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War, Peace, and the Wesleyan Tradition’s Charism: to be “perfect in love in this lifetime”

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The second post for our short series of reflections on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist bishops’ war and peace pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation; this one is by Professor D. Stephen Long:

When I published my first book, which was on United Methodism and war, John Howard Yoder surprised me by blurbing it with the comment that it was interesting to see “non binding hortatory statements” taken seriously. When I first read that blurb I thought Yoder was incorrect. That book was a discussion of article XVI in the United Methodist Confession of Faith that says “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ.” This article has never been rescinded.  I thought Yoder misunderstood the nature of our Wesleyan heritage. In the intervening time, I have come to see he was correct. Despite having the Book of Discipline, we are not a disciplined church when it comes to any ethical or doctrinal issue.

The United Methodist Church is not pacifist. It affirms members who choose to be pacifists, but it does not make it a normative claim on the lives of its members or Christians. Nor, however, is the United Methodist Church a just war church.

So what we can discuss in this time is not the normative teaching and practice of the United Methodist Church on war and peace.  There is no such thing.  What we can discuss is if we were to retrieve our past (very brief) history as a disciplined church for the future, what should it require of us? I think it would require at least the recognition that there are only two viable positions for Christians when it comes to our participation or non-participation in war and violence: pacifism or just war.

Notice that I made that a disjunctive. The United Methodist Bishops wrote of a presumption against violence, which some see as an overlapping presupposition of just war and pacifism.  This is wrongheaded. What differentiates Christian pacifism from Christian just war are the convictions held by representatives of each position about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world, and if he were not bodily raised from the dead, then pacifism makes no sense for me. The presumption of Christian pacifism is not a presumption against something, but for something; for the holiness God calls us to embody as a faithful people redeemed by Christ’s blood.

This position is sometimes called “Christological pacifism,” and it only works when we take seriously the incarnation, cross, resurrection and Ascension as the truth we receive about who God is and what God has done.

1. Incarnation and Cross:

a. If ever there were an innocent; it is Jesus. As Wesley taught, in his active obedience Christ gave himself over to human sin and violence in order to confront and heal it. Yet we were commanded not to defend him. In all four Gospels, his words to us are: “Put away sword.”b. Beatitudes – Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion cannot be understood well apart from his pronouncement of ‘beatitude’ in the Sermon on the Mount. These beatitudes are the forms of life that are necessary for us to live as citizens of God’s coming Kingdom, the one we pray for everyday in the Lord’s Prayer. Our task in these times between the times is to prepare ourselves for that citizenship.

2. Resurrection:

a. Pacifism is not a celebration of death and suffering. God does not affirm death, nor does death somehow get the better of God. The most difficult aspect of pacifism is not that we might lose our own lives, but that we might lose those we would want to defend. Only the hope of resurrection makes that possible.

3. Ascension – Christ is enthroned as our “priest-king.” We already see him as such.

a. We expect him to complete his rule when he returns. He has already triumphed, and we await the perfection of the rule he has already established.  How are we to participate in his rule? We are, I would suggest, called to repeat his life, nonidentically of course, by cultivating his righteousness as our own, seeking to be nothing less than perfect.  As John Wesley wrote: “O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing.”

If we are to plan for a future disciplined Methodist Church, then we would need to recover something like the General Rules, not in a sentimentalized version, but with the same kind of depth they once contained when they told Methodists that an economics based on slavery was incompatible with the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and therefore they could not own slaves or traffic in slave made goods. Of course many Methodists were realists when it came to slavery. It had been intrinsic to economic exchanges since antiquity. Many say the same about our use of violence – in war, capital punishment and abortion. Is it possible, that because God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, a new way is opened up and we are called even yet to be its first fruits?

I am not arguing that we pacifists should somehow seek power and try to impose our will at General Conference through legislative action. What I would suggest is a voluntary ‘order’ within the United Methodist Church that comes together around a revised General Rules and begins to ask these questions, seeking to give and receive counsel by searching the Scriptures, attending to prayer and observing the sacraments. Such an order would have to happen at the margins of Methodist institutions; it is the only place we might find for it.

Because creation is made in and for Jesus, we are called to repeat Jesus’ prayer until he returns, “May your Name be holy . . . in earth as it is in heaven.” This is particularly true for the charism of the Wesleyan tradition where we are called to be “perfect in love in this lifetime.” The question of pacifism emerges at this point. How do Wesleyans best live to pray well what Jesus commanded us to pray and honor our particular charism as a people called to holiness?

D. Stephen Long (Ph.D., Duke University) is Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette University and the author of several books, including his first oneLiving the Discipline: United Methodist Theological Reflections on War, Civilization, and Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992).

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