Pacifism is much more than a revulsion for violence. Violence is revolting to anyone who experiences or witnesses it except, I suppose, when it satisfies a craving for revenge. No, the pacifism I have in mind is:
the spiritual maturity & theological conviction required to steadfastly refuse to use any potentially lethal force, even in defense of self or other.
Such pacifist service unto death is extraordinarily rare. Inevitable really, given the rarity of the ambition attain the perfection of peaceful martyrdom (cf Phil 3:10) and the rarity of congruent theology. I hope this website will be a contribution to redress this lack.
In Christian circles, the lack of theological conviction and spiritual ambition around becoming as pacifist as Jesus is not accidental. There has been a dearth of pacifist theologians over the last 17 centuries but plenty of vigorous insistence that Jesus’ pacifist death is not to be understood as an example for us. When Augustine of Hippo mentioned “Just War” in his 5th century work City of God, Europe was dominated by Christendom. As Malcolm Muggeridge* reportedly observed,
“Christ founded Christianity but Constantine founded Christendom.”
(*quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christendom#Rise_of_Christendom, accessed 16/3/2019)
After Constantine, when all employees of Rome needed to be baptised members in good standing with the Church, Roman Armies would be empty or non-violent and Rome physically defenseless if all the baptised were pacifist! For all the benefits of the Gospel ethic and worldview, its great down side to any empire or nation is its call to love enemies. If a nation’s population was to really apply this, they would most likely cease to exist as a nation because, in the absence of physical resistance, violent invaders would soon take over.
The Chief Priests and rulers of Israel got rid of Jesus Himself because of their fear of that His popularity combined with His pacifism would see Rome take over Israel – see John 11:47-49. Christendom too executed the ‘heretics’ they could not shut up – including the Annabaptists in Reformation Europe, who recognised the strong pacifist element in Jesus’ Gospel. Unsurprising then that there have been few pacifist theologians in the history of the Western church.
Prime allegiance to a pacifist Christ is not compatible with prime allegiance to a secular nation. In the matter of State-sponsored violence, one cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24), nor should the Church be yoked with any secular authority that claims the right to use lethal violence (2 Cor 6:14,15), nor does Jesus give any quarter for believers to kill (John 8:44).
Of course, this is a very hard line to hold in a frequently cruel and violent world. In the Early Church (i.e. prior to Constantine), there were some Christians who did serve in the Roman Army. We know this from historical records (See Did early Christians serve in the army? ). On the other hand, we have records of new converts who were martyred for refusing any longer to fight in the Roman Army. So there are examples used to support each side of the debate. Interestingly, however, the theological writings of Early Church leaders was uniform in saying it was wrong for a Christian to kill for any reason, including national security. See The Early Church and military service.
In unentangling the arguments for and against Christian pacifism, I think it is helpful to make a strong distinction between people and states. Jesus came to save sinners and to proclaim the invisible Kingdom of God which can reside within individuals. Pacifism is for believers not for unbelievers or for nations.
Pacifism is not for nations
Jesus did not come to improve human systems of government, nor did He give any treatises on what forms of government are best, nor did He ever give any instructions to civil officials about how to do their jobs better.
In the whole Bible, there are no instructions to Israel or to any nation to be pacifist. Indeed, when God went into nation-building with Abraham and his descendants, it was probably inevitable (and considered normal) that it would involve warfare since no nation can continue to exist without a preparedness to go to war. Only since John the Baptist has God moved from Law & Prophets to Grace with the proclamation and reality of the inner (and pacifist) Kingdom of God, which has no physical defense against the violence of men – cf. Matt 11:12.
The modern resurgence of pacifism in the form of non-violent resistance owes much to Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s resistance strategies for a nation dominated by foreigners was in turn inspired by Leo Tolstoy, a Christian. Tolstoy’s pacifist work The Kingdom of God is Within You seems to address the whole nation and church of Russia. That perhaps added to the confusion from the start of the modern debate. So I want to be clear: I think that no nation can be “Christian” and that any form of “Christendom” (i.e. Church joined with the State) inevitably requires a major distortion of Jesus’ Gospel, as presented in the Bible. In addition, it seems to me that true pacifist Christianity is like new wine that needs new wine skins; i.e. many old believers and denominations may die out before they accept this teaching. And that’s not something to worry too much about.
