J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium.
Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S./Cascadia Press, 2000. Pp. 223. ($22.95paperback, $34.95 in
Canada) ISBN 0-9665021-4-0.
J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001. Pp. 246. ($22.00paperback) ISBN 0-8028-4908-3. Reviewed by Malinda E. Berry.
Kenneth E. Chase and Alan Jacobs, eds. Must Christianity Be Violent?: Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003. Pp. 256. ($19.99paperback) ISBN 1-58743-064-9 Reviewed by J. R. Burkholder.
J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S./Cascadia Press, 2000. Pp. 223. ($22.95paperback, $34.95 in Canada) ISBN 0-9665021-4-0.
J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001. Pp. 246. ($22.00paperback) ISBN 0-8028-4908-3.
Bluffton College religion professor J. Denny Weaver's two recent books go hand-in-hand. The first book, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium, is Weaver's answer to a two-part question that has been fueling his work for some time. The first question: Do peace churches, namely Anabaptists and Mennonites as a peace church, have (or ought they have) a particular perspective on Christian theology? The second: Do peace church assumptions shape this perspective in such a way that Anabaptist theology "might produce a different view of classic questions from that of the majority Christian tradition"? (1) While he works through his affirmative response to these two questions in Anabaptist Theology, the second book, The Nonviolent Atonement, provides us with Weaver's full-blown treatment of the ways his Mennonite theological perspective is interested in questions that classical treatments of Jesus Christ's atonement are not particularly interested in exploring. So, in describing the premise of the first book, one also lays the foundation for the second.
The first two paragraphs of the author's preface to Anabaptist Theology are important background because in them Weaver both describes his self-awareness of his agenda and recounts two conversations that contributed to this project. First, Weaver points to his foray into postmodernity with the encouragement of two of his colleagues, and second, he relates the gist of a conversation he had with John Howard Yoder not long before Yoder's death. Yoder believed that there is an unacknowledged assumption that has been foundational for Mennonite theologizing in the twentieth century: the existence of a theology-in-general that has driven "Mennonite efforts to engender theology that simultaneously built on and was distinct from the supposed general theology of mainstream Protestant orthodoxy." (2) One cannot underestimate the importance of Yoder's observation for Weaver's work.
In the first chapter, Weaver dives right into an analysis of Mennonite academic theology as the discipline is pursued in Canada and the United States. This move is especially appropriate given the merger and separation of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and the Mennonite Church (MC) into Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA based on differences in our national identities and contexts, which Weaver points out have just as much (if not more) to do with the role of civil religion in Canada and the United States as they do with differences based on the heritages of Russian, Dutch, North German, South German, and Swiss forbears. Yet, Weaver cautions that "to make the shape of the national culture an intrinsic dimension of theological equation is actually a surreptitious way to enshrine a nonChristian [sic] authority (a national ethos) in a determinant role." (3) Weaver's alternative to allowing national identity to have so much power over our identity as Mennonite Christians is to argue that it is the "Jesus' story and the 'politics of Jesus'--not the shape of a national ethos or fourth- and fifth-century creedal formulas--that should determine the contour of our theological agenda." (4)
This line of argument is probably the most controversial aspect of Weaver's work. Yet, this point of view does describe a failing of Mennonite theology throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: turning Jesus' rejection of the sword into an "add-on" to traditional theological formulas that do not address violence. Moreover, this kind of adding-on makes "the status quo or dominant view normative and puts [us] in the awkward position of defending theology of the oppressors of Anabaptism." (5) Again, there is an alternative: Weaver writes, "I call for [the] development of a new peace church theology, rather than merely adding a couple of components or in some other way trying to salvage Christendom's violence-accommodating formulas." (6) This is why Yoder's observation is so important to Weaver's project.
In the final chapter of Anabaptist Theology, Weaver attempts to model theological dialogue that he considers to be the future of Mennonite theology. His initial conversation partners are theologians working in the black and womanist theological traditions: James Cone, Karen and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher, and Delores Williams. (7) In The Nonviolent Atonement, he adds feminists Rita Nakashima Brock, Joann Carlson Brown, Carter Heyward, Julie Hopkins, Rebecca Parker, and Rosemary Radford Ruether to the conversation as well as womanists Katie Canon, Kelly Brown Douglas, Jacquelyn Grant, JoAnne Terrell, and Emilie Townes.
