Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 247–248 

Book Review

Choosing Against War: A Christian View

John D. Roth. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002. 203 pages.

Reviewed by Duane K. Friesen

John D. Roth, Professor of History at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, has written a timely book of his convictions about Christian pacifism. Writing to a lay audience rather than scholars, Roth “hooks” readers with his personal story of being the only passenger in a train car late at night in Hamburg, Germany, and witnessing a gang attack an old man. How does a Christian pacifist respond? “Is love stronger than our fears?”

Roth argues for a Christian pacifism grounded in the biblical story of both testaments. Roth engages the popular phrase, “What would Jesus do?” to show that following Jesus goes beyond respectable standards of moral behavior. To follow Jesus means to orient our lives in a trusting relationship to “God’s grand narrative,” fulfilled in Jesus’ model of nonviolent love.

But is this realistic? Worldviews shape what people can imagine is possible. If, for example, we believe in a Nietzschean view—that life is an endless struggle for power, or the “myth of redemptive violence”—that evil can only be overcome through violence or that freedom can only be won through war, then we will not entertain pacifism.

“The good news of the gospel of peace” is illumined by a moving story of a woman in South Africa who was able to forgive the man who burned both her son and husband to death. “Reconciliation with our enemies is not merely a part of the good news of the gospel we have received, it is the gospel—the very heart of our faith which Christians are called to embody in their daily lives and to share freely with all {248} those who are not yet in fellowship with God” (64). Roth is sensitive to readers who are not pacifists. He cautions about the dangers of self-righteous pacifists who know they are “right.” “Pacifist humility” is a middle ground between our temptation to assert the truth with absolute certainty and the equally tempting impulse to retreat into open-ended relativism. Trust in God (not ourselves) and in the model of Jesus is not triumphalist, but rather gentle and invitational.

How should Christians view symbols of national identity like the flag and the phrase, “In God we trust?” Roth warns of “patriotism’s potential to usurp the trust and security that we claim is reserved for God” (133). If Christians cannot participate in war, then how should they view the state and be citizens? Roth presents a number of concrete, practical ways pacifist Christians do contribute to the well-being of the societies where they live. He includes a Mennonite Brethren statement of ten alternative Christian responses to war.

Roth writes well in layman’s language to make a winsome case for Christian pacifism based on the best insights of biblical theology. His stories connect us with real life experience. The book also raises several issues: 1. How should we view the tension between “faith” and “reason?” When Roth contrasts reliance of modernity on reason and common sense with the eschatological hope of a Christian vision (that is “beyond” reason), Roth grants too much to those who justify violence. “Trust” in violence to guarantee a secure future is also a “faith,” an eschatological hope “beyond” reason. On the other hand, pacifists too should use the best insights of social sciences and reason to determine how to make peace.

2. Roth shows why lawsuits among fellow Christians are problematic. But Roth does not address whether Christian pacifists might support nonlethal coercive force in enforcing good laws (e.g., litigation to protect workers, children, and the environment). 3. Pacifist humility is important, but is Jesus also a model when he is more aggressive? Roth describes God in Christ as noncoercive, gentle, creative, vulnerable, and invitational (108). Yet Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was sometimes angry and confrontational. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was not gentle. It is not clear how Roth views more confrontational forms of non-violent action.

Duane K. Friesen
Prof. of Bible and Religion
Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas