This article argues that a non-violent position with roots in Mennonite thought has important advantages over Christian pacifism. The article proceeds as follows. First, I argue that Christian pacifism exhibits the same moralist conceptual structure as do the vast majority of pacifist positions unassociated with Christianity – and that this conceptual structure places the particularly Christian character of Christian pacifism in a precarious position. Second, I identify in the Mennonite tradition a conception of non-violence ('two-kingdom dualism') that I argue is not a species of pacifism. Finally, I contend that its metaphysical conceptual structure equips two-kingdom dualism to leverage the practical and philosophical features of its Christian character more effectively than does Christian pacifism.
Let us call ‘pacifist’ those positions that oppose war and violence on moral grounds. If this definition holds, then by extension, ‘Christian pacifism’ describes opposition to war and violence on specifically Christian moral grounds. Thus defined, Christian pacifism seems a fitting label for the social activism of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr in the last century, as well as for the non-violent position of American Quakers a century earlier. The Quakers’ 1838 Declaration of Sentiments, for instance, advocated a ‘peaceful universal reformation’ and declared that ‘physical coercion is not adapted to moral generation’ (accordingly, the Declaration deemed the bearing of arms ‘unlawful’).Footnote 1
This Christian pacifist appeal to the immorality of violence is straightforward and familiar. It invokes what the Christian pacifist regards as a basic and universal imperative to adhere to acts deemed moral or right and refrain from acts deemed immoral or wrong. What makes her appeal particularly Christian, meanwhile, is that for the Christian pacifist Christianity is what verifies or corroborates the claim that violence is wrong; put a different way, the value of Christian pacifism's specifically Christian character consists in the role that Christianity is thought to play in underwriting or grounding the Christian pacifist's judgement that violence is correctly called immoral. Accordingly, we can conceive of the Christian pacifist as one kind of Christian moralist; what distinguishes the Christian pacifist in particular is just that, unlike most Christian moralists, the Christian pacifist adds violence to the set of things that she thinks Christianity morally proscribes.
The moralist conceptual structure that characterizes Christian pacifism – that is, its primary responsiveness to what is taken by the Christian pacifist to be a basic and universal imperative to act morally – has two seeming advantages. First, the Christian pacifist's conviction that non-violence is universally morally imperative sanctions a globally proportioned activist programme according to which the Christian pacifist might attempt to hold individuals and governments of all kinds to that imperative. In this way, for instance, the Mennonite Central Committee organizes political protests and lobbies government agencies from its office at the United Nations headquarters, while Christian Peacemaker Teams employ activists around the world whose slogan is ‘getting in the way’ of violent conflicts.Footnote 2 Second, the moralist conceptual structure of Christian pacifism facilitates collaboration between Christian pacifists and like-minded opponents of war and violence who are unassociated with Christianity. If a Christian pacifist converges on the same violent humanitarian crisis as a Hindu aid worker and a religiously unaffiliated UN peacekeeper, for instance, the Christian pacifist can regard these differences as secondary to the workers' shared conviction that violence is wrong.
But the moralist conceptual structure that generates these advantages also places the particularly Christian character of Christian pacifism in a precarious position. This precarity is a consequence of the instrumental role that Christianity plays within that structure: the value that Christianity contributes to Christian pacifism consists in Christianity's ability to serve as a means to the end of establishing the immorality or wrongness of violence. This role would be indispensable and secure if Christianity were either (1) the only means to that end or (2) able to achieve that end in some distinctive or especially valuable way. But Christianity is neither (1) nor (2).