In the introduction to The Nonviolent Atonement Weaver describes a "long-running" conversation about christology and atonement. People who are part of this conversation are interested in the "person and work of Christ." For Weaver, Mennonite theological reflection must assume the responsibility of confronting images and assumptions of violence that are basic to and dominate this conversation. Such confrontation is an important goal of his book. He works toward this goal in two ways. First, Weaver's own theological, ethical, and biblical concerns as a Christian pacifist committed to nonviolence come into direct conversation with both the contextual voices of feminist, womanist, and black theologies and the voices of Christendom using his own atonement model: narrative Christus Victor. Second, Weaver looks at the questions and criticisms of traditional atonement models that feminist, womanist, and black theologies have raised in recent years. These voices offer what he calls contextualized critiques and are important because they expose the problems of the "received theology of Christendom." And it is Christendom that gives violence a central place in the life-story of Jesus Christ. Readers who are new (and not so new) to the academic side of the atonement conversation will find Weaver's survey of traditional atonement motifs helpful as he sets up his own model.
Chapters 2 and 3 are where the dimensions of narrative Christus Victor are spelled-out in biblical terms and in christological terms. What is narrative Christus Victor exactly? In short, it is a view of atonement where "the event of Jesus and the church around Jesus unfolding in the realm of history as depicted in the biblical story" rather than a cosmic depiction of the battle between good and evil give Jesus' work its meaning. Weaver is interested the in concrete realities of good and evil that are symbolized in the Christus Victor motif. For example, in the book of Revelation, "it is clear that the symbolism of conflict and victory of the reign of God over the rule of Satan is a way of ascribing cosmic significance to the church's confrontation of the Roman empire in the first century." (8) This historical reality that corresponds to cosmic imagery, Weaver argues, provides the Christian community with a narrative.
The development of narrative Christus Victor is a creative approach to difficult issues. On the one hand there are issues of real and personal violence Jesus experienced through his very violent death by crucifixion. How are we to talk about this violence as Christians who hold Jesus' death as sacred because we believe that it saves us? On the other hand are issues of systemic violence that contextual critiques describe as theological problems. How does Jesus' person and work confront and save us from social injustices like white privilege, sexism, racial discrimination, militarism, and so on?
Ultimately, The Nonviolent Atonement is a critique against the Satisfaction motif. This is a theory of atonement originated by Anselm of Canterbury in the Middle Ages that argues that human sin offends God the Father's honor requiring God the Son to come into the world to pay our debt against God's honor, which he achieved through his perfect obedience that culminated in death on the cross. Weaver holds that, Satisfaction atonement depends on the assumption that doing justice means to punish, that a wrong deed is balanced by violence." (9)
At the same time, Weaver's nonviolent understanding of atonement is a conversation starter for Mennonite, black, feminist, and womanist theologies. By taking a view of Jesus' life and death as one that confronts violence, Weaver is directly addressing issues that are at the heart of these other theological perspectives as well. He is also clear to underscore something that theology-in-general downplays: "In spite of their specific names, each of these theologies [black, feminist, womanist] addresses every Christian from a particular perspective." (10)
Both of Weaver's books present Mennonite academic theology with a clear direction in which it might move forward. As an academic theologian myself, I routinely confront the assumption that because I am doing theology that addresses dominant theology's sanctioned violence against women as well as its values associated with is often called "white supremacy," my work is not theological but merely "cultural studies." I am appreciative of Weaver's work because it challenges these kinds of assumptions and stands as an important contribution to an on-going conversation because of his tenacious refusal to allow the violence in our Christian imagination to go unchecked.
At the same time, I find that Weaver's work fails to lay bare issues of whiteness and sexism/male supremacy in Mennonite theology. For example, in his efforts to bring Mennonite theology into conversation with black and womanist theology, I wonder at his choice to ask whether Mennonites' penchant for adhering to theology-in-general has anything to do with whiteness and racism. Or what of our own systematic silencing of domestic and sexual abuse, issues of great concern to feminist and womanist theologians--including Mennonite women--and well-documented in Peace Theology and Violence against Women? (11) In other words, I encourage Weaver to make a stronger connection between the issues of interest to contextual theologies and how their concerns might shape Mennonite theology; after all, these theologies are addressing us too.
Malinda E. Berry
Union Theological Seminary (New York)
1. J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium, vol. 2, The C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S./Cascadia Press, 2000),13.
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Ibid., 46. On this point, Weaver specifically cites the action of GCMC and MC delegates to separate into national church bodies.
4. Ibid., 47.
5. Ibid., 112.
6. Ibid., 69.
7. Womanist theology is a particular method of Christian theology that is similar to feminist theology but rather than beginning with women's experience in general, it begins with black women's experience in particular.
8. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 27.
9. Ibid., 225.
10. Ibid., 228.
11. Elizabeth G. Yoder, ed., Peace Theology and Violence against Women, vol. 16, Occasional Papers (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1992).
Kenneth E. Chase and Alan Jacobs, eds. Must Christianity Be Violent?: Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003. Pp. 256. ($19.99paperback) ISBN 1-58743-064-9
The March 15-17, 2000, academic conference at Wheaton College (Illinois), from which this book resulted, was shaped by the working title "Christianity and Violence: Beyond Complicity." The use of "complicity" signaled that this was not just any set of papers on faith and violence. Sponsored by Wheaton's Center for Applied Christian Ethics, the organizers were motivated apologetically in response to the late 20th century secular accusers who have argued that Christian thought and practice lead almost inevitably to violence, conquest, and war. Wheaton is to be commended for this initiative, bringing together a varied group of distinguished scholars to offer their perspectives on these weighty issues.
This reviewer had the good fortune of attending the conference, which was energized by lively student participation as well as significant interchange among the presenters. Recalling the stimulating interaction of those days at Wheaton, I have been eager for the appearance of the book as a basis for continuing the conversations that began some four years ago. I am not disappointed; the thirteen contributed chapters display the wide range of topics introduced, including historical case studies from the Crusades to the Jewish Holocaust, exposition and critique of Christian thought and practice, lively arguments for and against the practice of nonviolence. Mennonite and "quasi-Mennonite" views are well represented by contributors James Juhnke, Stanley Hauerwas, and Glen Stassen.
My intention in this review is to underscore some questions that need further attention from Mennonite and other Christian pacifist thinkers. I suggest that the reader, after getting oriented by way of editor Ken Chase's helpful "Introduction," might well turn to Alan Jacobs' "Afterword." Both these chapters were written long after the conference itself and provide essential context for the rest of the book. Jacobs sets forth a valuable outline of various modalities relating religion and violence, drawing on judiciously selected comments from post 9/11 pundits. He also notes the problems in defining and judging violence and offers useful clarifications that might have enabled some of the contributors to the book to employ a common vocabulary.
The historical section begins with Joseph Lynch on "The First Crusade," drawing from a firsthand narrative to illuminate the "soldier of Christ" mentality and motivation. He presents an intriguing hypothesis regarding historical phases of biblical hermeneutics: early church fathers employed an allegorical method to minimize the bloodiness of Old Testament conquests. But by the 11th century, a move toward more literal reading of such as Joshua offered justification for the Crusades.
Luis N. Rivera-Pagan explores the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Americas, contrasting Hernan Cortes with Bartoleme de las Casas to illustrate the competing ideologies of violent messianism and prophetic indignation in an extensively-documented essay. The chapter by Dan McKanan, provocatively titled "Is God Violent?," summarizes four theological options in the U.S. antislavery movement: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. McKanan concludes that Lincoln's assassination endorsed his "providential theology of divine violence" and thus destroyed the possibility of a genuinely nonviolent American theology.
Two chapters, by David P. Gushee and Victoria Barnett, deal with aspects of the Jewish Holocaust. Barnett surveys a range of Christian responses, from cooperation to resistance, while Gushee examines the motivations of Christian rescuers. Both these writers recognize that the label of Christian faith has been stretched to embrace contradictory behaviors, from self-sacrifice to involvement in Nazi racism and brutality.
Taken together, these historical studies leave a grim aftertaste. The sheer accumulation of instances of Christian involvement in evil leads most writers, as well as readers, to a posture of humility and confession.
Mark Noll closes this section by shifting from the essentially descriptive work up to this point, to more normative considerations. Posing the question "Have Christians Done More Harm than Good?," his sweeping assessment of violence in Christian history acknowledges wholesale complicity in crusades, wars, racism, and slavery. Nevertheless he concludes that on balance, Christians have acted less harmfully than others, and that the world would be worse off without the witness of Christianity. Certainly some readers will want to ask what kinds of qualitative and quantitative criteria can be employed to make any such judgment.
