Watts gives careful analysis of church’s pacifist past
February 1, 2006
By Perry Cotham
for the Christian Chronicle
Watts, Craig. Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence andthe State. Indianapolis: Doulos Christo Press, 2005. ISBN0-9744796-8-3; 161 pages; $11.95; (317) 639-1541 or www.douloschristou.com.
The time of globalterrorism, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the experience of“shock and awe” bombing raids and the vast complexity of international issuescombine to lead thoughtful citizens — and Christians most of all — to considertheir moral responsibility in matters of war, peace and violence.
The issue is as oldas political society itself, and since at least the time of Augustine has beenthe subject of intense analysis, debate and discussion among theologians andchurch leaders.
The heritage of theAmerican Restoration Movement on the multifaceted issues of war and peace, bothin scholarship and in practice, is both rich and diverse. If we approachcontemporary dialogue on these issues responsibly, we do well to deepen ourunderstanding with a careful study of the most influential early Restorationleaders.
Herein lies the valueof Craig Watts’ Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence andState. Campbell (1788-1866) served clearly asthe single most important thinker, speaker and writer in the RestorationMovement that produced the churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ andindependent Christian Churches. His positionwas courageously and clearly stated to a generation of Americans who, much likeour own age, believed that participation in wars by Christian citizens, whileregrettable and at times tragic, is both civic duty and divinely mandated moralresponsibility.
Campbell did not shun this old and explosive issue or equivocate inhis use of language while confronting cultural assumptions about war.(Campbell’s Address on War, originally published in the Millennial Harbinger inJuly 1848, is in the appendix.) The great merit of Watts’book is its valuable contribution to American church history generally and toRestoration literature specifically. The book is copiously documented and richin original sources.
Heretofore, Campbell’s ideas havereceived scant coverage in the American peace movement. “I believe the memoryof the church’s pacifist past should not be suppressed but rather be brought tothe surface,” declares Watts. “If some chooseto reject it for themselves, let them do so without claiming it is not alegitimate part of who we are as churches that grew from the reform movement ofwhich the pacifist Alexander Campbell was at the forefront.” Then Watts, aRestoration scholar and gospel minister who earned his doctorate from BostonUniversity, explains Campbell’s views on a range of issues related to warfareand the political state.
The Campbellthat emerges from Watts’ careful analysis ofthe man and his times is neither isolated nor eccentric in his thinking. In hislong career of preaching andteaching, Campbellpersistently denounced the practice of war as absolutely incompatible withChristian faith and commitment. Many of the best-known Disciples leaders werealso pacifists. Campbellwas influenced by a number of peace advocates, especially Thomas Grimke. Hecontended that examples of warfare in the Old Testament are not relevant toChristians in the contemporary age, and the example and teachings of Jesus,Prince of Peace, establish the radical standard for Christians in the modernage. Campbell’sopposition to war was in part an expression of his strong passion for the unityof the church. He decried Christians who are willing to kill one another in thename of God — suggesting Christians of all nations are members of one kingdom,and war is an attack on the subjects of the one rightful King Jesus Christ. Campbell recognized nodifference between defensive and offensive wars or between just and unjustwars. The doctrine of the two kingdoms, cited by Jesus to Pilate (John 18: 36),was sufficient reason for Christians to withdraw from combat on thebattlefield. Campbellalso offered humanitarian reasons for Christian pacifism.
Watts discusses how Campbell’s views wereshaped by both millennial hopes and the experience of the American Civil War.This Restoration leader deeply lamented that many disciples were drawn into theranks of either the Union or the Confederatecause during Civil War. Campbelllifted his pen, called for peace andsought to dissuade Christians from entering the conflict. According to Watts, Campbell never developeda detailed political ideology or philosophy of government, but was influencedin a cynical direction by his experience as a representative at the VirginiaState Constitutional Congress from October 1829 to January 1830. He wasambivalent about Christians’ involvement in political life, though unyieldingin opposition to Christian involvement in the military.
Watts discusses Campbell’s thinking onrelated subjects, too. Campbellwas not an extremist on slavery. He wanted an end to slavery, but also valuedthe unity of both the nation and the church. Readers who enjoy American historywill appreciate the author’s discussion of Campbell and the Fugitive Slave Actand Campbell’sviews on civil disobedience generally. Students in ethics will appreciate thediscussion of Campbell’sarguments in favor of capital punishment. While clearly Watts respects Campbell deeply, he takesthis Restoration leader to task for apparent inconsistencies in his moralreasoning on these related issues.
Disciple of Peace isa strong addition to Restoration literature. While one might wonder today what Campbell might have tosay about Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden and terrorism in general, the bookoffers a passionate declaration about Christian pacifism. For serious studentsit contributes a slice of American church history as well as an interestingsupplementary reading in Christian ethics.
PerryC. Cotham is a minister for the Owen Chapel Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn., and anadjunct professor of Bible at Lipscomb University.