Farewell, Preston Sprinkle – A Review of Fight by Preston Sprinkle
Farewell, Preston Sprinkle – A Review of Fight by Preston Sprinkle

An Overview of Fight

Fight opens with a graphic description of a genocide in Mozambique that is reminiscent of the opening chapter of Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp. Only, in Camp's book, the genocide described was in Rwanda. This a bit of "shock and awe" kind of technique. Few U.S. Americans, let alone evangelicals, will be bothered to read detailed accounts of such atrocities, yet holding strong views on the subject of war. Sprinkle clearly wants to challenge this comfort, and suggest that we should see war for the horrific, dehumanizing, demonic nightmare that it truly is, before we even attempt to construct an ethical position on the subject. I think Sprinkle's instincts here are correct. Far too much writing on violence and war from U.S. evangelicals is written through rose-colored goggles. Sprinkle will expose some of this as well. After that, Sprinkle spends three chapters examining the nature of warfare in the Old Testament, the violent passages, and puts forward several theories of interpreting them. I think this section is the book's weakest by far, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before leaving the Old Testament entirely, Sprinkle adds a chapter about themes in the Hebrew Bible that point to the developing ethic of nonviolence which more fully appears in the New Testament—particularly in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This chapter is titled after the prophecy found in both Isaiah and Micah of the coming Messianic age when "swords will be beaten into plowshares." When Sprinkle turns his attention to the New Testament, Fight turns into an outstanding book. With the next four chapters, Sprinkle will cover a lot of ground, but manage to do it in a way that is both scholarly and yet highly accessible. He covers the nonviolent ethic of Jesus, the nature of Jesus's "kingdom," our citizenship in Jesus's kingdom, the nonviolent meaning of Revelation, and more. These chapters alone are well worth the cost of the book. But for added value, the final third of the book includes a survey of the early church father's attitudes toward war, militarism, military service, and killing; responses to several common objections to Christian nonviolence, and an imaginative parable that illustrates the type of cruciform discipleship he's been teaching throughout the book. To top it all off, he even throws in an appendix on "Just War theories." Truly, Fight is closer to a library of resources on Christian nonviolence than merely a book. Sprinkle has packed a lot into one volume, and yet managed to make it readable. I think readers will be thankful.

The Occasion of Fight

The historical and cultural impetus for a book like Fight might not be immediately obvious. To understand why this book has been written, and why it needed to be written, one must understand at least some of this background. Two events in the past decade and a half, more than all others, have precipitated the seismic shift we're seeing among younger, white evangelicals in the US. The first was 9/11, and the second is the presidency of Barack Obama. This month marks 12 years since the attacks on NY and DC. At first, the whole nation seemed to be united in prayer and mourning. But that only lasted a brief moment. Then, suddenly, partisan politics took center stage and politically conservative evangelicals began to call for, and support the call for, a "War on Terror." In the 12 years since 9/11, younger evangelicals have begun to rethink their relationship to both the "Religious Right", partisan politics in general, militarism, and violence in general. Perhaps no one embodies this repentance more than Shane Claiborne. His radical message of nonviolence, inspired by his Anabaptist convictions and a deep commitment to following the Way of Jesus found in the New Testament Gospels, has influenced millions of Christians in the US and around the world. And it just so happens that Claiborne has written the forward for Fight. The second event, the Obama presidency, has also contributed to this shift, but in different ways. Younger evangelicals by the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) were energized by the Obama campaign, dared to break ranks with their parent's generation, and dared to believe in their own ability to make a difference in the world through political action. Even those disillusioned by broken campaign promises continued to believe in the power of social media, social entrepreneurship, and social justice to change the world. It was also through the influence of the Obama campaign that many younger white evangelicals got a crash course in the history of Civil Rights, the prophetic black church tradition, and liberation theology. An entire generation of evangelicals began to question unspoken assumptions propagated by conservatives, and embraced a new ecumenism that frightened and alarmed culture warriors and gatekeepers. Led by personalities like Jim Wallis, this group has been dubbed the "Evangelical Left."

