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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 212–213 

Book Review

Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology

ed. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003. 256 pages.

Reviewed by Larry A. Dunn

In Must Christianity Be Violent? Kenneth Chase and Alan Jacobs, professors and scholars associated with Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics, have provided a collection of works capturing the dialogue of a 2000 conference addressing the question posed by the title of this new book. Even the most strident critic of Christianity might presume as fair a simple answer to the question: Of course Christianity is not necessarily violent; examples of Christian goodness and nonviolence abound throughout history (and are apologetically recounted by the thirteen contributors to this work). But from the first chapter, this volume avoids oversimplifying a troubling and complex issue not easily evaded by a tradition entangled by involvement in neglect, injustice, and violence of all kinds both past and present.

As indicated in the subtitle, the volume is divided into three sections made up of chapters primarily addressing case studies, peacemaking initiatives, or theological dialogue. Following a useful introduction that summarizes the ethical challenge posed by the issue at hand while mapping out the terrain ahead, the first section, Histories, sets the tone with its forthright presentation of such “troublesome moments” as the Crusades, the conquest of the Americas, U.S. slavery, and the Holocaust. None of the chapters from this section exonerates or excuses Christianity for its role in the litany of humanity’s inhumanity to itself rehearsed here. However, the effect on the reader of being exposed to the cumulative evidence of this first section may be a less apologetic outcome than accomplished in any single chapter. However apologetic, none of the contributors avoids the tough issues.

Considering that point, the four chapters comprising the middle section, Practices, provide a welcome shift reaffirming Christian nonviolence. Still not skirting the problematic implications of Christianity’s record, these chapters highlight the rescue of Jews and the deconstruction of narrowly taught history as the study of war, and present practical principles and specific steps that promote peacemaking “as integral to a Christian’s daily practice.” These are most compelling and convincing when, as in Stassen’s chapter, the discussion goes beyond the traditional debates over “just war vs. pacifism.”

The final section, Theologies, gives the reader a front row seat to a decidedly nonviolent “debate” addressing Christian complicity with {213} violence from several theological perspectives. This section is notable for the way in which each author seems to be speaking to his own tradition as much as against any others. The reader is reminded one last time of the complexity of issues emerging from the primary question under consideration. Views of the atonement, the problems of church and state, understandings of evil, and the inescapability of complicity for all (not just Christians) in violence as questions for both individual and collective ethics are brought together in the final discussion.

As with the original conference from which it emerged, this book as a whole is perhaps best suited for scholars interested in any or all of the primary subjects represented by the three section topics and their nexus. Fortunately, most of the chapters, especially those within the first two sections, would be accessible to persons outside of the college or university setting. Given the critical questions the book seeks to address, one hopes that it would obtain a readership beyond the academy so that the wider Christian church, for whom it is also relevant, might learn lessons from its violent past and commit itself anew to the necessary task of peacemaking.

Larry A. Dunn, Ph.D.
Director of Academic Programs,
Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California

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