In chapter 7, Jim Juhnke exposes the "myth of redemptive violence" that has dominated the conventional teaching of U.S. history and proposes strategies that utilize counterfactual arguments to set forth constructive nonviolent alternatives. He calls attention to neglected aspects of the American story: unsung Native Americans who resisted nonviolently, the anti-militarism of the founders, the important role of voluntary associations in reform movements. Editor Ken Chase contributes a newly-written chapter (not presented at the March 2000 conference) outlining his proposals for a "Christian rhetoric of peaceful discourse" in response to the cultural critics who argue that Christian truth claims inevitably lead to violence. He argues that the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice and the ultimate justice of God's judgment are necessary theological principles for controlling such discourse.
Under the very appropriate title "Jesus and Just Peacemaking Theory," Glen Stassen creatively links his work on the transforming initiatives in the Sermon on the Mount to the ten practices of the Just Peacemaking project. Stassen moves deftly and directly from current New Testament scholarship on the historical Jesus to contemporary issues of nuclear weapons, Palestine/Israel, economic justice, and more, without pausing to consider how Reinhold Niebuhr might be groaning in despair!
Turning now to the "Theologies" heading, Richard Mouw's approach to "Violence and the Atonement" is essentially a restatement of the Anselmian penal-satisfaction theory and its Calvinist expression in the Heidelberg Catechism. Mouw acknowledges challenges to that tradition from feminist theology (with its accusation of "divine child abuse") and his acquaintance with John H. Yoder and Rene Girard, but the classic need for punishment to atone for sin remains as a controlling concept.
The final three chapters focus largely on issues of pacifist theology as expressed in dialogue between Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, the highly-acclaimed proponent of radical orthodoxy. The forty-plus pages here provide a unique case study, illustrating for those of us engaged in the issues of Mennonite peace theology both the possibilities and the pitfalls that trouble our efforts to communicate in the milieu of contemporary theology. Let me explain by taking up these chapters out of order.
John Milbank's "Violence: Double Passivity" presents a phenomenology of contemporary violence. Assuming that most of us in the developed world encounter violence only through passively viewing television or reading history, he sets forth a sophisticated and rather dense analysis of the moral problem of spectatorship. This brings Milbank to the point of suggesting that watching violence may be worse than committing it. Further, he criticizes "pacifism" (which he seems to equate with passivity) for being counterintuitive, as in the instance of refusing to protect one's loved ones.
There is much more in Milbank's essay, demonstrating his command of an immense body of literature. But his easy dismissal of a legalistic box labeled "pacifism" and his apparent correspondence of watching television with killing on the battlefield suggests too much dependence on an Augustinian moral psychology. Such analysis appears almost entirely subjective, attending only to the actor's intentions and motivations, while ignoring the objective behavior-- what violence does to the victim!
Hauerwas devotes the first half of his essay to an admiring exposition of John Yoder's "pacifism of the Messianic Community." He argues powerfully that Yoder's unwavering commitment to nonviolence (with which Hauerwas identifies) makes no sense apart from its distinctive Christological grounding: Jesus Christ is Lord.
Hauerwas' intention, however, is much more than a tribute to Yoder. As his subtitle indicates, "Explaining Christian Nonviolence: Notes for a Conversation with John Milbank," all the Yoder material is aimed at demonstrating why Yoder is right and Milbank is wrong on nonviolence. Thus the second half of the chapter is headed "Why Milbank Should Declare He Is a Pacifist," an argument supported with a dozen footnotes to Milbank's voluminous work.
The pity of it all is that, due to travel complications, Milbank never heard Hauerwas' challenge delivered at Wheaton. (Milbank's chapter as prepared for publication has only an offhand mention of Hauerwas.) The concluding chapter of the book, an edited verbatim of the two men discussing all kinds of questions regarding peace, violence, justice, and coercion, suggests that Milbank does not really grasp the crux of Hauerwas/Yoderian biblical realism. At the end of the day, the provocative Hauerwas question posed by moderator Jacobs is left hanging: Is Milbank "doing ontology when he should be thinking about following Jesus" (219)?
In sum, this collection is a rich resource, but leaves this reviewer wishing for more time and more conversation. Once again we recognize that there are lots of gaps in our efforts to express Christian pacifism. My point is not the fact that most Christians, or even most theologians, are not ready to embrace our views, but that they often fail to understand just what we are claiming, or how we ground it theologically.
J. R. Burkholder
Professor Emeritus, Religion and Peace Studies
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life