John W. Simpson

John W. Simpson

John W. Simpson is an editor at Eerdmans specializing in biblical studies and theology. In this post, he looks back through forty years of Eerdmans books on a subject dear to his heart: Christian pacificism — or, as he prefers to call it, “peacenikery.”

Many of the books mentioned here are available through Eerdmans’s Print on Demand program, which we described in detail yesterday

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When I was first involved in evangelical Christianity forty-odd years ago, one difficulty was the political (in a broad sense of that term) distance between my lefty parents and all the right-wingers who were now my friends and teachers in the faith. That simple dichotomy doesn’t, of course, do justice to anyone, but it also doesn’t overstate the distance between the two.

Peace and war, dove vs. hawk, defined the largest issue. My parents were probably never doctrinaire pacifists, but, like many radical lefties, they may as well have been when it was Communism America was fighting against. I was passing through the draftable years, Viet Nam was going on, and, if ever there was a righteous reason for violence, that war was it for the evangelicals I knew.

So I looked for and read books. The first two, not Eerdmans books, showed that Christian pacifists are not all stupid and dangerous, as I’d been told, and that the Christian right was characterized more by self-righteousness and deception than by deep learning. In retrospect, I think the latter might have been overstating it, but at least I knew I had some friends out there.

The Politics of Jesus

The Politics of Jesus

Later, a couple books that I read nearly hot off the press were Art Gish’s The New Left and Christian Radicalism and the first edition of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (both Eerdmans, 1970 and 1972 respectively). Both were representatives of a number of Eerdmans books that introduced the traditions of Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren, pacifist heirs of the “radical Reformation,” to the broader evangelicalism served by Eerdmans.

Other Eerdmans books that did so were William Estep’s The Anabaptist Story (first Eerdmans edition, 1975), Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (1964), and Dale Brown’s The Christian Revolutionary and Understanding Pietism (1971 and 1978). Gish, Yoder, Brown wrote as insiders, Estep less so, but Verduin was known among some Mennonites and no doubt others as “the best Mennonite theologian in the Christian Reformed Church,” though more for his The Anatomy of a Hybrid: A Study in Church-State Relationships (1976).

This introduction of Christian radical traditions to broader Protestantism was important in the development of the evangelical left inhabited by the Sojourners crowd and the like. It was part of a trend in Eerdmans described in “Becoming a Controversial Publisher,” a chapter in An Eerdmans Century: 1911-2011. I once asked Bill Eerdmans “How did this happen?” referring specifically to the pacifist books, and his answer went something like this: “Jesus’ style and substance were pacific. War is such a big thing that we have to go back to Jesus about it, unlike, for instance, the Bush administration, which treated war so lightly.”

Eerdmans has also been involved in the growth and refinement of Christian pacifist options. While Viet Nam or any war could be a defining moment (and, from the perspective of a cradle lefty, produce a lot of Johnny-come-latelies) and knowledge of radical traditions provides grounding, the profound biblical and theological work of a number of Eerdmans authors has helped give Christian maturity to the pacifism of many of us.

Three of those authors control much of the space in my most convenient bookcase: Yoder, Jacques Ellul, and William Stringfellow. Yoder, in particular, has, since his death in 1997, become an industry with reprints, books patched together from lecture notes, and books about him, deservedly so because of his carefully thought-out, anti-ideological Christian pacifism. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of The Politics of Jesus (revised edition, 1994) in reminding (or telling) theologians that, in my simple terms, Christians are supposed to do what Jesus said to do and saying that is not nonsensical. Eerdmans still has, partly due to its Print on Demand program, works by and about those three authors. Along with them three others who, along with their own contributions, have mediated, respectively, Ellul, Yoder, and both Ellul and Yoder to readers are Vernard Eller, Stanley Hauerwas, and Marva Dawn.

Atonement, Justice, and Peace

Atonement, Justice, and Peace

That these authors are Eerdmans authors helps remind us of something each of them would want us to be reminded of, that Christian pacifism does not have its home in some corner where little else that is Christian resides. It is, rather, known in connection with the broader Christian enterprises of biblical interpretation, theology, and ethical reasoning. In this connection it is interesting that much recent work on the atonement has been wrapped up with questions of violence and peacemaking. Important works in this vein include Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (and his forthcoming The Nonviolent God), Darrin Snyder Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and Peace, Michael Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, and the multi-author Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Willard Swartley’s Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics brings peace theology and biblical theology into contact with each other.

Christian pacifism is also not just a pastime of fringe groups but is part of broad ecumenical witness. Here one of the more obvious examples is The Church’s Peace Witness, edited by Marlin Miller and Barbara Nelson Gingerich.

Publishing work by South African church leaders and theologians before the end of apartheid was a big part of Eerdmans “becoming controversial,” and it also provided help for Christian pacifism, particularly through volumes edited by Charles (“Pancho Villa,” according to Bill) Villa-Vicencio: Resistance and Hope, Between Christ and Caesar, and Theology and Violence (1985, ’86, and ‘87). South Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s was one of several powder-keg countries that complexified any sort of attempt at a Christian understanding of violence and political authority. It was particularly important because it was more like the U.S. than the others: black and white but white-ruled, Protestant, partly English-speaking, and emerging from a history of racism enforced by law.

Between Christ and Caesar (subtitled Classic and Contemporary Texts on Church and State) anticipated to some extent the more recent compendia From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought and An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (1999 and 2012). That representative Christian pacifists fit comfortably in the second of these later books (though barely show up in the first) exemplifies the ecumenical inclusion prompted by those earlier presentations of radical traditions to broader Protestantism.

God Is Subversive

God Is Subversive

I could go on, and I haven’t even mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also haven’t mentioned the most “peacenik” of Eerdmans books, by which I mean those written by authors known mostly as peace activists, as part of their activism, namely Daniel Berrigan (The Kings and Their Gods, No Gods but One), John Dear (Put Down Your Sword), and Lee Griffith. Particularly heartwarming for an old peacenik like me is chapter 3, “Old (Anti) War Stories,” in Griffith’s God is Subversive, where he describes three places he remembers being in 1976: a dumpster, the Pentagon, and jail.

Click on the links above to order any of John Simpson’s recommended “peacenik” books available from Eerdmans, or click to browse an assortment of books on war and peace.