Book Review: Peace to War by Paul Alexander
Paul Alexander, Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (C. Henry Smith Series) (Cascadia, 2009).
I first met Dr. Paul Alexander, 5th generation Assemblies of God minister, in Dallas in 2005. I was the Outreach Coordinator/Field Director for Every Church a Peace Church (an ecumenical Christian renewal movement attempting to recall all Christians and churches back to the nonviolence of Jesus and the early Church) and Paul was teaching theology and ethics at Southwest Assemblies of God University (SAGU) in nearby Watahatchie, TX. Paul had come to Dallas to attend an ecumenical peace church conference which I had helped organize. He was the first Pentecostal pacifist I’d ever met–although, thanks to Paul, I’ve now met many more.
My early experiences with Pentecostals and Charismatics during my teens in the 1970s were not pleasant. I won’t rehearse the details here, except to say that the Pentecostals I first encountered were legalistic, judgmental in the extreme, anti-science and anti-scholarship, racist, sexist, and, especially, filled with ultra-nationalist militarism. By the time I met Paul Alexander, I had somewhat overcome the prejudices toward Pentecostals (especially Assemblies of God folk) that flowed from those early experiences. I knew that Pentecostals in Europe and Latin America were often leaders in movements for social justice. I had even read Jay Beaman’s Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals (repr. Wipf and Stock, 2009) which showed how the first generation of Pentecostals (in the opening years of the 20th C.) were almost all pacifists, but that this pacifism quickly eroded after the start of World War I. By 2005, I had met several Assemblies ministers who knew of the pacifism of their denominational past, but they were all embarrassed by it. Paul Alexander was the first Assemblies minister I’d met who wanted to revive the Assemblies peace heritage!
Paul’s story is a remarkable one. For most of his (still young) life, he’d conformed to much of the stereotype of my early experience with Pentecostals. A 5th generation Pentecostal minister, he’d been raised in an Assemblies parsonage, gone to Assemblies camps, an Assemblies-run college (SAGU) where he’d cheered on the Gulf War I (’91), gone to the denominational seminary and been employed to teach theology at his college alma mater. It was during his Ph.D. studies (at, of all places, Baylor University–a Texas Baptist university not known for friendliness toward Pentecostals or pacifists!) that Paul discovered his denomination’s pacifist heritage. He found it intriquing and decided to write his doctoral dissertation on the origin and gradual abandonment of pacifism (gospel nonviolence) among the Assemblies of God. To Paul’s surprise, he found himself convinced by the biblical and theological arguments of the early Assemblies ministers for Christian pacifism. What began as a merely academic inquiry led to a second conversion–a baptism into the Christ-centered, mission oriented, Spirit-empowered, gospel nonviolence of the early Pentecostals.
This book is the published form of Dr. Alexander’s dissertation. It shows early Assemblies ministers with remarkably global perspectives, very resistant to jingoistic nationalism (far more aware of national sins and critical of claims to American righteousness), whose pacifism was deeply rooted in the New Testament, an “unfolding revelation” approach to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and well-informed by the history of the pre-Constantinian Church. These Assemblies pacifists were not cowed either by charges of lack of patriotism, or by pragmatic arguments that would call gospel nonviolence “unworkable,” especially since they were used to “the world” dismissing other aspects of the Spirit’s work–in tonque-speaking, miraculous healings, the breakdown of racial barriers. In the lead-up to World War I, jingoistic war fever gripped much of the nation (although fundamentalist lay-preacher and perpetual Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan, who was serving as Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson, resigned when Wilson broke his campaign promise to keep the U.S. out of the war). Assemblies ministers pushed back against the war fever, despite the legal pressures the government brought against dissenters. Believing they were living in the End Times, these Assemblies ministers expected to be persecuted for their faith–including their faith in gospel nonviolence.
The official Assemblies statement on war and peacemaking from 1917 until 1967 was sent to President Woodrow Wilson as follows:
Therefore, we, as a body of Christians, while purposing to fulfill all the obligations of loyal citizenship, are nevertheless constrained to declare that we cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life, since this is contrary to our view of the clear teachings of the inspired Word of God, which is the sole basis of our faith.
Despite the erosion of Assemblies pacifism after WWI to the point that, by WWII, the majority were no longer conscientious objectors, and despite a major debate over the statement in the lead up to WWII, the statement went unchanged until 1967 when it was modified to:
As a Movement we affirm our loyalty to the government of the United States in war or peace. We shall continue to insist, as we have historically, on the right of each member to choose for himself whether to declare his position as a combatant, a noncombatant, or a conscientious objector.
