Pacifism is unrealistic – unless it’s conformed to Christ, writes “America’s best theologian” (Time) in introducing Plough’s new edition of Eberhard Arnold’s classic God’s Revolution.

“Pain is the plow that tears up our hearts to make us open to the truth. If it were not for suffering, we would never recognize our guilt, our godlessness, and the crying injustice of the human condition.” This is a searing claim I would prefer not to hear but cannot help but acknowledge to be true. To face truths that you would rather not know puts you in a strange position. It is a position I suspect many readers of Eberhard Arnold’s God’s Revolution will find themselves in.

To begin by announcing that a book may challenge how readers understand themselves and their world may seem a doubtful strategy if you want the book to be widely read. I certainly want people to read this book, particularly those who have never known about Eberhard Arnold (1883–1935). I want him read because he is right about what it means to be a Christian. But first and foremost, I want him read because truth is truth. So I’ll highlight here some of Arnold’s insights to entice readers to have their hearts transformed.

For many, this will be hard going because Arnold, pacifist though he may be, takes no prisoners. His church has little in common with the accommodated Christianity that is so dominant in our culture. As you read you will find yourself thinking, “I have never seen a church like the one he describes.” That, of course, is exactly the point. Arnold is determined to help us see what he is sure is God’s church, one we no longer see around us. Arnold helps us see because he can write. His writing burns holes in our souls and gives us fresh eyes to see what it means to follow Jesus.

For at the heart of Arnold’s account of who we are is Jesus, the Jew of Palestine, and everything that his cross made possible. It is this Jesus who teaches us the intrinsic relation between mammon and murder. It is this Jesus who gives us a way of life with others that we might rightly call church.

Arnold’s account of what it means to be a Christian may seem too radical and unrealistic for many. They may admire his vision but not be ready to learn to live, for example, without possessions. But Arnold does not think you can do this on your own. Those seeking to be heroic need not apply. Indeed, Arnold is trying to make everyday faithfulness possible.

We dare not forget, moreover, that the heart of Arnold’s understanding of the church is the Holy Spirit. It is often said that the Holy Spirit has been ignored in modern theology. That is certainly not true of Arnold’s understanding of how the Spirit makes the church possible. Everything he has to say depends on the work of the Spirit. We would be possessed by our possessions if we were not possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism and the Eucharist the Spirit draws us into the distinctive way of life that makes possible reconciliation between enemies. Such reconciliation is possible because the church is a community of forgiven sinners. So constituted, the church becomes an alternative to the world. Thus Arnold’s wonderful remark: “The only way the world will recognize the mission of Jesus is by the unity of his church.”

The unity that the Spirit creates comes from the love manifest in the Father’s love of the Son and the Son’s love of the Father. The communal reality that this love creates is called the kingdom of God. The language of kingdom makes clear that the witness of the church to the world is fundamentally political. The kingdom is a household that, like any household, requires everyday care. To be a Christian is to learn how to share in a common life.

It may be a simplification, but I think in one of his offhand remarks Arnold comes closest to helping us see what makes us Christians. It is very simple – to be a Christian is to be given something to do. When we are baptized we are made citizens in a polity in which we are given good work to do. This work saves us from preoccupation with ourselves and helps us recognize others. Such recognition is rightly called love.

Arnold does not dismiss entirely understandings of salvation that stress the importance of the individual’s experience, but he has little use for pietistic or sentimental forms of the faith. He acknowledges that personal piety has become quite widespread among Christians as a marker of their relationship with God. He judges that this is not a bad thing as long as “personal religious experience” opens the person to growth that leads to service in and for the world. But he insists that the meaning of Christ’s cross cannot be restricted to the individual’s subjective experience. When salvation is thought to be an individual experience the Christian obligation to pursue justice can be lost.

