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Barton Gingerich December 27, 2011
United Methodist North Alabama Bishop Will Willimon, an outspoken pacifist, addressed the U. S. Marines in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. this past Veterans Day, praising the warriors for their virtues.
Bishop Willimon’s pacifist credentials are well-established. When he was chaplain at famed Duke University Chapel in North Carolina he echoed the anti-military themes of his Duke colleague Stanley Hauerwas. When Willimon co-authored Downsizing in the U.S.A., he praised the merits of nonviolence.
“Nonviolence is not a passive approach to conflict resolution, but rather a proactive approach that goes right to the crux of power relationships,” Willimon then urged. “It can undermine power and authority by withdrawing the approval, the support, and the cooperation of those who have been dealt an injustice. It demands strength and courage and not idle pacifism.”
In one "Christianity Today" article, Willimon thought when Christians defend current U.S. foreign wars, “Calculating justice trumps Jesus-love.” In more recent commentary, he recounted, “It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God.” He provocatively claimed: “The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.” Willimon’s beliefs about the immorality of all war, especially by the U.S., have been clear.
Despite his pacifism, the North Alabama bishop spoke well of his military audience at the National Cathedral, which belongs to the Episcopal Church but often hosts pageants of civil religion. Preaching for Veterans Day, he praised the U.S. Marines and their Commandant, General James Amos, for their “faithful resolve.” He declared, “I live in a culture in which most of us are faithful—until something better comes along.” For one example, Willimon observed, “Half the marriages I’ve performed in my ministry, end in divorce, usually because someone said, ‘I intended to be faithful to you for better or worse, sickness or health’ but then when something came up…” He added: “General Amos, when people join my church we ask before God and everybody: ‘Will you be faithful to the UM Church by your prayers, your gifts, your service, your witness?’ About 20% of them that says, ‘I will,’ obey their promises….”
Willimon contrasted this duty-free attitude with the loyal sacrifices of soldiers. “I love it when that Marine answers laconically, ‘It’s my job. It’s what we do,’” he exclaimed. The bishop continued, “We civilians expect the Marine to say, ‘Patriotism! Freedom! Bi-cameral democracy!’ or some other noble sentiment. Politicians talk like that when they’re sending in the Marines, but not Marines. It’s just, ‘That’s what we do.’” He wryly noticed, “Some of you are better human beings today, because back at boot camp someone taught you faithfulness and resolve that didn’t come naturally.”
The bishop tied these admirable virtues to the Christian life. He first defined his terms, starting with “perseverance.” He explained: “[I]f you were to ask, ‘What is the greatest moral challenge in being a Methodist preacher?’ I would say, ‘Perseverance—the ability to stay with the mission Jesus Christ gives the church until either the mission is accomplished or you are relieved of your post.’” Next, he commented, “I’ll define ‘resolve’ as the ability to keep going even when the going is rough, even when you don’t receive immediate results, and the results you get are ambiguous, even when you have no glimpse of the ultimate outcome.” He then called on his audience to consider theistic belief. He preached:
“[I]f any of you want to live your life on the basis of faithful resolve, you better believe in God. As I have admitted, there are just too many normal, natural aspects of being human that mitigate against the practice of fidelity and resolution. Please do not set out to be faithful and resolute if you don’t believe in a God who helps you be better than you would be if left to your own devices, a God whose gracious power enables you to be who you couldn’t be on your own. Above all do not attempt faithful resolve if you do not believe in a God who forgives those times when faith fails and resolve crumbles.”’
In an age when many liberal United Methodist clergy condemn all aspects of the military, Willimon preached to the U.S. Marines: “[T]hose for whom we give thanks to God this day, are proof that God can give you the grace not only to say but to be semper fidelis.”
With these glowing phrases in mind, is Willimon reconsidering his pacifist views? On a close look, he probably remains firm in his old views. He was clearly praising the listeners for their resolute faithfulness, not fighting in Middle Eastern theaters or elsewhere. He hinted toward his earlier-mentioned views when he declared, “As a civilian I worry that our government has given Marines assignments that are a greater test of your resolve than at any time in the history of the Corps.” As a person, the good bishop enjoys being an uncategorized controversialist. He finds joy in ruffling the feathers of traditionalists while not giving in toward liberal heresies. In such matters, Willimon remains consistent if not always clear on his political views.
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