First, Christianity is but one of many means to the end of establishing violence's wrongness. That is, in appealing primarily to the immorality of violence, Christian pacifism mirrors the moralist conceptual structure of most (if not all) mainstream pacifist models in the contemporary literature. For instance, a variety of moralist accounts of non-violence are readily derived from Kant's thought. The Kantian might base her claim that violence is immoral on Kant's Categorical Imperative, for instance, or on his universal law formula, his legislative perspective, or his insistence that citizens have no right to destroy their legal system by resisting or coercing heads of state.Footnote 3 Further, the Kantian might argue that violence and war are immoral in virtue of their violation of Kant's humanity formula or their failure to treat humans as ends in themselves.Footnote 4 Alternatively, Stephen White argues that violence that is coercive is immoral because it attempts unfairly to shift moral responsibility onto its victim and cause that victim to pursue actions that she would not otherwise have reason to pursue.Footnote 5 For Sally Haslanger, meanwhile, violence is immoral because it is oppressive, while for Thoreau, resistance to violence is a performance of conscience deriving from the moral ideal of self-reliance.Footnote 6 Robert Holmes takes himself to show quite easily that violence is at least prima facie immoral merely in virtue of its being harmful, while for Robert Paul Wolff, an attractively simple paradigm for pacifism derives from a utilitarian or consequentialist calculus, since the cessation of war and violence is almost certain to bring about a greater good for a greater number.Footnote 7
These examples suggest that Christianity is just one among a plethora of possible ballasts for the claim that violence is immoral. Of course, it does not follow from this that Christianity cannot still play an indispensable role in Christian pacifism's conceptual structure, since Christianity might still ground the immorality of violence in some distinctive or especially valuable way. But Christianity does not ground the immorality of violence in this way; Christian pacifism's moral proscription of violence does not have a particularly Christian character. Instead, an effect of assessing an act using clean and neutral moral terms is precisely to veil whatever particular considerations may have contributed to this assessment. This is because moral assessments seek to determine whether a substantial and basic property of rightness or wrongness inheres in a given act; the pacifist, for instance, considers the wrongness of violence a substantial and basic property that by itself constitutes sufficient grounds for demanding universal desistance from violence. Given this reasoning structure, once the moralist establishes that violence is wrong, it no longer matters whether this wrongness derives from Christianity or a postulate of reason or something else. What matters is the conclusion, and the conclusion is the same: that violence is wrong.Footnote 8
Thus, while the Christian pacifist's clean and neutral moral terms give her prescription of violence a pretence of universal and equal application even to those who would not have credited the particularly Christian considerations that might underlie it, those same universal pretensions actually depend on the independence of the immorality of violence from any essentially Christian resources. If the Christian pacifist's denunciations of violence betrayed a particularly Christian essence, on the other hand, they would fail to serve her universal activist campaign against violence. Unless directed towards an explicitly Christian audience, they would fall on deaf ears.
These considerations demonstrate that to the extent that a non-violent Christian position depends on appeals to the wrongness or immorality of violence, the particularly Christian character of that position is neither essential nor immediately evident. If Christianity merely plays the role of affirming that violence is immoral, then its role is dispensable and its personality muted, since other sources of grounding could also play its role, and morality's essential structure prevents Christianity from playing its role in a distinctive or especially valuable way: as seen, the whole point of casting violence as immoral is to apply its proscription neutrally and universally and thus without dependence on any essentially Christian commitments. These results suggest that if Christianity is to play an essential role in the conceptual structure of a non-violent position, that role will not be a moral one. A more promising Christian non-violent model would leverage its particularly Christian character by deploying Christianity as something other than a ballast for the claim that violence is immoral.Footnote 9
The exemplars of Christian pacifism mentioned above – Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Mennonite Central Committee – are affiliates of the Mennonites, whose Christian tradition is of the same genus as the pietist, Anabaptist, Moravian, Brethren, and Quaker movements of the Radical Reformation.Footnote 10 Mennonite non-violent practice has developed since the movement's founding in the early sixteenth century, when their theological convictions costed many of the first Mennonites their lives.Footnote 11 Traditional Mennonite non-violent theory differed significantly from pacifism, however, and the confluence of Mennonites and Christian pacifism is a recent development accompanying a mainstream rise in activist political engagement since the Vietnam War.Footnote 12 At earlier points in their history, Mennonites modelled a distinctive kind of non-violent action brimming with noteworthy philosophical and practical implications but in an important sense antithetical to Christian pacifism. This position is two-kingdom dualism.
