Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Holiness Edition

Jay Beaman, a sociologist at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, likes to do historical experiments. After extensive research he sends emails to members of Ancestry.com, telling them that he has found a relative of theirs who claimed religious objection on their World War I draft card. These relatives were members of holiness and Pentecostal denominations. Their descendants typically have no idea of the pacifist commitments of their grandparents and usually write back to Beaman saying that he surely must be mistaken. Even after seeing proof, they’re sometimes still not convinced. The historical memory of pacifism has been obliterated in holiness and Pentecostal circles.

It turns out that principled pacifism is not the sole province of Mennonites. Beaman and Brian Pipkin have uncovered a wealth of documents that testify to the peace commitments of other American religious groups. They have compiled them in a sourcebook entitled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013). Consider this 1844 source from the Wesleyan Methodist Church: “[The gospel] is in every way opposed to the practice of War in all its forms; and those customs which tend to foster and perpetuate the war spirit [are] inconsistent with the benevolent designs of the Christian Religion.” The St. Lawrence Annual Conference of the Wesleyan Methodists even considered a resolution to “alter the denominational Discipline so that refusal to engage in war and military training would be come a condition of membership.” There are hundreds more such statements ranging from the Brethren in Christ, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army.

The statements are diverse, representing numbers of John Howard Yoder’s twenty-nine distinct types of pacifism as described in Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Some documents denounced any law that supported warfare, such as paying war taxes or working for war-related industries. Others drew the line at actual killing. Still others contended for “personal nonresistance,” citing Romans 13 and saying that the state had the authority to prosecute war, but that they couldn’t personally participate. Binding each of the statements together was biblicism, defined by Christian Smith as a “theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” In a very helpful introduction to the volume, Beaman describes the biblicist case for pacifism in great depth. In short, these holiness writers made a very serious attempt to “harmonize inconsistent passages across the Bible.”

The harmony sounded very different as the twentieth century progressed (or regressed, depending on your perspective). In a 1915 statement called “Peace,” the Wesleyan Methodists backed away from their earlier full-throated denunciation of violence. It read, “Human War is undoubtedly the product of human sin, but it does not necessarily follow that all who engage in war are sinners.”

Why the shift? Beaman contends that social pressure was probably most important. Most of the new statements, including the Wesleyan one from 1915, came in the midst of war, precisely when holiness pacifists felt most beleaguered by criticisms of bad citizenship. They were a minority group—7/10 of one percent of the draft pool for WWI registered a religious objection compared to two-thirds of the pool who declined to fight to instead support their family. Remarkably, almost 90% of the 4.9 million married men in the first draft received deferments.

Other explanations include a decrease in separatism and a rise in social mobility. Beaman draws on the Weberian argument that self-denying, ascetic groups experience upward social mobility, which eventually results in a more worldly and sophisticated orientation. This appears to be how worldly wise contemporary holiness and Pentecostal adherents typically dismiss the pacifism of their hayseed ancestors. Consider this quote from a third-generation Pentecostal: “Early day Pentecostals had all kinds of rules of what you couldn’t do. You couldn’t drink a coke or wear a tie or you would get kicked out of the church. Conscientious objection was one of those rules which over time Pentecostals gave up following, just like not drinking coke or wearing a tie.”

Early holiness pacifists would have objected to this narrative that equated pacifism to a soft drink. They would have invoked a sacred text. In 1898 on the eve of the Spanish-American War, Francis Brown wrote to the denominational magazine of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). He asked “Please answer through the Gospel Trumpet: Providing there should be War in the United States, would it be right for a holy man of God to go as a soldier?” The editors responded, “We answer no. Emphatically no. There is no place in the New Testament wherein Christ gave instruction to his followers to take the life of a fellowman.”

