Robert Brimlow boldly responds to the most difficult objection to pacifist philosophy, i.e., that the presence of an objectified evil, such as that embodied by Hitler in the Holocaust and the Second World War, necessitates violent response.

Brimlow argues a Christian position of nonviolence, reminding the reader that the call of Christ to incarnate the kingdom of God is often absurd. War is necessary, we feel, to guarantee our safety and security. But security is not an expectation of the Christian.

After all, Jesus tells us that we will lose our own lives even as we try to save them.[1]

The book is not a purely academic work, although Brimlow’s writing style often reflects his academic origins. Each chapter is accompanied by a meditation, written as a prayer centered around a passage of Scripture, and a prologue which conveys an anecdote or reflection, typically from Brimlow’s personal experience with violence. These elements are not as tightly woven into the flow of Brimlow’s argumentation as one might anticipate, but the reader may still appreciate the result, namely, a parallel view of Brimlow’s rational, emotional, and personal struggle to understand Christ’s teaching. These alternate perspectives bring an aspect of humanity and humility into the text, and this characteristic feels necessary for this book to function within a dialogue rather than a debate. Given my own biases, I have made my best effort to evaluate this text on its own terms, not as an all-encompassing argument for pacifism over war, but as an entry point into a difficult dialogue on some of Christ’s most difficult teaching.

Brimlow’s primary aim in Chapter 1 is to present and analyze the historic foundations of Just War Theory. Brimlow picks up the historical thread at the point where Christianity is discovering its identity within Roman culture and examines arguments made by Augustine to justify Christian use of violence and participation in the Roman military under particularly stated circumstances. Brimlow adamantly disagrees with the separation Augustine allows between the inner disposition of the soul and the external acts of the flesh. Augustine’s perspective is contrasted against third-century church father Tertullian’s advocation of total pacifism. Tertullian’s assertion that there is no “compelled necessity to wage war”[2] for the Christian closely parallels Brimlow’s stance throughout the book.

Chapter 2 examines contemporary principles of Just War Theory. Brimlow elaborates the basic tenets of jus ad bellum, the rules which justify going to war, and jus in bello, the aspects of Just War Theory that define appropriate methods of war.[3] In this chapter and the two that follow, Brimlow explores the difficulty of applying these principles to modern wars, especially supreme emergencies of evil, and terrorism. The problems include the many contradictions of distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants in abiding by the rules to protect innocents. Additionally, Brimlow applies the rules in the opposite direction showing that the same principles are able to support the actions of Hitler and Al Qaeda. It appears that “just” is all a matter of perspective, as such, violence nearly always begets more violence. Depending on the reader’s perspective, s/he may find many of these arguments quite narrow and main points under-developed. At times, Brimlow invests significant energy and words to attack the verbage of an opposing view, without successfully dismantling the underlying ideas. It is often unclear why such tactics are necessary, as they do not contribute to Brimlow’s purpose.

Chapter 5 marks a shift in Brimlow’s approach as he partially abandons philosophy to examine the examples of Gandhi and Bonhoeffer in the face of the Hitler threat. Bonhoeffer quickly becomes the focus as Brimlow attempts to understand the contradiction of the man’s beliefs with his final actions. Brimlow dismisses Bonhoeffer’s apparent conclusion that both inaction and action were sinful. This conclusion is evidence to Brimlow that Bonhoeffer was misunderstanding something. Brimlow’s premise that violence can never be justified leaves only one option to consider.

In Chapter 6, Brimlow attempts to distinguish between worldly and Godly definitions of success by painting the mission of Christ as a failure. The argument is weakened in that it does not give full consideration to the purpose of Christ’s mission. The modern church, and even Brimlow, understand that Christ did not strive to bring about the conclusion of redemption, but to set the stage for the eschatological fulfillment through the body of Christ in the church. However, Brimlow’s argument dismisses anything short of conclusive during the life of Christ as a failure. Brimlow further attempts to invalidate earlier claims labeling pacifism as hypocritical, by pitting these against the person of Jesus. This aspect of the argument is based on his belief that Jesus as a peacemaker is necessarily a pacifist,[4] a point which has not been and is not argued in this book.

