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.

12 thoughts 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. 🙂

  2. I like Cyril’s quote, but I think he mischaracterizes the situation. Laying down your life for a friend doesn’t mean participating in violence towards another human being. As an example, it would have been possible for someone who opposed the Nazis in WWII to put their lives at risk, kill some Germans, and rescue some Jews. That’s one way of going about things. But it’s also possible that someone could put their life at risk, harbor Jews in their home, and not kill any Germans.

    Those who oppose pacifism always seem to think that laying down your life against an aggressor means you have to take violence upon yourself. Now it may be true that pacifistic means of laying down your life are less effective at actually preserving a friend’s life, but that’s not the point. Pacifists would say that the point is obedience to the means prescribed, not a commitment to bringing about a desired end through a means of our own choosing. God saved Daniel and his three friends from the hand of the king when they refused to do his bidding. No martyr received the same mercy from God. If God wants to preserve me as I use the means he has given me – enemy love – so be it. But ensuring the preservation of my life or the lives of others is not my burden to bear.

    I appreciate your post. I’d love to make a few more comments about your take on early Christian thought, but that’s for another time and place. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss more.

    1. Hi Derek, not sure what to say other than that my wife is very happy knowing that I won’t stand aside if someone breaks into our house and begins attacking her or if someone tries to kidnap her. Calling the police would be anti-pacifism since I would merely be getting someone else to do the violence on my behalf. Telling the attacker, “I implore you to reconsider” would do my wife no good. In addition to protecting my wife, I would also risk my life and safety to help out others, especially those who are weak or vulnerable.

      I can’t imagine a father telling his daughter, “If a man attacks you, try to get away. If you can’t, implore him to reconsider. But whatever you do, don’t fight back!”

      All non-violent means must certainly be exhausted first. But just as clothes are necessary due to the fall of man, so is limited violence.

      1. It doesn’t really matter how your wife or anyone else feels about it. Feelings don’t determine morality. I completely understand your desire to uphold what is for most, intuition. I also understand your desire to uphold pragmatism. Those two things can be very informative. But I think Christ’s teachings do a lot to combat both of those things, and are why God’s ways are called foolishness to us.

        I do believe you paint pacifists in a broad stroke here. There are different degrees of pacifism. Yes, some would say you do absolutely nothing in terms of physical measures, but others say that restraint and resistance are different than performing an action that can maim and kill. Just as some who are for a just war may think the A-bomb in Japan was legitimate while others may not, pacifism has varying degrees of beliefs.

        I like your analogy about clothes and violence as a result of the fall, but I think your analogy goes astray. We wear clothes for modesty, because we can no longer control the lust in our minds, nor our pride that looks to self. Clothing helps to keep sin at bay. Violence, on the other hand, is an embracing of the curse. How can we kill without hate in our hearts? How can we kill in perfect justice and judgment? Only God can do that. He did it in the OT through direct command, but in the NT he placed his judgment upon Jesus, and tells us to give up our vengeance to him. He will judge justly and without partiality in the end. That is not for us to do now.

        Anyway, I don’t want to talk too much more. I have compiled much about this topic and would encourage you to at least check out the rebuttal section (#9).

        https://www.dckreider.com/blog-theological-musings/category/pacifism

        1. Hi Derek,

          I agree that feelings do not dictate morality. I was merely pointing out the common sense that seems to be innate in most people that the stronger should use their strength to help the weak and oppressed — even if that means a limited amount of “violence” in rare occasions. By “violence” I mean “restraint and resistance” to the degree necessary without maiming or killing the aggressor if at all possible. I am not familiar with all of the varying degrees of pacifism, but in my opinion, one is either a total pacifist or not.

          In regards to your questions: I believe it is possible to kill without hate in the heart. You misjudge those who kill in self-defense or war. Most of the time, I think such people are scared, but not hateful. Fear and hate are completely different. Secondly, I do not claim anyone kills in “perfect justice and judgment.” I also do not think anyone can claim to do anything, whether it be pacifism or any good, in perfect justice and judgment. Only God can make such claims, no matter what is being done.

          I read many of the rebuttals on your site and did not find them to be satisfying arguments, as I am sure you did not find any of my arguments here to be compelling enough to change your position on matters. So, we may have to agree to disagree.

          1. I agree that we’ll probably end up disagreeing in the end regardless of the other person’s comments. I would have agreed with you just a year or two ago, but I’ve come to be solidified in the pacifistic camp. I found, like you, that my intuition so strongly opposed pacifism. The problem was that after researching, my intuition was all I had going for me. The last two years in the States (not sure where you’re from) have shown me how wrong the Christian community can be because we’re saturated with faulty intuitions and socializations. Pragmatism is a god for many of us, and it is for me quite frequently still.

            I just don’t know how one can look at Christ’s teachings and the early church and remain in the just war camp other than on an argument from silence and intuition. My intuition has proven faulty enough due to self-interest and socialization, and Christ’s teachings on morality are so counterintuitive, that I just can’t rely on how I feel about something to be my deciding factor. Intuition is just moral vision. Sight and intuition work most of the time, but they are also easily deceived. I’m sure you have some other reasons too, but I have yet to hear anything compelling beyond intuition.

            The only other thing I’d ask is to look at the section I have on questions for just war theorists. The one I’m particularly interested about is how you can avoid justifying torture on your view. I’ll post that particular question below. Thanks for the good and respectful discussion.

