A Feature Review of
A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence:
Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace
David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
Since Cain raised his hand above his unassuming brother and struck him down in Genesis 4, violence has been a fundamental characteristic of the human experience. It is a perpetual problem in the Old Testament, something that Tremper Longman III addressed at length in his Confronting Old Testament Controversies. Jesus even addresses the desire for violence when the disciples ask about bringing swords with them to the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:36-38). The conversation related to violence is now tied to conversations of identity, political affiliation and whether one is even a Christian.
Cramer and Werntz’s volume reminds me of volumes like Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water or Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s 20th Century Theology. In both of these volumes, streams of theological similarity are brought together in cursory introductions, outlining the major thinkers and tenants of each stream. In Foster’s classic, he traces six streams of theological expression that guide the reader toward discerning a paradigm for navigating the Christian faith. Christianity, like all religions, is made up of a set of beliefs and practices that give life meaning. Those beliefs and practices can be interpreted wholesale and literally, not giving any heed to the nuances of both scripture and tradition. Foster, with his Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical and Incarnational traditions, provides a set of lenses for understanding Christian theology and implementing Christian practice in a healthy manner.
Grenz and Olson’s handbook on 20th century theology works similarly. Here the authors focus on a variety of theological constructs that emerged in the 20th century, such Neo-orthodoxy, liberation theology and narrative theology, and introduce the leading thinkers and tenants of each construct—especially as they relate to transcendence (God’s apart-ness from creation) and immanence (God’s nearness to creation). Each scholar is presented in summary and the strengths and limitations of each construct are assessed. The goal of each volume is first, to outline the content while second, guiding the reader to an adoptable stance that will continue to inform and shape her or his faith.
I believe that a similar notion is at play in A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence. To those familiar with this discussion, however, this may seem an odd discussion. Over the last five decades, one author has served as the “go-to” author for understanding nonviolence from a Christian perspective: John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), the noted Mennonite scholar. Yet, there are two immediate problems that must be addressed. First, Yoder represented only one approach to Christian nonviolence, and not necessarily a stream adopted by non-white people groups. Second, since his death, it has been discovered that Yoder had a history of sexual violence that perpetuated itself for decades and was ignored by Mennonite ecclesiastical authorities. A discussion about violence must address violence, especially when the violence was wrought by a leading figure of the movement.
Fortunately, in the Preface, Cramer and Werntz address this conundrum straight away. They note the formative influence that Yoder’s writing had on them, yet they also note that they were compelled to move away from Yoder due to the revelation of his blatant and unremitting hypocrisy. Instead of abandoning their commitment to Christian nonviolence (or their overall commitment to Christianity, as seem to have become the trend among many Christian leaders over the last few years), this untethering led them to discover voices in streams of thinking that they had previously ignored or been unware of. This book is the fruit of that labor.
The thesis of this field guide is spelled out early in the introduction: “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” (p. 2). To best understand the topic of Christian nonviolence, we must see that this forest is made up of a variety of trees, each splendorous and strong, before we can identify a specific tree under which we may seek refuge from the shrill sounds of non-Christian violence.
Following the introduction, there are eight content chapters. Chapter 1 views nonviolence through the lens of discipleship, drawing from J. Massyngbaerde Ford and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Chapter 2 views nonviolence through the lens of virtue ethics, drawing from Stanley Hauerwas and Dorothy Day. Chapter 3 views nonviolence through the lens of Christian mysticism, drawing from Howard Thurman and Thomas Merton. Chapter 4 views nonviolence through the lens of apocalyptic theology, drawing from William Stringfellow and Jacques Ellul. Chapter 5 views nonviolence through the lens of Christian realism, drawing from Reinhold Niebuhr and Glen Strassen. Chapter 6 views nonviolence through the lens of public theology, drawing from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu. Chapter 7 views nonviolence through the lens of liberation theology, drawing from Oscar Romero and Helder Camara. Chapter 8 views nonviolence through the lens of Christian antiviolence, drawing from Traci West and Marie Fortune.
Overall, this is a solid introduction to the discussion of Christian nonviolence. In terms of critique, I do wish that the authors had pushed a bit further on guiding the reader to a stance. Maybe a concluding question or two, such as “What resonated with you personally or theologically?” or “How might you respond if you were in this situation?,” would have been helpful. That being said, the positions and leading thinkers are outlined well with plenty of follow-up resources cited. In a world where the way of violence is becoming not only synonymous with “masculinity” but also with “Christianity,” this is a welcome and needed resource.
Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.