I was a freshman in a Pentecostal college in early 1991 when the United States ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I cheered as Operation Desert Storm began and the missiles rained down. My friends and I enjoyed watching the war on television, and I thought the song, "Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . bomb, bomb Iraq" (to the tune of Ba Ba Ba . . . Ba Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys) was hilarious. I was a tongue talking, pro-war, hardcore patriotic, Assemblies of God follower of Jesus. If somebody had told me that the Assemblies of God, the denomination of my four generation heritage, had been officially antiwar for its first fifty years, I would have thought they were crazy.
Six years later, when I found out most early Pentecostal denominations had been "pacifist," I did indeed think it was about the dumbest thing I had ever heard.1 But it so intrigued me that I was drawn to the topics of Pentecostals, war, violence, Americanism, and patriotism as a moth to the proverbial flame.
The study eventually destroyed me; I went mad. Okay, that is an overstatement, but the early Pentecostal testimony against war that was firmly rooted in a radical fidelity to Jesus of Nazareth destroyed my illusion of Christian faith. My understanding of Christianity died, my understanding of God died, my faith died, I died. I was murdered, crucified, with Christ . . . and yet somehow I am still alive. I am a walking dead manfully alive but having died to my old gods, allegiances, and ways of life. It is no longer I that live, it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live, I try to live by faithfulness to the son of God. And now I am going to share with you the story that spurred the transformation of my understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.
So how in the world did I get here? More importantly, why should anybody care? I am an Assemblies of God boy of Kansan and Texan descent who is telling a story about Pentecostals and pacifism. The Lord does work in unexpected ways, and I never would have guessed that this book and my life would be fitting into Gods kingdom in this way. But it is, and this work is a result of the journey I have been on for the last several years. It has been painful and extremely frustrating at times, but it has also renewed my faith and my hope.
While researching for a paper on sanctification (tracing the concept from John Wesley to the early Assemblies of God) I stumbled across a commitment to nonviolence in the nineteenth-century holiness movement. This interested me because I had hardly heard of such a witness among Christians, perhaps the Amish or something, but nothing that I could relate to or had ever seriously considered. But then, to my horror, I found pacifism, official pacifism even, in the Assemblies of God itself. In 1917 the Assemblies of God, my own fellowship, had declared itself conscientiously opposed to Christian participation in war. Now this was something new. I had never been told that the Assemblies of God had been a pacifist denomination. I had attended and served in Assemblies of God churches my entire life and had graduated from an Assemblies of God university and an Assemblies of God seminary. But now I was hearing some early Pentecostal voices that in my experience at least had ceased to speak.
This unanticipated discovery left me both concerned and full of questions. Why did early Pentecostals think war was wrong? Why would they refuse to kill, even for America? How did they defend this stance? Why did this official position last fifty years? Why did it change? Why had I never heard of this stance? I started digging deeper and found a few articles, one short book, and a portion of a dissertation that had addressed pacifism among early Pentecostals. I then realized that this was exactly what I wanted to tackle in my own dissertation.
And that is when it got good, or bad, depending on how one looks at it. I started reading the early Pentecostal Evangels (the official magazine of the Assemblies of God) and heard ideas coming from those Pentecostals that I had never heard from any Pentecostal I knew. At the same time, much of it was very familiar, very Jesus-focused, very biblical, very Spirit-filled. But I was unconvinced. I read everything they had to say about war, peace, patriotism, and loyalty to government. There were differences of opinion and disagreements, but the themes of nonviolence and heavenly citizenship consistently rose to the top. Tracking these themes from the 1920s through the 1990s revealed the colossal change the Assemblies of God had experienced.
That is when I had to think it through for myself. My historical survey of this one Pentecostal fellowship forced me to go to Scripture and think. I had to reconsider my own theology and ethics in light of what I had found. I wrestled and argued and fought, I justified and explained and rationalizedbut little by little the power of the biblical and theological case for Christian nonviolence persuaded me. I came to realize that it is not idealistic, not passive, and not naïve. I learned that Jesus way of making peace is aggressive and that it addresses conflict, but I also realized that taking up the cross to follow the Christ is to submit to ones own death at the hand of an enemy. My journey through the history of the Assemblies of God had been linked with the witness of the early churchand I embraced the way of self-giving love that is the way of the crucified and resurrected Messiah.
