace must begin inside each person, and between an individual and God before humanity can begin to live peacefully on a larger scale. Are there any spiritual disciplines you practice to maintain that necessary inner peace? 

This is the one question I dreaded most. To paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, the reason I claim to be a pacifist (which I often try to avoid) is because I know I am so violent. I need a body of people who will hold me accountable to that which I claim to be true. 

To use your own reference, I’m a terribly aggressive driver. I lived in Chicago for several years and then moved to south central Kentucky where it must have been a moral obligation to maintain a speed of 5-10mph below the speed limit. I now understand why those kids lost the Civil War—they move too slow. It drove me crazy. So, what did I do? I moved to the Virginia Beach area that has to have some of the worst traffic on the planet. I’m doomed. I don’t know what it would mean to say that peace must begin from within a person.

Christianity claims that we are a fallen lot and are wicked from birth (difficult to be optimistic with that sort of language). Biology seems to suggest that, for all of our empathetic features we still operate with a fairly instinctual pulse toward survival and self-serving fulfillment (or to at least live long enough to reproduce), so it’s difficult for me to envision peace coming from within; but, I can submit myself to the communal disciplining of a peacemaking body of people who may, through rigorous training, shape me into the kind of person who can live peacefully amidst the insanity of never-ending traffic. So far, it hasn’t worked. 

From Thomas: While I can concede that a pacifist position is a strong one, there is one story that I can't seem to reconcile.  That is the story of Jesus in the temple with the moneychangers.  I have heard some interesting arguments that attempt to bring that story in line (for instance - that there is no indication that Jesus's whip actually "hit" a person - which more sounds like an argument from omission).  It would seem that Jesus intervened when necessary.  For the woman that was to be stoned.  For the children that wanted to speak to him.  For the common people against the ruling religious party.  In many cases, he used his words, but in the temple incident, he used physical action ... or dare I say: violence.  How do you reconcile that story into a Christian pacifist view as opposed to a Christian as interventionist (a changer), and how sometimes that intervention involves physical contact in defense of another? 

It’s a well-known fact that, as a carpenter’s son, Jesus never could get over his animosity toward wood. He hated tables. Resented them. His version of teenage rebellion was donning a whip and turning them over whenever he could. Apparently, he never outgrew it. 

You know, this is one of those really interesting questions if only because I hear it so often. To be honest, I have never understood the conceptual leap that leads some people to envision Jesus’ actions toward the moneychangers as translating so easily into killing people, but, apparently it does. I therefore concede that I am clearly missing something, so let’s give it a shot (bad pun . . . sorry). 

First of all, as King once said, let’s not deprive ourselves of a little righteous anger. Now that guy was an interventionist! Last year I offered extra credit to any students willing to overturn the tables in their churches where the selling of so-called goods was occurring. Can you imagine that sort of movement? Talk about the need for a good trend, let’s do this! We have completely rendered Christianity ridiculous with our banal and mawkish commodifying of this subversive homeless guy who angered every single religious and political zealot that crossed his path. And now we are those same religious-politicos. But we’re worse, because we sell it! We wear gold diamond encrusted crosses, we place fish ornaments on our $20-$50,000 cars, we sport some of the most embarrassing Christian t-shirts that any self-respecting capuchin would be ashamed to wear and where are all of our table turners? Where are they? This is a significant issue. I want to see some table-turning. How do we make this happen? Because Christian participation in this marketing nonsense is the real threat to Christianity, not the so-called “New Atheists.” I don’t blame the Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harrises of the world for making fun of us. Somebody needs to do it. As a whole, we’re quite laughable. I find it difficult to take any of this seriously (including myself).   

Ah, back to your question: I guess the issue would revolve around whether or not such an action (the overturning of tables while pulling an Indiana Jones) would be considered violent. And, apparently, if it were determined to be violent then that would mean I could kill my enemies and still consider myself a follower of Christ. As you can see, there’s a radical disconnect in that last line.  

From Agmccoy1: What do you think about the scripture in Ecclesiastes when the writer says there is a time for peace and a time for war? 

I think Ecclesiastes is one of those books that’s best left alone if you’re feeling remotely melancholic. It’s been known to drive people into the ethereal arms of Jack Daniels (as well as toward the brilliance of The Gaslight Anthem, so it can’t be all bad).

I’d also say that Christians in North America have certainly embodied the war part.

I’m just wondering when we get to the "time for peace" part. It should be now, right? I mean, we are convinced that the Messiah has come, correct? This is the age of the resurrected Lord--war need no longer be practiced by those who believe Jesus is the Messiah. If there is a time for anything then it's time for turning our weapons into plowshares. So the question, it seems, in all of this is whether or not we really think Jesus is the Messiah. If so, well, time to ante up. 

My apologies for not being able to address the many stellar questions I see listed throughout the original post. I’ll do my best to address comments as they come. Let me just say that Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and The Christian Witness to the State are two classics that proponents and opponents of Christian nonviolence should check out.

Also, I’m more than pleased to report that most of the questions you posed are actually addressed by various people in our upcoming book A Faith Not Worth Fighting For. As a matter of fact, I think the only one we didn’t cover was from the oh-so enigmatic person known as "DLS." Here is what he/she askes: “If the Zombie Apocalypse were upon us, would a Christian pacifist still be prevented from using violence on the undead, or does the fact that they're undead and feasting on human flesh release us to use our axe, chainsaw, or other instrument of blunt force to decapitate the horde?”

Well, DLS, given that I already have a 'Lobo' handy, I certainly hope so.


Check out the rest of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask an evolutionary creationist,” “Ask a humanitarian,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Mormon,” and more—here

Next week look for “Ask a Pentecostal.” 

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