Two-kingdom dualism is characterized by a conceptual structure significantly different from – and arguably directly opposed to – the one that characterizes Christian pacifism. The two-kingdom dualist's reasoning begins not from a universal and overriding imperative to act morally but from a subject's arguably more basic disposition or instinct to align her actions with what she thinks is real.Footnote 13 The conception of Christianity deployed by two-kingdom dualism is thus a metaphysical one that casts Christianity as most fundamentally an invitation to participate in a narrative purporting to describe reality. To be a Christian on this conception is therefore not to adhere to Christian standards of morality but rather to participate in this narrative as if it did indeed describe reality.Footnote 14
Accordingly, while moral considerations play a basic role within the conceptual structure of Christian pacifism, metaphysical considerations play that role in the conceptual structure of two-kingdom dualism: what she considers real on the basis of her Christian faith – as opposed to what she considers moral or ‘right’ – constitutes the two-kingdom dualist's most privileged criterion for action.Footnote 15 Three features of this reality are of particular significance in shaping the two-kingdom dualist's thinking about non-violence. First, the Christian narrative suggests that love plays a perennial role in the world irrespective of human activity. That is, love is not conjured up by humans and imposed on a world where it would not otherwise inhere; instead, a fundamental feature of reality as the Christian understands it is that the world is penetrated from the outside by the love of a supreme being.Footnote 16 The claim that we love because God first loved us suggests that even in cases where its particular manifestations are not merited, precedented, or reciprocated, love is a reasonable and reciprocal response to the world's pre-existing and indeed fundamental condition.Footnote 17
Secondly and relatedly, the Christian narrative casts self-sacrifice, like love, as having a precedent outside humanity in the highest being. That is, the dualist understands Jesus's death not as a source of moral inspiration or prototypical instantiation of a moral principle but rather as an event with which reality is consonant. In light of this event, a Christian's sacrifice of self is not a morally salutary act imposed on a world whose more fundamental modus operandi is a violent struggle for survival but rather an altogether natural act built by the highest being into the elemental fabric of reality.
But two-kingdom dualism arises most directly out of the distinctive logical space carved out by a third feature of Christian metaphysics: its bifurcation of reality into two kingdoms. This move follows from the biblical teaching that Christians, who live alongside everyone else in the kingdom of the world, are also to ‘seek first’ a different kingdom – the ‘kingdom of God’.Footnote 18 This ‘seek first’ suggests that the domains of the kingdom of God (KG) and the kingdom of the world (KW) are in principle distinct: each operates according to reference points that may be unavailable, inapplicable, or even unintelligible in the other. But it also suggests that the line dividing the two kingdoms can be clearly drawn, given that it runs not between heaven and earth but between mutually exclusive professions of allegiance: while KW is comprised of citizens whose primary allegiance is to their earthly nations, to themselves, to some other thing, or to nothing, KG is composed of citizens whose primary allegiance is to God.Footnote 19
Accordingly, a potentially awkward implication of two-kingdom dualism is that citizens of KG must somehow live in two kingdoms at once, since they must also literally reside in particular kingdoms in the world. But this fact need not generate an irremediable tension: for one thing, the actions that align with allegiance to God and those that align with allegiance to authorities in the kingdom of the world might in principle coincide; when this occurs, citizens of KG simply act in the same way as do citizens of the kingdom of the world. Meanwhile, when their two allegiances do not coincide, citizens of KG are provided with an apparently sufficient criterion: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.’Footnote 20
This criterion makes clear that the citizen of KG does not regard her allegiance to her authorities in KW as absolute: while some things belong to Caesar, others do not.Footnote 21 But the criterion also implies that the jurisdictions of the two kingdoms do not in principle conflict; anything that belongs to one king ipso facto does not belong to the other. Determining what belongs to each king may not be easy, of course, but the question of whether it belongs to the king of KW to demand that his citizens act violently on his kingdom's behalf appears quite simple, since it is a question of whether his citizens’ very bodies and lives – as well as the bodies and lives of his enemy – belong to that king. On this question, the Christian's scriptural inheritance is clear: the Christian submits her body not to her worldly king but to God as a ‘living sacrifice’.Footnote 22 Violence, meanwhile, is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to reconcile with the love and self-sacrifice that the citizen of KG believes characterize KG.Footnote 23 Since KG transcends national and ethnic distinctions and persists irrespectively of them, moreover, the citizen of KG has no essential interest in the fate of a particular worldly kingdom – even her own.Footnote 24 Accordingly, for the citizen of KG to act violently on behalf of KW, offer her life for the causes of KW, or allow her leaders in KW to dictate who counts as her enemy is for her to fail to align with what she regards as reality – with her supreme allegiance to KG and with the metaphysical features that she thinks characterize KG.Footnote 25
