In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences. In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action. In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.
In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended. In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive. Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with. The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined. If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion. On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends. But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.
To be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.” But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence. Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war. While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More