Arnold challenges those who assume that the kind of community he describes must withdraw from the world. On the contrary, such a community is constantly sending people out. Those sent out will work for justice, but they will also transform what is meant by justice. In particular, they will challenge the presumption that coercion is the only way to achieve justice in a world of violence. For those who worship a crucified Savior it is simply a contradiction to think the violence of the world can be used to achieve the good. Arnold rhetorically asks how those who have gone out from a place of peace can act in the world differently than they have in the community from which they came.

Arnold is a pacifist, but his pacifism is the expression of his understanding of the conditions necessary for people to live together peaceably. Arnold argues that such a shared way of life entails a profound critique of capitalism. From Arnold’s perspective, capitalism is an economic system that underwrites the necessity of possessions. Any attempt to achieve justice in such a system is doomed to fail to the extent that it leaves in place the presumption that what we have is ours.

If members of the church cannot possess possessions, they must learn to share their lives. A common purse becomes not only possible but also necessary. Because a member of the community does not have any resources to do with as they please, communal discernment is required to test a member’s vocation. Being without possessions makes discussion necessary and no doubt some conflict unavoidable. In an interesting way, Arnold’s vision of community is profoundly democratic because the weakest member must be heard.

Arnold’s account of church is strikingly original but it would be a mistake to think these ideas are original to him. His understanding of the relationship between church and world is closer to the Anabaptist than to any of the other alternatives that came out of the Reformation. But there is also an unmistakable Catholic sensibility in his understanding of the significance of ecclesial practices. Though he emphasizes the voluntary character of church membership, his account seems a far distance from mainline Protestantism.

If I was pushed to locate the tradition Arnold most nearly represents, I would think his community is best understood as a form of monasticism that includes married people. Monastics have always been at the forefront of God’s revolution. It is not surprising, therefore, that Arnold’s account of marriage challenges romantic presumptions that currently make marriage so problematic. That Arnold devotes so much attention to marriage and the role of children indicates how important he takes these to be for the formation of Christians.

Erin Hanson, Setting Rays Image used by permission from the artist

There is a reason why some reading Arnold might interpret him as withdrawing from the world. While he does not use the distinction between nature and grace that is so dear to Catholics, nor the classical Lutheran dualism between orders of creation and redemption, his basic dualism is that between church and world. He says Christians must acknowledge that God has given the state the “temporal sword,” but that means that functions of the state are not tasks to which Christians are called. The state possesses the sword of wrath, but the church and Christians can make no use of it. The one executed on the cross executes no one. The same is true of those who would be his followers.

The disavowal of violence may sound like bad news for those concerned that Christians seek justice for the oppressed, but Arnold’s understanding of the church makes that a moot criticism. He is adamant that Christians are to be socially engaged in an effort to create societies that are more just. What that means, however, involves imaginative alternatives drawn from the practices of the church. For example, members of his community have not just sought to do something for those suffering from neglect; they have sought to be with those who suffer so that they might share their suffering. Like the Amish who go to be with those who have experienced some destructive event, so Arnold would have the church send out members who first and foremost are a presence for those in pain.

Arnold calls such work for justice “small work,” given the scale of suffering in the world. The work may be small, but it is what we have been given to do. As he puts it, “We believe in a Christianity that does something.” What an extraordinary insight – to be a Christian is to be in a community that gives you something to do. We are saved by the small tasks that make the lives of others more livable. Thus Arnold’s observation that daily work with others is the quickest way to find out if someone is willing to live in community on the basis of genuine love and faith.

It is not just any work Arnold recommends – it is physical work. We should be ready to spend several hours a day doing physical work with our hands. Having started out as a bricklayer myself, I have some appreciation for what Arnold is recommending. Those who work with their hands are drawn out of their self-preoccupations, making it possible to see their neighbor. A neighbor who may turn out to be Jesus in disguise.

I hope I have enticed you to read this book. It is a beautiful book, and beauty may at times wound us. But if we are thus wounded it can be, as Arnold helps us see, what God has given us to save us.