I’ve often heard it argued that pacifism is only viable because of eschatology. We can choose to behave nonviolently because we know that the future is in God’s hands. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” Because injustice has a guaranteed end, the church can be patient. We need not use violence to ensure a just future because we trust in the eschatological violence of God.
But is this kind of hope really consistent with a nonviolent ethic? Is peace really just about waiting patiently for your enemy to receive divine retribution?
In fact, this way of thinking about nonviolence tends to undermine real conflict transformation because it continues to portray the world in terms of a duality of good and evil. (Of course, in this scenario, we always know which side we are on.) It may very well be preferable to expect God to wreak vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice instead of resorting to violence ourselves. Yet this is a rather shallow way of responding to conflict. It assumes that, in the end, God will simply vindicate one party over another. In this way of thinking, there is no motivation for listening to someone we disagree with or opening ourselves to the possibility of being wrong. This view may help us be nonviolent in a strict sense, but only by promoting the more subtle violence of self-righteousness.
A certain violence would linger even if we hoped in the most humble way for God to finally close the ambiguity of history. We could say, for instance, that only God has the ultimate ability to judge and that we have no way of knowing for sure whether we or our neighbor have it right. But this means that nonviolence is only a provisional ethic based on our ignorance – we refrain from violence simply because we don’t know for sure who deserves it. God, on the other hand, with the ultimate bird’s-eye view, is free to dole out punishment. This assumes that justice ultimately requires violence, and that Christian pacifism is a temporary ethic that will finally be superseded in the fullness of time.
There is another way of interpreting Christian hope, one that takes seriously the claim that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is a revelation of God. We might think of this alternative as an “apocalyptic” hope instead of an “eschatological” hope. The two terms are often used synonymously, but their roots have very different connotations. Eschatology has to do with endings – the end of time, the end of the world, the end of history. Apocalypse, in the original Greek, simply means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Of course, for most of Christian history we have interpreted the last book of the Bible as a revelation of a literal ending that would occur at some point in the future. Whether or not the author of Revelation thought that the end time was actually near, the deeper concern of the book is to show that God is bringing a new order that will replace the order of Empire. This new future is one that is dominated not by military power, but by the Lamb. This is not necessarily an eschatological statement – it need not mean a literal end of history – but it is definitely an apocalyptic statement, i.e., one that unveils something new.
Apocalyptic hope is the expectation that God is about to introduce novelty. This divine novelty will certainly open up futures that were previously inconceivable, but these will be more beginning than ending. The unveiling of novelty will probably not resolve the ambiguities of conflict, but it may place a conflict in a new light which allows for a different level of response. A God who acts apocalyptically is a God who responds to conflict with creativity rather than a verdict. For the Christian, Jesus is the paradigmatic revelation of God that makes it possible for us to respond with love rather than violence. It is because we have seen the creativity and nonviolence of God unveiled that we take this ethic as our own.
This makes for a less comfortable future. If God’s nature is basically creative rather than violent, then each new action of God will open onto other futures, each more unpredictable than the last. There is no guarantee that things will work out according to our liking, and we cannot hope that God will force a resolution to history. But we can be on the lookout for ways that God is calling us to creatively respond to injustice and conflict. The Christian hope is that God can always find a way toward reconciliation, even when the way seems impossible. Our nonviolence is based on an apocalyptic hope for a future that is constantly opening up rather than closing in on us.