This broad sketch demonstrates that two-kingdom dualism inverts the conceptual structure that characterized Christian pacifism. That is, just as metaphysical considerations were peripheral to the ‘morality-first’ conceptual structure of the Christian pacifist – whose claim that violence is immoral was independent of particular metaphysical considerations – moral considerations are peripheral to the ‘metaphysics-first’ conceptual structure of two-kingdom dualism, since its claim that violence is generally misaligned with reality Christianly understood makes no appeal to the immorality or wrongness of violence.Footnote 26 But this claim that two-kingdom dualism elevates metaphysical considerations to the potential exclusion of moral ones is likely to raise an important question, since a perhaps more conventional position maintains that Christian moral considerations are concomitant with and even inextricable from metaphysical ones. ‘Why not both?’ a proponent of this position might ask. Why not ‘add’ the moral implication to the metaphysical commitment, so to speak, and treat the two as different aspects of the same thing?
In response to this question, it is important to clarify that two-kingdom dualism does not suggest that a non-violent account primarily responsive to Christian metaphysics cannot or should not also be articulated in moral terms. What it does suggest, however, is that the Christian does not need these moral terms; it remains to be seen, moreover, whether there is anything to be gained from including them. After all, as our earlier discussion of Christian pacifism suggested, moral terms that are essentially tied to a particularly Christian metaphysical schema are either unintelligible for the person who has not adopted such a schema or redundant and relatively uncompelling for the person who has. On the one hand, if a person does regard Christianity as a source of significant information about reality and describes non-violence in terms of its alignment with this reality, then it is quite unclear what substance or value some further quality of 'rightness' would contribute – why she should bother with ‘rightness’ rather than letting Occam’s Razor shave it away.Footnote 27
On the other hand, if a person does not hold that the Christian metaphysical claims with which the Christian's non-violent action is aligned significantly track reality, then she cannot be expected to credit in any way the behavioural implications of those claims. Moreover, attempts to use moral terms to try to extend the behavioural implications of Christian metaphysical commitments to persons who lack those commitments are likely to be riddled with complications. For one thing, such attempts generate confusion, since using the term ‘moral’ to describe acts that are essentially grounded in particularly Christian metaphysical considerations is wildly different from using it in any sense that is familiar in KW, where ‘moral’ denotes what the citizen of KW regards as an act's basic and substantial property of rightness. Second, the Christian pacifist's attempts to influence the citizen of KW through appeal to the clean and neutral 'wrongness' of violence would be odd sleights of hand if a particularly Christian conception of reality actually played an essential role in the Christian pacifist's own conception of non-violence; indeed, the attempt is evidence that such a conception does not play an essential role in her own non-violent position. Moreover, if Christians' non-violent action does in fact depend on particularly Christian metaphysical commitments, then the Christian pacifist's moral demands might actually be unreasonable or unfair, since the citizen of KW who lacks those commitments may not even be practically capable of the radically non-violent action that would follow from them.Footnote 28
These difficulties cast as manifestly odd the Christian's attempt to induce a person who has not adopted a Christian metaphysical schema nonetheless to align her acts with the behavioural implications of that schema on the basis that doing so is supposedly moral. Indeed, it is quite unclear what the Christian stands to gain from this manoeuvre – or even what the Christian thinks the citizen of KW stands to gain from it. It seems that the oddness merely reinforces the point that moral terms are what a person resorts to appeal to precisely when appeal to metaphysical considerations is not possible. That is, since the Christian pacifist cannot appeal to the domain of reality when petitioning someone who does not think that the Kingdom of God is real, her best recourse is to the claim that violence is wrong, which might still have some effect.