The contrast in statements is startling. Several things leap out in comparison, many of which are detailed and analyzed by Alexander: 1) Whereas the first statement affirms a Romans 13-influenced affirmation of loyal citizenship such as most Christians in most countries could and have affirmed over the centuries, it draws a line where such loyalty would demand unfaithfulness to the gospel as the Assemblies perceived it. The second statement, despite the fact that a majority of Assemblies members are from outside the U.S., affirms loyalty specifically to the U.S. government–and without any qualifications. 2)The second statement claims a historical position of allowing liberty of conscience on the matter of military position–when such liberty of conscience was NOT the original position of the denomination. In other words, the second statement makes a historically false claim. As Alexander makes clear, on no other moral issue does the Assemblies simply leave the decision to the individual member–without even any biblical guidance. 3) The Assemblies, like most Pentecostals, are strong biblicists–backing nearly every theological and ethical position with biblical warrants. This is true of the first statement, which, even in a public letter to the President of the United States, claims Scripture as the sole basis of authority. The second statement doesn’t even mention Scripture and no biblical warrants are given for the position–in contrast to every other theological or ethical matter on which Assemblies takes a denominational position. It is clear that an uncritical nationalism (a form of idolatry) has overwhelmed the Assemblies on the matter of war and peace.
Alexander shows many of the reasons that this has happened. A major factor in the erosion of Assemblies’ pacifism is the strong desire to minister (especially in evangelistic outreach) to members of the military. This desire, as part of the larger evangelistic orientation of the Assemblies, was there from the beginning. Evangelism was frequently cited as a reason for refusing to kill, too, but the desire to reach out to soldiers eventually eroded the nonviolence. He also shows shifts in Christology, pneumatology, and eschatology worked to erode early Assemblies pacifism.
One factor that Alexander may have not seen (at least does not emphasize) is the restorationist nature of early Pentecostalism. Early Assemblies members, like early Pentecostals generally, believed that they were restoring primitive Christianity from a state of corruption. So, they were prepared to see aspects of the gospel that the older denominations missed. They expected governments and other powerful forces of “the world” to be opposed to them and they had a pessimistic view of the general morality of most so-called “Christian” nations, so they would be more likely to notice the gospel nonviolence of Jesus, the NT, and the early Church and identify with that rather than the military morality of the wider culture. But, today, Pentecostalism accounts for approximately one-fourth of all Christians in the world, and is the fastest growing form of Christianity. The Assemblies are a large part of this global growth and with numerical growth has come more acceptance. Yes, there is still prejudice against Pentecostals in academic and cultural elites, but nowhere near to the extent previously. Scholarly journals, classes on global Pentecostalism in non-Pentecostal divinity schools, famous Assemblies ministers in high government places (e.g., the late John Ashcroft, former Secretary of State in the Bush administration), are indications that the Assemblies have moved from the “disinherited,” to part of the established culture–especially the culturally and politically conservative part of that establishment. Pacifism, however, is quite at odds with that wider culture. When contemporary Assemblies members emphasize their “oddness,” their difference from “the world,” they are likely to restrict this to their tongue-speaking, belief in miraculous healings and other miracles, or the highly emotional nature of typical Pentecostal worship. If an Assemblies minister speaks about rejecting “worldly wisdom,” he is likely to be referring to the typical rejection of biological evolution or other generally accepted scientific theories that create tensions for simplistic forms of biblical interpretation, and not rejecting the nationalistic and imperialist militarism that pervades both major political parties. Any recovery of Assemblies pacifism, would seem to depend (among many other things) to a recovery of the restorationist primitivism of early Pentecostal ecclesiology.
This book is a sad story–and a cautionary tale. The historic peace churches (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and Brethren) could easily lose their pacifism, too–and the process of erosion seems well underway. But the book is also a hopeful one–reminding us how often God raises up new voices of faithful discipleship where old institutional churches have ceased to be dynamic vessels of the gospel. Sometimes God renews older bodies, too, and that could well happen with the historic peace churches and/or with the Assemblies of God.
Alexander plans a sequel to this work which both argues the normative case for gospel nonviolence and which plots a way forward to a more faithful Assemblies of God, including recovering gospel nonviolence. Alexander is one of the founders of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) (originally called the Pentecostal Peace Fellowship and, then, the Pentecostal and Charismatic Peace Fellowship). This vital and growing global organization includes individuals and congregations from many different Pentecostal or Charismatic denominations. It is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, cross-generational (and excites numerous younger Pentecostals and Charismatics–a hopeful sign) and suggests that the vibrant peace witness of the early Assemblies (and other Pentecostals) could be revitalized today.
As a historical study, Alexander’s work needs supplementing by others. We need similar denominational studies of the rise and fall (and rise again?) of pacifism in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Apostolic Church of Christ, Apostolic Faith Mission Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and numerous others. There should also be studies of the charismatic renewal movements within mainline Christian bodies (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) and whether these led to any peacemaking emphases.
This is an exciting work and I have only been able to touch on a few of the dimensions covered. I recommend it highly for all who are interested in the faithful renewal of the church universal.