Christian nonviolence is near the heart of the Gospel

I have never really doubted that Christians should be nonresistant. Though there are some difficult texts to deal with, the balance of the Scriptural data–especially when viewed through the lens of Jesus–seems to my Mennonite-raised eyes as comfortably on the side of nonviolence*.

But it always seemed to be an auxiliary doctrine, important in its own right but certainly a secondary issue about which Christians could disagree.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand just how inextricably linked Christian nonviolence is to Jesus and the kingdom He proclaims. When I interact with strong proponents of this peaceful lifestyle, inevitably it includes a declaration and delineation of the kingdom.

The character of this kingdom, this nation, is fundamentally different from all the nations of the world. Their currency, at bottom, is coercion; but His law is love and His Gospel is peace.

Most modern Christians–though perhaps not many of the Reformers nor even some reformed Christian theocrats today–would agree with this idea in theory. Of course Christianity should be advanced noncoercively. Of course the world’s nations will use force.

But if, as NT Wright argues, the crucifixion of Christ launched a revolution, it matters how the revolution on behalf of this kingdom should be fought. And how it should be fought is made clear when you look at the narrative arc of Scripture and in particular the teachings of Jesus: with love and peace and forgiveness, conquering through suffering instead of force.

But then if Jesus is our king, how can his ethos not permeate the entirety of our lives? How is it that we can carve out areas and exceptions that allow us to employ coercive methods in service to worldly systems? If He is our King mustn’t he be King over all of us?

Christian nonviolence is close to the heart of the Gospel because it is so bound up in the good news Christ proclaims. Jesus’ atoning death on the cross provides the impulse, but His radical, upside-down, non-coercive ethic is the means through which the Kingdom is implemented.

If you are a Christian and not given to nonviolence, you may be thinking of objections. Preston Sprinkle, in his book Fight, lays out a case for Christian nonviolence and addresses many possible arguments. It’s worth a read. Many Christians, I’m afraid, have been shaped more by American nationalism than Jesus on this issue.

* Preston Sprinkle defines violence as “a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent”, so nonviolence would be not doing those kinds of acts.

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Logging my reading in 2017 and 2018

My goal in 2017 was to read 6 books. I was doing great until, in a fit of ill discipline, I decided to read N.T. Wright on the atonement. I started May or June and it was the only book I’d finish the rest of the year.

So I read 4 books last year:

  1. O Jerusalem!, about how the modern state of Israel came to be
  2. Hillbilly Elegy, one man’s experience in a white, working-class Appalachian family
  3. Understanding Gender Dysphoria, a compassionate, dispassionate, Christian look at transgender issues
  4. The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright’s tome wrestling with the details of the atonement

Which brings me to 2018. I really liked the intentionality of making a list of books at the outset of the year. So I will do it again and hope this time I am more disciplined. Here is my list:

1. The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith by Murray, to learn more about Anabaptism as a movement and theological stream (unread from last year)
2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Alexander, to become more informed about issues of race (unread from last year)
3. 1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles: The Hamilton, Ohio 1913 Flood Then and Now by Lenihan, to learn more about Hamilton and its history (unread from last year)
4. Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence by Sprinkle, because it’s not just Anabaptists that can make a case for Christian nonviolence
5. Life of Pi by Martel, because Amy says I should read some fiction too and she’s right
6. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tripp, to learn something about parenting

I’m excited, this should be a fun group of books.

ETA: Here are my three backup books, in case I finish the six before the end of the year:

  1. Bringing Up Boys by Dobson, because I have three boys now and a couple of them are getting pretty old.
  2. Deep Work by Newport, because I’m always interested in learning to work better and more efficiently.
  3. Unbroken by Hillenbrand, because I should have already read this book by now.
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Christ’s atonement and my sin

N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began was more than I bargained for. It was long and often a hard slog. And now that I’m done, it’s difficult for me even to summarize the book. For a better overview than I could give, read the first section of this relatively positive review from The Gospel Coalition.

Wright doesn’t repudiate penal substitutionary atonement exactly, but argues that there is more to the atonement than it can capture on its own. Instead of the so-called “works contract”, Wright frames the atonement as a “covenant of vocation”, which ultimately means that Jesus’ death on the cross restores us to be “human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world”. So one implication is that it changes the emphasis from “avoiding hell” to “being God’s faithful representative in the world”.