The Importance of Fight

These shifts have theological and ecclesiological implications as well. A younger generation of white evangelicals have begun rethinking what it means to be "the Church." This movement has been dubbed the "Emergent" or "Emerging" church, and it has been mostly made up of white evangelicals who are breaking away from traditional/conservative evangelical modes of church practice and beliefs. Rob Bell is considered by many to be the poster boy for this movement, and his 2011 book Love Wins solidified his place as despised and rejected "emergent" pastor because he questioned a traditional understanding of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. Culture warrior, gatekeeper, and defender of traditional evangelicalism's status quo, John Piper, famously tweeted "Farewell Rob Bell" to mark his expulsion from among the ranks of the "orthodox." It is into the very heart of these shifts that Preston Sprinkle, author of Fight boldly inserted himself. Shortly after Love-Wins-Gate, Sprinkle co-authored a book titled Erasing Hell with famed conference speaker and megachurch pastor Francis Chan. It was a direct response and repudiation of Love Wins. This substantiated Sprinkle's credentials as a defender of "orthodoxy" and a "conservative." Sprinkle further bolsters this reputation in the start of the book by revealing his theological allegiances to the Neo-Reformed camp—staunch opponents of both the "Evangelical Left" and the "Emerging/Emergent Church." Sprinkle writes,
"The Christian subculture in which I was raised and still worship is nondenominational conservative Reformed. I've been influenced over the years by John Piper, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and many others who swim in that pond." (p.25)
This is precisely what makes Sprinkle's work so important. Never before has a young, white evangelical with Sprinkle's credentials as a Neo-Calvinist defender of conservative "orthodoxy" so directly challenged his or her own camp's assumptions about violence, nationalism, militarism, and war. And Sprinkle is determined to challenge the positions of his own tradition's leading voices on their own terms—using the Bible. This makes Fight a landmark work. In another decade and a half, we might be talking about how Fight revealed a widening fault line among conservative evangelicals around issues of violence and political power.

What Fight Get's Right, and What Fight Gets Wrong

The Bad and the Ugly

Let's start with the bad news first, so we can end on a positive note. It's unfortunate, but not all of Fight is equally praiseworthy. Sprinkle's resolve to re-examine the subjects of violence, nationalism, and militarism on the basis of Scripture alone is highly admirable. But to do this he must tackle some of the most difficult passages in the Bible. Chief among these are the "text of terror," and chief among those are the passages which tell the story of the "Canaanite Conquest." In his interpretation of these passages, Sprinkle must tap dance on a tightrope for a variety of reasons. First, his conservative evangelical readers will "farewell" him if he even flirts with denouncing these texts. That's why he is quick to speak of their "continuity" with the New Testament. However, this means he must find a way to make them compatible with the nonviolent stance for which he will argue throughout the rest of the book. Second, Sprinkle must find a way to explain how the historical events of this period do not actually match up with what we find in the Old Testament, or he will find himself attempting to justify genocide. That, of course, won't make it easy for him to then denounce all killing in the remaining two-thirds of the book. This section of the book was incredibly frustrating to read. Sprinkle's explanations amounted to little more than excuses. And that wouldn't be quite so maddening if he didn't make several bold statements condemning such practices. Like this one:
"God doesn't need us to make excuses for Him, nor does He need us to give Him a lesson in morality." (p.75)
One would not come to that conclusion by reading his section on Old Testament violence. Instead, Sprinkle continuously makes excuses for God and attempts to obfuscate the truth behind theories and speculation. For example,
"…it's not altogether clear that God actually intended Israel to massacre every man, woman, and child…" (p.80) "…since the author of Joshua 10:40 describes the Canaanite defeat hyperbolically, then it seems likely that God's command in Deuteronomy 20 was also intended to be hyperbolic." (p.86) "Perhaps the phrase 'men and women, young and old' is not be taken literally. This may sound a bit shady, but hear me out." (p.88) "Taken cumulatively, [the arguments I've presented] do offer some merit to the view that God didn't literally command Joshua to slaughter babies." (p.89)
If Sprinkle were making the case that it is never right to take human life, even for God, then such excuses would be slightly more tolerable. But, ultimately, Sprinkle resorts to the ethically devastating position that: If God commands the slaughter of men, women, and children, then that command is holy and just. He writes,
"…the land became defiled and therefore had to be cleansed…" (p.77) "God's holiness demands sacred space for Him to dwell with human beings. This is why the Canannites had to be driven out of God's new residence." (p. 77) "Joshua's conquest cannot be called a genocide. It was God's judgment on persistent sin…" (p.78) "In sum, the conquest is God's punishment for relentless wickedness among people living in God's special residence, who rejected God's offer of grace." (p.80) "As morally difficult as it is, God was right." (p.88)
By the end of Sprinkle's three chapters on violence in the Old Testament, I was not at all confident Sprinkle would be able to contribute positively to discussion of violence, nationalism, and militarism. But the rest of the book was a pleasant surprise.

