Gospel of Peace: Why John Wesley Should Have Been a Pacifist, and We Should, Too

Mark Gorman

Toward the end of a long-winded vice list, John Wesley, writing on The Doctrine of Original Sin, says the following:

But there is a still greater and more undeniable proof that the very foundations of all things, civil and religious, are utterly out of course in the Christian as well as the heathen war. There is a still more horrid reproach to the Christian name, yea to the name of man, to all reason and humanity. There is war in the world! … Now who can reconcile war (I will not say to religion, but) to any degree of reason or common sense? … So long as this monster stalks uncontrolled, where is reason, virtue, humanity? They are utterly excluded. They have no place. They are a name and nothing more. (Works 12:192–95)

Now, Wesley was not by any account a pacifist (though Theodore R. Weber’s repeated insistence that Wesley never labels war “sin” [Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Politic Ethics (Kingswood, 2001), ch. 11] is at odds with the preceding quotation’s presence in a treatise on original sin). But the opposition he raises against war in The Doctrine of Original Sin suggests that Wesley should have been a pacificist—because in this passage Wesley intones the very heart of Christian pacificism.

The problem with war is not that causes for war may be unjust or that actions in war may be immoral. Those are the concerns of “just war” theorists. Pacificism, in contrast, rejects the whole enterprise, much as Wesley has done in his treatise. Christian pacificists appeal to Christ’s blessing of the peacemakers, to his judgment that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, to his own refusal to defend himself against the Roman executioners, to the gospel of reconciliation preached by Paul and the apostles, to the nature of Christian community itself in the church, and to the eschatological judgment that it is God, not us, who ultimately makes things right. In other words, it is the entire gospel that offers the way of peace against which all war offends. As Stanley Hauerwas has written, Christians “must be peaceful not because such peace holds out the hope of a world free from war but because as followers of Jesus we cannot be anything other than peaceful in a world inextricably at war” (“On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War: A Pacifist Response to the United Methodist Bishops’ Pastoral In Defense of Creation,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright [Duke University Press, 2001], 431).

If war is a “horrid reproach to the Christian name,” then it follows that supporting war means siding with the “horrid reproach” over “the Christian name.” And for Wesley, “Christian” was never merely about naming; it concerned the whole of life, lived before God, in community with others equally committed to the gospel. Indeed, the early Methodist small group accountability structure provided exactly the kind of communal life Hauerwas argues is necessary for a viable Christian peace witness of any kind, for “any serious Christian pacifist must recognize that such a way of life is possible only by the reorientation of the self through the repentance made possible by Jesus Christ” (“On Being a Church,” 443). John Wesley not only identified the (inherently sinful) nature of war; he spent a lifetime building communities whose practices laid the foundation for a genuine Christian peacemaking response. John Wesley should have been a pacifist.

That Wesley was not a pacificist is an opportunity for contemporary Wesleyans and Methodists, especially for those who have worked to recover many of the earliest Methodist practices and doctrinal emphases. It is a chance for us to “complete what is lacking,” as the apostle Paul might say, in Wesley’s own life. For Wesley, sin was serious business, and sin was never an ally to the Christian. If war is sinful, if it is inherently a sign of human depravity, then Christian freedom from sin must include freedom from war. And if we are gathering in classes and bands to confess our sins and build one another up in love, we are enacting the basics of communal life that make for genuine peacemaking. We need only make explicit, by what we say and by what we do, what remains largely implicit for John Wesley.

For help with this work, we may turn to the EUB Confession of Faith, in which United Methodists confess, “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ” (Article XVI). Here is the logic of a Wesleyan pacifism: that war is inherently sinful, that the gospel is biased against “war and bloodshed,” full stop. As D. Stephen Long argued years ago (see his Living the Discipline: United Methodist Theological Reflections on War, Civilization, and Holiness [Eerdmans, 1992]), United Methodists should be pacificists. The Confession of Faith fulfills the antiwar position of Wesley’s The Doctrine of Original Sin. Both documents offer gospel freedom for Methodists from the corner war paints our world into, in which the violence that consumes us also blinds us to the nonviolent way of Jesus Christ.

Posted May 03, 2021

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