Having now seen some evidence of two-kingdom dualism's distinctive theoretical character, let us also consider several objections. First, two-kingdom dualism might appear to be caught in a contradiction or double standard in which it recommends one act for citizens of KG and a quite different one for citizens of KW. Second, two-kingdom dualism seems to exhibit a radical form of religiosity known to be dangerous: the problem with religious crusaders or terrorists, it may be thought, is precisely the fact that their responsiveness to what they consider real places them beyond the reach of moral censure.
The two-kingdom dualist can concede both of these objections, however. First, two-kingdom dualism does indeed commend different actions to citizens of different kingdoms, but this fact is a reasonable and inevitable function of the dramatically divergent metaphysical commitments of these citizens. It is unclear, moreover, why this difference constitutes a theoretical liability for two-kingdom dualism rather than grounds for a salutary kind of pluralism. Likewise, the two-kingdom dualist acknowledges that the conceptual structure of her position is quite radical. Yet, she can also reasonably maintain that she is not liable for this fact, since she regards KG as a reality undetermined by her and in which she merely participates. Moreover, she might argue that the danger inherent to her position's metaphysics-first conceptual structure is a worthwhile trade-off for a position uniquely capable of motivating radically non-violent action.Footnote 29
But a third objection – that two-kingdom dualism amounts to a species of relativism – is unfounded, since it does indeed follow from two-kingdom dualism that some alignment with the kingdom of God is beneficial and even in an important sense imperative for citizens of KW. Yet, what prevents two-kingdom dualism from amounting to relativism are not universal or categorical moral claims but precisely metaphysical claims. That is, the dualist recognizes that if KG is real, then the most fundamental and compelling consideration for citizens of both KG and KW is not the immorality or wrongness of an act that is misaligned with KG but rather the actor's essential misalignment with reality. Put in Kierkegaardian terms, this actor is ‘not herself’ – not ‘resting in the power that establishes her’ – and missing out on ‘the good that God has for her’ as a result.Footnote 30 Her sin is not the immorality or wrongness of her particular acts but this encompassing metaphysical misrelation to God and KG.
Accordingly, the kingdom of God presents the citizen of KW not with a panoply of religiously motivated moral imperatives but with a single metaphysical imperative: to align with reality by becoming a citizen of the kingdom of God. But even this one imperative act is imperative not because joining the kingdom of God is moral but because the kingdom of God is real. There is still nothing to be gained from alluding to the morality or rightness of joining the kingdom of God or of any related act.Footnote 31
The considerations of this section cast doubt on the common and more general idea that fundamentally metaphysically grounded acts can be properly called moral. They also suggest that whether or not it is possible to do so, there is nothing to be gained from referring to a Christian's metaphysically grounded acts in moral terms. When a farmer responds to the reality that his fields are ripe by going out and harvesting them, we do not say that he did the ‘right’ thing; perhaps we could describe his act in moral terms, but doing so has no clear advantage, and it may invite more confusion than it is worth. The argument of this section is that the Christian who tries to align her action with reality is like the farmer; her act is of the same kind. Understanding her act in moral terms, even if possible, has no clear advantage and might invite more confusion than it is worth.Footnote 32
The previous section argued that two-kingdom dualism can theoretically ground non-violence without reference to moral considerations and only through appeal to a kind of Christian realism.Footnote 33 This section examines six further features generated by two-kingdom dualism's metaphysical conceptual structure.
