In a recent book, War and the American Difference*, Stanley Hauerwas explores why it is that Americans have a distinct lack of unease with war. War, he says, ‘is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.’ In other words, the war on terror means that Americans have a common enemy that unites them nationally. War is a moral good. It is the pursuit and defence of ‘freedom’.He goes on to suggest that Christianity in America has by and large agreed with this perspective. As a consequence the church in America is not capable of offering a political challenge to what is done in the name of the American difference.
He concludes that in America, for the church to offer an authentic Christian political theology will require ‘a recovery of the church as a polity capable of challenging the presumptions that the state is the agency of peace.’ And one of the most powerful and authentic ways the church in America can recover her integrity is through a commitment to Christian non-violence.
Why mention all this in a PS about Christianity in Ireland? Simply to suggest the same thing: that one of the most powerful and authentic ways the church in Ireland can recover her integrity is through a commitment to Christian non-violence.
I say this for two reasons. The first is that, as a community of followers of a crucified Messiah, I believe that God’s people are called to pacifism. Jesus embodied this ethic in his entire ministry culminating in his explicit rejection of Peter’s violent resistance in Gethsemane and in his subsequent self-sacrifice at the cross.
Jesus ‘took on’ and defeated the political and spiritual forces arrayed against him by the ‘upside down’ apparently crazy idea of a crucified Messiah. God continually does counter-intuitive things and calls his people to live counter-intuitive lives that represent a foretaste of the fulfilled kingdom to come. If we pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ it seems to me that this rules out engagement in violence for followers of Jesus, since violence and war will not be part of the new age.
Secondly, as in America but for different reasons, much of Ulster Protestantism has been unable to offer a prophetic critique of the idea that Christians are justified, in certain circumstance, in turning to violence (or the threat of violence) in order to protect their political and religious freedom. This is because (for example) the churches were intimately involved in supporting this position in the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and have never really explicitly repudiated this Unionist version of ‘just war’ theory.
The most radical and authentic way for followers of Jesus to respond to the clash of national identities that have shaped modern Irish history is to refuse to ‘play their game’. Pacifism is not just being against violence. It is a commitment to an alternative narrative to those of power and coercion. It is a narrative of eschatological hope; a narrative of peace; a narrative of life, of love of enemies, of forgiveness; a narrative of obedience to the Lord who gave his life to redeem a violent world. That’s a story worth living for and (as many believers around the globe continue to do) worth dying for.
Patrick Mitchel lectures in theology at the Irish Bible Institute.
* War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. (Baker)