As I researched and wrote this story of Pentecostals and war, I was motivated to consider my identity in relation to the births and deaths of nations, to racism, to the use of violence in defense of justice, and to nationalism. As important as my Spirit baptism is my confession that Jesus from Nazareth, and no other, is the Messiah. So, I am still very Pentecostal. But since this book is for Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals alike, I should make it clear that I locate my identity firmly in the long story of Israel, the Messiah, and the church.
I taught at an Assemblies of God university for nine years and labored alongside sisters and brothers, faculty and administration, who sincerely believe that Christian nonviolence is misdirected at best and foolish at worst. They think that pacifism is perhaps a matter of conscience that an individual may choose, but realistically it is irresponsible and not the wisest choice. There are many others in my denomination and among American Pentecostals in general who honestly cannot fathom how a Christian could believe in Jesus and renounce violence as a tool for helping the world. This has been especially true in the United States since September 11, 2001. I understand that line of reasoning, it is exactly what I used to think, and I used to argue for it quite effectively. Now I have to admit that the arguments of the first-generation Pentecostals convinced me I needed to reconsider.
But this book is not about my biblical and theological arguments for why Christians should follow Jesus example of enemy love and forgiveness even when it includes a renunciation of violence. That book is coming. Instead, my hope is that this telling of the story in an accessible way will foster careful thinking and dialogue about this immensely significant issue. This book is in large part for those who disagree with, or were unaware of, the early Pentecostal (particularly the Assemblies of God) theology and practice of nonviolence. Those who are comforted that the position was changed from pacifism in 1967 will find some support for their perspective all the way back to the beginning of the Assemblies of God. Those who are unsure will find all sides represented in their own words and with their own explanations to be considered.
I am an American Pentecostal who accidentally found this heritage and then wrestled with its implications. The ensuing battle with Christian pacifism resulted in this book and a very different life than expected. So this is a conversation among friends: a Pentecostal who has never heard this part of her story, another who may have heard it but was at least a little embarrassed by it, and members of traditional peace churches who may be questioning the continuing relevance of their churchs peace witness.
This narrative invites Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters, particularly the Assemblies of God friends with whom I have worked and served my entire life, to interact with a forgotten part of their nonviolent heritage. I will respectfully and honestly engage the history and theology and encourage prayerful consideration of who we are and who we aspire to be on the basis of this analysis of Assemblies of God pacifism and our interaction with nationalism and war during the last century.
It has been nine years since I wrote the dissertation version of this book, and I have engaged in hundreds of conversations about these issues with family members, pastors, missionaries, students, district and national officials, and colleagues. I am very aware that the majority of Assemblies of God people in the United States support Christian combatant participation in warfare, although I have found Assemblies of God crucifists in all of the groups mentioned above.
For Mennonites, Brethren, Friends, and others who may be considering whether or not they still want to be a peace church, this narrative invites them to consider the implications of relegating pacifism to a matter of individual conscience rather than a church-defining issue. The Assemblies of God was never a historic "peace church," but many within the fellowship considered themselves to have the same witness against war for the same Jesus-based reasons (in 1940 the Pacifist Handbook listed the Assemblies of God as the-third largest church in America that opposed war).2 Perhaps the demise of pacifism in the Assemblies of God can encourage the Historic Peace Churches to be intentional and focused in their peace witness as well as to consider the implications of a move to "individual conscience" regarding theological matters of life and death. Warning signs that pacifism might not last appear throughout this story; peace church members may assess their own faith traditions for similar occurrences.
For the others who journey with us in this Pentecostal story, I hope this is an informative and interesting book that aids careful reflection on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the use of violence, and the Christian citizens relationship to the nation. In fact, these are relevant issues for all people everywhere. For even though the story we are reading starts about one hundred years ago, the concerns are as old as humanity and will be with us for years to come.
1. I even discovered the
long hidden secrets that my grandfather (Walter B. Smith,
Mt. Pleasant, Texas) and my wifes grandfather (Rev.
Charnel Adrian Bird, Hawkins, Texas) had been Assemblies
of God conscientious objectors during World War II.
© 2008 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC