Death Must Die: A Review of FIGHT by Preston Sprinkle
Any book that tackles such a topic as heated, heavy, and divisive as that of non-violence would not easily be described as refreshing, but somehow Preston Sprinkle managed to write one that has that effect. Instead of weighing the reader down with the heaviness of the topic at-hand or wearing them down with the vast amount of material written on the subject, Sprinkle uses a deft, up-tempo style of writing to keep the subject accessible without sacrificing its importance. The result is a book that feels shorter than it is but that also covers the subject more powerfully than expected.
Sprinkle begins his book with an account of both the terror of violence and the beauty of its antithesis. He recounts the civil war that raged in Mozambique that began two years after its independence in 1975 until 1992. Over that course of time “nearly half of its sixteen million citizens were affected by the war on some level.” (190). Such an extended outpouring of violence will leave its mark long after the formal hostilities have ceased. Think of it – an entire generation saw violence mark its end while another was born and raised in the midst of it. In an effort to both remember their past and better their future, the people of Mozambique took scores of the weapons used in that conflict and beat and forged them into a sculpture called the tree of life, “a beacon of hope on a mountain of skulls.” (19). Violence, Sprinkle hopes to demonstrate from the outset, is one of the worst symptoms of brokenness and nonviolence one of the most beautiful demonstrations of redemption.
In an attempt to cut-off some criticism before it begins, Sprinkle provides his working definition of violence fairly early in the book. “For the sake of this book I will use the term violence to refer to: a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) the victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.” (32) For most of the book Sprinkle does a fairly good job of keeping within his own parameters, but towards the end he does stretch the limits by describing hitting and kicking as non-violent. “Perhaps you’re surprised that I’m describing hitting and kicking as non-violent. But not all enforced pain is violent.” (220) While he would not be alone in drawing a clear line between violence meant to kill or seriously-injure and that meant only to bruise or bother, it is a distinction not readily made in his opening salvo. It’s not an error, per se, but it does leave his guard down a bit.
One of the more engaging aspects of Sprinkle’s work is the candid way in which he admits his ongoing struggled with the idea of non-violence and the journey he’s undertaken to reach his current hypothesis on the matter. “I grew up in a Christian home,” Sprinkle recounts, “and like many evangelicals, I was enamored with war.” (24) Until 2008 his view of those who advocated pacifism or non-violence was that such a person “must be biblically illiterate or anti-American.”(24). He does not shade his past to make it less antithetical to his current stance on the matter. He fully admits and in some way even boasts of the journey he’s undertaken over the past several years. Sprinkle also does not hide the fact that “this book is not intended to be the last word on the subject…(but part of) the ongoing discussion of how Christians should think about warfare, violence, and their close cousin, nationalism.” (23) In short, he doesn’t pretend to be an authority on the matter, he is merely speaking to others who contemplate the same philosophical journey he has undertaken.
Despite its relative brevity, the book takes no shortcuts. Rather than jumping directly into the fray or addressing the catch-22-type questions many pose to the pacifist/non-violence crowd, Sprinkle develops his argument systematically. He begins at the beginning, describing the peace that pervaded Eden before the Fall. “There is perfect harmony between the Creator and His creation, and there is perfect harmony among all created things.” (39) This was and is God’s ideal for His creation and although it will never be fully realized this side of the Kingdom, Christians are called to work towards and represent it. By building his argument from this point onward, Sprinkle builds his case for non-violence not as a reaction to the state of things, but as part of comprehensive, systematic theology.
Because Sprinkle sees non-violence less as a stance and more as a logical outgrowth of his theological bent, his view stands or falls with a particular reading of the Bible, particularly those passages relating to Israel’s conquest of Canaan, David’s reputation as a warrior king, and the bloody apocalypse seen in Revelation. While the pessimistic reader will see genocide, nationalism, and merciless vengeance, Sprinkle sees steps in a journey meant to take the Israel and the world “back to Eden.” (68)
There are weaknesses to this method of argument. Sprinkle relies on some less-than mainstream interpretations of some passages and accounts. For instance, when discussing Israel’s conquest of Canaan, he exerts quite a bit of effort attempting to explain how “a wholesale slaughter of all the Canaanites by an ancient blitzkrieg is not the uniform picture in the Bible.” (81) He argues, more than a little convincingly, that passages calling for or describing the killing of every living person and thing within the Canaanite cities are hyperbolic. Hyperbole is not uncommon in Scripture, Sprinkle points out. Passages such as Jesus’ admonition to put-out an offending eye, to cut-off the offending hand remind us that “hyperbole is a common rhetorical device in Scripture.” (84) While this is true and while Sprinkle’s argument for such a reading is not without merit, he does leave himself open to the critique of projecting his view into such passages rather than reading them in their own light. And because there are several such troublesome accounts through-out the Old Testament in particular the book sometimes reads like a tap-dance around the obvious intents and meanings of Scriptures.
But challenging the obvious in search of the truth also provides Sprinkle’s book with a certain quiet strength. Because he drenches his arguments in the context of his personal journey it is clear that he did not seek out contrarian interpretations to suit his existing worldview. Instead, Sprinkle was convinced of the veracity of this interpretive approach and allowed it to alter his pre-existing notions and ideas into what they are today. While many will certainly disagree with his conclusions, few, if any, could seriously contest the honesty and openness in his argumentation.
There is also something refreshing about his desire to weave a solid, cohesive argument for non-violence using the entire witness of Scripture rather than leaning on emotional entreaties or appeals to platitudes. Sprinkle’s advocation of non-violence finds its climax in the cross, where God determined to die rather than to kill, and to be a victim of violence rather than a perpetrator of it. “The nonviolent rhythms of the cross meet the melodies of this world with dissonance.” (257) Sprinkle’s argumentation begins at Eden, carries through the Old Testament, and peaks at the moment where God was nailed to a cross in the place of man. Non-violence is not merely a political or philosophical stance for Sprinkle, it is a natural and necessary response to the Cross.
After spending ten chapters and over two-hundred pages building a theology of non-violence from the ground-up, Sprinkle uses the eleventh and twelfth chapter to address ‘the objections and questions that came up (in the course of writing this book).” (235) He answers the theoretical scenario of there’s an “attacker-at-the-door…kill the killer or let him (it’s always a man, right?) kill your family.” (217) As he states “this question is often asked dismissively, as though the mere presence of the one dilemma will expose the naïveté of the nonviolence position and bypass the need to do any serious biblical thinking.” (217) This is why Sprinkle so painstakingly builds his theology before addressing these types of questions, to encourage deep, rational interaction with his thesis, rather than trite dismissal. “I cannot stress enough how important it will be for us to saturate ourselves in the Bible before we address those questions. If you skip to chapters 11 and 12, nothing I say there will make sense. We must come at the…questions after we have first inhabited the world of the Bible.” (34)
Approaching the idea of non-violence by thoroughly inhabiting and dwelling in the world of the Bible is essential to Sprinkle’s argument. He has no case if his study of the Bible is incorrect. In this way his stance is completely and totally Christian. If the Bible is wrong or if he is wrong about it, then his belief in no-violence, his distaste for militarism, and his appeal to the crucified Christ are all baseless and empty. This is not to say that Christians won’t disagree with him or even take offense at his conclusions. But Sprinkle is not a Christian who happens to advocate non-violence; it is part and parcel to his faith.
And in this lies the books greatest strength. It is unlikely that Sprinkle’s thorough and astute work will convince someone against their predisposition. If someone is already obliged to disagree, they will likely dismiss his views as naïve and his arguments as baseless. But because he mines the Bible so thoroughly and presents his case so winsomely, it is very possible that even those who will not be persuaded to his corner might at least be challenged in their pursuit of Christ. And if such is the case, Sprinkle seems to be the type who would find satisfaction in being considered wrong in his conclusion but faithful and commendable in his convictions and love of Christ.