Two books I purchased recently, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking by John Howard Yoder and Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the book of Revelation by J. Nelson Kraybill, have two things in common:

(1) they espouse countercultural pacifism, and

(2) they draw deeply from the book of Revelation

This may come as a surprise to some critics of pacifism. Isn’t the Revelation of John one of the most violent books of the Bible? Why do some pacifists emphasize it so much then? Isn’t that counter productive? It’s certainly counter intuitive!

Different streams of nonviolent Christianity

The answer comes in discerning between different streams of pacifism. Just as pro-military Christianity may be differentiated into “just war”, “blank check” and other streams according to the degree they rely on secular wisdom, so anti-military Christianity may be differentiated into “absolutist”, “apocalyptic” and other streams according to the degree they rely on universal principals.

Absolute pacifism, more typical of liberals, tends to gloss over the authority of the Old Testament in its search for a universal ethic applicable to everyone, everywhere, everywhen. Apocalyptic pacifism, more typical of Anabaptists, takes a different route, emphasizing the covenant transforming revelation (Greek: apocalypse) of Jesus. Absolute pacifism espouses timeless teaching, apocalyptic pacifism espouses time asymmetric, kingdom coming teaching.

Taking this route, an apocalyptic pacifist may: acknowledge God as warrior, whilst celebrating the resurrection of the crucified messiah as the climax of the eschatological war (Col2:15); acknowledge God as judge, whilst reserving judgment as a divine prerogative (Romans 12:19); acknowledge the Old Testament as revelation, whilst relativising it’s applicability for discipleship now, not only for ritual but also for lifestyle. Rather than avoiding the Old Testament as absolute pacifists might, apocalyptic pacifists will highlight the foreshadowing of nonviolent messianic ethics in the Old Testament, such as the refusal of David to assassinate Saul qua Romans 13.

The book of Revelation

Turning to the book of Revelation itself, an apocalyptic pacifist would draw attention to the beautiful vision of the New Jerusalem, the contrasting vision of Babylon, with a call to live the future in the now (Matt 5), and a warning about Christendom as an expression of the latter. Apocalyptic pacifists do not see their ethic as being for everyone as an absolute pacifist might, but only for those called to live in countercultural witness against Babylon. They have much less concern for developing an ethic that everyone can keep, particularly in a society as pluralistic as ours.

Finally, apocalyptic pacifists draw attention to the paradoxical identity of Jesus as lion/lamb (hence Yoder’s book title), and the revelation of warring empires falling, not by swords in the hands of many, but a sword in the mouth of one (Rev 19:21). Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. War has it’s own karma. The lamb wins with a word. Militarism is renounced by apocalyptic pacifists, not because it is intrinsically sinful, but because it is rendered faithless given the revelation we now have.

Grace and apocalyptic lifestyle

Which brings us to the subject of grace. The radical reformers differed from the rest, not because they denied the salvation by grace, but because they decryed the slicing of salvation from ethics and God’s grace from enemy love. Contra Luther, they affirmed James as an epistle of substance, not straw. Given we are saved by grace we are now called to engage our enemies, not just legally and justly, but graciously and lovingly (John 1:17) And so I appeal too, that we would lay down our swords and pick up our cross.

3 thoughts on “Apocalypse of Peace

  1. Matt. I’m glad you posted this.
    My position is that we need to work dilligently at being peacemakers now as part of following Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and the true Messiah.
    We do not just wait until some final apocalyptic peace after some final endtimes devastating cataclysm – a thing some fundamentalists actually hope for.
    Lions and lambs, no longer at enmity with eachother, but peacefully coexisting and enjoying eachother and resting/pasturing together sustained by their Creator.
    That’s how my JW friend, ex-US Army sergeant by the way, describes his hope for future peace.
    Lambs and lions – what/who are they metaphors for in this day and age?
    Also reading the above reminds me of Zechariah’s vision of nations previously combative with eachother, kneeling humbly together under Christ’s enthroned Lordship and wise and just reign, and more importantly his Peace as an apocalytpic hope in the OT.
    Disciples practising peacemaking through their daily lives Christ’s in following teachings, such as those outlined by the Sermon on the Mount – taking those seriously as missional praxis – will go a long way toward realizing that hope. It is the already `in-breaking’ reign of Christ we are promoting, not a Christ’s reign “delayed”. Its inbreaking nature will always mean that there is an element of struggle and conflict (e.g. in thinking, resolving hard questions etc) about it. Part of the beauty of it is that struggling with the hard issues in our efforts to be faithful to God is that it can help us to become better and more accountable peacemakers “in Christ”.

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  2. So would it be correct to say that apocalyptic pacifism sees God as the ultimate dispenser of justice, that Christian non-resistance comes from a surrender to God as the One who will ultimately make things right? Trying to wrap my head around this, it sounds like where I am coming around to.

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  3. Arthur
    Yes, that is the thrust of it. If only God is good then only God is able to judge / war justly. Our task is not to execute God’s judgement / win God’s war for him. But to act graciously towards God’s enemies just as God has acted, is acting and will act so graciously towards us, we who are also God’s former enemies. Justice will prevail one way or another, but God prefers restorative justice over punitative justice and calls us to join him in the former rather than the latter. This was prefigured in the Old Testament (see Hezakiah for instance) but not fully revealed till Jesus defeated death.
    One word of correction however. In speaking of Christian practice I would tend to talk in terms of “nonviolent resistance” over “nonresistance” per se. Pacifism is not to be equated with passivity, but rather, a particular style of activism.

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