The Good

There is a lot to celebrate in Fight. Sprinkle does an excellent job accumulating responses from a variety of sources to the most common objections to Christian nonviolence. He collects into one volume answers to such questions from sources like John Howard Yoder's What Would You Do? and Greg Boyd's "Does God Expect Nations to Turn the Other Cheek?" in A Faith Not Worth Fighting For. He also draws upon the rich narrative theology and inaugurated eschatology of N. T. Wright, and others. But perhaps most delightfully surprising is how directly he challenges the nationalistic idolatry and violent misinterpretations of those in his own Neo-Reformed camp like Mark Driscoll and Wayne Grudem. Before reading Fight, I don't recall ever reading another Neo-Calvinist author break ranks and so clearly call out their fellow Calvinists on any subject whatsoever. Sprinkle is quite possibly the first Neo-Calvinist to critique his own camp! Bravo Preston, bravo! But there are many more things that Sprinkle does brilliantly in this book. One of the most important is rooting his Christian nonviolence in the biblical vision of shalom. I think he does this as good or better than any other author writing on this subject. He connects God's eschatological reign of justice and love to the Edenic harmony that God established in the beginning. In the New Creation, he contends, God is restoring the shalom that was lost because of sin and death, bringing the biblical narrative full circle. This is solid, biblical theology. Sprinkle also regularly makes reference to "cruciformity" when discussing the posture and responsibility of Jesus-disciples. In this respect, as with his emphasis on shalom as the unifying theme of the biblical narrative, Sprinkle Nails it! No two themes more accurately capture the heart of biblical narrative than these. Together, they form the basis for a very compelling picture of the Christian life as well as a highly persuasive case for Christian nonviolence.

Conclusion: A Landmark Book, That is Readable and Practical

Fight is an amazing book overall that I think will make waves in evangelicalism for many years to come. It exposes many of the nationalistic and militaristic blind spots and assumptions from which millions of U.S. American evangelicals suffer. But it also provides the remedy. It lays out, in a good old-fashioned, biblical manner, the core reasons why Jesus-disciples should abstain from all killing and violence. It also provides nonviolent Christians with a lot of apologetic answers to the most common objections. It's clear Sprinkle has not only done his homework, but has engaged with his critics and opponents. Fight might provide evangelicals with the most thorough presentation of Christian nonviolence available today. Fight is also a book about worship—what it means to truly love, serve, and obey Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In an age when most Christian books are little more than self-help sprinkled with Bible verses, or a sales pitch for a particular brand of theology, this book stands out as an authentic investigation into the biblical view of discipleship. Therefore, Fight is a refreshing departure from the norm. Fight cannot be cavalierly brushed off as political posturing either. Sprinkle demonstrates through his writing that his sole goal is faithfulness to Jesus. That makes Fight more than a book on Christian nonviolence—it makes it a book on Christianity. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.