Policing: A form of nonviolence?

Christians and War: A Brief History of the Church’s Teachings and Practices.
By A. James Reimer. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2010, 208 pages.

April 25, 2012 | Focus On | Number 9
Reviewed by Harry Huebner |

In this wonderfully crafted booklet, the last before his untimely death, A. James Reimer gives his readers a gift with his succinct summary of a topic that has preoccupied much of Christian theology. The genius of Christians and War lies in a careful and eminently fair portrayal of how warfare has been understood in church history. He situates each perspective on war—pacifism, just war and crusades—in its social, political and theological setting, showing the many nuanced twists of meaning through time.

Reimer also places his own view on the subject in context. He rejects the nonresistance of Guy F. Hershberger and then, with a nervous nod to John H. Yoder’s peace theology, he briefly presents his own “pacifism” under the heading, “Policing, human security, and the responsibility to protect.” Here he argues for an account of peacemaking that transcends both Hershberger and Yoder. “My position would be that Christians should support policing as an alternative to war, even though the threat of lethal force may occasionally be necessary,” he writes.

 While I enthusiastically recommend this book, I raise two questions for further reflection.

The first has to do with the distinction between policing and just war. I question whether this distinction is as significant as Reimer proposes. Quite apart from its danger in underwriting the current logic of American international politics, which is premised on the notion of the superpower as international police, I suggest that the distinction is theologically significant only when policing is unpacked as a form of nonviolence.

Given Reimer’s rather general description of policing, which includes the threat and possible use of lethal force, one wonders whether this is not merely a refinement of just war logic. I would argue that the promise of policing as an alternative to war, especially in assisting defenceless populations, lies in its ability to be conceived as a pacifist option. So policing as an alternative to war, which carries with it the threat and use of lethal force, adopts too much of the logic that currently has residence in the house of just war thinking.

The second question has to do with Reimer’s language of faithful Christian action. His passion for those who are caught by powers of violence and injustice leads him to the conclusion, unwarranted in my view, that we must do what is necessary to change their lot.

It is the phrase, “do what is necessary,” that leads Reimer to a view of responsibility that I believe is in tension with Christ’s call to his disciples to take up the cross. It is certainly true that there are times when we cannot see how policing without the threat and use of lethal force will overcome injustice, as it is equally true that we cannot always see how nonviolent strategies will do that.

This then leads to two fundamental options:

  • Since we confess that God is in charge, we stand in solidarity with, lament over and agonize with the suffering ones as signs pointing to a hope in God’s redemption—as did Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; or

  • We explore the responsible use of violence.

In opting for the second approach, it seems to me that Reimer undervalues the vision of the Christian gospel, which he in so many of his other writings passionately affirms, namely, the mysterious redemptive presence of God in ways beyond the human imagination. In a way, I am asking that the Trinity—the subject of his last chapter—do more work in shaping his view of moral agency, for I wonder whether our mysterious, crucified God looks that kindly on human necessity.

Harry Huebner is professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg.

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