Simple Living Pontiff Style

It’s easy to love Pope Francis. In one of his first acts as pope, he stopped by the hotel where he stayed before the conclave to settle his bill himself. With no fanfare he melts into the dark streets of Rome at night to hang out with the homeless. Shunning the official Papal Apartment of the Apostolic Palace, he lives in the less extravagant digs of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the so-called “Vatican hotel.” He has said he wants his living quarters to be characterized by “simplicity and sharing.” He dines communally, usually eating a simple meal of baked skinless chicken, salad, fruit and a glass of wine. Pope Francis lives so simply that it’s causing problems in the niche market of clerical garb. They need more business!

Bergoglio’s election—in the midst of global economic recession—benefited from perfect timing. A year later followers and detractors of the Vatican alike continue to love his humility and simplicity. By all accounts, the Pope’s habits are not calculated public relations ploys. They seem to be authentic expressions of simple living and concern for the poor. For Christians who read warnings in their sacred texts about the dangers of wealth and the importance of sacrificial giving, these actions are refreshing indeed. Crowds at the Vatican have tripled since he became pontiff.

It’s this context that made the simple-living pontiff’s recent encounter with a very expensive chocolate replica of himself so intriguing. Earlier this month Mirco Della Vecchia, a master chocolatier, and twenty of his students from the Accademia of Maestri Cioccolatieri in Guatemala constructed a chocolate doppelganger of Francis. The world cheered; this masterpiece, after all, combined two of the world’s most favorite things: the pope and chocolate. How did Francis respond? He grinned one of his lopsided wry smiles and graciously accepted it. Most observers expect him to donate the gift to charity, as he did with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle last year.

The Pope’s reaction reminds me of the account in Christian Scripture of Jesus’ response to his followers Mary and Martha. Jesus, who certainly lived more like the service-oriented Martha, made a point of honoring Mary, who reveled in the presence and beauty of the Lord. She would later pour a flask of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Jesus himself, despite constant temptations to wealth and power and comfort, would go on, after this act of veneration, to serve others by healing, teaching, and dying. By graciously accepting generous gifts while continuing to practice simple living, Francis seems to be following this example.

Simple living is often perceived as a burdensome religious practice. But the Pope–who seems to really enjoy blessing Harley-Davidson motorcycles–and others remind us that simple living can be fun. Doris Longacre, author of the Mennonite simple living manifesto More with Less Cookbook, reminds us to live joyfully and to celebrate. After all, the “four Gospels show Jesus entering wholeheartedly into times of joy and feasting.” Nearly a year ago, just before celebrating his first Easter, which for a novice pope must have been a moment of particular gravity, Pope Francis exhibited a striking sense of whimsy and humor. On Tuesday of Holy Week, he celebrated Mass at the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae with his “priestly family.” He preached from the Gospel of John (13:21 and 33:36–38) in which Jesus speaks of Judas’ betrayal and tells Peter that he would deny him three times. Elaborating on themes from the passage, Francis especially noted the profound darkness and loneliness of the night. But he also prayed that hearts be opened to taste the “sweetness” of Christ’s forgiveness. After this holy moment, he gave them all the papal coat of arms–imprinted on a large chocolate Easter egg.

*** Cross-posted at the Anxious Bench ***

Now in paperback

I’m happy to announce that Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism has been released in paperback. If the $45 price tag scared you away until now, here’s your chance to secure a copy for around $20. Buy a copy and then share it with your family and friends (I don’t mind–I’m a simple-living Mennonite like Ron Sider). If you’re a professor, assign it to your class. It’s full of interesting mini-biographies, and I’d love to Skype with your class if they want to talk to the author.

Why Study History

As the Civil War ground to an end in early 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. It was a gracious meditation. He noted that both the North and South read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Invoking the mystery of God’s ways, he declared, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither have been answered fully. The Almighty has its own purposes.” He cited Matthew 7:1: “But let us judge not that we not be judged.” Worried that Radical Republicans might try to humiliate the South, Lincoln declared that all Americans were guilty. He instructed the nation to reunify “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Lincoln was speaking in the context of political crisis. According to historian John Fea, he could just have well been speaking about the possibilities and hazards of studying history. It’s a familiar subject for Fea, a former writer for the Anxious Bench and now a prolific blogger at The Way of Improvement Leads Home (which I read faithfully as a matter of professional development). In Why Study History he contends that historians should emulate Lincoln. They too should withhold judgment, revel in the unknowable mysteries of the past, and empathetically study strange historical characters.

