David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz. A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. 192 pages.
Mere days after I received my review copy of David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz’s A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian troops would invade Ukraine. Putin’s invasion was not the only act of violence plaguing innocent civilians across the globe today, but it seems to be the one that has most strongly captured the attention of the watching world—at least, those in the West where I reside. If nothing else, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder of the world’s obsession with violence, and the manner in which violence is justified to further a host of sinful ends, predominantly imagined by people in power.
It is into this world obsessed with violence that Cramer and Werntz’s text comes to life. Their purpose in writing A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence is twofold. First, both Cramer and Werntz, growing up in America, were confronted by the atrocity of September 11, 2001, where two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and this confrontation sparked questions in both their imaginations about the relationship between Christianity and violence (vii). In their questioning, both were directed to the work of John Howard Yoder, arguably the most prominent theologian of the twentieth century on matters related to peace and nonviolence. However, in light of the allegations of Yoder’s sexual violence towards women becoming public, both were left wondering about the validity of Yoder’s writing moving forward.1
Yoder’s violence reveals the second purpose of Cramer and Werntz’s book. Being confronted with the revelations of Yoder’s violence, Cramer and Werntz were both left asking the question “If one of the leading twentieth-century voices for Christian nonviolence was himself violent in such heinous ways, is Christian nonviolence itself a sham?” (vii-ix). The contents of this book are the result of their questioning, a testament to the breadth and depth of Christianity’s affiliation with the practice we now call “nonviolence.” In what follows, I briefly survey the eight movements which make up A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, and offer a few constructive remarks on how Cramer and Werntz’s sketches of Christian nonviolence might invert our perceptions about how to live as Christians in a world obsessed by violence.
Cramer and Werntz’s thesis is this: “Christian nonviolence has never been monolithic but has always included merging and diverging streams; it is therefore best understood as a dynamic and contested tradition rather than a unified and settled position” (2). This book is not an apologetic for Christian nonviolence, but rather an invitation for all to see a broader tradition within Christianity. To do this they identify eight major streams of Christian nonviolence, which they further categorize by broadly falling into two forms, “an inward-focused, quietist, absolutist, communalist pacifism that focuses on faithfulness and fidelity to Jesus’s teachings on nonresistance and in so doing offers a witness to the world,” and “a more outward-focused, activist, political pacifism that takes Jesus’s teachings less literally and focuses instead on the effectiveness of nonviolence, using nonviolence as a tool for social change and political transformation of the world” (4-5).
In the first form of Christian nonviolence described above, the four categories Cramer and Werntz identify are nonviolence as Christian discipleship, nonviolence as Christian virtue, nonviolence of Christian mysticism, and apocalyptic nonviolence. Beginning with nonviolence as Christian discipleship, Cramer and Werntz begin with arguably the most-well known tradition of Christian nonviolence, promoted by twentieth century theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder. In nonviolence as Christian discipleship, nonviolent action is spurred on by Christ’s command for disciples to live nonviolently, living as witnesses to the nations within the violence of the world without becoming like the violent world. Nonviolence as Christian virtue differs in that it draws from the philosophical virtue tradition in an attempt to parse a comprehensive vision of what it means to be fully human before God. Nonviolent advocates within the virtue tradition identify nonviolence as being essential to becoming a virtuous person. Nonviolence of Christian mysticism offers a third expression of this first form, highlighting the soul’s participation in the life of God as being the driving force behind one’s expression of nonviolence. For nonviolent Christian mystics, war is rooted in the disorder of one’s soul and thus any response to the violence of the world must retrace its steps beyond the political frameworks that allow such conflict to take place. Finally, apocalyptic nonviolence emphasizes the conflict between Christ’s way of life and the world’s way of Death, taking as its starting point the way that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ exposes the powers an principalities of this world, a reality which calls Christians to actively oppose the machinations of Death in the world.
As we can see by the examples above, this first form of Christian nonviolence stresses the personal responsibility of the Christian under Christ to live in a nonviolent manner. Despite their varying emphases, what ties these four expressions of Christian nonviolence together is that nonviolence is central to the way one lives out the implications of the Gospel message of Christ’s reconciliation. Personal allegiance to the way of Christ in the world takes precedence over political efficacy or importance. The Christian life is one lived in the world, but before Christ, and it is Christ who instructs the Christian to live nonviolently.
In the second form of Christian nonviolence, the four categories Cramer and Werntz identify are realist nonviolence, nonviolence as political practice, liberationist nonviolence, and Christian antiviolence. In realist nonviolence, we see the expansion of Christian realism beyond the work of Reinhold Niebuhr to encapsulate “a mode of ethical deliberation that seeks the best course of action amid the tension between the eschatological ideal of the kingdom of God and the realities of fallen societies” (76). Advocates of realist nonviolence oppose the idea that violence is the best way to deal with human sin, and argue that nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution are actually the most realistic and least destructive approaches available. Nonviolence as political practice addresses nonviolence in public life and public action, and in doing so it is closely related to realist nonviolence. It is primarily concerned with overturning social injustices, but doing so in a manner that is inherently and faithfully nonviolent. Liberationist nonviolence highlights the power structures that promote violence, a realization that such movements say is imperative for overcoming such violence. “Liberationist nonviolence, then, is not merely about refraining from overt acts of violence; it is about actively working to undo the violence that is inimical to human flourishing” by peaceful means, liberating those most inflicted by the violence of power structures (116, italics original). Finally, Christian antiviolence arose directly in opposition to the sexual violence of John Howard Yoder, as an opportunity to highlight the way that peace theology has failed to posit connections between the violence of war and genocide and sexual and gender-based violence. Reflecting on the experiences of women and sexual minorities, Christian antiviolence works to dismantle patriarchal and white supremacist systems and structure that foster sexual and gender-based violence.
It should be clear to see that this second form of Christian violence is much more concerned with enacting substantive nonviolent change than the first form Cramer and Werntz surveyed. While the proponents of this second form of Christian violence root their convictions in their Christian commitments and the liberative message of Jesus, their primary concern is not with personal affiliation with Jesus Christ but with opposing worldly injustice by nonviolent means.
One way of evaluating A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence would be to probe the eight chapters, or even the two forms of Christian nonviolence presented by Cramer and Werntz, and attempt to work out which strand of Christian nonviolence is “best.” However, any evaluation of which strand of Christian nonviolence is “best” would necessitate setting out particular terms and conditions by which we can evaluate these strands in a way to determine what makes one better than another. While there may be times that such an evaluation would be a worthwhile practice, it is at best a practice reserved for particular contexts, which vary based on time and place, and likely not one which can bear any positive fruit in any potential quest to find a universal peace ethic.
A better way of evaluating A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence would be to treat each chapter as a sketch of what it means for Christians to live nonviolently. If, like the subtitle of the book suggests, the Christian gospel is a gospel of peace, and that peace is something that is practiced nonviolently, then what Cramer and Werntz have presented to us is sketches in enacting the gospel of peace in particular times and particular places. In reading A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence this way, these chapters do not become competing entities which ought to be pitted against each other, but operate as a mosaic in which, when we view them together, offer a colourful picture of what enacting the gospel of peace may indeed look like at various times and places.
In a world obsessed with violence, sketching out the possibilities of the gospel of peace is precisely the kind of imaginative work that Christians must do to leave peacefully amidst violent regimes. And it is precisely this imaginative work that Cramer and Werntz offer a gateway into thinking about. If to be a Christian is to live in the world, and that world Christians live in is a world obsessed with violence, an obsession inherently at odds with the gospel of peace, there may be no more urgent text for Christians to encounter than one like A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence that sparks the imagination as to how Christians can live nonviolently amidst the world’s sinful obsession with violence.
- The best account of the details of Yoder’s sexual violence is Rachel Waltner Goossen’s “’Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89 (2015): 7-80.