First, its metaphysical conceptual structure exempts two-kingdom dualism from the dissident or antagonistic posture towards state and military actors that most non-violent positions entail. By contrast, sixteenth-century two-kingdom dualists concluded from the biblical teaching that ‘the powers that be are ordained by God’ that ‘the sword is ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ’.Footnote 34 This position stakes out a radical middle ground between just war theory, which uses the same scriptural reference to argue that even the citizen of KG must use the sword when the state demands it, and Christian pacifism, which morally condemns the state's use of the sword.Footnote 35 Where Christian pacifists might ‘wage war through nonviolent means’, using moral claims to ‘take on’ governments and attempt to ‘force’ cessations of violence, the two-kingdom dualist can ‘affirm’ and even assist the state as the God-appointed overseer of KW – so long as doing so does not involve violence on the state's behalf.Footnote 36
In times of compulsory military service, this unusual perspective has led to extraordinary meetings between government officials and two-kingdom dualists forthrightly appealing for alternative non-violent forms of service. Two-kingdom dualists in positions like these manifest a remarkable fusion of qualified allegiance and overt defiance: ‘We are in a tough position and prepared to suffer for it, but could we work out a deal that could be good for us and for the country?’Footnote 37 The resultant truce – in which dualists refrain from telling the state how to govern the affairs of KW while the state allows dualists to quietly align their actions as best they can with KG – is one that the pacifist could not even attempt, since the pacifist's moralist position places herself and the government under the same obligation and thereby obliges her to condemn government military action.Footnote 38
A second practical feature that this cooperative posture towards the state facilitates is that it frees two-kingdom dualists from a contradiction that plagues pacifist humanitarian workers in conflict zones. These workers face an awkward problem of their own making when, in order to perform their humanitarian duties, they find themselves dependent on the protection of the same violent military forces that they morally condemn. In such cases, pacifists face what Showalter calls a ‘crisis of conscience’ that might prompt them to decline military assistance – while those they would have helped pay the price.Footnote 39 The dualist, meanwhile, faces no such predicament: since her position affirms the state, she gratefully and consistently accepts its support and even military assistance.Footnote 40
A third practical implication of two-kingdom dualism's metaphysical conceptual structure is that non-violent action need not be performed in an activist spirit that seeks to goad others towards the same action (an ethos that is common if not endemic among pacifists). This is because two-kingdom dualism is not responsive to universal moral injunctions: the two-kingdom dualist demurs from denouncing violence by citizens of KW (since violence is quite commensurable with KW), and she may in principle even countenance violence by citizens of KG (since some violence may conceivably be commensurable with KG).Footnote 41
This result suggests a fourth and similar practical implication: that the two-kingdom dualist is not bound by categorical injunctions. Can a citizen of KG kill? Can she use force? Can she vote or hold office? In response to questions like these, two-kingdom dualism's metaphysical framework provides practical ethical guidance, not categorical moral rulings, thereby placing a premium on wisdom, discernment, and even the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While this puts two-kingdom dualism in tension with moralist accounts that do issue categorical injunctions, it can also facilitate greater nuance and responsiveness in the two-kingdom dualist's practical deliberations.
A fifth feature lies in this vicinity. As seen above, a perceived feature of moral judgements is that they purport to compel universal compliance. A person can in some sense ‘choose’ not to comply with a moral injunction, but only at the cost of being designated immoral and inviting the unmoored opprobrium that concerned Nietzsche.Footnote 42 Meanwhile, to free non-violence from the domain of moral obligation is perhaps two-kingdom dualism's most important achievement. Two-kingdom dualism dignifies the non-violent citizen of KG by portraying her non-violence not as a strained response to a moral injunction but as a contingent and uncoerced choice to align her action with a reality that she could also have chosen to defy.Footnote 43
Finally, as suggested above, two-kingdom dualism's independence from moral considerations gives it a motivational advantage over pacifism. Given that non-violent commitment is likely to be radical and costly – and to be subjected to the charge that it is itself ‘deeply immoral’ – a non-violent model's ability to motivate adherence on more than merely moral grounds may be essential.Footnote 44 After all, when a person is faced with a threat to her life, an abstract imperative to be moral may fall flat as a motivational basis for a non-violent response. But while few are likely to give up their lives for a moral abstraction, many have non-violently acquiesced even to death when confident that in doing so, they could participate in what they consider real.