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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 213–217 

Book Review

A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace

David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. 192 pages.

Reviewed by Daniel Rempel

Mere days after I received my review copy of David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz’s A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian troops would invade Ukraine. Putin’s invasion is not the only act of violence plaguing innocent civilians across {214} the globe, but it seems to be the one that has most strongly captured the attention of the watching world—or at least, of the Western world where I reside. If nothing else, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder of the world’s obsession with violence, and of how violence is justified to further a host of sinful ends, imagined largely by people in power.

It is in this world obsessed with violence that Cramer and Werntz’s book comes to life. Their purpose in writing A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence is twofold. First, Cramer and Werntz, both born in the US, were confronted by the atrocity of September 11, 2001, where two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This confrontation sparked questions in both their imaginations about the relationship between Christianity and violence (vii). In their questioning, both were directed to the work of John Howard Yoder, arguably the most prominent theologian of the twentieth century on matters related to peace and nonviolence. However, in light of the allegations of Yoder’s sexual violence towards women becoming public, both were left wondering about the validity of Yoder’s writing moving forward.*

Yoder’s violence reveals the second purpose of Cramer and Werntz’s book. Being confronted with the revelations of Yoder’s violence, Cramer and Werntz were both left asking the question, “If one of the leading twentieth-century voices for Christian nonviolence was himself violent in such heinous ways, is Christian nonviolence itself a sham?” (vii-ix). This book is the result of their questioning, a testament to the breadth and depth of Christianity’s affiliation with the practice we now call “nonviolence.” In what follows, I briefly survey the eight movements which make up A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence and offer a few constructive remarks on how Cramer and Werntz’s sketches of Christian nonviolence might invert our perceptions about how to live as Christians in a world obsessed by violence.

Cramer and Werntz’s thesis is this: “Christian nonviolence has never been monolithic but has always included merging and diverging streams; it is therefore best understood as a dynamic and contested tradition rather than a unified and settled position” (2). This book is not an apologetic for Christian nonviolence but an invitation for all to see a broader tradition within Christianity. To do this they identify eight major streams of Christian nonviolence, which they suggest fall into two forms: “an inward-focused, quietist, absolutist, communalist pacifism that focuses on faithfulness and fidelity to Jesus’s teachings {215} on nonresistance and in so doing offers a witness to the world” and “a more outward-focused, activist, political pacifism that takes Jesus’s teachings less literally and focuses instead on the effectiveness of nonviolence, using nonviolence as a tool for social change and political transformation of the world” (4–5).

In the first form of Christian nonviolence, the four categories Cramer and Werntz identify are nonviolence as Christian discipleship, nonviolence as Christian virtue, nonviolence of Christian mysticism, and apocalyptic nonviolence. Beginning with nonviolence as Christian discipleship, Cramer and Werntz begin with arguably the most well-known tradition of Christian nonviolence, a tradition promoted by such prominent twentieth-century theologians as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder. Here, nonviolent action is spurred on by Christ’s command that disciples live nonviolently, as witnesses to the nations within the violence of the world without becoming like the violent world. Nonviolence as Christian virtue differs in that it draws from the philosophical virtue tradition to parse a comprehensive vision of what it means to be fully human before God. Nonviolent advocates within this tradition identify nonviolence as essential to becoming a virtuous person. Nonviolence of Christian mysticism offers a third expression of this form, highlighting the soul’s participation in the life of God as the driving force behind one’s expression of nonviolence. For nonviolent Christian mystics, war is rooted in the disorder of one’s soul, and thus any response to the violence of the world must retrace its steps beyond the political frameworks that allow such conflict to take place. Finally, apocalyptic nonviolence emphasizes the conflict between Christ’s way of life and the world’s way of Death. It takes as its starting point the way in which the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ expose the powers and principalities of this world, a reality that calls Christians to actively oppose the machinations of Death in the world.

As these examples show, this form of Christian nonviolence stresses the personal responsibility of the Christian under Christ to live in a nonviolent manner. Despite their varying emphases, what ties these four expressions of Christian nonviolence together is the centrality of nonviolence to the way one lives out the implications of the gospel of Christ’s reconciliation. Personal allegiance to the way of Christ in the world takes precedence over political efficacy or importance. While the Christian life is lived in the world, it is primarily lived before Christ, and it is Christ who instructs the Christian to live nonviolently.

