|A Review of
War, Peace, and Social Conscience:
Reviewed by Chris Smith
As a young college student in the shadow of the first Iraq war and trying to sort out what I thought war (and peace), I picked a book off my Dad’s shelf that had been a textbook during his college days at Goshen College. That book was Guy Hershberger’s War, Peace and Non-Resistance, and it helped to nudge me in the direction of a commitment to nonviolence and to reflect upon the logic behind the many varieties of Christian nonviolence. I have re-read this important work several times over the intervening years, and as I mature, I find myself agreeing less with Hershberger and at the same time, having a deeper understanding of why this was such an important book. And now, Theron Schlabach has written an authoritative work on Hershberger’s life and ethics. Hershberger was likely the most significant Mennonite ethicist prior to John Howard Yoder, and thus Schlabach’s new book is an important contribution to Mennonite thought. Schlabach chronicles how Hershberger rose from his humble beginnings among the Amish-Mennonites of Southeastern Iowa to become professor at Goshen College and one of the most respected Mennonite thinkers of his time. Although little known outside Mennonite circles, one of the most significant contribution of Hershberger’s work was the distinction — introduced in his book War, Peace and Non-Resistance — between non-resistance (a literalist interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to “resist not the evil man”) and non-violent resistance. One of the most striking facets of Schlabach’s book is that it narrates how Hershberger’s perspective evolved over the course of his life after the publication of War, Peace and Non-Resistance. Schlabach’s description of this development is focused primarily on Hershberger’s engagements the the Civil Rights movement and particularly with Martin Luther King, Jr. Schlabach makes a compelling case that — at least later in his life — Hershberger’s understanding of non-resistance was more complex than mere passivity. Schlabach says:
In 1975, at age seventy-eight, Hershberger was still pondering his exact position on nonviolent resistance. And he was taking counsel from various voices in his church. He was not at all fickle, not quick to move away from the convictions he had long held. He still approved deeply of King’s kind of nonviolent action, yet he did not give it simple, unqualified, blanket endorsement. Ultimately he wanted to be a disciple of Jesus, not of King.
Yoder scholars will be interested in Schlabach’s account of how Hershberger’s work in the later years of his life was influenced greatly by Yoder’s theology, particularly Yoder’s critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian ethics. I don’t imagine that this new book on Hershberger will find a huge audience, but nonetheless it is a well-researched and graciously-written work that is a major contribution to the history of Mennonite theology.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com