Many of the arguments up to this point in the book, particularly in Chapters 2 through 5, seem irrelevant to Brimlow’s purpose. Brimlow has wrestled with Just War Theory and its application to World War II, as well as war and violence in the present day. Brimlow justified this approach in the Preface as meeting “the church where it is,” namely, basing the majority of its thinking on secular doctrines of just war.[5] But the approach falls flat in Chapter 7 when Brimlow reiterates, in roughly half a page, his “clear and simple” understanding of the Gospel.[6] What is implied, but not directly stated, is that a Christ-like response to Hitler would have sought peace by peaceful means, even as these acts would cede victory to evil. And in this struggle, the peacemaker, as well as the objects of Hitler’s endeavors, would suffer death.

The preceding chapters have only weakly, if at all, supported this conclusion. In the statements that underlie the claim, Brimlow has offered hard-nosed, obvious readings of Christ’s call to peacemaking that apply equally to all encounters with evil and violence. Let me be clear: Brimlow comes to these texts with humility that allows him to accept and follow a call that we know is so often absurd. Regardless, there are crucial points in his argument’s trajectory where Brimlow has made up his mind with rigid certainty that ignores the reader’s differences.

It is at this point in the book, however, that Brimlow reclaims his original purpose to wrestle with the words of Christ. In Chapter 8, Brimlow elaborates on two issues that give us cause to stumble with the previous conclusion. The first, and most fundamental, is a matter of the heart. Brimlow examines the tears of Jesus at the death of Lazarus in John 11 and suggests that like Mary,

Our relationship to Jesus has become inverted in that our hope is more fundamental than our faith, and our expectations of him determine how we will live; rather, we ought to understand that his expectations of us should determine how we will die.[7]

The second stumbling block is a flaw in the Hitler question itself: “[i]t assumes that Christians and the church have no involvement and no responsibility prior to some arbitrary date in the early 1940s.”[8] Brimlow rightly argues that prior even to the First World War, the church had a responsibility to live and teach a love that would have rendered both wars incomprehensible. And he refuses to let the modern church off the hook, suggesting that we are not “any better peacemakers” than the church of the early 20th century.[9]

In raising the preceding points, Brimlow is at least partially successful in his endeavor. It seems, however, that his answer to the Hitler question and these issues would have served better as the starting point to this dialogue, challenging readers on both sides to engage in the failures of the early church then and now. As written, Brimlow fails to explore the implications of peacemaking in light of an evil that could not exist apart from the church’s sinful omission. Likewise, he gives little attention to the effectiveness of non-violence in fulfilling the goals of the mission of the kingdom, like freeing the oppressed.[10] In Chapter 9, Brimlow concludes with discussion of the implications for the church’s spiritual practice. In light of the full text, these thoughts may be perceived as too little, too late.

It seems important at this point to discuss the reader’s responsibility to this text. Brimlow has challenged the reader, even in his choice of title, to wrestle with the call of Christ to be peacemakers. He has passionately, though not perfectly, led the reader onto the mat. If the reader, advocating Just War, blindly dismisses every claim as both false and ridiculous, it is fair to say that s/he has not joined Brimlow in his struggle. And if the reader, being a pacifist, affirms each claim with effortless zeal, it is fair to say that this reader as well has not yet joined Brimlow in his struggle.


[1] Luke 9:24
[2] Robert W. Brimlow, What About Hitler? Wrestling With Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 32.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid., 144.
[5] Ibid., 13-14.
[6] Ibid., 151.
[7] Ibid., 167.
[8] Ibid., 168.
[9] Ibid., 169.
[10] Luke 9:18