In the second form of Christian nonviolence, the four categories Cramer and Werntz identify are realist nonviolence, nonviolence as political practice, liberationist nonviolence, and Christian antiviolence. {216} Realist nonviolence goes beyond Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism to encapsulate “a mode of ethical deliberation that seeks the best course of action amid the tension between the eschatological ideal of the kingdom of God and the realities of fallen societies” (76). Advocates of realist nonviolence oppose the idea that violence is the best way to deal with human sin and argue that nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution are the most realistic and least destructive. Nonviolence as political practice addresses nonviolence in public life and public action, and in doing so it is closely related to realist nonviolence. It is primarily concerned with overturning social injustices but in a manner that is inherently and faithfully nonviolent. Liberationist nonviolence highlights power structures that promote violence. An awareness that power structures may encourage violence is essential to overcoming such violence. “Liberationist nonviolence, then, is not merely about refraining from overt acts of violence; it is about actively working to undo the violence that is inimical to human flourishing” (116, italics original). It strives to liberate those most afflicted by the violence of power structures. Finally, Christian antiviolence arose in direct opposition to the sexual violence of John Howard Yoder, which brought to light the failure of peace theology to posit connections between the violence of war and genocide and sexual and gender-based violence. Reflecting on the experiences of women and sexual minorities, advocates for Christian antiviolence work to dismantle patriarchal and white supremacist systems and structures that foster sexual and gender-based violence.

This second form of Christian nonviolence is more concerned with enacting substantive nonviolent change than Cramer and Werntz’s first form. While proponents of this second form of Christian nonviolence root their convictions in their Christian commitments and the liberative message of Jesus, their primary concern is not with personal affiliation with Jesus Christ but with opposing worldly injustice by nonviolent means.

One way of evaluating A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence would be to probe the eight chapters or even just the authors’ two forms of Christian nonviolence and attempt to work out which strand of Christian nonviolence is “best.” However, any evaluation of which strand of Christian nonviolence is superior would require the construction of criteria to measure and compare the different strands. While such an evaluation might on occasion be worthwhile, it is at best a practice reserved for particular social or historical contexts; it is unlikely to bear any fruit in a quest for a universal peace ethic.

A better way to evaluate A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence could be to treat each chapter as a sketch of what it means for Christians to live {217} nonviolently. If, as the subtitle of the book suggests, the Christian gospel is a gospel of peace and that peace is something practiced nonviolently, then what Cramer and Werntz have presented are sketches of the gospel of peace enacted at particular times and in particular places. There may not be one universal rendering of what it means for Christians to live nonviolently. Perhaps there is room for these eight different sketches to coexist under the broad umbrella that Cramer and Wertz refer to as “the gospel of peace.” It may even be the case that some who pick up this book will need convincing that the gospel of peace ought to be lived nonviolently. By reading A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence this way, these chapters become not competitors pitted against each other but unique possibilities to be explored, each a part of a mosaic that offers a colorful picture of what enacting the gospel of peace might look like in different historical and geopolitical contexts.

By the time this review is published, Putin’s rampage may have faded into a distant memory in our collective consciousness. But we must not associate violence only with Putin. In my home country of Canada, we continue to wrestle with the cultural violence of the Indian Residential School system. Our American neighbors are seemingly stuck in an endless cycle of gun violence in schools and beyond. Across the globe, women are subjected to gender-based violence and the world’s poorest reel from the effects of environmental violence. In a world obsessed with violence, sketching out the polyphonous possibilities of the gospel of peace is precisely the kind of imaginative work that Christians must do to live peacefully amidst violent regimes. And it is precisely this imaginative work into which Cramer and Werntz offer a gateway by documenting eight different variations of peaceful Christianity. If to be a Christian is to live in the world and that world is obsessed with violence and therefore inherently at odds with the gospel of peace, then there may be no more urgent text for Christians to encounter than one like A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, a book that will spark diverse and imaginative new ideas for living nonviolently amidst the world’s sinful obsession with violence.

Daniel Rempel is a PhD candidate at University of Aberdeen, Scotland. This review first appeared in the online journal Macrina Magazine. It is reprinted here (slightly revised) with the kind permission of Micah Enns-Dyck.

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