So Pacifism, in my view is only for believers and in this website I will only ever argue against believers in Christ using lethal violence. I will not tell the State or non-believers not to use violence if that seems to them to be the only reasonable way to protect their own or others’ lives. Pacifism only makes sense in the context of faith in a loving God, where to live is Christ and to die, gain. Non-pacifists don’t believe this – but I would like them to believe it. So to non-pacifists, my Christian proclamation will not be of the wisdom of pacifism but of the wisdom of Christ, especially in His submission to sinners in faith and obedience to His loving Father. The acid test of whether you or I believe “to die is gain” is not what we say but what we do.
In summary, in my view, the majority of the discussion about Christian Pacifism both by Christians and by non-Christians is confused and often mistaken due to a confounding of domains. Pacifism and state-sponsored violence each belong to separate domains. Pacifism belongs to the Church. State-sponsored violence belongs to the State and the people of the world. Church and State cannot properly share power and remain true to their nature – although they can co-exist peacefully. Christians must, like Christ, be in the world but not of the world.
Now having specified pacifism as belonging to believing individuals not to states, I turn to the instructions in the New Testament to Christians about how to relate to the State, including in regard to the State’s capacity and willingness to use violence. Basically the instruction is for Christians not to disobey laws because God allows governments to promote peace by force if necessary. See Rom 13:1-5; Titus 3:1, 1 Pet 2:13.
Governments were instituted (Gen 9:6) for one main reason only – to promote peace (cf 1 Tim 2:1-2). The only valid use of violence for States is, I believe, to squash personal and selfish uses of violence – such as personal revenge and robbery. Within this, in my view, there is still room for civil disobedience (à la Ghandi and Martin Luther King) when governments oppress the people.
I am aware that there are some Christian peace movements that aim to make secular nations more peaceful, for example by promoting restorative practices and truth and reconciliation commissions. Promoting peace is always a worthwhile thing. But I have two questions I would ask of the historical peace churches involved in such efforts:
- Are you preaching the Gospel or wisdom to unbelievers? cf. 1 Cor 2:4-6
- Are you teaching the wisdom of Christian Pacifism (as outlined here) to your congregations?
Co-operation between Pacifists and Non-pacifist peace makers.
Christian pacifists are not the only ones who want and work for peace. Armed police and military peace keepers are also peacemakers. They are the stuff of modern popular mythology and media entertainment. Whether cynical like Clint Eastwood or bright-eyed like Captain America, fictional or factual peacemakers who use force and skill to overcome those who resort to violence to further their own separate agendas are our societies heroes and superheroes.
Even though pacifist and justice-minded non-pacifists may disagree with each others’ methods, they both want peace. Many, even most, of those in military and policing occupations are inspired and motivated by a love of peace; and many are Christians, even though not Christian pacifists. I can’t see anything to be gained by these two groups of peacemakers undermining each others’ contributions.
Peaceful co-existence and co-operation between Pacifists and Non-pacifists seems not only very possible to me but potentially very fruitful. Historically, without non-pacifist warriors to physically defend them, whole tribes converting to Christ have been wiped out by neighbouring tribes (e.g. the Heuron Native American nation, as recounted in the film ‘Black Robe’). On the other hand, without Christian pacifist influence, some nations have become incredibly heartless and violent; Nazi Germany and leftist totalitarian regimes are obvious examples. Less obvious (to Westerners) are the Western capitalist and imperial invasions and exploitation of other lands and peoples.
However, working together the two types of peacemakers could not only maintain peace but move the world down the path of disarmament and greater justice and peace for all. See below for more on this.
Justifying Christian Pacifism
Before moving on, let me reiterate that in a pre-Christian way, God still supports and authorises nations to use violence to minimise violence. Sudden power vacuums at the top of any nation will lead to an influx of the violent wanting to wrest influence and privelege for themselves. Violence is the main cause for sudden power-vacuums; but non-pacifists using force to keep the peace are effective in preventing such power vacuums arising or resulting in widespread violent anarchy. It is not for Christians to preach pacifism to the nations or to unbelievers.
Does God allowing nations to use violence justify the Christian participating in violent national business? No, because Christians are called to follow Christ and His example – they are not to follow some pre-Christian plan, unless of course they lack the faith required to go Jesus’ non-violent way. Pre-Christians plans are still necessary only because of the worldwide lack of faith in God who is love. The main problem of the world is not violence or death, or poverty or injustice. These are but the symptoms of the main problem. The main problem and the heart of sin is unbelief that God is love.
