Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, by Preston Sprinkle image

Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, by Preston Sprinkle

Liam and Andrew have already given rave notices for this book and, in the light of their enthusiasm, I felt it was one I couldn’t ignore. My own journey on questions of war has been from an unreflective assumption of the appropriateness of Christians engaging in violence in a just cause, to an almost-pacifist position. I hoped that Sprinkle might nudge me more conclusively one way or another.

Having a pacifist position articulated by someone who, “hunted, fished, voted Republican, and chewed tobacco,” lends the case a certain credibility! However, there are a few statements and claims made by Sprinkle that somewhat undermine this. Describing the zoologist Richard Dawkins as a “philosopher” is a case in point, and Preston makes some generalisations which may not stand scrutiny, and cause someone of my sceptical turn of mind to then question some of his other claims. For example, “There’s the escalation of violent crimes: homicide, rape, and torture.” Really? Where is the evidence for that? In fact, there is compelling evidence that the world is a far less violent place than used to be the case. (See Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’.) And then the quite incredible claim, twice repeated, that “nearly six million civilians…have died as a result of covert CIA operations.” I haven’t been able to check all Sprinkle’s sources for this figure but it seems to be found in conspiracy theory internet sites rather than in more credible sources. I also think Sprinkle rehashes a popularist view of the crusades, which doesn’t really do justice to the facts. (See Rodney Stark’s ‘God’s Battalions’.) Now, Fight, is written for a general, rather than scholarly audience, so I don’t want to be too pernickety, but these kinds of things bug me.

Turning to the substance of his argument, Sprinkle’s investigation of the Old Testament, showing how it is much less bloodthirsty than we might imagine is intriguing. It is helpful to see how much less violent Israel was than the surrounding nations; and his main point that God was the one who fought Israel’s battles is crucial. I am currently preaching through the book of Judges and seeing how the danger was that Israel should become Canaanized rather than Canaan become Israelized is crucial for understanding the story. As Sprinkle shows, a significant part of Canaanization was the reliance on military technology and a standing army – something that YHWH warns Israel against. However, in proving his point Sprinkle is prone to overegg the pudding. For example, he gives a very damning summary of the careers of Samson and Jepthah, but of course, those two judges are commended in Hebrews 11 as models of faith. Again, it is this kind of over generalisation that caused me to lose some sympathy for Sprinkle’s case.

The most oft-cited New Testament passage regarding the role of the state is Romans 13 and Sprinkle offers a thorough, though not entirely convincing, study of what Paul’s instructions here do and don’t mean. Sprinkle states that, “Romans 13 does not speak of Rome’s warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens.” I think this is correct, but also that it is hard to prove conclusively. Rome was an expansive state, and Paul says nothing about that. I’m not sure any Roman would have seen a difference between the ‘bearing of the sword’ in policing a troublesome part of the empire or in broadening the edge of that empire; I think the whole piece would have been considered ‘homeland security’, so the distinction between policing and soldiering would have been very blurry. Romans 13 is much debated, and a pacifist reading of it leads to the question with which Preston concludes the chapter in which it is discussed: “Can a Christian be a cop?” Frustratingly though, Sprinkle does not answer this question for another 176 pages, and then doesn’t deal with it in the context of what Romans 13 does or does not say.

The next chapter focuses on the book of Revelation and here Sprinkle seeks to demonstrate that it provides no mandate for Christians to engage in violence. I agree with him, but, for me, some of his exegesis rather undermines the broader point. This is especially the case in his understanding of the ‘grapes’ of Revelation 14. Rather than seeing this as the enemies of God who will be crushed, Sprinkle argues that they refer to the saints who are martyred. I’m not sure this is convincing – it doesn’t seem to tally with Revelation 19:15 where it is Jesus who is treading the winepress, nor with the Old Testament parallels, such as Joel 3:13. Sprinkle says that, “Whether the blood is symbolic of judgment or symbolic of martyrdom leading to judgment doesn’t make a huge difference for my main point,” which left me stroking my chin.

While I appreciated Sprinkle’s critique of Mark Driscoll’s vision of a cage-fighter Jesus in Revelation, I wonder if, despite his self-proclaimed redneck credentials, his approach is governed in part by a distaste towards violence which means he wants to interpret obviously violent texts in a pacific way. For instance, Sprinkle’s statement that, “Revelation doesn’t depict Jesus hacking His way through enemy lines but rather speaking a word of judgment that condemns His enemies to everlasting destruction.” Other than the emotiveness of the language, I’m not sure what the practical difference is between being hacked to pieces and everlastingly destroyed. Both sound equally grim to me.

Sprinkle’s exploration of the attitude of the early church is solid. The apparent pacifist unanimity of pre-Constantine authors is striking, and was a major factor in pushing me towards a pacifist position. His treatment of practical questions is also useful, dealing, among other things, with ‘the attacker at the door’, whether a Christian can kill in self-defence, and that delayed discussion of whether a Christian can be cop. Sprinkle ends up in a fairly Anabaptist position on these questions, and it is here that my own commitment to pacifism begins to waver. I’m just not convinced that the kind of cultural and societal disengagement Anabaptism seems to lead to is biblically faithful. Sprinkle fails to engage with wider questions of the nature of the state and what this might mean for Christian engagement with it, especially in the context of democracy. To my mind the application of Romans 13 is rather different in a society where power ultimately resides in the people than in a dictator.

I agree with Sprinkle’s appeal to base our ethics on foundational principles, rather than on ‘ifs’ and ‘perhaps’ and his critique of just war theory is helpful in this regard. However, as well as the many negative consequences of military action he cites, there are some positive ones which he ignores. For instance, Operation Barras, in which the intervention of British troops hastened the end of civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000; or the on going Operation Serval in which French troops have prevented an Islamic takeover of Mali. A strong case could be made that a similarly professional military intervention in the current chaos of the Central African Republic would do more good than harm.

This is an excellent book, one I would encourage every Christ follower to read. Whenever I teach on Christian ethics I am always disappointed that in response to the question, “Who is inclined towards pacifism?” few, if any, hands are raised. I agree with Sprinkle that the default Christian position should be pacifist and that it should be those arguing a different position who really need to prove their point. But I’m still not all there myself, and in that sense somewhat disappointed that Fight didn’t sway me further.

I’m planning to visit SoCal in June – Preston, if you’ve got any time, I’d love to connect and discuss these things further. Just leave the chewing tobacco out of the conversation!

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