The Gospel Coalition review makes a point that illustrates what I find compelling about this vocational approach to the atonement, and also about the approach to the Scriptures I’ve observed among those who would call themselves Reformed in their theology:

One of the most liberating paradigm-shifts for [the reviewer, Michael Horton] in encountering Reformed theology was its world-embracing outlook and the way it approached the Scriptures as an unfolding drama of creation, redemption, and consummation—over against a crudely “platonized” notion of escape from “the late, great planet earth.” With the story of Israel at its heart, this biblical-theological approach contrasted with interpretations that moralized the sub-plots (e.g., “Dare to be a Daniel”). Detaching them from their overarching plot, these texts were often mined for their direct application to me, without going through Christ as the climax of God’s covenant with Abraham. I committed sins, of course—violations of God’s commands. But it wasn’t as clear to me that my sins were the fruit of a deeper problem: a sinful condition, much less idolatry. Idolatry was something other people did, in strange countries and religions, more than something to which I was prone.

So instead of taking a Bible story and simply extracting from it a moral lesson, it’s much better to look at it in terms of the overarching narrative of the Scriptures with Jesus at the center. This gives a more meaningful context to sin as well, because we see the part that it plays in the big picture story of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Restoration. Perhaps, then, we can also see our own sin as part of this story, and better understand that though redemption includes individuals such as myself, it ultimately is more about God and his work in the world than about me and my personal salvation.


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Fattening them up to gobble them up

Tonight I am thankful for God’s faithfulness and that by His good grace I live a life that is not a lie.


Because five-year-old Nicolas told me tonight, with a sheepish grin, that sometimes he thinks I am part of a robber gang and I just go to work when the family comes to see me. Other times, he thinks that I’m a monster just fattening them up to gobble them up (sort of like the monsters in Calvin and Hobbes).

This led to conversation about integrity and how knowing a person leads us to trust them.

I can’t really articulate how grateful I am that I could have that conversation with a clear conscience. There were days in my life when that would have been impossible.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36

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Science Can Become More Trustworthy

Statistician Emmanuel Candès at #JSM2017: There is “great danger in seeing erosion of public confidence in science”.

This was in reference to the replicability crisis that has especially been flagged in medicine and the social sciences.

I agree with Candès’ assessment.

When science gets it wrong, truth uncovered by science is undermined.

It used to be that a scientist generated a hypothesis based upon knowledge and theory, then tested the hypothesis. This is the model under which traditional statistical methods were developed.

Now, the more typical approach is to collect data and snoop around in it to find something interesting. But if you snoop and use classical statistical methods as evidence of your findings, you’ll be wrong much more often than you might think.

So statisticians are working on developing new ways to account for data snooping, including a method that Candès was talking about. I am very happy that statisticians are working at ways to reduce the replicability problem.

There is another tried-and-true way to handle this problem: Generate your hypotheses by data snooping, then do another validation experiment to see whether those hypotheses hold up. You can be much more comfortable with traditional statistical methods in such a case.

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Reading List for 2017: books 2-3 (plus a long detour)

It’s nearly the end of July, and I’ve read books 1, 2, and 6 on my list.

Book 6 was Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Mark Yarhouse. It helped me better understand that transgender issues are real and complicated, but also that from a Christian perspective, a pastoral, faithful response is possible. I’d really be interested to hear a non-Christian perspective on this book.

Hillbilly Elegy (Book 2 on my list) is a truly fascinating inside look at an Appalachian family that struggled to find its way in a world it wasn’t really equipped to enter. Can its stories and lessons be generalized to the larger Appalachian culture? I do think it can provide insights into a particular segment of the American population. But of course generalizations don’t apply to many individual families.

Now, I actually completed the three books on my list within the first five months of the year so I got cocky. I’d just heard N.T. Wright give a talk, and I decided to take a detour and read what he has recently written on the Christian atonement. I’ve never quite figured out how to look at the atonement, and whether an Anabaptist understanding is substantially different than that of other denominations. Wright’s view is that no single model of the atonement is adequate (for instance, penal substitution is a part of the atonement but not the main part).

It is all quite interesting but also fairly dense, and very long. So I’ve been slowly making my way through this extra book and I’m probably not even halfway through. So it’s put me behind, and left me hoping that the last three books on my list will go quickly.

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Book 1 for 2017: O Jerusalem!

My modest goal for the year is to read six books. Here is an update: I finished the first one on March 19. This may put me behind schedule but it is not as bad as it sounds. Collins and Lapierre’s O Jerusalem! is a 500+ page tome that was fascinating but not especially easy to read. It traces the events that led to the declaration of Israel as a state in 1948.

I have little hope that peace will come to Jerusalem any time soon. I do not have insight into the contemporary struggle, but this history illustrates the ancient and deep-seated claims that both the Jews and Arabs have to the land. Their mutual willingness to fight to the death makes perpetual conflict likely.

Next up: Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Mark Yarhouse.

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