Why War? A Neo-Calvinist Perspective: A Review of A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence


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February 17, 2022
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Title: A Field Guide to Chrisitan Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace 
Author: David C. Cramer, Myles Werntz
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: February 8, 2022
Pages: 192 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1540960122
 

The last two weeks on the In All Things online journal feels like Kuyper Week, akin to the hit Shark Week on the Discovery channel. The new book Calvinism for a Secular Age, edited by Jessica and Rob Joustra, has sparked a host of reviews, reactions, and a podcast conversation. While following and enjoying the applicability of Kuyper’s ideas to our time with both positive and critical commentary, I find resonance with my own book review that shines a light on another weak spot in the Neo-Calvinist tradition. 

Throughout the Stone Lectures, especially the first, Calvinism as a Life System, Kuyper seems obsessed with war. Whether he is praising the Calvinist spirit for filling hearts with valor in the American Revolution and the underdog defeat of the Spaniards when William of Orange broke the dikes and flooded the polders so his fleet could sail to Leyden or describing apologetics as only attacking the flanks instead of a direct assault on the enemy, the language of war peppers Kuyper’s speeches.  

In A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, David Cramer and Myles Werntz break open a Christian tradition very unlike that of Kuyper. I’m not sure if it is because of an aversion to Mennonite and Catholic thought or a commitment to a type of Augustinian just war theory, but the Calvinist tradition has never emphasized the nonviolence angle on reading Scripture, so for a Neo-Calvinist like myself, this book was very enlightening. 

“…the language of war peppers Kuyper’s speeches.”

The intended structure of the book is organized for use as an accessible classroom text. Eight chapters cover eight slightly divergent motivations and methods of Christian nonviolence, while also discussing many of the seminal thinkers of the movement, from the more famous voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder, Howard Thurman, and Dorothy Day, to some lesser-known figures like William Stringfellow and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht. 

I appreciated the consistent focus on the why and the how of various Christian nonviolent traditions. Should we oppose violence because we are disciples of the Prince of Peace? Or because of our mystical connection to God and the rest of humanity? And how should we go about our nonviolence? Is it better to act within a political system or outside of it? Are some violent acts—such as breaking into a selective service office to burn draft cards—justified because they may prevent further violence?  

These questions are big ones, but that was also a challenge for me when reading the book. While America has been engaged in some version of a war for most of my adult life, it hasn’t hit close to home for me. Many of the examples in the book come from what you might think of as the greatest hits of 20th century violence. Nazis, Vietnam, drug cartels in Central America, and the Civil Rights Movement all showed very clearly what was at stake. In this century, our wars seem lukewarm at best, and the violence seems distant, at least to many rural Americans. But maybe that’s exactly the right time to take a more theoretical textbook approach to the history of Christian nonviolence to see what we can learn. 

I was also glad that the authors spent a lot of time reckoning. Neo-Calvinists have been struggling with the sins of our past, and the authors of this book are doing the same. One of the foundational thinkers in the nonviolence movement, John Howard Yoder, has over the course of his career been accused of many sexually inappropriate relationships. For me, this was something I needed to Google, but for Cramer and Werntz, these accusations threatened to undermine the whole idea of Christian nonviolence that they had grown to love. What do we do when our founders are accused of the very thing they are preaching against? Thankfully, for the authors, their answer was a broad and thoughtful reexamination that included a chapter on Christian anti-violence. The final chapter asks how we can seek nonviolence in not just an anti-war sense, but also in a way that protects our brothers—and especially our sisters—in Christ who are so often the victims of a more silent and unseen form of violence. 

“I would wager that many Neo-Calvinists are more leery of war and war-talk, especially considering that the bloodiest century in human history has passed between Kuyper’s death and today.”

After watching Shark Week, I find that it’s a good idea to realize there are other fish in the sea, and after a couple weeks of an introspective look into Kuyperian traditions, it’s good to look outward and see what other traditions have to offer us. If, like me, you’re interested in a broad introduction to the Christian nonviolence movement, I can’t recommend Cramer and Werntz’s book enough. It’s concise, yet in depth, broad ranging, and well-documented with plenty of footnotes for further reading as specific thinkers spark your interest. Some thinkers you will likely disagree with—in fact, some of the folks featured in the book disagree with each other. While Kuyper’s rhetoric employed a Christian’s use of violence, I would wager that many Neo-Calvinists are more leery of war and war-talk, especially considering that the bloodiest century in human history has passed between Kuyper’s death and today.  

A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence addresses an important topic that my tradition has all-too-often been silent about at best, and at worst has inherited a pro-militaristic default position with infrequent pauses to deeply reflect on the spiritual implications of the carnage of perpetual wars. I found in this book a host of diverse Christian voices to listen to and ideas to consider and challenge my perspective. If you choose to pick up this book, you will certainly take away a deeper understanding of pursuing peace on earth. 

About the Author
  • Laremy De Vries is co-owner of the Fruited Plain Cafe, which has been serving Sioux Center since 2010. He is a 2002 graduate of Dordt and holds an MA from the Philosophy Department of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. He lives in Sioux Center with his wife and 3 children.

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