Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Disciple of Peace: A Qaulified Endorsement

Craig M. Watts' Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State is not an academic text. Watts, a pastor and a doctor of ministry, is not a historian. It is important to keep these facts in mind when approaching the book. It is filled with great, accurate information, but it suffers from myriad deficiencies when evaluated against the standards of scholarly history. Particularly disturbing would be the unqualified use of Stone-Campbell history books written during the dark days of Restoration historiography when authors were more hagiographer than historian. This is mirrored by the almost completely absence of citations from relevant periodical literature. The limited and superficial engagement with antecedent and contemporary thinkers outside of a very narrow sphere is also suspect. Moreover, Watts breaks essentially no new ground and offers no new avenues for research. All this needs to be specified because the below recommendation of the book is based on what it is, a brief and interesting primer to the pacifist thought of one of the premiere thinkers of the early Restoration Movement. For a more in-depth, critical engagement of Campbell's thought on this or any other point, you would need to look elsewhere (and then be disappointed by the dearth of quality material on the subject).

For what it is, Disciple of Peace is a delightful read. While lacking in any overarching organizational pattern, each chapter makes for a concise, targeted treatment of some aspect of Campbell's pacifism. These range from the more predictable (and shallower) overviews of the relationship between pacifism and Campbell's postmillennial eschatology to the more interesting and insightful examination of the apparent hypocrisy involved in opposing war and promoting capital punishment. The truth which makes all of this possible is the trenchant observation--which ought to be obvious, but all to often is not--that "pacifism is not an ethical oddity unconnected with the main themes of Alexander Campbell's thought." The assumption that any feature of Christian ethics can somehow be isolated either from the ethical system as a whole or the heart of Christian theology is ultimately naive. This holds true nowhere more strongly than the ethic of peace. How a Christian thinks about peace and violence must be influenced by and influence how a Christian thinks about the nature of God, His purpose in creation, His method of salvation, and the telos of the material world. It is fitting, therefore, that Watts' work does more than simply establish that Campbell was a pacifist. Instead, Watts draws lines of connection between this pacifism and Campbell's understanding of the state, the Bible, the eschaton, and the other pertinent ethical issues of his time (e.g. slavery).

Even making allowances for the non-academic nature of the work, the great weakness of Watts' work is its historical naïveté, particularly as it manifests in relation to the way the Bible functions in Campbell's thought. Watts is unapologetically a member of the Stone-Campbell tradition and is writing for a press based out of a Stone-Campbell church. This bias bleeds fairly obviously into his reconstruction of history. When addressing the influences on Campbell's pacifism, Watts notes a wide range of social, historical, and hermeneutical forces which came to bear on Campbell's thought: church unity movements, dispensationalism, Seeder Presbyterianism, and ongoing American and British peace movements. Yet, again and again, Watts returns to the naive conclusion that all of these influences are ancillary. It is the Bible, plain and simple, that motivated Campbell to believe what he did. This conclusion makes for a nice historical sermon on the merits of pacifism, but it does not stand up to even lay scrutiny as history. The same assertion could be made of any Christian advocate of any ethical position on war. The most hawkish clergyman in the States would display a primarily Scriptural motivation for his ethical stance. It borders on the tautological to say that any religious thinker would ground any religious thought primarily in the religious text of his religion. Watts seems to be endorsing the Restorationist fallacy that there is a Bible--objective and unencumbered by our socio-historical baggage--to which Campbell can finally and authoritatively appeal. Watts would have done better to simply explain how Campbell used Scripture to justify his pacifism rather than contending, indefensibly, that the Bible independently motivated Campbell toward pacifism. (And this, coming from someone who clearly believes that the Bible endorses clearly and without qualification a pacifist ethic for Christians.)

Disciple of Peace is wanting in one other notable way. Watts, as already noted, spends very little time analyzing the connections between Campbell and those of his contemporaries who engaged the same subject, with a few token exceptions. Some of this oversight can certainly be attributed to the limits of space and scope. A comprehensive examination of pacifist thought during Campbell's life would have radically lengthened Watts' project and distorted its scope. Nevertheless, there is a certain sense in which the books lacks substance because it lacks critical comparisons between Campbell and his contemporaries, especially his contemporaries in the Restoration Movement. When Watts does bring in outside thinkers, it is primarily from other religious streams of thought. He seems willfully ignorant that there were other prominent proponents of pacifism within the movement who Campbell might have interacted with intellectually. Barton Stone springs immediately to mind as a comparably prominent thinker swimming in the same intellectual stream as Campbell. This is to say nothing of "lesser" figures like Tolbert Fanning, Raccoon John Smith, J. W. McGarvey, Benjamin Franklin, and Moses Lard who, among others, are rattled off in an introductory list of pacifist Restorationists and then quickly forgotten. In introducing Campbell's pacifism to the reader, Watts declares, "Pacifism takes a variety of forms...[Different forms] can differ in rationale, limitations and goals, among other things. Pacifism is not a single position." Given that he recognizes this fact, Watts would have done his readers a great service if he could have included a short chapter introducing how Campbell's pacifism fit into the broader Restoration vision of peace ethics.

Wherever it is lacking, however, Watts compensates in his closing chapter which reveals the true nature of his book. In his conclusion, Watts unashamedly sets out to demonstrate why Campbell is right in his construction of Christian ethics, except where Watts thinks he is wrong. This may sound like a brazen apology for Watts' own pacifism, and it is. Even so, his analysis of the shortcomings of Campbell's thought and his proposed correctives are sufficiently insightful to make the argument worth considering. He makes four crucial points in his conclusion which bear further thought. The first, as a critique of Campbell, is that pacifism must be cruciform; it must center on and take as its archetype the supreme act of Christ on the cross. Watts observes that in all of Campbell's thought on pacifism in the Gospels, the cross is notable absent, giving pride of place to the Sermon on the Mount instead. Watts pinpoints this shortcoming--with some accuracy, I believe--as the fault which makes possible the contrary stances on war and capital punishment. Taking his cue from Campbell, Watts then takes up the theme of church unity and its relation to Christian pacifism. By incorporating this concern into the pacifist ethic, Watts believes that we can heighten our sense of community and sharpen our critique of competing loyalties such as the self and the state. He then continues his adaptation of Campbell's thinking to criticize modern perceptions of pacifism as a strategy rather than a core belief. The perception that a commitment to pacifism can be evaluated in pragmatic terms is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be committed to peace as Christ endorsed it. (Whether or not Campbell can really be said to understand this critique is debatable, given his optimistic belief about the potential of human peace efforts, but as an ongoing criticism Watts' point still stands.) Finally, Watts concludes on the familiar terms of peace and Christian eschatology. This is not merely limited to arguing that peace is the eschatological ideal but that the church is the eschatological community proleptically living out the ideals of the eschaton in the present.

In the final evaluation, Disciple of Peace must be seen as a mixed bag. Certainly its value rises as academic expectations are lowered. In view of this, it may unqualifiedly recommended to the average reader who is interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement generally or any Restorationist ready to critically engage questions of war, peace, and the state in view of the great thinkers of the tradition. Certainly, I believe that members of the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ would all profit from taking the small amount of time necessary to breeze through this work. The number of adherents in these churches I encounter on a regular basis who have no concept of the rich pacifist history of their traditions is astonishing. Beyond its function for these demographics, however, Watts' work has serious shortcomings which hamper its critical value for the well-educated reader.

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