On Christian Pacifism

The international policy of our country is one of the few political issues to which I am attentive.  Every election cycle, I analyze the candidates’ positions toward other countries and look for the one who seems to be most peaceful.  The options usually leave me wanting as I listen to candidates argue about their own ability to outspend the others on military expenditures and warfare.  It is quite disturbing.

Yet, I am not a pacifist.  While in my 20’s, I was one, but I could not hold that position after becoming Orthodox and learning more about Christian thought and beliefs over the past 2,000 years.

THE CASE FOR CHRISTIAN PACIFISM

Not all pacifists are Christians, so I will not be addressing the various philosophical arguments that other forms of pacifism make.  Instead, this will be written from a Christian perspective.

Defining our terms is always useful when entering into any kind of discussion that can become difficult.  I have chosen Ted Grimsrud’s definition of pacifism, which comes from the book A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology:

Hence, “pacifism” is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do, it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment.

Such a definition succinctly states the pacifist’s case, and will help me state my own.  Some of the scriptural passages commonly quoted in pacifism include:

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)

And what is probably the most pivotal passage, at least it was for me when I was a pacifist:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matt. 5:38-41)

Pacifists also point to the example of Christ’s life: His refusal to become a political messiah and His meekness when led to trial and hanged upon the cross at Golgotha.

THE CASE AGAINST CHRISTIAN PACIFISM

St. Cyril the Enlightener of the Slavs was approached one day by some Christians who were facing opposition from Islamic militants.  They mentioned the passage from Matthew about turning the other cheek, and wanted to know if such a statement from our Lord prevented any Christian of a good conscience from serving in the military.  His enlightened response is useful:

“If two commandments were written in one law and given to men for fulfilling, which man would be a better follower of the law: The one who fulfilled one commandment or the one who fulfilled both?’

The Saracens replied: “Undoubtedly, he who fulfills both commandments.”

St. Cyril continued: “Christ our God commands us to pray to God for those who persecute us and even do good to them, but He also said to us, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). That is why we bear the insults that our enemies cast at us individually and why we pray to God for them. However, as a society, we defend one another and lay down our lives, so that the enemy would not enslave our brethren, would not enslave their souls with their bodies, and would not destroy them in both body and soul.” (From the Prologue of Ochrid)

Pacifism utilizes a handful of scriptural passages and magnifies a particular understanding of them above and beyond everything else written.  When the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment, even higher than laying down one’s life to protect others, things have become unbalanced.

St. Cyril in the above quote is essentially stating, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other.  That is fulfilling one gospel commandment.  However, if someone is striking your neighbor and you are capable of defending your neighbor, even at the risk of your own life, then do so.  For then you are fulfilling another gospel commandment.”  Of course, a nonviolent approach should be attempted before one of violence.  However, there are some people in this world who refuse to be reasoned with and will not cease from committing violent acts unless they are forcibly stopped.

SCRIPTURAL SUPPORT

In Luke, we see many people approach John the Baptist, asking how they should amend their lives to prepare for the coming kingdom of God.  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” The Forerunner did not say, “Quit the army, for one cannot serve God and wield the sword.”  Rather,

he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (3:14)

In other words, “Don’t use your position and power as a soldier to oppress others.”

St. Paul writes,

[Rulers in authority are] God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Rom. 13:4-5)

And in another place,

He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one…  And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36,38)

There are multiple centurions (military leaders) in the New Testament who are practically deemed to be saints, yet there is no hint that they have forsaken their military duties (Matt. 8:5-13, Acts 10).  Additionally, there are a multitude of battles in the Old Testament that God condones.

HISTORICAL SUPPORT

Some modern Christians suppose that the early Christians were all pacifists and that did not change until the time of Constantine, when church and state became much friendlier with one another.  However, this idea fails the test of even a casual glance at history.

I wish I had recorded the name of every pre-Constantine soldier who died as a martyr for Christ that I have read about.  There are many! None of these martyrs died because they converted to Christianity and wanted to leave the army for pacifism’s sake.

Those who served in the Roman army were expected to honor the Roman gods because it was assumed that the Roman gods were giving the Romans victory in battle.  When a soldier refused to burn incense or make some small sacrifice to the gods, it was seen as an insult to the gods and that man was believed to be endangering the military.

The actual enforcement of this rule of sacrifice varied, but each time it was enforced, a multitude of Christian soldiers were killed.  The early church saw no conflict with a man serving in his nation’s military, only for a man acting violently for his own advantage, or because his ego had been damaged, or for any other self-focused motive.

SUMMARY

We as Christians are called to bear insults, reproach, and violence against us without retaliation. However, non-violence is not an absolute rule.  When it comes to protecting others, or preserving peace in a society, sometimes forceful means are necessary.  It is sadly part of living in a fallen world.  Additionally, it is my opinion that women and children who are being attacked by men should not hesitate to do what it takes to make their situation less dangerous.

Courage and valor have been Christian virtues since the early church through today, and when we sacrifice our own safety for the sake of helping someone else, we are fulfilling the gospel command.

Extreme pacifism results in a disintegration of spiritual courage.  CS Lewis, who opposed Christian pacifism, said something that I think can be applied here:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
(The Abolition of Man)

With all of that said, I still support political candidates who desire peace (if any can be found).  The wars that America launches are largely motivated by imperialism and greed.  In no way are we Christians called to support such things.  However, we must be careful not to swing in the opposite direction and throw away truth because we witness acts of violence committed with corrupt motives.

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

One thought on “On Christian Pacifism”

  1. This post helped to resolve certain doubts I’ve always had regarding this topic. An informative and much-appreciated article. 🙂

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