In the past month or so, I’ve been interviewed on two different podcasts.
- Bros, Bible’s, & Beer: This was fun. Three great guys who talk about faith from three different angles. One is closer to where I’d be at when it comes to theology. Another is more in the conservative-evangelical realm. And the third one is deeply practical. So good! We need more spaces online where differing perspectives can disagree in love.
- Laity Podcast (iTunes version): This was also quite fun. These two guys come from a Church of Christ background and have done some de/reconstruction and are now using a podcast as a means to promote helpful conversation from within that tradition (and beyond). In this interview, they ask me about what I’m up to, etc. But then, it is all about Anabaptism and the kingdom of God.
Since listening to my interview on the Laity Podcast, a thought came to mind: it has been ten years–this summer–since I embraced Christian nonviolence and my anabaptist roots. Ten years. And I can’t imagine my life with God without this shift.
For those of you who don’t know, Anabaptism is a tradition from the time of the Reformation (1500s–) that emphasized the centrality of Jesus and following him by taking up the Sermon on the Mount as our marching orders. Several ideas come out of this stream of the faith, such as an emphasis on believers baptism (being baptized as an infant in the 1500s usually was tied to citizenship to a secular nation [although claiming to be Christian], which the Anabaptists strongly protested against), nonviolence, the priesthood of all Christians, and God’s kingdom as expressed through a contrast-community to dominant culture.
It took a long time to finally be convinced of nonviolence, mostly because of the narratives I was given about the need to defend against and fight off evil. It wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I opened myself up to allowing the New Testament to change my mind. A few years back I shared the full story. Here’s a quote:
Then, I started reading books in college that hinted toward Anabaptist convictions, naming them in a positive light. By the time I entered Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in 2007, I was already convinced that I could never join the military because I couldn’t trust an earthly authority to command me to kill – but I was still no pacifist. The biblical text seemed to point toward nonviolence but it all seemed too irrational to me: Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant that!
The summer following my first year of seminary a tour bus powered by used cooking grease showed up in Fresno. Two guys, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw jumped out and gave a presentation about their book Jesus for President. The passion with which they spoke and the articulate biblical arguments they presented finally convinced me to let go of my fears and embrace nonviolence as normative for Christian discipleship.
In fact, on that night, I sensed the Spirit inviting me to be convinced. It was a catalytic moment in my journey that I’m grateful for.
What hasn’t happened yet, is the testing of my view on violence. For this I’m grateful as well.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned in this past decade is that peace is a virtue that Jesus wants to cultivate in us. Early on, I was tempted to believe that the ‘ethics’ or outward expressions of peace and justice were what mattered more than personal piety. Like many people who learn something new or go through a paradigm shift, my pendulum swing was drastic because the gravity of the shift felt so massive.
What I came to notice, however, was that my personal experience with Jesus couldn’t be divorced from my ‘radical’ commitment to the peaceable kingdom of God. Peace, as a virtue, means that I can learn the posture of peace inwardly through growing with Jesus. Then, if the moment ever does come that my theology is tested, my default will hopefully be to see an enemy as someone to love rather than to fight.
That is the hardest part, after all, about all theology: living it out.
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For the non-pacifist reader…
So, I don’t know if you agree with me about Jesus and nonviolence. But, if you are a Christian, my guess is that we at least agree on this point: less violence is better than more. Perhaps we can also agree that Jesus is the one who can help us cultivate communities where there is indeed less violence.
Where does this start? Well, one of the places it may start is by committing ourselves to practices that lead us to become more inwardly peaceful.
My hunch is that, pacifist or not, if you engage in spiritual formation exercises with Jesus and you devote some of the spaces of your faith to growing in the “fruit” or virtue of peace, that you will find your impulses toward self-defense begin to become less impulsive. Perhaps you won’t be a pacifist in theory, but when tested, could it be said of you that you didn’t retaliate against your enemy? I think this is more likely than we might think.
Why? Because you have been practicing peace with Jesus for a long time prior.
That’s the vision of nonviolence I’ve come to embrace. As Jesus transforms my heart to be more like his, I hope that my love for neighbors and enemies will override my impulse to fight back. It is not about a theological idea: it is about the humans Jesus invites us to become.
It was ten years ago that I embraced Christian nonviolence. What I’ve learned is that more than merely agreeing with a radical theological idea, Jesus invites me to be embraced by the virtue of peace.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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