            If you are justified to harm or kill another person in self-defense, how can you avoid the conclusion that torture can be justified on the same grounds? You can rightfully shoot someone in your home if you have a reasonable belief that they could harm you. If I have a reasonable belief – or if I am almost certain that a suspect has information that could save another’s life, why am I not justified in torturing them? What is the difference between harming them to save a life in torture, or harming them to save a life by shooting them while they are attacking? An intruder in my home is neutralized when they are in custody or incapacitated from doing violence. A terrorist is not neutralized until their plan is foiled, the bomb disarmed, all the hostages released, etc. Why can’t we use torture to neutralize terrorists when a threat to life is still in play? In fact, isn’t torture more merciful and just than killing in self-defense? If an intruder is in your home, to stop them with a gun means you will likely kill them. But by using torture, you can usually stop the crime by only using as much force as necessary without taking a life.

          2. If you believe torture is more merciful and just than self-defense, then I thank God you are a pacifist. I have nothing further to say on this topic.

            Have a blessed Holy Week.

          3. I was hoping to have a thoughtful discussion, but all you’ve done is tell me how the issue makes your wife feel, how telling your kids not to fight back is unimaginable (though God asks that of his kids in at least some circumstances), and imply that I’m inhumane by avoiding my questioning of your consistency of logic between self defense and torture. How can YOU say that torture isn’t allowed yet self defense is.

            I really enjoyed your article and the quote from Cyril made me think. But you have really turned me off with your lack of addressing this dialogue with substance and charity.

            Ii wish you the best and pray that God guides both of us to truth and helps both of us to love others in full measure. Have a blessed holy week as well.

          4. Derek, I do not think you are inhumane, nor did I imply that. I do believe though that it is better to be a pacifist than an advocate for torture. If, for example, someone is honestly not able to see the difference between advocating torture verses a woman using necessary force to free herself from an attacker, then it is best they remain a pacifist. While I don’t believe the pacifist or the advocate for torture have reached the fullness of truth, one is much closer than the other.

            “…avoiding my questioning of your consistency of logic between self defense and torture.” The two are not logically consistent. That was your argument not mine, so I have no need to defend it. While many Just War adherents would probably agree with that line of thinking, I am not one of them. In that case, the end does not justify the means. It is not only the result that matters, but the way we go about it that make us creatures of heaven or hell. We are called to be like God. We cannot do so if we are torturing our fellow humans, even for “good” causes. Many atrocities throughout history have been committed in the name of some “good” cause.

  3. Derek’s argument regarding Nazism was quite revealing. Were it not for men willing to use deadly force, the Nazis would’ve sought out and killed every Jew in Europe before moving on to the next “inferior” race. If self defense is not allowed, then indeed, the Nazis would’ve taken the entire world.

    1. Anthony, I understand where you’re coming from, as I used to think that way as well. I’ll try to briefly lay out what has drawn me away from that view.

      1. The antenicene church was univocally against violence in any circumstance, and even the guy credited with just war theory thought that violence was only permissible if done at the behest of the state. Self-defense was off the table even for Augustine. If we want to talk about being “orthodox,” nonviolence wins the case. Reading the early church was a slap in the face when I held my earlier position.

      2. Consequentialism isn’t a Christian ethic, and it’s the ethic that leads to great evil. The Christian ethic is love in all circumstances, and a willingness to bear cross. I find that many times we want to defend violence because we can’t imagine bearing cross. Pacifism doesn’t mean passivity, which is why I did a whole season on nonviolent action for my podcast. The one country in Europe that I know of which ended up with the same/higher population of Jews after WWII, was Bulgaria. They didn’t attack the Nazis, but laid down on train tracks and hid Jews. Some Scandinavian countries also saved a large population of Jews nonviolently. Embracing nonviolence means you may not get to sacrifice the other guy, and instead, bear your own cross and sacrifice yourself for good. That’s why it’s so distasteful. But nonviolent action is not only loving, active, and good, it also…

      3. …tends to bring about the deepest, long-lasting change. The wars we’re fighting today can be traced AT LEAST back to WWI and the domino effect of violence and land-grabs. Animosity only builds with violence. Violent people always want to claim that their way works better at defending life, but that’s quite the hypothetical and always fails to acknowledge the great damage violence causes as we move through time.

      This isn’t really a case I can make in three paragraphs, which is why I’ve done a whole podcast on the issue. But Jesus’s straightforward teaching, Jesus’s example, the early church up to Constantine, the negative reverberations of violent action, the effectiveness of nonviolent action, and the ethic of love together make for a pretty compelling case. Those can’t overcome your intuition that killing is better and that self-sacrifice is bad, but nonviolence wins the case as Christian orthodoxy – hands down.

      1. Derek, I would encourage you to read church history, the Lives of the Saints, and source material from the early Church. The Christian Church has never had one belief about nonviolence/pacifism. As I mentioned in my article, there are countless canonized saints who were soldiers in the army. They weren’t martyred because they stopped performing the duties of a soldier – instead, it was because idol sacrifices were suddenly being enforced once again, and they refused to offer the sacrifice. Presenting the pre-Nicene Church as a monolith in pacifism is either naïve or purposefully biased. Debates about the degrees of nonviolence that we should adopt can still be had because great and influential men have taken varying positions.

        I don’t know what your faith is, but mine is Eastern Orthodoxy. We Orthodox Christians don’t get to pick and choose which decade or century of Christianity we think got it right and follow that exclusively. We look at the entirety of the faith, not picking and choosing from Scripture, doctrine, and history. The root word for heretic means “I choose.” And that is the problem with heresy – it cherry picks from Christianity the things that appeal to an individual or group of people. But the entire history of Christianity presents a case that’s far more complicated than you’re allowing.

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