God wants to grow the world’s faith in His love through people with the faith of Jesus, who are living like Jesus lived, speaking the truth to power like Jesus spoke and, yes, dying like Jesus died. Yes, human blood is still necessary just as Jesus’ blood was necessary for the cleansing of the world of disbelief. Disbelief is (the heart of) sin (Rom 14:23) and “without the shedding of blood there is no cleansing of sin” (Heb 9:22). Believers will overcome by maintaining their testimony to God’s love until death – just as Jesus did – Rev 12:11. God’s Kingdom and way of peace is “Not by power, nor by might – but by (His) Spirit…”. (Zec 4:6). If Christians lack the faith to be non-violent, I know of only one Divinely ordained solution – the Word of God. Faith comes by…. hearing… the Word of God (Rom 10:17). Let the Word of God dwell in your heart richly in wisdom with soulful celebrations of grace (Col 3:16) .
So if there are no fighting peace-keepers to defend pacifists and God does not otherwise intervene, that’s fine. As for Jesus, so for the Heuron & so for us – to go to be with God is “far better” (John 14:28; Phil 1:23) for the individuals concerned. Well then, if Pacifists regard death as preferable, why don’t they kill themselves? Because any killing is wrong. Taking one’s own life is not what Jesus did and not what we should do. Such action would undermine God’s will besides needlessly inflicting great grief on loved ones and depriving the world of pacifist salt and light. What about high risk non-violent peace-keeping operations of all kinds at home and abroad – should pacifist Christians be lining up to serve there? Yes, I think probably so after a period of spiritual growth – remember even the Son of God did not begin His high risk ministry until He was about 30.
Of course, Christian pacifists need to expect to be denounced for cowardice and for refusing to share the violent cost of secular peace, especially in times of war. Jesus was denounced and persecuted, in my reading of Scripture, for His “love your enemies” views and so will His followers be. This requires that Christian pacifists give their reason for the hope within them and explain how they are contributing to peace. I would say, Christian pacifists contribute to societal peace in very important ways both in wartime and in peacetime:
- they experience great inner peace, which inspires and enables them to promote peace in society whatever else may be happening
- they maintain Jesus’ vision of love of enemies in the context of a world with enough for everyone and a Creator who has not forsaken His world
- they are prepared to put their bodies at risk in attempting to negotiate peace or to tend the wounded while under fire. E.g. the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” about Dawson Doss.
- they believe in the humanity of the national enemies and promote, both abroad and at home, political solutions to conflict, including addressing underlying causes of conflict such as economic injustice, inadequate regulation and retardation of greed, and public fear mongering. In such ways, Christian pacifists by their vote and their example can raise public consciousness and hopefulness for peace in ways that are deeper, longer term, longer lasting than non-pacifists can achieve.
- Christian pacifists could be a promote international disarmament based on the efforts of Christian pacifist citizens in every nation of the world. This was not possible for the Early Church but is possible now – because there is a Christian church in nearly every nation, certainly all nations comprising more than say 100 thousand citizens. I anticipate that as the wonderful pacifist Church of Christ grows in each nation, pacifist Christians by word and deed would make it easier and easier for political leaders to not justify, recruit and prepare for war or to maintain harsh, ineffective & expensive international and domestic rules which oppress the poor. By such means, there could be a gradual demilitarisation of all nations plus an increase in resources to counter greed, corruption and the like. In this way, with the ongoing help of forceful peacekeepers, Christian peace makers could lead all nations together to the ‘beating of swords into plows’ in fulfillment of Divine prophecy!
A line of separation and testimony
Alongside the considerable room for co-operation between the two types of peace makers, in one area I think the Church should co-operate less than the current norm. The pacifist Church of Jesus must not campaign or actively support the methods used by violent peace keepers. It is one thing to respect the violent peace keepers, to recognise the benefits (as well as the harms) of their approach and to acknowledge the reasonableness of their actions within their (non-Christlike) worldview – it’s another all together to actively support their methods.
Which brings me to the question of how a pacifist Church should relate to the surrounding community and to those of their own number (however few or many) who enlist in the armed services or who have lost a loved one in war or policing work. It’s very difficult to imagine all the practical complexity this might entail – so instead I will suggest a possible principle to guide decision-making: Any statements or actions to support combatants and their loved ones spiritually or mentally ought not be partisan or tribal or nationalistic in flavour. Whether at civic commemoration ceremonies, or at a graveside or on the battle front, pacifist Christian ministers ought to pray for repentance and forgiveness as well as for protection – and for both sides of the conflict. They should pray the combatants would value not only honour before men but also honour before Jesus Christ.