The most striking argument of the book, in my reading, is Fea’s articulation of the limits of historical knowledge. This is not a provocative assertion to the trained historian, but it is for many evangelicals, which appear to be Fea’s target audience. He views evangelicals with ambivalence. The positive spin is that evangelicals are passionate and have a strong activist streak that seeks to better the world. But he also sees certain strains of evangelicalism that practice an ugly triumphalism, an American patriotic jingoism, and a willingness to “use” or “preach” history in partisan ways (be sure to check out his evaluations of Steven Keillor and Eric Metaxas). It is to this sector of evangelicalism, which Fea has encountered to varying levels in the classroom, radio talk shows (be sure to check out the account of Fea’s run-in with Glenn Beck on pages 123-126), and outside speaking engagements, that he issues a powerful admonition.

Fea argues that the past is a foreign country. “It is easy to ignore or dismiss the parts of the past we do not like,” he writes. “Yet all historians must come to grips with its utter strangeness. Too much present-mindedness makes for bad history.” He warns against, for example, the providentialist history of Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which contends that God has a special destiny for America. Such a conclusion, Fea says, is impossible to prove and fails to consider the “five C’s” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.The book works hard to instill a sense of limits, reminding evangelical biblicists of St. Paul’s imagery of seeing through a glass darkly.

It’s true that this book metes out firm correction. But don’t think that this book is a grumpy jeremiad. Why Study History is an enthusiastic declaration of the importance of studying history. Fea meditates on the virtues of historical consciousness. He argues that history has the power to transform individual lives and collective identities. History offers us opportunities to practice—and deepen—Christian virtues of love, hospitality, and compassion for our neighbor. In a chapter entitled “So What Can You Do with a History Major,” Fea offers compelling narratives of fulfilling careers and strong skills sparked by the study of history at the college level. A concluding chapter proposes the creation of a Center for American History and a Civil Society.

This accessible manuscript is peppered with stories from Fea’s teaching and speaking gigs. But it’s also learned, drawing from the best scholars in the evangelical world (Mark Noll, Robert McKenzie) and the broader academy (Sam Wineburg, Peter Novick, Carlo Ginzburg, Gordon Wood). Why Study History, written by an evangelical historian with a growing reputation as a public intellectual, is a terrific primer for undergraduates and should enjoy strong sales in historical methods and philosophy courses at religious colleges.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***

More with Less

Since 1976 the More with Less Cookbook has sold nearly a million copies to Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Covenant, Wesleyan, and Catholic churchgoers. Author Doris Longacre implored reader-chefs to live simply and eat ethically.

ImageIt continues to inspire. Check out this idea from Ben and Heather Kulp of Boston, who are combining More with Less with Lent. Here’s a brief excerpt:

For the next 40 days, we will be taking a Lenten journey through the pages of More-with-Less, cooking exclusively from the over 1,000 recipes Doris Longacre tested and published nearly 40 years ago. We will shop for local ingredients when we can. We will not eat out at restaurants. We will cook from More-with-Less for our friends and enjoy non-More-with-Less meals that others prepare in their homes—hospitality is one of the cornerstones of a more-with-less lifestyle, after all.

Review of Jay Case’s An Unpredictable Gospel

ImageIn preparation for my next book (which is on global evangelicalism), I’ve been reading Jay Case’s terrific book An Unpredictable Gospel. Check out my review (here and here), which focuses on his case study of missionary William Taylor.

Bad news for Sriracha fans

SRIRACHAI’m a big fan of Sriracha sauce. So this isn’t good news: A judge may shut down the factory next year. Read about it here.


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